When Trying Isn’t Enough

God is testing me.

Last week I attended the College Language Association (CLA) annual conference. It is a humanities conference primarily focused on Black/Diasporic language and literature. As an education professor, I was there because I was on a panel about a chapter I’d contributed to a book on Black masculinity. I didn’t know prior to going that CLA is basically a “Black” conference. The brief history I surmised is that it was created because MLA was not a welcoming space for scholars of color.

I’m so glad I went because I needed that experience. I needed to be in a space with other scholars of color who care about the issues I care about and who experience the microaggressions I experience. Within 2 hours of my arrival, I met my panel organizer and editor of a soon-to-be published book entitled, Real Sister: Stereotypes, Respectability, and Black Women in Reality TV. She and I sat and talked for hours about our respective lives at our PWIs and in a community without other young professionals of color. She talked about not having anyone with whom to attend happy hour, see a movie or get afternoon tea. I talked about finally having a core group of friends after 3.5 years at my institution. I talked about the fact that beyond those 5 women, I too am alone in a city where the NAACP office was bombed a few months ago. I shared more with a woman I’d just met than I’ve shared with colleagues I’ve known for years. As the words poured out of mouth I realized the desperate need I had to share and to be valued and to have my experiences validated.

Now that I’m back in Colorado Springs, CO I am reminded by the hour that this space in which I’ve chosen to exist will not listen to my voice; will not value who I am; will not validate my experiences.

Yesterday’s faculty meeting was a smack in the face about the realities of what it means to be a Black woman under the age of 30 at a PWI. On the faculty floor was a conversation about diversifying the curriculum, born of a student initiated petition. It is important to note that their petition is not solely about diversifying the curriculum. On the contrary, the spirit of the petition is about honoring the experiences of marginalized people. They suggest we the faculty do so through our curricular and pedagogical decisions.

Some faculty did not hear that. All they heard was an attack on their ‘academic freedom’. They heard the ‘imperative tone’ and balked at the audacity of 19 year olds telling “us” when they wanted a written and public response. They were outraged that students would dare ‘dictate’ the curriculum when in fact, none of their courses ‘have anything to do with issues of race, class, gender or sexuality’. Multiple faculty expressed concern about ‘fitting in’ more content when ‘they scramble to get through the units as is’. One white male professor stated that he already talks about China in a single course and sarcastically asked “will they want me to talk about Russia and Germany too? Where will it end?”

Well sir, while you are basking in your privilege, others of us are living in marginalized bodies whose discriminatory experiences don’t end. Some of us don’t have the privilege of considering diversity an additive component of ‘real’ academic work because some of us embody what it means to be diverse. Some of us cannot shed our skin or hair, or change our sexuality or family background to suit your needs. I am sorry marginalized people—and our experiences—are an inconvenience to you. I am sorry that you having to read a few books and do some google searches and rearrange a week or two of your syllabus is beyond your mental and emotional capacities. Phew…just the thought of that much effort is too much for you, huh?

Imagine how exhausted we the marginalized are when we have to rearrange our lives and our bodies to accommodate your white, upper middle class, English-speaking, male, heterosexual norms. Imagine how I feel when students storm into my office in tears because of something YOU said or did in class today. Imagine my surprise when students whom I’ve never even met seek me out as a resource because there are so few people who honor their existence and their experiences.

These students are not only Brown or Black students. They are not only women (actually, most are male). And they are not only queer students. Or first generation students. Or low-income students. Or students with learning disabilities or psychological diagnoses. They are each a mix of those identity characteristics and their diversity speaks to the institution’s failure to meet the emotional and psychological needs of its students.

Today a student of mine hit a crisis point in managing her mental illness. She’s been reaching out for the past week and myself and colleagues did the best we could to help. But she doesn’t feel that way. She feels abandoned. She feels thrown out and discarded by the institution. She sent me an email thanking me. Then she sent me an email informing me that she attempted suicide but was found by a cop.

Today is a hard day for me. But it’s always harder for the students who feel unsupported and unloved.

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