Being a Black Ph.D. Student Following George Floyd’s Murder

Academe forces black scholars to choose between fully processing our emotions during moments of racial injustice and producing enough research to succeed professionally, writes Clifton Boyd.

June 11, 2020
 
 
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Over the last couple of weeks, I have avoided attending protests demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the countless other black Americans murdered by the police over the decades. This is not due to a political incompatibility -- as a black man who has experienced various forms of antiblackness both in and outside academe, I wholeheartedly support the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight for racial and social justice. Rather, it is my very identity as a black man that has made it difficult to imagine myself attending protests without being completely drained of my emotional energy in the process.

I fear that attending a protest will cause me to experience intense emotions that I have been trying to quell, although perhaps such an emotional release is what I would need to process my pain alongside my community. But as a late-stage Ph.D. student, I find that this involved, time-intensive approach to emotional processing conflicts with the productivity required of me by academe.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have already had setbacks in completing fieldwork for my dissertation, accessing materials for article revision and acquiring the language skills necessary for my secondary research area. I have been trying to make up for lost time, but it has been exponentially more difficult to focus due to the retraumatization I am experiencing as a young black man. It is no secret that the movement provoked by George Floyd’s murder is hitting the black community particularly hard, as many of us protest day after day in an attempt to prove our own humanity, while still at an increased risk of police violence.

But I know that when the time comes to go on the job market or apply for a fellowship, I will still be expected to have research publications and a polished dissertation. “Paralyzing grief due to the continuous, systemic murders of my community” will not be an acceptable excuse for why my application is less competitive than that of my peers.

Academe puts black scholars between a rock and a hard place, forcing us to decide between fully processing our emotions during these moments of racial injustice and producing enough research to survive in a system that already has fewer and fewer opportunities for a growing pool of Ph.D.s. I ask myself, “Why should ​my​ career suffer due to the injustices that my community has faced? Haven’t we suffered enough?”

The irony lies in the fact that while black academics and other scholars of color are the most distressed by cultural moments like these, academe at large relies upon our success to “fix” the problem of racial and ethnic diversity in our respective fields. Colleges and universities across the country have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to increasing faculty diversity in the hopes that throwing money at the problem will fix it. (The jury is still out.) As someone in a particularly white field (as of 2019, the Society for Music Theory is about 84 percent white and about 1 percent black), I feel pressure to succeed and be the change that I (and others) want to see in the field of music theory. Nothing is guaranteed in today’s economy, but I’m trying my best to “make it to the end of a leaky pipeline” (i.e., land a tenure-track job and go on to earn tenure) so that I’m not another person of color that came and went (or who became a precariously employed and overworked adjunct limited in my ability to bring about system change).

On top of the expectation to physically be the diversity that colleges and universities are looking for, scholars of color are also expected to be major contributors to the diversification efforts of their institutions. From acting as unofficial mentors for students of color to serving on diversity committees, faculty of color have burdens placed on their time that their white colleagues can avoid due to a self-proclaimed lack of expertise.

Many marginalized scholars also choose to invest in diversification efforts in order to make their fields sustainable environments to inhabit. Personally, that was part of my motivation for founding Project Spectrum, a graduate student-led coalition committed to increasing diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in music academe. While this labor has been extremely rewarding, I still dream of a world in which scholars more privileged than myself (namely, white male scholars) will have already done the work of making the field a place where marginalized scholars can thrive.

This argument extends to the current movement for social justice and an end to police brutality: many members of the black community are out on the streets fighting for their literal survival in a country that can’t agree on whether or not black lives matter. What might it look like if nonblack people -- white people, in particular -- took on the majority of the labor involved in eradicating antiblackness, not just now but indefinitely?

I acknowledge that by being a student at an Ivy League university, I am afforded privileges that many other students of color at less wealthy institutions are not. Nevertheless, I fear that I will waste the opportunity I have been given, especially knowing that my field is in such dire need of black scholars. And if I am fortunate enough to secure a tenure-track job after completing my degree, the obstacles to my success won’t stop: the exhaustion of often being “the only one” in various academic spaces is constant, the approval of my research (which focuses heavily on race and racism) is uncertain, and the trauma associated with living in an antiblack society is incalculable. Yet I persevere, as many scholars of color before me have done, with the hopes that things will change and that I can contribute to that change.

To adapt the words of Audre Lorde, I consider my “academic self-preservation” to be an act of political warfare, given that an investment in my own future is simultaneously an investment in justice for future generations of scholars who are black, indigenous and people of color. In moments of global crisis and civil unrest, no single coping mechanism will work for everyone. Investing in my scholarship is what works best for me at the moment, but for some people, it is protesting, or engaging in critical dialogues with friends and colleagues, or bingeing TV shows. It is a true shame, however, that in moments like these, academe forces black scholars like me to choose between advancing our careers, fighting for our liberation and taking the time for restorative self-care.

Bio

Clifton Boyd is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of music at Yale University.

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