Dr. Lori S. White is in her first year as the 21st president of DePauw University, the first person of color to serve as the school’s president. She served as vice chancellor for student affairs for five years at Washington University, where she played an impactful role not only there, but also in the University Athletic Association. Dr. White worked as vice president for student affairs and clinical professor of education at Southern Methodist University, associate vice president for student affairs at the University of Southern California, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students at San Diego State University, and assistant vice provost for undergraduate education and director of undergraduate advising at Stanford University.
The UAA “Conversations About Race and Racism” series seeks to lift the voices of people of color and recognize the challenges faced in both athletics and academics at the collegiate level. By sharing personal stories, we hope to elevate the conversation about race to raise awareness and bring about change.
Growing Up in San Francisco
“I grew up in a diverse neighborhood in San Francisco, California, in the 1960s and 1970s. Black, white, Asian, Latino, immigrant, lower and higher income kids were all represented in my public elementary, junior high school, and high school classes. These were the days when people still believed in public education and even affluent white folks sent their kids to public schools. In fact, most of us took public transportation to school once we were old enough to ride without adult accompaniment/supervision,” Dr. White recounted. “My friends and I had many cross-cultural friendships. We spent time together in one another’s homes. We visited one another’s churches, synagogues, community centers, and meetings (imagine a very talkative kid trying to stay quiet for an hour while attending a Quaker Meeting). We participated in innumerable school activities together. I thought the whole world was like my multi- racial, cultural, ethnic religious neighborhood.”
“We had a neighborhood with a lot of kids, a park with free art, history and science museums, ballet lessons, campfire girl meetings, and weekend trips to the country with my more affluent friends who had cabins,” she continued. “Those are all treasured memories of mine. We lived in a rented flat in a working-class neighborhood where it seemed all our friends wanted to hang out at our house, even those friends whose homes were much nicer and larger than the one in which my family lived.”
She acknowledges that she later learned that things were not as seemingly perfect as she thought. “Even with the wonderfully positive aspects of my neighborhood and community, there were cracks in that seemingly idyllic childhood that I did not realize at that time. A best friend’s father threatened to beat up a neighborhood African American boy who had a crush on his white daughter. I never got hired at an ice cream store for which I applied numerous times throughout high school summers even though my non-Black best friend who applied at the same time did,” she recalled. “There were very few other African American kids enrolled in the college prep courses I was in because my school employed a tracking system that sorted only certain students into those classes.”
Racism in Education
“College was probably the first time I more consciously experienced racism. I was dropped from every sorority the first time I went through sorority recruitment because there had never been a Black girl in the white sorority at the university I attended. Another example was the time my roommate had a magazine modeling gig for college student crowd shots and invited me along. When we received the printed magazine, only my picture was deleted even though everyone else (white) who was part of the photo shoot was included,” Dr. White recollected. “When I tried out for the cheerleading team (I was an all-star cheerleader in high school), though I was a finalist, I was not selected for the team because no African Americans had even been chosen for the team.”
Based on her own experiences, she embarked on a career to uplift all student experiences, especially those of underrepresented populations. “Upon graduating from college, I started what has now become a 40-year career in higher education. My first professional position in higher education was serving as the director of the Cross-Cultural Center at the University of California, Irvine, providing support programs for Black, brown, Asian, and Native American students. That position, in which I learned many of the important leadership skills I have used throughout my subsequent administrative positions, taught me the importance of using my work and my voice to create more accessible, equitable, and inclusive educational environments,” she described. “I wanted to do everything I could to make sure students on my campus were not subject (if I could help it) to exclusion from campus activities or to feel ‘less than’ because of their race, or ethnic or cultural heritage. Throughout my career, I have continued to focus on making institutions of higher education more accessible and equitable for all, particularly those who have been underrepresented in higher education.”
Dr. White notes that many people assume she is a first-generation student because of her race. “In my family, the Ph.D. is the entry level degree. My father was the first person to earn a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Michigan State University (in fact, her father, the late Dr. Joseph L. White, was known as the 'godfather of Black psychology’) and my sister, Dr. Lisa D. White, has a Ph.D. in geology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. I think people assume that all Black folks are from lower income backgrounds (and there is certainly no shame in being from a family with limited means) and that those of us who do have degrees must be first generation college students,” she described. “I think people fail to understand that there is as much diversity in the lived experiences of Black folks as there is in the experience of white folks. Black folks come from all different kinds of neighborhoods (and we don’t all like the same kinds of music, are not all good at sports, etc.). In addition to my father having earned advanced degrees, my mother Myrtle L. White is a registered nurse, and my father’s uncle and aunt also had advanced degrees, which is often a surprise to people because they don’t expect someone who looks like me to come from a highly educated family.”
Challenges as Administrator at Predominantly White Institutions
“I have had some supervisors who I felt had a limited view of what I was capable of accomplishing because they did not imagine someone who is Black could aspire to certain positions (such as becoming a college president or uncustomarily becoming one at a predominantly white institution). There are also those who believe when I state I have a strong commitment to diversifying my staff that what I am really saying is I am only going to hire or promote other Black people or ethnic minorities for leadership positions,” she remarked. “I have had some white male students and white male Board of Trustees members (not on my current campus) question my decisions or go straight to a supervisor because they think a Black woman does not have, or should not have, the authority or understanding to make particular decisions, usually revolving around alcohol, Greek life, or athletics.”
Dr. White has been subjected to multiple stereotypes and misconceptions throughout her academic journey. “People assume that I when I get frustrated or upset about a situation that I am going to become their stereotype of the ‘angry Black woman,’” she stated. “Most folks are not outright prejudiced or racist, but there are several examples of things they do that are harmful in ways they do not understand.” She cited some examples:
• “You are so articulate” (Why would I not be?)
• “Does your son play on the X team?” (When I am a spectator at an athletic event instead of thinking first that I might be a super fan or an alumnus or a community member attending the event, just like them).
• “What do Black people think about X?” (Well, I know what I think, but I’m not sure what other black people think—I don’t know all Black people and I don’t speak for all Black people).
• “I have this friend you really should meet” or “You would really like so and so” (meaning a Black person they know).
• "All lives matter" (Of course they should and if this were really true then you would care about the fact that Black folks are last in about every meaningful category — educational attainment, access to health care, economics, and first in the areas no one wants to be — more likely to be in prison than in college).
Role of Allies
“Listen so that you know more about, and understand more about, our lived experiences as African Americans. One of the ways to accomplish this is to read so that you know more about our history. A great book that I just finished reading is Caste: The Origins of our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson,” she said. “Engage in dialogue about the critical issues that affect the life chances of Black/African American people.”
Dr. White stresses that a key part of effective allyship is to take the burden of people of color. “Speak up so that we are not always the ones raising issues. Do your own work so that we do not have to constantly be the educators,” she commented.
Advice for Other People of Color Who Aspire to be Administrators
“I have loved my work in higher education. I can’t think of a more rewarding career. I would advise those who want to pursue a career in higher education to find a mentor. A mentor does not have to look like you, but they need to be someone who is invested in your success. True mentors come in all colors. Understand your strengths and how you can maximize those traits and identify the areas where you need growth so you can invest in developing those,” she recommended. “Understand that as a minority professional in higher education, you will be working the second shift. That is, you will be called upon to mentor, support, and advise students of color and their organizations, and be present for countless activities that your majority colleagues are not expected to attend. If we don’t do this work, then who will be there for our students? If you are not willing to be on the second shift as a professional of color, then don’t work in higher education.”
Dr. White emphasizes that people of color need to be open to unexpected career developments. “Don’t over-plan your life or career. If you spend too much time focused on a straight-line approach to your plan, you may miss possibilities that emerge from the sidelines,” she regarded. “Don’t be afraid to take a risk in terms of a job opportunity, even if it is a place you never imagined living. I always tell people that nothing is forever, that one can live anywhere for three to four years. Most of all, enjoy the journey!”