This essay is a part of our “Crosstalk” series featuring stories from graduate students of color. Read more in our special issue, “Crosstalk: Graduate Students of Color Reflect on Lessons Lived and Learned in the Academy,” now available in hardcopy and on Project MUSE and JSTOR.
LK is a PhD candidate in education and self-identifies as a Black, queer, and gender non-conforming woman.
If I could take all my parts with me when I go somewhere, and not have to say to one of them, no, you stay home tonight, you won't be welcome, because I'm going to an all-white party where I can be gay, but not Black. Or I'm going to a Black poetry reading, and half the poets are antihomosexual, or thousands of situations where something of what I am cannot come with me. The day all the different parts of me can come along, we would have what I would call a revolution. -Pat Parker (1990)
Pat Parker’s words are as relevant today as they were when she wrote her original poem in the 1970s. As a Black, queer, and gender non-conforming graduate student who has struggled with loving my whole self, attempting to navigate space and place within the Academy is and continues to be complicated. I have struggled and lacked support and mentorship that fully advocated for all of who I am. I have been called a nigger, dyke, and Black fat bitch. I have had administrators, supervisors, and students negatively comment upon my appearance, my hair, my weight, and how I live my life (in other words, who I love). I have confronted my detractors, only to encounter additional accusations of aggression and anger. These misperceptions lead to manipulation of my words and actions, thereby fueling justification for my lack of access to professional development opportunities and other means of support. Graduate students of color are in institutions that place us on display as if we are trophies, but we are certainly not treated as such. We often suffer in silence and are made to feel alone and isolated. After many years of internal shame, lack of confidence, and persistent battles with imposter syndrome, speaking my truth leads to criticism, retaliation, isolation, and alienation. However, I revisit Parker’s poem as well as the Combahee River Collective Statement penned more than 40 years ago to recall pride in learning about other folks just like me. In rereading the speech, I continuously see myself into existence (Lewis 2017) by remembering that “[i]f Black women are free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression,” including imperialism, capitalism, and the patriarchy (Combahee River Collective 1995 , 237). These words value me, so I have begun and have continued a long process of accepting all parts of myself and navigating being in spaces not meant for me that only delay my confidence and full sense of self. Writing about this trajectory here is an outcome of regaining such confidence. Thank you to the editors of this special issue for providing a space for our voices and our stories, as told by us and for us.
This essay documents salient inequitable experiences I have faced while pursuing advanced degrees and the strategies I negotiated to overcome such mistreatment. Specifically, I share how my positionality in higher education shifted, which is followed by my reflections on navigating the politics of leaving an advisor and addressing a class in which my contributions were repeatedly criticized as well as dismissed under the guise of anger. Because I dare challenge anti-Blackness, homophobia, and misogynoir—which Bailey and Trudy (2018) define as the intersection of racism, anti-Blackness, and misogyny that Black women experience—angry is a label that follows me. There are several experiences still too painful to write about, but I offer these parts of my story as a sign of hope as well as a chance to use the master’s tool for social change. The ultimate lesson I hope to impart to readers is the importance of knowing who you are and believing in yourself to speak your truth. It is a lesson that I must remind myself of often.
I look back and regret my naivete upon my initial entry into higher education. Back then, I trusted and believed in those who claimed to mentor and guide me. I thought the university served as a site for learning, innovation, and a space to achieve “the dream,” regardless of background. Education for many, however, has become a dream deferred, or perhaps it was never any of those things mentioned above as Chatterjee and Maira (2014) document in their edited volume on academic repression and scholarly dissent, The Imperial University. In describing a site that is directly counter to the justice work that is extremely important to me, they write:
[t]he growing privatization of the public university…has demonstrated the ways in which the gates of access to public higher education are increasingly closed and the more subtle ways in which dissident scholarly and pedagogical work (and their institutional locations) is delegitimized and—in particularly telling instances—censored at both public and private institutions. (6)
In other words, for those who challenge U.S. imperialism, one can expect to endure a hostile reception. This was my experience once I became aware, through critical education and ethnic and gender and women’s studies classes, of how the rhetoric of diversity is disconnected from enactments of justice.
