"So it is better to speak,
we were never meant to survive." -Audre Lord
Queer. Black. Foreign-born. Woman. Brown. First generation. Indigenous. We were never really meant to survive in these institutions of higher education. They were not built for us, as people who are not straight-white-men. Our experiences of neglect, hostility, and imposter syndrome are a testament to this fact.
It took a while for this to sink in. As an undergrad, I worked so hard to get into graduate school, taking part in research training and mentorship programs such as the McNair Scholars Program and the Leadership Alliance. Though wonderful, these programs didn't prepare me for the reality of life as a person of color in the academy.
To be honest, as an undergrad, I had become used to being the token black guy. The University of San Diego is a predominantly white institution. Joining a department that lacked diversity as a graduate student (sadly) felt normal.
What did shock me, however, was the reaction we received from many faculty members when we as graduate students brought the lack of diversity center stage. It was simultaneously disturbing, disappointing, and enraging, to see the ways in which certain faculty displayed a sort of veiled combativeness to our campaign. Of course, today, no one is going to say, "I don't support this whole diversity thing. I'm fine with there only being two faculty of color in the department," or "I feel threatened by the presence of non-white people, and I'd rather keep things the way they are." But, the truth is, at this point, no one has to say these things out loud for us to know that this is how they (probably) feel. Knowing that there are only three faculty members that, without a doubt, actually care about creating a more open, diverse department, is almost gut-wrenching.
So, no, I do not feel like I was ever really meant to survive in academia. More often than not, I see a world that doesn't really want me, and people like me, at all. Yet, rather than let this realization destroy me, I've learned to channel that energy into something positive. I've learned to affirm myself, and to settle even deeper into that person that I feel I want to be, while remaining open to change. I've learned how to be fearlessly me, and to encourage this attitude in others (particularly women, people of color, queer people, etc.).
How has this translated into my daily life as an academic?
Following the advice of a black, female colleague one year ahead of me, I've decided not to give away my time to causes I'm not truly invested in. Look, life is too short to spend your time on things that are not fulfilling to you. As academics, we already sit in a position of privilege, relative to many of our fellow humans who must toil with their hands to make a living everyday. We are paid to think, write, and teach. Within your power, do whatever you can to make sure that you are thinking, writing, and teaching about those topics that you find compelling. I sure do.
My glasses are green, I have both ears pierced, and a nose ring too. I refuse to try and look the part. Why? Because when your very existence as a (black) person is itself a political act, so too is the way that you choose to present yourself in public. Besides, what would looking the part entail anyway?
In the face of both subtle and overt assaults on our being, as people who are not straight-white-men in academia, we have a choice. We can masquerade as straight-white-men, constantly trying to prove that we can be just like they are, or we can accept our differences and use these as fuel to power us through the barrage of bullshit we will never cease to find ourselves wading through. Being who we really are, as young scholars that are marked by some (often overlapping) form of difference, is often the most radical thing we can do.