Psst, Scholars of Color: You Can’t Do it Alone

Earlier today I was chatting with a friend of mine who is a 2nd year PhD History student at The Graduate Center in New York. I’ve known OF Aidah for years because we went to undergrad together but we weren’t friends in college (we were in different social circles). Over the last year however, we’ve become friends because frankly, we need each other. Whether it’s to vent, to support, to seek advice, or to laugh, we find solace in knowing that someone else shares our feelings and thoughts, and we have another person from whom to seek advice. Aidah has become a member of my support network, and I hope I’ve become a member of hers. But what is more is that Aidah is something else to me: she is also a mentor.

Now, you may be thinking ‘how can she be a mentor when she’s a 2nd year student and you are a 2nd year faculty member?’  But it’s that kind of thinking we have to reframe. Especially we scholars of color who may not possess the navigational capital to succeed in academia.


Let’s start with the idea of mentorship. I said Aidah has become a mentor of mine. What does that even mean? It means I believe Aidah has personal and professional knowledge that if shared, better equips me to be successful in my career and life in general. Aidah is someone who can provide genuine emotional support because she understands my experiences and my perspective. It is important to note that she doesn’t necessarily share my experiences or perspective, but she understands and respects them. That is what a mentor does: he/she listens, contextualizes, and offers relevant feedback. Aidah is not at a small private liberal arts college, but she is a woman of color in a predominantly white field. She does not live where I live, research what I study, or even have the same professional goals. But what I like about her mentorship is that it comes from a place of difference, and is centered around intersections. Her different perspective forces me to think critically about my perspectives and my choices. She is not blindly cosigning on everything I say; no, she is providing personal advice guided by her own schemata of professional success. In essence, as a mentor, she pushes me to consider previously unconsidered variables as I make decisions about my career.

What Aidah is not, is an advocate. This is not because she doesn’t believe in me or think I will succeed. This is because she is not in a position to be my advocate. An advocate, unlike a mentor, does not need to understand your perspective. He/she does not need to listen, contextualize, or offer relevant feedback in your time of need. In fact, an advocate doesn’t even need to care about your emotions. What they need to care about is your career. An advocate is someone who sees the value not of you as a person, but of your contributions to the field and to the university/college at which you work. This is a person who may not even know your last name, the courses you teach, or where your department is on campus. He/she may not have even spoken to you often, but they are aware of your accomplishments. Advocates, unlike mentors, can not be just anyone with whom you get along well. Advocates should be people in power who are well-respected in your field and/or at your institution. This is the person who will ‘go to bat’ for you when it comes down to it. This is the person, who in a meeting about your tenure or promotion or contract renewal will stand against the majority and speak on your behalf.  This is the person who upon observing a senior faculty member be less than respectful to you, will speak up and shut it down. This is a person who truly believes in your future success and is willing to invest in you. Just as important a mentor is to your emotional well-being, an advocate is to your professional well-being.

So here is the secret: the same way you cultivate personal relationships, you need to cultivate professional ones. While you can seek out a mentor in the Academy (most people choose those with whom they have some kind of connection), you need to recognize you can’t find an advocate. They find you. They find you when you present your research at faculty luncheons/meetings. They find you when you contribute good ideas in committee meetings. They find you when they see your name attached to an advertisement for a campus event or to a great publication. They find you when they hear their students talking about how great your class was. They find you when you put yourself out there to be found.

And that is my message for young scholars of color. So often we’ve been raised in environments where you ‘figure it out’ and ‘get it done’ and sometimes, can’t count on others to help. Those of us who may have been the ‘only’ might have felt that you had no one to whom to turn in times of need, so you got used to doing it alone. We may not have attended schools where you needed to have an advocate because there was such a strong sense of communal support. For whatever reasons, scholars of color are hesitant to ask for help.

But the reality is, Academia is not a place in which you can succeed on your own. It may be 2013, but nepotism is alive and well and the Academy is still very reminiscent of the Good Ole Boys club. It would behoove you, me, Aidah, and every scholar hoping to be successful in higher education to be open to new relationships, both personal and professional. You worked so hard to get into your career. Display that same work ethic to stay in your career.