Initially, my doctoral research explored whether multicultural education increased access to—and equity within—educational settings and learning environments. Convinced, I completed an initial research project believing I had found a teaching practice worthy of fostering equity for all within the classroom. I then encountered a formative class on the politics of education. In that class and subsequent classes, I began to develop skills where I questioned the things not said. I saw through the discourse to see how the powerful and exceedingly wealthy believe school privatization is the clarion call for racial and social justice. Quality education, they believe, as a result of privatization, will ensure all students have the knowledge and skills to compete in the global arena. Nevertheless, these same power players have restructured education in ways that support their bottom line while continuing to segregate as well as widen the gap within our nation’s schools and communities.
As soon as my research agenda began to shift, my advisor began to actively dissuade my burgeoning research interests. We disagreed about what I should be reading and the types of classes I should be taking. Each time I shared my course schedule, my advisor strongly encouraged me to take other courses that met her satisfaction and research interests, which, although centering queerness, centered a colorblind queerness. She did not support my course selections within ethnic and gender and women’s studies. Our meetings, at one time collegial and cordial, became meetings in which my ideas were swiftly rejected and deemed not rigorous enough. My email requests to schedule appointments went unanswered or responses severely delayed. While in the building one day, I decided to drop by to see if she had a few minutes to spare. Upon knocking on the door, she immediately responded: “You could not have picked a worse time to knock on my door. I have no time for you!” My advisor spoke these words, all the while staring directly at her computer. She continued talking, but at that point, I had enough. I walked away, feeling defeated, embarrassed, and enraged. My growing imposter syndrome led me to one of my lowest points within graduate school.
Angry and sad, I vowed to make changes. I promised never to give power to someone who could make me feel that way again. Fortunately, a close friend reminded me of my worth and suggested another advisor who better aligned with my research interests, one whose Blackness does not preclude genuine alignment with queer communities. Many may not be able to navigate this process in such a way for fear of potential retaliation, which I do continue to worry about given mutual fields of study, specialized research interests, or policies that prohibit changing advisors. However, find your support, find those people who are your cheerleaders, and know you deserve better even when you are unable to recognize that for yourself. Establish your networks at your institution and beyond. I am fortunate to have a small group of friends at my current institution, along with another small group of folks who I have met at professional conferences, that remain in touch via social media groups and group texts. These groups combined have provided a space to scream, yell, cry, and express my joy.
My current advisor has guided me well in my present work. In line with my experiences, my dissertation research examines the role of diversity on campus from the vantage of points of race, gender, and sexuality. In doing so, it disrupts dominant institutional narratives by showing how and what it means to exist beyond binaries and how we understand the intersections when thinking about power, privilege, and oppression.
Professors who alleged support of this project have also prompted violence. Another example that taught me to know and speak my truth took place during a class on feminist theories and methods. As this class was a required course for my minor in gender and women’s studies, I was excited to take this class, hoping to utilize the learning outcomes for my dissertation and a future teaching job. However, my excitement quickly dissipated. The professor, who seemingly supports research such as mine, selected only one text on the subject, one that simply did not speak to the breadth and depth of feminist theories and methods. Repeatedly, my contributions to the class were downplayed and often dismissed. I was not alone. Other Black students were all suffering in silence until yet another class interaction in which our contributions were laughed at, challenged, and subsequently dismissed. For those of us facilitating and contributing to class discussion, our ill treatment created a space where we did not feel welcome, where we were silenced; the course became inhospitable. I attempted to use silence as a means to resist but was unable to remain quiet. Those affected decided to convene a meeting and invited other students who in turn did not respond or who replied with private support but no desire to meet. A group of Black women met and shared concerns about the lack of safety in the class and the negative impact upon our learning given the stress of being in the space.
