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.
Kayla Tolbert, originally from Denver, Colorado recently completed a Master of Arts in International Relations and Global Security. Currently, she sits on the Board of Directors for the non-profit organization Black Women in International Affairs and is a birth doula serving the communities of Denver and Washington, DC. Throughout her graduate experience, Ms. Tolbert has undertaken several fellowships and internships within the DC area and hopes to utilize her platform to advance the interest of young women interested in foreign policy like herself.
Navigating graduate school in the field of international affairs as a Black woman has been both inspiring and strenuous. As one of the few Black American students in my graduate cohort, I have been inspired by my agency to create and redirect the narrative of foreign relations as it pertains to Black people. On the other hand, my agency is embedded with its own challenges, as academia in the discipline of international relations (IR) marginally reflects imprints of African American leadership and scholarship. It is this problematic academic narrative that remains a challenge in constructing a space for Black academics in foreign relations. My curiosities in the discipline of international affairs as a Black woman can often be considered anomalistic, and in some regard, beyond my imagination. Pursuing a career in this field came with the notion that I was dreaming of being someone doing something that I had never encountered. Within my graduate studies and professional career pursuits, I have found myself working twice as hard as my peers who are either third culture kids, children of politicians, military personnel, or people with an extensive political network. I do not fit into any of those categories, and the few role models I have are limited to the influences of Patricia Roberts, Condoleezza Rice, and Susan Rice. The inconsistent representation of Black women in U.S. foreign policy leaves me with little direction and resources to pursue a career in IR as readily as my colleagues. Today, diverse representation within U.S. foreign policy remains skewed, whereas all identifying people of color constitute less than thirty percent of the U.S. State Department workforce. This statistic constitutes a small percentage of people of color contributing to U.S. foreign policy. It does not account for the other disciplines intersecting with IR including international development, economics, and business, nor does it transparently account for the number of Black identifying professionals in the field. This lack of representation also extends itself into IR academia.
The need for diverse representation in academia was not apparent until I noticed its absence. Academia often lends itself to a level of elitism through its use of complex and intricate language and verbiage. To be able to understand and digest challenging theoretical and philosophical material is often considered a validation to one’s intellectual aptitude. Yet how can one measure intellectual aptitude if an individual lacks exposure to a seemingly formidable discipline? My personal educational experience stood on the foundation of an inner city school in Denver, Colorado and my access to academic language was minimal, which made it difficult to interpret and synthesize academic language during my undergraduate and graduate educational years. During graduate school most of my time studying was delegated to merely understanding academic articles. It left me little time to assess the material and analyze critiques of international relation theory. As a graduate student of a top-ten program in international relations, being able to synthesize theories of realism, liberalism, and constructivism as well as decipher other disciplines was to be innate. However, I was also a graduate student who had to navigate and establish academic rigor through my own resourcefulness. I had a clear understanding of navigating international development through my own lived experiences as a Black woman and living in a community where I could easily transfer my experiences into my graduate education. However, I faced a cognitive dissonance because I could not properly grasp the dense language used in articles and seminars. Across four years in undergraduate courses and two years in a graduate program, my ability to confidently digest material and the lack thereof sowed the seeds of doubt and gave rise to an insidious form of imposter syndrome.
Often, I would attend class with more questions than answers. Participating in class discussion led to an irrational level of anxiety. In fear I would appear incompetent. I would find my voice shaking and cracking in response to speaking with my classmates. Even in conversations with my professional colleagues, I would shy away from healthy intellectual debates because I didn’t think I could communicate effectively without using the “proper” language. I was afraid to speak, afraid to exist. It was a self-defeating act.
The juxtaposition of academia and the discipline of international relations brought me back to the table I had once excused myself from. Reflecting on the brainstorming process of my master’s thesis, I remember falling behind in my project timeline as I shuffled back and forth in revisiting prior academic critiques and theoretical contributions. Centering my thesis on designing technology to confront the dire maternal mortality statistics in Africa, I found myself caught in an impasse attempting to integrate international development theory into a practical solution. Most literature was written from the standpoint of white academics, theorists, and researchers, and they rarely used the language necessary to effectively communicate solutions to an African population. Moreover, academics and the communities which they observe usually stand on opposing sides of the respected issue. In light of this, I noticed an additional pattern: people of color were more often the subject of theories and observations. The development of my graduate curriculum rested on European and Western theory as it pertained to people of color and their experiences. This was the mainstream academia, which reappeared throughout my studies, and if these were the terms within which academia is applied, then it only revealed academia to be a space of exclusivity and not one of progressiveness.