A [Professional] Love Letter to K-12 Teachers

I don’t know how you do it. When I was 19, I decided to become a middle school Language Arts teacher. My fondest memories of my K-12 schooling are from middle school. I recognize this is an anomaly as most people detested middle school (especially women). But I LOVED it. I was the queen bee. Well, I was the princess bee; my best friend was the queen. But suffice it to say I was at the top of the social hierarchy and that made my experience awesome.

I eventually decided against that career path solely for financial reasons. Even at the age of 19, I knew a teacher’s salary would not be sufficient to pay off my undergraduate loans. So I said to myself: self, how can I teach and make more money?  And it came to me. Be a college professor.

So I did. I am. And through my research in K-12 public schools, I have learned one very important fact: I greatly admire K-12 teachers.

This will probably be easiest to relay numerically. Here is a list of the reasons (in no particular order) why I am constantly in awe of teachers:

1)  K-12 teachers have no control over the curriculum. Public school curriculum is state mandated. Private college curriculum is professor decided. I love that I decide what content is important, what is less important, the order in which we address content, blah blah. It takes a knowledgeable person to make coherent sense of a state designed curriculum binder. I don’t think I’d have the patience.

2) K-12 teachers deal with a lot of student attitude. Students come to class with a lot of attitude. So many students don’t want to be there, but because it’s the law, they have to go to school. And because the state says so, they have to take particular classes. So they sit there, looking disinterested, doing off task things, and generally negatively affect the classroom climate. I find it extremely disrespectful when students sleep in class, are on their computers or cell phones in class, or are obviously inattentive. When any of these things occur, I ask students to leave. But K-12 teachers can’t do that (well, they aren’t encouraged to do that. And if they did, what good would that do?). So they must suffer the hurt and frustration of knowing they are not reaching every student, for reasons far beyond their control.

3) K-12 teachers have no say about who is in their class. It’s the first day. You see who shows up. You hope the students in the class are actually the same students listed on the roster. You pray the students are reading and writing at grade level. Ok, you will take just reading at grade level. On the contrary, private college professors have something called ‘Consent of Instructor’ which basically means, if I want to ensure my students have sufficient background knowledge in this content, I can designate my course COI so I have to give individual permission for every student to enroll. Of course this is after I review their transcript and conduct a brief informal interview. This is how I maintain control over….

4) K-12 teachers have no choice but to differentiate instruction. Because students come to school with highly variable prior educational experiences, their academic abilities are highly variable. K-12 teachers are forced to accommodate so many different ability levels, it boggles my mind. I have to do that when my courses don’t have prerequisites (which I immediately remedy) and it drives me crazy. Much respect to skilled teachers who can teach a class of 30 students functioning at 12 different levels across 6 domains.

5) K-12 teachers differentiate instruction with very little external resources. Any person who has gone through public school has experienced the short supply of well, everything. Not enough textbooks. Outdated textbooks. Not enough desks. Broken desks. The library doesn’t have enough books. There is no library. The computer lab is booked for the next year. There are only 3 computers in the school. The list goes on. Teachers dig in their shallow pockets to fund their career. They pay to copy, print, get materials for a special project. Teachers in low income schools often keep clothing and snacks in their classroom for students in need. Meanwhile, I take for granted that I can design a course around the fact that every student will need to purchase SPSS for their personal computer. And if they don’t, they either can’t enroll in my course or will have to use the very fancy computers found in almost every building on campus. And after you install this pricy software, make sure you start researching your final paper via the College’s extensive access to databases. And if we don’t have the article you want, just fill out an InterLibraryLoan request and you will have it within a few days. How do K-12 teachers teach with no resources? I am truly baffled. And impressed.

6) K-12 teachers can rarely track student growth over time. Students enter their classrooms for a semester or an academic year and then they leave. In good school districts with accurate records, teachers can—in all their spare time—review students’ files. But once they leave for the year, it’s very difficult to track their progress once they enter someone else’s class. I, on the other hand, log into our online platform, access students’ transcripts, and if necessary, email their prior professors to get a ‘sense’ of that student. When a student struggles academically, I can contact advisors, deans, and counselors at the stroke of a key. At my small college, I can follow my students through graduation to stay apprised of their progress. At the end of every course I am slightly saddened to be losing ‘my kids’. I don’t know how I would feel if I didn’t have a high chance of running into them in the cafeteria, seeing them at campus events, or of having them in class again. Kudos to K-12 teachers for the strength they must have to let go.

