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Black academics expected to ‘entertain’ when presenting, new study says

by | Aug. 17, 2015, 2:21 PM | Want more research news? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter »


Black faculty members are expected to be “entertaining” when presenting academic research to mostly white peers, according to a new Vanderbilt study.

Thirty-three African American faculty members from institutions across the country were surveyed on their personal experiences, providing a unique perspective on “presenting while black.”

Ebony O. McGee, assistant professor of education, diversity and urban schooling at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development co-directed the study.

Ebony McGee (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

Ebony McGee (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

Interviews with the scholars revealed that an overwhelming majority were advised regularly by white peers to be “more entertaining” when making research presentations, as well as to “lighten up” and “tell more jokes.”

Black females additionally noted being subject to their colleagues’ preoccupation with their clothing choices and hairstyle, and reported being admonished to play down their “passion” and “smile more.” In addition, nearly all reported overt racist remarks in regards to their academic presentations.

The study results were disappointing, but not particularly surprising, said McGee, a former engineer who advocates for people of color in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

“These microaggressions harken to a long history of blacks being objectified for entertainment value, all the way back to the blackface minstrels shows, which depicted African Americans as comical, lazy or dim-witted,” she said. “Today the racialized objectification of African Americans may not always be as overt as it was a century ago, but the ‘black as entertainment’ ideology remains alive and well.”

The persistent racialized stigmatization of black faculty is particularly troubling given the low number (less than 9 percent, according to 2011 data from the National Center for Education Statistics) of black faculty working in higher education.

“Disproportional representation in the academy combined with chronic racialized microaggression introduces serious personal and career complexities for black scholars,” said co-investigator Lasana Kazembe, adjunct professor at DePaul University in Chicago. “The stunning lack of diversity among higher education faculty presents serious challenges to leveling and democratizing the educational playing field,” he said.

For any academic, presenting their research to peers can open doors to departmental collaborations, research funding opportunities and job offers. They must present effectively and persuasively to stand out from the crowd. But scholars of color face additional hurdles for acceptance that range from microaggressions to outright racism. Faced with “racial battle fatigue,” many try to change who they are in order to fit in, or simply give up and change careers.

“The academy is not as welcoming as it should be,” McGee said. “Universities and academic conferences need to work at creating a more inclusive environment, so that all voices are heard and celebrated. If we don’t deal with this, we will continue to lose a population of talented and promising researchers. Our hope is that this study will offer novel and useful insights to those who organize presentations and those who give them, so they will be able to understand, appreciate and provide an improved experience for black and other minoritized scholars.”

Read the paper, Entertainers or education researchers The challenges associated with presenting while black.

Watch a video of Ebony McGee speaking about her research.

Media Inquiries:
Joan Brasher, (615) 322-NEWS

  • I am not denying that there is racism in academia, but to present this study as if expectations that an academic presentation be entertaining is unique to black scholars seems unfounded. Don’t we all prefer an entertaining academic presentation to one that is dry and without humor? I am married to a white male academic, he’s entertaining intentionally and humorous about subjects in ways that startle people. I have no doubt this is why his students like him and people enjoy going to his talks. We’ve all heard the expression “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.”. Why not present academic research in ways that make it easier for the listener to move towards your conclusion and accept it? Am I missing something?

    • Dje234

      You are missing something: the entire point of this article.

    • maestrho

      There is a difference between being entertaining intentionally and having that be an expectation. Perhaps one doesn’t want to have to entertain their audience and make them laugh or smile. Perhaps they believe that this diminishes (for the presenter, anyway) the seriousness of their work. Perhaps one is not enough of an extrovert to feel comfortable introducing humor and entertainment into their work. The challenge that is being addressed in this study (as I read it) is that scholars of color are feeling pressured and being advised to “perform” rather than present. Lastly, I don’t see it mentioned anywhere in the article above that the findings suggested this to be a phenomenon unique to African-American scholars so that may be an extrapolation that you’ve infused on your own, but even if it IS unique to African-Americans, the concept of it “seeming” to be unfounded is less robust than their qualitative data which “seems” to affirm the point.

