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.
Kamryn Morris is a Black female doctoral student. She researches racial discrimination stress and academic attitudes among Black adolescents.
The “smart Black girl.” That description once encompassed my favorite things about myself; I basked in the glory of that identity. The Black girl with brown skin, kinky afro, and big gold hoops. That same girl with straight As and a full-ride scholarship, who was determined to change the world. An identity that had always filled me with so much pride soon became something that left me feeling as though it would be impossible to measure up in the academy.
As an undergraduate, I was the smart student. I was every professor’s favorite and completely unafraid to speak up in class. I would soon come to realize that graduate school is only made up of smart students. I was no different from the rest; only, these students were coming from Ivy League universities. They were international students encompassing worldly knowledge and working professionals that maintained careers and families, all of which seemed to outshine my “smart.” My limited life experiences and definition of smart continued to pale in comparison to my peers. Graduating magna cum laude no longer seemed to matter. Would they know how poorly I did on the GRE? Could they tell I had never done any research before? Did they think I was smart? Who was I if I was not smart? Being smart once helped me to rise above the rest, but in graduate school that was the minimum qualification. Everyone is smart, so what made me different?
It is not hard to be different when you are “the only one” in your graduate program. During orientation, I looked around at my peers, and the one commonality among them all is they looked nothing like me. I saw pale skin; I saw soft, silky, straight hair. What I did not see were any brown faces. I was going to spend the next five years of my doctoral program with these individuals. While my mind should have been focused on dissertation topics, what classes to take, and finding where my lab was located, instead all I could think about was whether my peers liked me. Growing up Black, you code switch, you adapt, and you change when necessary. I am no newcomer to doing what it takes to survive in these spaces. As Paul Laurence Dunbar so eloquently described, we wear the mask. My mask is aloof. Unafraid. Unapologetic. I combat the crippling feeling of discomfort by pretending to be everything I am not. I summon up all of my Black girl magic and simply fake it ‘til I make it. I work to push through feelings of loneliness and isolation. Before I would tell myself that once I step away from this space—filled with friendly faces that do not look like me—I can go back to being me. Only, this is not home. New city, new state, new people, new food. Everything is so new, and it only increases my feelings of discomfort. I just want to see some people who look like me. Every day I ask myself, where are the Black people? What is the best beauty supply store to get some hair for box braids? Where do you go for some good Soul Food? Most importantly though, where are the Black people?
I searched across the insanely large university campus desperate to find people I could relate to. The Black Graduate Student Association found me and wrapped me up in its arms. It smelled of shea butter and coconut oil. It looked like an array of brown faces who were just as lost as I was. It felt like home. I could breathe. I found my community. Along the way, I have even managed to make connections with peers in my program. Slowly but surely, I began to let my guard down by making an effort to engage with others in class and even accepting invitations to social events. While they may not look like me, some of them are minorities too. We reaffirm each other’s presence in our doctoral program, validate each other’s scholarly ideas, and most importantly, we remind each other that “we’ve got this!” They care about the experiences of marginalized and minoritized populations, and they care about me, too. Nowadays, we have lunch together every day. The one rule for our daily lunches? No talking about research. I know, it sounds impossible! But it feels so good. While I take great pride in my research, I have realized that I cannot let it consume me. My identity is so much more than who and what I research. Lunch is for pop culture talk, sharing stories of our families, and finding new restaurants to try. I deserve this time.
While I have found my tribe, it has been harder to establish relationships with other students in my program. I am making strides though. Slowly but surely, I am smiling more, engaging in conversations, and attending social events. It has been hard to open up and be vulnerable with people, but it is also extremely rewarding. I now have people who care about my development as a scholar and a person; we can talk about statistics just as easily as we can talk about our personal lives. I think creating these relationships is just one of the many ways that I am making this space my own. I am trusting these individuals to practice what they preach about diversity, inclusion, and White allies. I am beginning to feel safe, both physically and mentally. Rather than being the Black girl with the big hair who pretends to be on her phone when she sees you in the hallway, I am now the Black girl with the big hair who smiles and talks.
Finding community, establishing close relationships, and finally relaxing in unfamiliar spaces do not completely eradicate the feelings of discomfort that come with being “the only one.” The first semester in graduate school, a White male classmate made it a point to comment on my hair every time I passed him in the hallway. I did not even know this man’s name, and yet he felt comfortable enough to constantly comment on my hair. I started to avoid him, not because I thought he was being cruel, but because it was awkward and uncomfortable. I am embarrassed to admit that I let this go on for an entire semester. A White female peer told me that, “I stay with the dope fits,” and in the same breath my peer said I look like Kelly Rowland. Despite my deep adoration for Kelly Rowland and my love for the song “Crown,” I look absolutely nothing like her. It is amazing how much guilt I felt when I gently questioned the student about this comparison. Was I being too hard on her? Did she intend to make me uncomfortable? I even contemplated apologizing to her afterward! Luckily, after a nice long conversation with my mom to debrief, I did not apologize. Sometimes I walk the halls and I notice that my body is tight, my palms are sweaty, and my breathing is shallow. I am always ready for the comment that will figuratively take me out. I am always ready for attack but struggle with deep feelings of being ill-prepared and unsure of what to say.
In the classroom, I have these same fears. My research centers around the experiences of Black youth. I am proud of that. So why do I hesitate to mention race during a class discussion? Am I imagining the eyes staring into my head when someone mentions Black people? My silence gets me nowhere, and yet I shut down. The confidence, the intelligence, the pride, they all leave me, and once again the mask is back on. I am afraid to be known as the angry Black girl. And to be honest, I am a crier. How can I not cry when discussing the murders of Black youth or Latinx children who have been stripped from their parents at the border? My goal as a researcher is to highlight their voices, but sometimes I cry when I discuss these traumatic topics. Great, now I am the crying Black girl. Angry Black girl, crying Black girl, I just want to go back to being the smart Black girl. Sometimes it is hard to put on the mask.
I spend a lot of time reflecting on the origin of these thoughts and feelings that constantly plague my mind and heart. I have spent my whole life learning and perfecting how to navigate predominantly White spaces. I should be an expert at this, I could write a book on it! However, the moment I entered my doctoral program I felt grossly unequipped. I constantly wonder what makes this space so different, so hard, so exhausting. Then I look around and I am reminded. The academy was not created for scholars that look like me. We can sing the praises of diversity and inclusion, but alas, those are just buzzwords if social desirability, ignorance, and tokenism are the only driving forces. The academy was not created for scholars that look like me, and I know it by the racial distribution of faculty and students in doctoral programs. The academy was not created for scholars that look like me, and I know it because the empirical research we read in class is conducted by White researchers on White samples. The academy was not created for scholars that look like me, and I know it because of the disparity in who receives federal grant funding. The academy was not created for scholars that look like me, and I am reminded of this everywhere I look.
At times my mask seems like it will never leave. Yet, I am here. Black girl, brown skin, kinky afro, and big gold hoops. I still love this identity. I refuse to allow the academy make me feel less than because of this identity. I will continue to let it empower me. I recognize that I was not placed in graduate school by accident. I earned this. The academy must recognize and protect scholars of color. Rather than shrinking myself or being forced to conform, I will continue to grow. I am more than just smart; I am driven, capable, and determined. I have earned my position as a doctoral student and emerging scholar. I deserve to be seen and heard. All graduate students of color deserve to be seen and heard. Our contributions deserve to been seen and heard. Smart Black girl, learning, making mistakes, and working. I am here.