7) K-12 teachers have little opportunity to focus on skill development. In the current age of accountability, all teachers have time to do is focus on standardized test scores. There is so much riding on students’ scores (oftentimes teachers’ future employment status), that teachers are forced to shove more and more content down students’ throats—even when they may lack the academic skills necessary to comprehend that content. The bureaucracy affecting teachers’ every move is absurd. How can they do their jobs when their hands and feet are tied?

I could go on forever, but these are the ones that cross my mind almost every day. One of my favorite quotes is from David Berliner where he states: Easy-to-do science is what those in physics, chemistry, geology, and some other fields do. Hard-to-do science is what the social scientists do and, in particular, it is what we educational researchers do. We do our science under conditions that physical scientists find intolerable. We face particular problems and must deal with local conditions that limit generalizations and theory building–problems that are different from those faced by the easier-to-do sciences.

I feel this way when comparing what K-12 teachers do and what college professors do. Teachers work under conditions professors find intolerable. They face particular problems and must deal with issues that limit their effectiveness. Teachers are under appreciated, under valued, and under supported. They are the ones who occupy central positions in children’s lives, yet they are treated as peripheral bystanders.

Teachers deserve more autonomy, more trust, more choice, more resources, more respect, and certainly more pay. But most of all, teachers deserve more thanks.

Thank you for all you do.


Cultivating Allies as a Woman of Color in Academia


“By your powers combined…I am Captain Planet!” Hehe..I think of this when I think of allies.

I tried my best to not comment on the pseudo Harlem Shake crap that is all the rage right now, but since students at my college filmed a video of themselves engaging in that nonsense, and said video went viral, this issue has become personal. It’s become all the more personal because while I can excuse the students for participating in cultural mockery and theft (hey—they are 20, they don’t know), I cannot excuse my colleagues. Since so many others have taken the time to breakdown the History of the Harlem Shake, and to write articles about cultural misappropriation (here, here, and here)I feel no need to go down that path. Instead, I want to discuss allyhood in academia and how as a female junior faculty member of color, I must identify allies…and those who would be betray me with a click of the mouse.

A few posts ago I mentioned that I am reading Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. There is a section in the book about forming networks of allies in the Academy. Nancy Cantor wrote the introduction for that section and states ‘It’s both difficult and important that women who are white—the relatively privileged ones who have been the primary beneficiaries of feminism—perceive, acknowledge, and then act against the additional forms of discrimination experienced by women of color without feeling defensive’ (pg. 222). I flagged this sentence when I first read this chapter weeks ago and more now than then, I feel this is an important point. So this is where I shall begin my tale of betrayal at a small liberal arts college.

Because our students’ video was such a hit, the faculty thought it would be ‘fun’ to film our own 30 second video at the next faculty meeting. Actually, two faculty members came up with this idea and emailed the rest of the faculty with the suggestion. Now, upon receiving this email I was astounded. I was astounded not because this idea emerged—it was inevitable that someone would hop on this train to nowhere. No, I was stunned because of who made the suggestion. The people who made the suggestion would never be people I’d think would support such nonsense. Both of these people are faculty who—whether they feel this way or not—occupy marginalized spaces on campus. Though both senior faculty members, one is openly homosexual and the other is of Asian descent. The latter specifically researches issues pertinent to race, so her complicity felt like a slap in the face. After reading the email I said aloud to myself ‘is she serious?’ My immediate emotional experience cannot be described as anything other than feelings of betrayal laced in incredulity. This quickly turned to anger.

A close friend and African American colleague contacted me about this issue to formulate a plan for how we were going to respond if in fact the faculty decided to film this video. During that conversation, we thought about who else was ‘down for the cause’ and could only come up with two nonwhite faculty members. While we both wished a senior faculty member was not away on sabbatical because she certainly would’ve publicly allied herself with us, we were stunned that between two of us, we could not identify more people who would stand up and fight with us. At the end of the convo, I sadly said ‘wow…I thought we had more allies.’

Though a few minutes after the aforementioned conversation, the Asian faculty member emailed to say maybe we shouldn’t do it because after quick research, filming such a video may have ‘unintended consequences’, I couldn’t help but continue to be enraged because a) this idea emerged in the first place, and b) it could be just as easily quelled without a dialogue between affected parties.