    • MoniLontra

      I get the point of those objecting, but in Rosa’s defense– I also don’t quite recognize this *particular* issue. Perhaps it depends on the field? God knows there are plenty of unequal expectations placed on scholars that belong to a minority; but I’m not sure this is one of them, at least not in the fields I pay most attention to (literature, history, music history). I can totally believe that black speakers may fear they aren’t taken seriously by overwhelmingly white audiences, and it’s terrible that this should be the case. But I’ve seen different coping strategies: some aim for “entertaining.” Some for the exact opposite, as if to make sure no one could accuse them of lack of seriousness. And I’ve seen both funny and dead serious African-American speakers be extremely well received.

    • DJ

      Yes, the comments about dress, quality of work, being surprising brilliant, being too passionate, and being the source of jokes, which all go beyond an engaging research presentation of lecture.

  • Faye18

    It is a bit of a stretch to go from 33 education researchers to “black academics”. Do black physicists feel the same way?

    • Dje234


  • Alma Carten

    A most interesting article to read, and it resonates with me as a professor in a a school of social work. e It is challenging to be entertaining when teaching content related to poverty, inequality and the harsh realities of impact of harsh social problems on people that will comprise the client populations that social workers serve. The study bring to light important issue for us in the academy to address to achieve the mission of the academy.

  • Daniel Morgan

    I agree because I have witnessed some presentations while attending a conference in Las Vegas years ago and I noted that the presenters had to be mixing some form of entertainment with the presentation to capture the mostly white’a audience attention

  • Andarius Taylor

    I agree and understand your point regarding being engaging rather than dry. However, when the topic becomes as widespread as found in research, it then becomes an issue. We must observe the undertones and pay attention to the implications of racially charged conversations because they speak to a larger problem. As many professionals there are in academia who are engaging, why is it that Black people, singled out, are “expected” to be entertaining? That’s the problem, we are continuously singled out, ostracized, marginalized, demoted, offended, provoked, misunderstood, under-appreciated, over-looked, ill-perceived and so much more in this world and people act like they don’t see. They see because it’s there and my encouragement to all professionals in higher education, especially Black men and women, is to be bold, confident and unafraid of conflict. You have every right to address anyone who feels they can just say anything to you in any kind of way. Stand your ground and welcome no nonsense.

    Be Blessed & Stay Encouraged!

    • Jgudelsi

      Does it say that “black people…(are) singled out”, or does it imply that? Because I have had to sit through many presentations by many different types of people, and I will say that the most entertaining ones did ‘lighten things up’, maybe tell a little joke…I’m pretty sure I never noticed that black presenters were either more, or less, likely to be entertaining than others. I am pretty sure I attributed any entertainment value not to the persons race, but rather to the individual, as someone who was was a ‘good’ presenter – or maybe, just a welcome break in a series of boring lectures.
      A white person telling a black peer to try to be entertaining might be the same advice that white person would give a white peer – especially if that person was new to presenting, or known to be a little dull.

      It’s like professors. Yes, you want a smart one, you want a knowledgeable one, but if they can somehow make organic chemistry funny, or throw in a random fact in such a clever way that it sticks in your head effortlessly – you REALLY want that guy. So I think it is good advice to ANYONE who has to lecture ANYONE, to try to be a little entertaining. Your listeners will get more out of it, and they will end up paying better attention.

      • badger_combinationroom

        You managed to miss the point entirely, and you probably did it to save yourself a lot of discomfort. Stop doing that.

        When a middle-aged white guy gives a dry organic lecture — and yes, they are dry — students respond to him as *knowledgeable*. They don’t expect him to be sassy and entertaining. If he is, that’s great, but formality and seriousness on him read as sage dignity. His student evaluations and RMP comments do not say “dude should lighten up and try to be more entertaining”. They say “god this is dry but he’s really smart and a very good teacher and helpful and etc., pay attention and work hard and you’ll do well.”

        When a black woman does the same, she gets “She seems angry, she’s utterly humorless but if you go to office hours she’s surprisingly helpful.”

