To be Black in America looks different for every individual. There is no single black experience or storyline.
Black university professors who did not grow up on U.S. soil have an entirely different experience from those who did. Before ever reaching an American university, these individuals have already lived decades of a different cultural experience, giving them a perspective on the racial ecosystem in the U.S., and for some, an inspiration for the environment they want to cultivate.
Several Black University of Oregon professors from outside the U.S. have a combination of world experience, academic inclination to study race and a passion for building community around themselves and for their students.
Highlighting a bluff of diversity
Dr. Debra Thompson is a Black associate professor of political science at UO, specializing in race and ethnic politics. Thompson was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, where diversity and people who looked like her were nothing more than a facade.
Thompson’s childhood experiences contradicted the bluff of diversity she felt her home country portrayed.
One of her favorite memories was acting on the Canadian version of Sesame Street, but even then, the stain of her country’s past didn’t fade.
“The short version of the story: I was cute and Black. Canadian Sesame Street was all about diversity, and in the ’80s in Canada, there wasn’t actually a lot of diversity,” Thompson said.
A few thousand African slaves arrived in Canada during the 17th and 18th centuries. After the American Revolution, the British granted freedom to thousands of slaves for their loyalty during the war. Many of those slaves made their way into modern day Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.
Small groups of African-American slaves continued to migrate to different parts of modern day Canada after leaving the U.S. But the slow migration came to a halt in 1910 when the governor of Canada passed an immigration law that allowed the Canadian government to restrict access to the country based on someone's race and ethnicity.
The discrimination within the Immigration Act of 1910 was not altered until the 1960s. This five-decade gap caused an even greater hole in the diversification of the country — it is a large factor that played into the lack of Black people Thompson encountered during her youth.
“When I was growing up, we were always the only ones. There is something about being the only one that is particularly horrific,” Thompson said.
When Thompson went to the University of Toronto to pursue her Ph.D., she used her dissertation to conduct research and open up the conversation about a topic that had been ignored.
“People didn’t talk about race. People certainly didn't talk about racism, and there wasn’t any research. I just saw this gap in the research, and I just thought that I could be a good contributor to that body of literature,” Thompson said.
The research for her dissertation eventually led to the publication of her 2016 book, “The Schematic State: Race, Transnationalism, and the Politics of the Census.”
The book explores the racial classifications on the national censuses of Canada, Great Britain and the United States. It compares the censuses’ historic use to control race populations in all three countries.
After attaining her Ph.D. at the University of Toronto, Thompson completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. She then taught at Ohio University, Northwestern University and was eventually recruited to UO.
Being in America allowed Thompson to interact and congregate with more people who looked like her. She finally felt that stronger community aspect among Black people.
“To have people readily accept you with open arms was something I didn’t experience until I moved to the states,” Thompson said.
Her new African-American community brought her a sense of belonging, but being in the states and being a Black professor has its challenges.
“You have got to find your way in an institution that by its very nature was not designed for you, which is incapable of giving you a sense of belonging,” Thompson said.
Thompson takes each day one step at a time. She focuses on taking her research from her book and other publications and sharing it with students in her classes: comparative politics, the politics of race, and black lives matter and American democracy.
Her research and publications have made an impact on not only the greater political science community but also those who work closely with her. One of Thompson’s colleagues, Alison Gash, is an associate professor in the political science department and a close friend of Thompson.
Gash describes Thompson as “a brilliant researcher whose work is advancing our understanding of how race and racism continue to maintain a stronghold on every aspect of our political world.”
Joe Lowndes, an Associate Professor of Political Science at UO, says that Thompson adds excellence to the department.
“She adds a wise voice in departmental decision-making and energy for initiatives that connect our faculty with other first-rate scholars across the world,” Lowndes said.
Thompson never imagined herself becoming a professor, but taking her comparative research and sharing it with others has become her dream job.
“I didn’t know anything about what it meant to be a professor and that was a critical error that has happily worked out well for me. I find it to be a highly ethical profession,” she said.
A role model for students of color
Dr. Troy Elias is a Black assistant professor of advertising at UO. He spent the first 19 years of his life 4,000 miles away on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. His long journey to UO began as a boy who often took trips to the beach and spent time with his family — memories he now holds dear to his heart.
Trinidad and Tobago were sparsely cultivated islands off the coast of Venezuela until the French began to settle and bring slaves in the late 1700s. In 1832, the two separate islands became one unified territory under British rule. Between 1834 and 1838, the British gradually abolished slavery on the territory.
Most of the African slaves who were freed stayed on the island. Today the African presence on the island is strong. About 35 percent of the island is African and 35 percent is East Indian; the other 30 percent is almost all a mix of the two, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica’s research on Trinidad and Tobago.
Elias grew up in a setting where people looked like him. Being in the minority group was never something he experienced until coming to America.
“It’s been really valuable to me that I have been able to grow up in a place that is diverse in its own way. There are a lot of people that look like me or that are variations of my skin tone,” Elias said.
In his teen years, Elias quickly realized that his academics would carry him far. He came to the United States and attended Claflin University and went on to earn his masters and Ph.D. in strategic communication from The Ohio State University.
During a trip to Washington D.C., Elias first experienced racism in America. He had stereotypical comments made toward him about how proper his speech was and how surprising it was that he watched the news. In his mind, he never questioned why he would speak well or watch the news.
“It is a strange thing to have someone else’s expectations placed on you without you even having said anything. Coming from a completely different environment and then experiencing that made it even more salient,” Elias said.
Elias said he feels at home in Oregon. There is no such thing as a perfect place, but he said there is a thriving small Black community in Eugene. He feels the key to maintaining community is retention and though there is not much of it in the UO Black community, it can be done.
“I think it is important to not just show up and leave, but to retain. The missing part of the diversity angle is always retention and inclusion. If something doesn’t exist, we create it, we create community,” Elias said.
As part of his service to the School of Journalism and Communication, Elias serves as the faculty advisor for the National Association of Black Journalists’ UO chapter. He wants to help Black students on campus find a place where no one else's expectations are put on them.
“I get to be a part of building a place where my students feel especially comfortable and they can be themselves and pursue topics that are of interest to them. Coming from the Caribbean where so many of my friends were Black — my teachers were Black, the prime minister was Black — I feel gratified to help where I can,” Elias said.
The creative work is done by the students, but according to the NABJ members, Elias plays a large role. “He is that good father who makes sure we are doing the right things,” NABJ member Angelo Aguirre said.
Deb Morrison, director of advertising for the SOJC, added that “he mentors all students, but especially students of color feel they have a role model and established leader in their lives.”
When he is not in the classroom or assisting with NABJ, Elias researches the relationship between climate change and minority groups.
In his research, he has found that minorities are aware of climate change and care about the topic just as much as non-hispanic white people. He believes that if more people understood that minority communities care about climate change, the movement would be even more powerful.
“If they are highlighted enough, and it is revealed that minorities really care about the environment just as much as any other group, then I think you are going to see more traction,” Elias said.
Elias wants to make a difference in minority communities through his work, but more than anything else, he hopes his world experience will influence all of his students.
“I hope they think about the world from perspectives other than their own personal experiences,” Elias said.