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.
Ashley Stone is a doctoral student at the University of Central Florida. Black, woman, and Buddhist, her research areas include race, gender, and higher education.
In Sister Citizen, Melissa Harris-Perry writes,
When they confront race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room, and they have to figure out which way is up. Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion. … To understand why black women’s public actions and political strategies sometimes seem tilted in ways that accommodate the degrading stereotypes about them, it is important to appreciate the structural constraints that influence their behavior. It can be hard to stand up straight in a crooked room. (2011, 29)
For Black women, higher education is a crooked room. Some Black women conform to the institution, choosing to wear a hairstyle that aligns with Eurocentric aesthetics or engaging in “code-switching” to be more palatable in the academy, among other strategies. Some Black women do not conform to the institution, choosing to challenge the prevailing modes of knowledge production that pervade the academy with their epistemologies. Many Black women do both. Black women expend precious time and energy devising strategies to ensure their survival in the academy because it is an institution that was never designed for them to participate in. No matter their choice, Black women employ various strategies to exist in higher education, knowing that personal or professional consequences will likely accompany their decisions. Black women in higher education must navigate it differently, often with minimal support, limited mentorship, and even less understanding. Specifically, the classroom is a space in which Black women, as both students and instructors, are faced with the decision whether to be or not to be.
As a Black woman navigating graduate school, I occupy a unique space within higher education, perpetually in between two phenomena. On the one hand, I am a doctoral student. While the opportunity to develop as a rising scholar is exciting, the journey is not without its share of challenges in the classroom. It includes being interrupted when speaking in class discussions with no apology to follow. It is discussing systemic racism with classmates and having the realities of people of color essentialized. It is sharing your lived experiences of racial and gendered oppression, only to have a classmate turn to a Black man in the class to validate your truth. It is the deafening silence that follows a derogatory comment, after which you are expected to speak up and defend your humanity, fully aware that by doing so—no matter how diplomatic you are in your approach—you will be labeled as “angry.” It is the reality of being simultaneously invisible and hyper-visible.
On the other hand, I am an instructor. In this role, I am reminded that the experiences I am facing in the classroom are not exclusive, but in fact, they mirror the experiences of Black undergraduate women. During our informal conversations, these young women openly share the struggles they face within the academy. They speak of the insidious microaggressions perpetrated by other students. They talk about the incessant gaslighting and the constant dismissal of their lived experiences with systemic oppression. They express their desire for classrooms to be spaces where they are affirmed. They voice their longing to simply be. Here we stand 66 years after the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka—integrated, yet not included. As a sociologist, I think about these students and their classroom experiences with other instructors in the department. It is interesting, almost humorous, to watch fellow instructors nearly salivate as they profess their love of Black Feminist Thought (2000). Yet they are seemingly less committed to demonstrating the principles that Collins outlined when Black women are in their classrooms.
On my journey to the doctorate, I am deeply appreciative of the people in my network who serve as incredible sources of support. I treasure fellow Black graduate students with whom I decompress after a difficult class discussion and with whom I find a laugh or two. I embrace the social media groups filled with individuals whom I have never met in person, but who stand with me in solidarity. I value the leadership team of my department who serve as a sounding board when I find myself at an impasse. It is this expansive network of support that allows me to remain focused on the end goal and inspires me to think about how I can support other Black women within the academy.
As a graduate student, I am consistently reflecting on my role as an instructor. I find myself wrestling with the reality of teaching at a southern, predominantly white institution as a Black woman from the south side of Chicago. My faculty advisor has been indispensable to my continuing development as an educator. They are affirming when I share my experiences with discrimination in the classroom and encourage me to explore every emotion I am feeling. Additionally, their guidance has inspired me to consider how my negative experiences in the classroom can propel me to create inclusive classroom experiences for the students I teach. bell hooks writes,
To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin. (1994, 13)
Thinking about my classroom experiences in graduate school, I recognize that the discrimination myself and other Black students experienced not only harmed us, but all students present. These instances were missed opportunities for both faculty and students to participate in the intellectual and spiritual growth necessary to do the work of our discipline, and ultimately they perpetuated the social inequalities that we, as social researchers, aim to dismantle.
Soka education, or value-creating education, is the foundation in which my teaching philosophy is rooted. Outlined in the early twentieth century by Japanese educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, Soka education is a student-centered approach to teaching and learning to enhance the human condition of each student (Ikeda 2010). Discussing the intention and impact of Soka education, Daisaku Ikeda writes, “The starting point and essence of Soka education is the spirit to treasure each student’s individuality so that they can become happy…The aim of Soka education is the happiness of oneself and others, as well as society as a whole, and peace for all humanity” (2006, 341). For me, incorporating Soka education is critical as both an educator and a sociologist because it prioritizes the happiness of each student, which requires acknowledging the innate dignity of human life. Ultimately, this leaves no space for discrimination to enter the classroom, allowing both students and the educator to freely engage in expanding their perspective on the world while developing a more humanistic attitude in the process.