It is so important to this discipline to integrate academia in a way that speaks to a different connotation and how to understand it. I knew the language of my friends, I knew the language of Black folx, and these languages certainly were embedded with political theory and philosophical scholarship. It was academic, it just didn’t sound like it. It was then I learned academic language can create a social barrier, even for those with the ability to understand if given the right tools. Inevitably, the importance of highlighting Black academics was evident. They knew the language of the observed because they were the observed.
Throughout the two years of my program, none of my professors were Black or people of color, in addition to the lack of scholarly work from people of color. As an aspiring academic myself, I was not requesting that Black identity become the focus of academic international relations, but I believed there was a benefit to increasing the visibility of Black academic work. Without doubt, I can confirm I have considered other factors leading to the scarcity and infrequency of Black academia in the discipline of international relations. Historically, international relations developed amongst predominantly European countries and the United States following World War II. During this same time, Blacks in the United States were not even considered equal to their white counterparts and much like other social focal points in society, the inclusion of African Americans in international politics required a socio-economic capacity often unattained by African Americans and other people of color. I further found these pockets of exclusion in the institutional capacity, where African American students interested in international relations may have to limit their experiences due socio-economic incapacities.
During my undergraduate years, I was afforded the opportunity to study abroad because of a scholarship, and during graduate school, I attained a fellowship. During both of these experiences, I met many non-POC colleagues who were able to study abroad without need-based aid or loans whereas I was only afforded the experience because I had scholarships. My family and personal financial situation was not adequate enough to facilitate my academic experience on its own, and other Black students like myself need aid to study abroad. In 2015, the International Institute of Education reported that only five percent of Black students studied abroad. According to the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors, this percentage has only increased to 6.1 percent in 2019. More importantly, Black students need improved academic mentorship so they may be informed about the scholarships and financial resources available to participate in study abroad programs. I have learned in this field that studying abroad is a necessity for students who are interested in becoming academics of international relations. Increasing the participation for Black students as potential academics in the field provides an opportunity to foster the development of new perspectives in international relations. It is important to nurture Black academics in a method which will increase their visibility and advance their scholarly work.
Representation offers a vision of adequacy and agency. As it is our job to acknowledge the strength of our own adequacies as graduate students of color, we must align ourselves with institutions and organizations providing the agency to build on the adequacies that we have. Institutions pride themselves on the admission of new students who can simply improve their diversity initiatives. My own institute has highlighted their landing page with a diversity statistic stating, “35 percent U.S.-born students of color have been admitted into the program” . While I appreciate the physical visibility, I believe to truly integrate Black scholars into academia means to integrate scholarly visibility into the curriculum. Leaving out Black scholars from the curriculum facilitates the erasure of black narratives. Black academia is intersectional and has the capability to be applied in a multi-disciplinary approach, which means that international relations can benefit from its visibility within several specialties. The work of Black academics deserves not only to be published, but also to be considered for analytical critique as other works of IR theories have been. Through the critique and evaluation of Black academia, we, as academics, diplomats, and political scientists, can advance international development and U.S. foreign policy.
 U.S. Department of State. “Department of State– Diversity Statistics Full-Time Permanent Employees as of 09/30/2016.” District of Columbia, 2016. https://2009-2017.state.gov/documents/organization/254216.pdf.
 International Institute of Education. “International Institute of Education Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange.” New York City, 2015. https://www.iie.org/Research-and-Insights/Open-Doors.
 McCorristin, Roric. International Educator, November 1, 2019. https://www.nafsa.org/ie-magazine/2019/11/1/diversifying-study-abroad-participation.
 American, University. “School of International Service.” American University, May 24, 1970. https://www.american.edu/sis/.