Conversations with Colleagues: Being Black & Lesbian in Academe

In an effort to present more than a singular perspective, I have been asking colleagues in other fields to share their stories for my blog. Understandably, they are all swamped with the work of their PhD programs/their careers, so it has been slow going. I am grateful to a close friend, Jane,  for her willingness to be the first contributor to what I hope to be a series of  Conversations with Colleagues.

To jumpstart her thinking, I posed a few questions and told her to basically write whatever she wanted. She chose to answer each question in turn. Jane is a 6th year Doctoral Candidate at an Historically Black College/University (HBCU) in a PhD Biomedical Sciences program, with a concentration in Pharmacology. She is under age 30 and identifies as a Black, masculine lesbian.


How is it being a Black PhD student at an HBCU? (as opposed to a PWI–Predominately White Institution)

I don’t know because I’ve never attended a PWI of higher education, but the ones I do meet always complain about being the only. I guess I can empathize slightly because I am one of few open gays, but I feel culturally in tune with the straight people in my program so maybe not. I will say though that being a PhD student at an HBCU, I don’t feel stressed to demonstrate that I am intelligent and knowledgeable even though I am black. I feel stressed to demonstrate that I am intelligent and knowledgeable just because I am a person who is in a PhD program and I want to prove myself. I think there’s a difference there.

How is it being a woman in a man dominated field? In what ways do women tend to struggle in the natural sciences?

Again, I don’t know because I haven’t had to confront this male-dominated world just yet. The thing about blacks in higher education: There’s generally more black women than black men. For example, being at an HBCU, the graduate school is 90% female students. (It’s more like 60/40 or 70/30 women:men in the professional programs.) However, there is an apparent dichotomy when you look at our faculty, who are also of color, but mainly male. So a lot of what I know about the female struggles comes from meeting female researchers. And from the female researchers that have come and gone, I get the sense that it is very difficult at times to be the only woman in a department. There is an “old boys club” that exists that they might not be able to access despite their accomplishments. And I can say that I can somewhat pick up on that when I compare how faculty treat male graduate students and female graduate students. The males seem to have more leeway as they are a guarded treasure because they are black and thus rare. However, I personally have so many minority badges that I probably gloss over the sexism/discrimination. I already assume people perceive certain things about me so I don’t try to focus on the source of their stereotypes.

How does being gay affect your experience as a woman in academe (as opposed to straight women)?

Personally, I find that a lot of women (especially of color) in the academy are caught between two worlds. They want to professionally excel yet they still want to maintain traditional standards of domestic success (marriage, kids, etc.). It seems like a lot of them have self-imposed deadlines of when they’re supposed to obtain these milestones, and I feel bad for them because that’s not how life works. It is difficult for minority groups, especially women color, to make progress in both their highly-skilled professional lives and personal lives especially because they might not have the support systems to win the battle on both fronts. I, however, personally don’t feel that inner struggle or have self-imposed deadlines. I can’t speak for all lesbians, or even all masculine-identifying lesbians, but I don’t feel compelled to be married by a certain point or to have kids by a certain point or anything like that.  I feel like it will just happen when it happens. I don’t feel pressure from women to settle down, and that’s possibly because “gay marriage” is so new. You can settle down without officially settling down, lol. Also, I know my womb won’t be young forever, but between there being two wombs in my future relationships and the option of adoption, I’m not afraid of not being a parent someday. You could say I identify with the stereotypical perception of men who are climbing the professional ladder. Live first, and everything else will fall in line as time goes on. In a way, it is somewhat liberating to be gay because my perceived abnormality frees me from some of society’s gender roles and rules. Professionally, I have not felt any type of discrimination because I am gay. That may be my own naiveté though. I have faced a lot of setbacks during my graduate career, and the lack of support that I sometimes had might be because I’m gay but I have no proof of that. However, I will say that the fact that I am even able to be myself in my program shows that society and the academy are making strides. I am an open, masculine-identifying lesbian in a PhD program. There’s really no ambiguity to it, and I am proud to be marking a cultural shift. My generation of LGBT is one of the first to grow up during a time of open pride and self-expression, especially at an early age. We are free to be as masculine or feminine as we want to be in traditionally conformist areas and fields, and people are slowly becoming more tolerant (I wouldn’t say accepting) of our differences. So while people may feel some kind of way about my homosexuality, I don’t let that be a barrier to me moving forward professionally. Even if they shut the door in my face, based on my talents and networking, I can always find an open window. I guess the  biggest test of tolerance will be employment and seeking a post-doc.

How has your experience thus far as a graduate student changed your career goals from what they were when you first started?

When I first decided to go to graduate school, I was looking forward to being a professor and having a small laboratory working on hypertension and other cardiovascular disorders. However, during my time in graduate school, I realized that I hate academia. I think it is a vile place. It is not about learning, challenging norms, or personal growth. It is a place of unjustified competition, pettiness, and cruelty. Most people aren’t looking out for the well-being of their students or to protect the integrity of their field. They’re really just looking for power or fame or whatever. I see the academy as a jungle, which is not how I viewed it as an undergrad. As an undergraduate student, I saw it as place of enlightenment and opportunity away from the inequalities of everyday society. Now, I just see that it’s just as bad as most sectors. And so if most sectors are primarily shitty, I’d rather go to sectors where I feel I will have a greater impact on society.


