I Don’t Need You to Validate Me

Please don’t call me “Doctor”. I don’t need that.

One of my beefs in academia is with *scholars of color. While some of you may cringe at the generalities about to ensue, the fact of the matter is, they are grounded in truth.

We all know there are many types of colleges and universities from which to choose when pursuing an undergraduate degree. This is also true of graduate degrees; however, when getting a PhD, you attend the program, not the school. Some graduate programs emphasize research and others emphasize teaching. I attended a Research I institution (there is a ranking of just ‘how researchy’ schools are. This classification comes from grant attainment, number of graduates, what kinds of jobs graduates get, number of publications annually, etc). More relevant to this post is that my graduate school is the number 1 program in its field. Why does that matter?

Because when you’re at the top, you know it. You don’t need anyone to hype you up.

At my undergrad and graduate schools, professors were pretty much laid back. Even in undergrad, once you got to know a professor well, you were free to call them by their first name. Those whom you did not know well, you called Professor _____. In graduate school, it was standard protocol to only address professors by their first name.

I like(d) this because a) it removes the inherent power dynamic that arises when one person in an exchange has a title and the other doesn’t; b) as a result, it made me feel like my opinion was just as valid as anyone else’s because there wasn’t the constant reminder of status; c) it taught me that a degree is NOT your identity.

That last point is my issue with scholars of color. If you’ve ever gone to a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) for an event or as a student, you know that you must always refer to the professors as ‘Doctor”. To not do so is not only a social faux pas, but a quick way to get cursed out (a Black PhD will put you in your place. Don’t get it twisted). It is like their title has become a part of their name. A part of how they see themselves. The primary aspect of their identity. I struggle with this. I first tried to put it in a historical context wherein people of color fought hard for the right to an education so to achieve a PhD is an honor. It’s the next part of that train of thought I can’t quite complete. It’s an honor so….other people should acknowledge your accomplishment? It’s hard to do so people need to show respect for your achievement? It’s rare so those letters give you a higher rank? What do you get when others call you ‘Doctor’?

To me, it’s just pretentious and completely rude. It’s like a constant reminder of an educational difference. So what if they don’t have an advanced degree? Does that make them ‘less’? It does not. (At this point, I know some of you are reminded of medical doctors–MD–being referred to as ‘doctor’. First, I don’t care about them because I am a PhD and this is my blog. Second, I think they need that power dynamic so patients do understand they are the more knowledgeable party so you should probably follow their instructions)

Let me be clear: I am not stating there is a racial difference in the academy. What I am stating is that it appears to be a racial difference when in fact, I theorize it is a power difference. Scholars of color at top-tier institutions are more likely than scholars of color at lower ranked (not low ranked) schools to be addressed by their first name; however, they are still less likely than White scholars in that realm. This is because even when you are a faculty of color at a highly ranked school/program, you still struggle with power dynamics (especially women of color). Reminding your colleagues that you too are highly qualified and an expert is sometimes necessary when they underestimate your knowledge and skills (or when they encourage you to teach classes about diversity. See my post I am Not My Hair (or Skin) ).

So I get that your colleagues may need that reminder. But do your students? Is that the relationship you want to cultivate with people you are charged to teach and mentor? Do you want them cowed and impressed by your degree? Or do you want them comfortable enough to ask questions, open their minds, and see you as ‘real’?

I opt for the latter. If my students view me as inaccessible and removed, then so is the knowledge I wish to impart.

*Note. You will notice that I say scholars of ‘color’, but most of my interactions are limited to Black and White scholars. I welcome those of you who are scholars of other ethnicities to comment and share your experiences.

*Note 2. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a piece about this very issue. Check it out:  That’s Doctor So and So to You


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