For some, the goal of transforming students within the classroom may seem lofty, perhaps even impossible. While it is my goal as an instructor to create a transformative learning space, it is still a task that makes me apprehensive. Like other educators, at the beginning of each semester, I am met with uncertainty about the students who enroll in my class. The courses that I teach focus on race, gender, and social inequalities, subjects which some students have been conditioned to believe are “controversial” or too personal to discuss. I have no idea until I am amid the semester how students will respond to the course content nor the attitudes and opinions that students will have about it.
Despite this, I have not resigned myself to hopelessness. One of the core tenets of Soka education is an emphasis on the teacher-student relationship. More specifically, Soka education notes the importance of the teacher’s attitude toward their students as integral to students’ learning outcomes (Inukai 2018). Soka education as a pedagogical practice requires that I conduct an impartial self-analysis of any pre-conceived notions I have toward students and eradicate them. I must also dismantle the notion that teaching is a unidirectional process, with information only being transferred from teacher to student. As an instructor, I must contemplate how to create a bidirectional learning environment in which I am determined to learn and grow from my interactions with students. What is more, I must value the lived experiences and insights they bring to the classroom. I then shift this perspective into concrete action. I support the students as we develop a clear set of community values for our semester. I embolden them to view themselves as co-facilitators of the course and create meaning of the course content for their daily lives. I encourage them to reflect on their own social identities as I find the fine line between allowing them to share their truth and compassionately challenging them to think critically about their worldviews to broaden their perspectives. I choose to call them in as opposed to calling them out, knowing that we are all working together in a simultaneous process of learning and unlearning.
Initially, my approach to teaching has been met by students with uneasiness. It is a style that is unfamiliar to them. Knowing this, I was uncertain about how they received my courses in both style and content. At various points throughout the semester, I seek out their feedback using surveys as well as through classroom discussion and even individual conversations during my office hours. Their feedback has been surprising to me. They have discussed how they understood that they were being positioned between two phenomena, between being given the space to share their thoughts and being asked to broaden their perspectives. For some, the course shifted not only their worldview, but also their career trajectories. Based upon their feedback, it appeared that they were transformed by the experience in the classroom—a space that we created together.
There was one student in my class, a Black woman whose presence will forever be etched in my memory. When our class sessions would conclude, she would always walk with me to my office. During our walks, our conversations covered a range of topics, including her personal life and her family history. As with the other students in my course, I was concerned about her, wondering about her experiences and whether she felt comfortable in the classroom setting. One day—without any assistance or prompting from me—she stated that she was thoroughly enjoying the course. She joyfully expressed that my class was one of the first courses at the institution where she could share her opinions without the fear of being silenced and where she, as a Black woman, had been seen. It was always my hope that her experience in my classroom would be one in which she was affirmed and validated. I was hopeful that my classroom would be one in which she saw herself reflected, not only by my presence, but also by the content of the course. I intended to stand willingly in the gap between her and any staunch resistance to her presence in higher education.
The Buddhist concept of changing poison into medicine has always resonated with me, particularly within my professional life. The concept encourages people to utilize adversity as an opportunity to muster their confidence and move in a direction that ensures a positive resolution (Ikeda 2006). Throughout graduate school, I have been reminded that I decided to pursue my doctorate to receive the training necessary to transform how students learn in higher education. Being a doctoral student has also motivated me to think about the kind of educator that I want to be in the future, and how I can create positive learning experiences for the students I encounter. It has been a process of self-reflection, transformation, and trial and error. Indeed, it has required a great amount of energy, but I would rather expend my energy on creating an inclusive classroom than allowing the frustrations of the academy to consume me. It is my determination to continue to create classrooms where students do not need to make decisions about whether to contort or conform, but rather where each of them can stand firm and uninterrupted in their truth.
Harris-Perry, Melissa V. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.
Hill Collins, Patricia. Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge, 2000.
hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Ikeda, Daisaku. The New Human Revolution Volume 22. Santa Monica: World Tribune Press, 2006.
Ikeda, Daisaku. Soka Education. Santa Monica: World Tribune Press, 2010.
Inukai, Nozomi. “Re-Thinking the Teacher-Student Relationship from a Soka Perspective.” Mid-Western Educational Researcher 30, no 4 (2018): 278-287.