  • Jason A. Quest

    It’s unfortunate that the survey didn’t also collect information from presenters of other races. I would speculate that it happens more to Black presenters, but with no “control” group to compare to, this offers no data to support that hypothesis, which makes it less persuasive than it would be otherwise. That might be a good follow-up.

    • maestrho

      But if the goal was simply to query the perceptions of African-American scholars, having data on scholars from other racial backgrounds is not relevant. Also, comparative analysis doesn’t impact validity. Those scholars included in this study get to define their “truth” and have that truth be seen as valid and authentic regardless of what other scholars from other backgrounds have experienced.

    • DJ

      See methods and CRT sections of paper. They do a good job explaining why comparisons aren’t necessary, particularly using phenomenology and CRT.

  • Millicent Thomas

    It is interesting that African Americans are not to show passion when presenting research. So many institutions follow that prescription. Unfortunately, many African Americans who seek to ‘fit in” at predominantly white institutions support the behavior. I went back in my own research to get an understanding of the “fit in” behavior of many African-Americans. Feinberg and Soltis (1981) discuss the theory of false consciousness. Accordingly, members of the subordinate class who express the point of view and share the values of the dominant class exhibit false consciousness. True consciousness of your own class is impeded by your acceptance of the values of the dominant
    class. When the dominant class is successful in establishing its own mode of thinking among most members of the subordinate class, it is said to have established hegemony over the subordinate class. Hegemony means having a preponderance of influence and authority over others. This influence is expressed both in the concepts and the institutional arrangements of the social structure. Just as the slave (during slavery) believes that he or she is the master’s property, or the jailed in prison who takes on the value of a prison guard so, I would argue that there are many African-Americans at predominantly white colleges and universities buy into the ‘fit in’ notion. Hegemony exists when one class controls the thinking of another class through such cultural forms as the media, church or schools. And of course, the go along to get along notion can and has done harm to those African-American academicians who have to courage to take a stand. We recognize that passion, presented with facts, figures and history, particularly when discussing economic, political and social issues that impact race, class and gender need not be down played but presented in such a way that a body of information through presentations penetrates the hearts and minds of the listeners.

    • Jgudelsi

      So what happens to the hearts and minds of the listeners of the dominant class? If they are changed, are they also exhibiting false consciousness, or is that excluded, by definition? What if you actually succeed in changing hearts and minds of the dom,in ant class? Can you then share those values without exhibiting false consciousness? Is there any point at which people can just be people, without always pointing fingers at someone else as ‘other’?
      I always wonder why the assumption is that the experience of other people is not important. If you are black, and experience ‘microagressions’, then they are automatically attributed to racism. I am white, and I have experienced aggressions, both micro- and not-so-micro, in my lifetime. I can’t automatically assume racism is the cause….but that doesn’t mean I walk down the street in a the sunshiny-haze of a chewing gum commercial.

  • Zeinebou

    @Faye18:disqus I wonder the same thing. Interestingly, I teach in the sciences and there are whole institutions designed to teach science PhD’s to be more entertaining, including telling jokes (because science/scientists are often viewed as dry and jargony). There is a whole institute at Stony Brook for communicating science. This is not to deny that racism does exist in the academy and Black academics are held to different standards, but I wonder if this is discipline based. However, then there is Neil DG Tyson…who white people love…

    • Jgudelsi

      Like Neil, hate Bill Nye, and it has nothing to do with race.

  • Chien Nguyen

    The conclusions may or may not be valid but to tie this into “blackface minstrels shows” would never get published in a reputable journal, and is way over-interpreting the data. These are a very small number of participants’ beliefs and perceptions. Their perceptions may be valid (i.e., reflect reality), or they may not. The study does not have data to address that issue.

    • Donna McDaniel

      Without having read every single word of above, I wonder if there’s some concern in there to make sure African American speakers don’t show (too?) much anger, even when justified, and so being pleasant and humorous would help to ease any embarrassment or even guilt on the part of white listeners.

  • Black Yoda Yogi

    I wonder if white academics can ever just listen.

  • BrotherRog

    This seems to be happening to clergy in the U.S. as well. See: