The racism that ran rampant through my graduate program was like a swift, hard punch to the gut for me as a naïve, first-year graduate student. I had not even attended my first official graduate course before a fellow student had complemented my “ghetto booty,” despite my upbringing in suburbia. I was devastated to find a self-proclaimed scholar of immigration saw no issue with her research assistant’s instruction to fellow students to avoid “talking black” while conducting interviews. I was annoyed, but no longer surprised, that the faculty failed to see the problems with the ethnic theme of the annual department party -- sharing food from one’s ethnic background in a gross attempt at celebrating diversity in the department. (Did they expect me to bring fried chicken and watermelon? Soul food? Or some sort of African dish, though I feel no more African than the average white American?)
My college days reside in my memory as a generally wonderful time of self-discovery, activism and a willingness to have difficult conversations. My alma mater, University of Maryland Baltimore County, is where the seeds of my intellectual activism began to blossom. Undergrad did not, however, prepare me for the reality of oppression in higher education. The funny thing is, when I contacted my two main undergrad advisors halfway through my first-year of grad school, neither professor was surprised that I had been smacked in the face by racism in academe.
Whatever the reason for being surprised by the racism I experienced and observed in my graduate program, I say with some reticence that my time in grad school has provided me with some insights that may be useful to others.
For black prospective graduate students, I recommend, as a starting point, to be aware that racism is the norm in academe. Even if you are generally shielded from microaggressions, racism is deeply entrenched in the operation of graduate departments, universities, disciplines and professional organizations. It affects who and what gets funded, who and what gets published where, who gets hired and tenured, who gets admitted, who graduates, and so forth.
As you select a graduate department, I’m afraid it is simply a matter of how much racism you will experience, not whether you will experience it. Weigh your options carefully. The supportive bubble of a program at a Historically Black College or University may come at the expense of your job prospects, yet the prestige of a top-ranked historically white college or university may come at the cost of your mental health and happiness. Don’t assume the presence of a few token black faculty members or race scholars will be enough to overcome an otherwise racist department. And given the devaluing of interdisciplinarity in the academy, don’t assume that the presence of other, critical programs (e.g., African American Studies) will compensate for a lack of diversity or race consciousness in your own (more traditional) Ph.D. program (e.g., sociology).
Do your homework on each program you are considering. Contact multiple current students to ask about their personal and professional experiences -- with coursework, with support from and availability of faculty, with funding opportunities, with publishing, with teaching, with the university in general, with the surrounding city and so on. If you are interested in studying race, ethnicity or immigration, ask whether that kind of work is supported by the faculty, reflected in the course work and funded. You might do well to email them a few concrete questions and offer to talk to them by phone if they are available.
Contact faculty members to ask similar questions. Take note not only of the number of black faculty members but also whether any are tenured associate or full professors. If you actually visit the department, use your budding ethnographer skills to observe how central black faculty members and students are in the department’s functions.
As you prepare to begin your graduate program, I recommend setting up your support network ahead of time. Your grad program is not in the business of looking after your personal well-being, so do not rely on it to meet your personal, social, spiritual and sexual/romantic needs. I highly, highly recommend that you have a community outside of your program; I’d even recommend avoiding dating a fellow student (and professors are off limits). Get involved with a graduate student group, set up a Meetup account and your choice of dating app (if you’re looking), find a church, and look for an off-campus gym, doctor and therapist if your finances allow them. My point is, do not organize your entire life around your graduate program. When school gets tough, it’s nice to have other places to go to unwind without fear that your actions or words will get back to your colleagues.
Navigating racism in a supposedly anti-racist or at least race-neutral environment is a messy affair. You need to find a balance between “playing the game” to succeed in graduate school (by mainstream standards) and authenticity. I made the mistake of “souling out” to such a high level that my mental health suffered. But I saw other people in my program who embraced authenticity so strongly that some faculty members did not want to work with them or did not take them seriously, who struggled to advance through departmental milestones and/or to do the things that made them a strong candidate for the academic job market.
It is an awful catch-22 that black scholars must choose between advancing their careers or advancing their communities. I am not sure that a happy medium exists, but I believe you can be successful on your terms and be able to sleep at night while making as few concessions as possible. It’s never too early to read The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure -- Without Losing Your Soul.
The faculty advisers whom you select can either help or hinder your success and well-being. Before you jump to making a list of names, I recommend that you identify your needs, as there are many. In the words of Kerry Ann Rockquemore, avoid the pitfall of attempting to find a mentor guru who will serve all of your needs; not only does such a person not exist, but it is perhaps unhealthy to rely on a single person for everything. You will probably have a main mentor who serves as your primary guide through department milestones and helps you to get a job. But I strongly encourage you to identify a second mentor who perhaps isn’t as accessible, but whose insight is just as important as your main mentor. You can have mentors who are more of a sounding board for professional and/or personal matters but have little say over your progress in the department.
Your own preferences and actual availability will determine whether those mentors are black or some other race. Black professors may be more supportive by virtue of their shared experiences with racism in the academy. But there is evidence that white male professors may lead to better job prospects in academe, perhaps owing to their wider, higher-status professional networks, cultural capital and other resources that are unequally distributed in the academy.
Keep in mind that being black doesn’t necessarily make one a good, reliable or trustworthy professor; unfortunately, you cannot assume a shared black identity is an automatic sign of solidarity. And I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss white faculty members as potential resources. Maybe they won’t be sounding boards for the racist crap you’ve dealt with (and might even contribute to it), but they may help you excel in your career in other ways.
Whatever you do, remember that graduate school is a means to an end. It is not the rest of your life. To survive and thrive as a black intellectual, there will be times when you simply have to suck it up and do something that feels crappy or feels irrelevant to your goals. But you’ve just got to do it to get that Ph.D. -- and then do whatever you want. Always remember: those professors are mere gatekeepers. They can grant you a Ph.D., but they can never validate your worth or value.
Eric Anthony Grollman is a black queer non-binary intellectual activist and a sociology professor at the University of Richmond. They are the editor of “Conditionally Accepted,” a weekly career advice column for marginalized scholars on Inside Higher Ed.
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