The ‘settling’ of this issue was devoid of critical thought or open conversation. The words race, misappropriation, cultural theft, black, misidentification, or history were never mentioned. All we got was a two sentence email cloaked in light hearted liberal arts humor with a slight acquiescence that yes, perhaps this idea was not the best because they may perceive unintentional harm. The word ‘unintentional’ is laced with blame on the others and drenched with self excuse. By not discussing it, or even opening it up for discussion, the issue was deemed unworthy of discussion. That email was colorblind, perspectiveless, ahistorical, and riddled with power. Because she decided that she did not want to discuss it, the issue was closed. What of us who are still upset? Still offended? Still full of words we have been barred from sharing because the prefix to your title outranks the prefix to mine?

No. This does not feel like allyhood.

I have learned a few things. First, friendship and respect do not equate allyhood. While mentally scrolling through my list of friends for possible allies it became clear that few people would sacrifice their reputation or professional relationships for the greater good (perhaps because they do not view it as ‘greater’ or ‘good’). Few people can find the courage and fortitude to do more than softly agree behind closed doors. When it comes time to stand up publicly and declare an alliance, most friends will hold their heads down while avoiding eye contact (if they are not in fact, already out of the door). They do not want to look me in my eyes and see the result of their abandonment. And I get it. It’s hard to do what you know is right when you don’t feel anything was wrong.

A chapter in Presumed Incompetent written by Margalynne Armstrong and Stephanie Wildman outlines what it takes for people to truly be considered allies when it comes to issues of race. They describe the necessity of color insight—the recognition that a racial status quo exists in which society attributes race to each member—to battle the pervasiveness of colorblindness. Ignoring issues of race under the guise of equality does nothing but create a space in which racism and oppression can grow unchecked, only emerging when people can no longer avoid discussing the black, brown, yellow, or red elephant in the room.

They also borrow from Kimberly Crenshaw’s (1994) discussion of perspectivelessness—the adoption of the “neutral” white norm as the default for laws, values, and behaviors. I especially believe this construct is constantly at play in racialized environments because it empowers people to not think about how their behaviors and words affect others. It is as if they believe ‘if most people are fine with it, then what’s the big deal?’

Yes, it seems to me as if colorblindness precedes, or perhaps bolsters, the existence of perspectivelessness. It is easy to ignore others when you refuse to accept that no, everyone is not like me and everyone is not treated as I am treated. I am especially concerned with the fact that the homogenous climate of academia facilitates (and sometimes encourages) the silencing of racial discourse. Why is it that one woman of color was allowed to represent the collective voices of ethnic minorities? Why didn’t a white colleague challenge her self-assumed position as Speaker of the [Colored] House? Most of all, why were we faculty members who disagreed with her narrative forced to plot and plan in secret instead of being given the space and opportunity to express our views publicly? The fallacy of community in academia made certain that she felt comfortable not having to think about how her endorsement of a racialized behavior would be perceived by white colleagues. She is tenured, she is well respected on campus, and she is Asian. So of course she has the experience, the knowledge, and the right to suggest such an idea. Because if she thinks it’s ok, and she is Asian, then it must be ok, right?

I am certain she never intended to speak on behalf of all ethnic minorities, but the reality is that many believe in the singular experience of minorities. Why didn’t she and other faculty in support of this video research the topic before going public with it? If we who are scholars trained at top notch institutions, national award recipients, professors at a tier 1 college do not feel the need to investigate the origins and implications of pop cultural trends, the future of academia is bleak.

We in academia are far from what Susan Sturm (2006) calls an ‘architecture of inclusion’ because we do not acknowledge what it takes for others to be included. It takes more than a shared smile in the hallway, laughs over lunch, invitations to personal events, and overlapping research interests to build inclusivity. As Nancy Cantor states, it takes ‘a culture of collaboration where issues of intersectionality can be addressed. Inclusion requires justice and due process. It also needs the give and take of social support, of flexibility of models and respect for individual and group differences…’. I would add that inclusion requires true allyhood—loud, proud, public allegiance across diverse people. Allied relationships are built upon shared knowledge, even if there aren’t shared experiences. Most importantly, allyhood, and by default, inclusion are not ephemeral weak constructs easily undermined by threats of ostracization or promises of promotion. Allies are people to whom we can turn for support even when, no—especially when—the professional turns personal.