Joyce E. King, ’69, PhD ’74, is recognized for her work on issues around racial equity and justice in American education, specifically their impact on teacher training and black education. A professor of educational policy studies at Georgia State University since 2004, she is the provost emerita of Spelman College and has served as president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), the nation’s leading organization focused on the use of research to improve education. “Education is about politics and power,” she says. “It’s about who can have access to information that will enable them to participate fully in the way our society works.”
You grew up in Stockton, California, and you and your brother were the first in your family to graduate from high school. What drew you to apply to Stanford?
When I was in elementary school, there was an African American teacher named Fred Leonard whose wife, Jean McCarter Leonard, had graduated from Stanford in 1957. This couple served as mentors for my family and looked out for me.
When I was a senior in high school, Mrs. Leonard encouraged me to enter the Miss Bronze California beauty contest for black girls throughout the state, which I won for Sacramento Valley. The Leonards also encouraged me to apply to Stanford, and I was accepted.
There’s a myth about upward mobility—that people only succeed by working hard, by having the most qualifications. But there’s a concept in sociology called sponsored mobility: Someone takes an interest in you and clues you in, guides you, gives you information. When I learned about this in graduate school, I recognized myself. It’s something that teachers do to make a difference. You see a child with talent, and you gravitate toward that child to help.
As an undergrad at Stanford in the 1960s, you played a major role in driving efforts to diversify the student body. What was that experience like?
My freshman class in 1965 had 25 African American students—it was the first class that had more than two or three. It was a new era for Stanford. We created the Black Student Union in 1967. A year later, after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, we presented the university with a list of ten demands—to increase the number of African American students and faculty, for example, and to take action against discrimination.
The president’s office also hired me to help run a program to help recruit and support more African American students. I was also very involved in establishing African American studies on campus and recruiting St. Clair Drake, who became head of the new department.
What do you think shaped your political consciousness at that age?
I definitely did not have that consciousness when I got to Stanford. I had some experiences that woke me up. I worked in the library, and my supervisor would say things to me like, “Shhh…. your decibels are showing,” the way someone would tell you that your slip is hanging out of your skirt. That was her way of telling me that I was talking too loud.
I also had two roommates my freshman year, and one day I was talking to my grandmother on the telephone. When I hung up, my roommates were looking at me like I’d come from Mars. They said, “We couldn’t understand a word you said.”
There were little things like that, which alert you that something is going on—you don’t belong, you’re not fitting in somehow. Other universities were also starting to admit more African Americans, so these kinds of things were happening all over the country. When you put these incidents in the context of a whole national movement, consciousness emerges.
You’re credited with the concept of “dysconscious racism,” which refers to people’s resistance to understanding racial inequity. How have you seen that play out in education?
I was the director of teacher education at Santa Clara University for 12 years, trying to prepare teachers to be effective with students from all different backgrounds. My students were mostly young, white American girls who wanted to be teachers for very good reasons. But they would tell me, “Dr. King, racism and prejudice are human nature. It’s never going to change—when we go out into classrooms, we just need to know how to manage these children’s behavior.”
These students were very resistant to examining their own cultural biases and their own experience. But one day I had a student who went out to visit a school and was assigned to a classroom where the teacher told her, “There are two groups of black students in this class. The ‘black blacks’ aren’t going to be able to benefit from anything you do, so don’t pay any attention to them. The ‘white blacks’ are the ones you should really focus your attention on.”
That student came back to my class and said, “I had no idea that people had these kinds of attitudes.”
I needed a term to describe that mindset. You read a lot about unconscious racism and implicit bias, but that didn’t get at it for me. The way they were thinking and viewing the world was distorted; it prevented them from feeling like they could do anything about what they were seeing, and it prevented them from seeing themselves accurately. I created the term dysconcious racism to indicate that this is a distortion, an impairment that can be remedied with education.
For more information about the GSE Alumni Excellence in Education Award reception, and to register for this special event, please visit the GSE’s reunion web page.