It is clear that when I juxtapose Jane’s narrative as a Black woman in the academy with my own, there are stark differences. Some differences are rooted in our different fields, our different sexual labels, and in our different academic environments. But in most ways, Jane’s responses are certainly on target with my experiences. I do indeed feel the pressure she describes of her straight female counterparts to adhere to traditional models of personal success. I even wrote a post about my biological clock (Tick Tock: Love or Learning?) and its subjugation to my tenure clock. I also wrote a post about my tokenism in the academy and being the ‘only’ (I am Not My Hair ). What is notably similar despite our vastly different fields are our perceptions of gender-based hierarchies in academe. I’ve yet to write a post about gender dynamics, but Jane’s words have ignited a flame of interest. Stay tuned.

Again, thank you Jane for your contribution.

Structuring Learning is My Job. Getting an Education is Yours

purpose of education

Last night I attended a wonderful panel hosted by a colleague of mine about intergenerational resistance via the hip hop movement. The panel consisted of Sonia Sanchez, Adam Mansbach, and Chinaka Hodge.  The panelists were very good and certainly had some thought provoking ideas and critiques of the current hip hop generation. In this moment I wish my blog was not just about education because I’d like the opportunity to process through responses I have to some statements made by Sister Sanchez, but I digress.

At the end of the panel, a student made a (somewhat irrelevant) comment about not being challenged academically in his ‘IB and AP classes in high school and currently’ at our institution. He also said that he ‘isn’t being taught how to think’ and all he is receiving is ‘knowledge’ when he’d rather have ‘wisdom’.

I, of course, had an immediate visceral reaction to that. I leaned over and whispered to my colleague ‘Whose classes has he been taking? He certainly isn’t in mine.’  She chuckled, but nodded in agreement.  Another student whom I know well was sitting two seats down from me, overheard my comment, laughed, leaned forward and said ‘I knew you’d say that.’

You’re darn right I said it! And I mean it. He can meet me in Room 232.

The youngest panelist (who is a year older than myself and a graduate of NYU and USC) responded quickly to his statement. She said ‘It is not the College’s job to teach you.’

In true ‘church’ fashion I responded ‘YES!’

She continued, ‘If you want to be challenged, you need to seek those courses. You need to take the information you get in class, and do something with it outside of class.’  She shared that her most challenging experiences as an undergraduate did not happen in her NYU classes; they occurred when she did a practicum at a local high school for international, first-generation American, students.

If it had been appropriate to stand and say ‘PREACH!’ I would’ve done it. Since that was not the place, I shall do it here.


Because she is right: it is not the College’s job to teach you.

Teaching is a part of a process that includes many more components than teacher, information, and student. There is the recognition of a need for something, there is the choice of what that something is, there is the medium through which you seek that something, there is who you choose to provide that something, there is where you choose to search for that something, there is the medium through which it is delivered, and then, most importantly, there is what you choose to do with that something.

No, we are not solely responsible for any step of that process.

But let me be clear: I am in no way suggesting that the College or its faculty and staff bear no responsibility in the learning process. On the contrary, we are collectively responsible for structuring that process at our institution. Students make the choice upon application whether they can learn within that structure. Their decision to matriculate is an unspoken statement they’ve decided, yes, they can.

So once here, I occupy my position in this process and I execute my duties. First, within the framework of the College, I align my course offerings with the mission of the College. If we are to cultivate critical thinkers, I design courses whose content is uncertain, debatable, called into question. If we are to graduate well-rounded individuals, I choose readings that represent a breadth and depth of opinions. If we are to meet the needs of diverse students, I include narratives from diverse people, employ diverse teaching methods, and create assessments that cater to diverse learning styles. If we are to encourage community engagement and nurture a generation of civic minded citizens, I make at least a third of my courses community-based learning courses through which we work directly with community partners to collaboratively solve community problems. If we want to foster compassion, I am compassionate toward my students. I speak with them, not to them. I am available beyond scheduled office hours. I advocate for them when they feel disempowered. I help them become empowered by listening, challenging, and guiding.

So no, I do not ‘teach’ you; I provide learning opportunities. I do not tell you how to think; I provide experiences that make you think.

We have moved beyond the banking model of education. We no longer believe that learning happens when information is transmitted from teacher to student. No, learning does not occur through the acquisition of content; learning happens through the processes of assimilation and accommodation. And once that’s done, once you’ve learned something, now you are ready to be educated. Because learning is different than an education.

Education happens through experiences using the information you’ve learned. Education is the refinement and revision of information so that it can become knowledge. And knowledge is not transmitted; it is co-constructed. It is therefore highly dependent on social context, and I, as your professor cannot provide you with the social contexts you need to become educated. You must determine your position in society, how you use your information, and how through experiences your knowledge becomes wisdom.

That is my challenge for you.