As an initial resolution, we decided to collectively skip the next class and request a meeting to share our concerns and engage in dialogue. This action was met with an upset professor claiming surprise and seeking to manipulate our return by refusing to grant a meeting and suggesting we address concerns in the classroom. Given our lack of comfort, we refused and again requested to meet separately. The professor cited this as disruptive and premeditated, subsequently contacting the department chair. I wish to note that the professor, who self-identifies as a Black woman, helped me/us learn a valuable lesson that day—that all skin folk are not necessarily your kinfolk! Resolution entailed first meeting with the professor, with the department chair acting as mediator, followed by a meeting with only the department chair and students. Fortunately, we had the support of an understanding faculty chair who allowed us to complete the semester as an independent study by working on a group project to help the department reimagine the course in ways that would be beneficial for a Black and queer feminist praxis. The outcome of this experience emerged from the combination of resisting erasure in curriculum and pedagogy, requesting space for dialogue, and relying on people in power to create just opportunities to solve current problems and avoid future ones.
Ultimately, my graduate school experience is a testament to Black queer feminisms that work to create a space to tell and share our stories by us and in our own words. Like many before me, I tackle this topic because reflections of who I am remain invisible, trampled upon, and discarded although there is a cost that accompanies this heightened visibility. Regardless, there is a high cost in both silence and in challenging discourses that attempt to reject, dismiss, and stigmatize diverse and different ways of being, existing, and knowing. These are the stories that need to be told. As Silvia Wynter concludes in her interview with David Scott (2000) on what it means to be human beyond being a white, heteronormative male, I present these words as my evidence, our evidence of being, and the start of being human. Despite stereotyped representations throughout many years, I have found my voice, used my power, and advocated for myself as well as others. There is a culture within the Academy that discourages those of us who dare call out injustices despite institutional claims about diversity as a core value and overall guiding principle. Our silencing reinforces a culture of assimilation, a politics of respectability, and professionalism that undermines our ability to speak on issues that are quite literally killing members of our communities. We risk our livelihoods, opportunities for advancement, and threats to our professional reputations. I have been pushed out of spaces because I do not fit normalized expectations in which the university culture thrives on binaries that pit us versus them. At a moment when we continue to define who and what matters, it is all the more necessary to tell our stories, to counter dominant narratives that serve to marginalize us, and to document as well as challenge injustices within institutional structures.
This essay is my affirmation to my fellow graduate students. I want to call up those of us who are erased, made to feel invisible, made to feel unworthy because we do not “look” the part, and made to seem as if our contributions are not somehow worthy or intellectual enough because I/we believe in dismantling systems that uphold white supremacy. Those of us at the margins are constantly challenged to think about how we see ourselves, forced to consider and reconsider the essence of who we are. To the other Black and Brown queer, gender non- conforming, gender non-binary, and trans folk in the Academy, I see you. I write this in dialogue with you all, queering what is already queer—to be Black and Brown folk within the spaces of the Academy. There have been a number of times in my/our lives where I/we feel shame as a result of not being who others want us to be or as a result of being forced to pick and choose so that others are more comfortable. While complicated, the enormous amount of pride in breaking away from such expectations not meant for us is everything. It is our power.
 Author’s personal communication with Dr. Adrienne D. Dixson, 2013.
Bailey, Moya, and Trudy. “On Misogynoir: Citation, Erasure, and Plagiarism.” Feminist Media Studies 18, no. 4 (2018): 762-768. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2018.1447395
Chatterjee, Piya, and Sunaina Maira. “The Imperial University: Race, War, and the Nation-State.” In Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent, edited by Piya Chatterjee & Sunaina Maira, 1-50. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
Combahee River Collective. “A Black Feminist Statement (1977).” In Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall,232-240. New York: The New Press, 1995.
Lewis, Mel Michelle. “Reading Myself into Existence: First Encounters with the Combahee River Collective,” Inside Higher ED, October 31, 2017, https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/university-venus/reading-myself-existence
Parker, P. Movement in Black: The Collected Poetry of Pat Parker, 1961-1978. New York: Firebrand Books, 1990.
Scott, David. “The Re-Enchantment of Humanism: An Interview with Sylvia Winter.” Small Axe 8 (September 2000): 119-207.
Taylor, K-Y. How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017.