Navigating Dual Landscapes: Being Brown and Black in Academic Spaces

{From a keynote I delivered at the Minority Engineering Program Graduate Student Success Symposium at Purdue University}

Good morning! I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to talk to you today. I was asked to touch upon three topics—defining personal and professional success, belonging to this institution, and what it means to navigate a predominately white graduate academic and professional environment as an underrepresented student. This is not only my experience, but an experience I study, so as you might imagine I have plenty to say about this. It is my hope that the stories I share with you today help you make sense of your own position here at Purdue University.

First, I should let you know that I started writing this at 11:27 pm on a Wednesday night. So yay! I did not procrastinate. That is typically my first tip to graduate students. Do not procrastinate! Figure out different strategies to get your work done ahead of time. It is a common misconception that we do our best work under pressure. We do our best work when we have time to think and focus.

However, by writing this at 11:27 pm on a Wednesday night, I am not following my second tip which is to get plenty of rest (this is easier said than done, I know. I typically sleep between 4-5 hours a night despite trying to sleep more). And “plenty of rest” can mean different things to people. For some, rest is sleep. For others, it’s the opportunity to work out, or attend church, or connect with people. Essentially, make sure that you get plenty of what you find restful. There is always going to be more work to do—it’s okay to make time for you.

Although, given that we are all likely to procrastinate and we are all likely to not get enough rest, maybe this is a good time to for me to introduce you to tip #3….you win some, and you lose some. All we can try to do is our best.

People will be incredibly fond of giving you tips as you navigate the landscape of graduate school. I should know–I plan to offer you at least seven more in this talk. However, most of those tips will center on how to be academically successful. They might suggest developing a routine for writing and research (tip #4). I highly encourage you to do this. Having a routine means you are “paying” yourself first, getting the work done that advances your goals as a student. No two students work alike, so spend time thinking about what makes the most sense for you. I know that between 2:00 pm and 4:00 pm every day I am pretty much tapped out. My brain decides for those two hours to just shut down. So I do not do any heavy lifting intellectually during those hours. I work on other tasks. Find the time that works for you. Block it in your calendar. And protect that time as much as you can. I highly encourage students to write every day, for at least 30 minutes. Getting into this routine means you are making steady progress on your academic work.

Others will probably suggest you reach out and connect with mentors (this is tip #5). Mentoring is a critical component of the graduate student experience. Good mentors will guide you, will offer constructive advice, and will push you to grow. Your mentors may come from unusual places, and they might not be faculty. This is ok (in fact, sometimes I might think this is better). Steven Spielberg once said “The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.” Surround yourself with people who are on team You.

Another suggestion people might also share is that you should take advantage of whatever networking opportunities you have, in order to develop a group of people who can support you in the future. This is good! First, networking opportunities usually have some kind of food or snack. Food and snacks are good! Especially if you are on a graduate student budget. And networking serves a different purpose than mentoring. Networking allows you to put yourself out there, to meet other people who you might collaborate with in the future. Networking can generate new ideas, and new enthusiasms. Networking can create a sense of excitement about your work and where your work is headed. So tip #6 is to seek out and attend networking events—on campus and especially at conferences. Conferences are great spaces to network with people. You never know who you might meet and how valuable that connection could be.

However, what I really want to talk about is the second landscape you will navigate–the landscape of being an underrepresented student on campus, the landscape of being a non-white person in a predominately white space. This landscape is bumpier for you than your white peers, it holds more frustrations and challenges. It also holds incredible opportunities to grow and make your mark and to, forgive the cliche, but it’s true–make the world a better place.

I’d like to take this time (before wowing you with tips #7-10) to talk a little bit about my own time as a graduate student and discuss my research with you. As mentioned in my bio, I’m a member of the Sault Ste Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians. I am the only person on both sides of my family to earn a college degree, let alone three. Although my racial identity was always a salient part of my growing up experience (as it is for most Native American kids who have to relive the overly positive retelling of the First Thanksgiving story year after year in school), I never understood how that intersected with my academic ability until I was in college, and then graduate school. Or rather, how *others* perceived my academic ability in relationship to what they thought they understood about my racial identity.

It was my first day at Arizona State University. I was a master’s student in the higher education program. I was excited about the newness of everything. We went around the room and introduced ourselves and after I shared a little bit about myself, the professor said, “Oh, good. We like having your kind in class. Hopefully you can teach us all about your ways.”

Your kind.

Your ways.

Just so we’re clear, “my kind” grew up in Detroit and therefore my “ways” were probably pretty similar to most students who grew up in urban areas. But I was a first year graduate student and caught incredibly off-guard. I liked this professor. This professor was scheduled to be my advisor. We would be working with each other for the next two years. So here is tip #7. People are going to say incredibly insensitive things to you. Some of these people will be strangers and you should pay them no attention. Strangers who feel the need to make racist comments to other strangers clearly have a lot to figure out about life. However, some of the people saying insensitive (or even racist) things will be your friends, or your labmates, or even your professors. When that happens (and it will) you need to decide how to respond. And I am here to tell you is that however you choose to respond is ok. Stay silent. Roll your eyes. Give them your best “what” stare. Walk away. Take the time to engage and explain why the comment hurt or was insensitive or racist. Whatever you want to do is fine. Underrepresented students are often tasked with the job of educating the people around them. Hopefully I am the first of many who tell you that it is not your job to educate the people around you. So perhaps a shorter version of tip #7 is this—how you choose to respond to the insensitivity and racism in the academy is up to you and do not let anyone else tell you otherwise.

Despite Arizona State being in a location with access to many tribal communities, there were no Native American graduate students in my master’s program while I was there. My assistantship was in university housing and I was the only Native American on staff there, as well. And like what happens in most institutions, the other underrepresented students and I were tapped to do many things for the school. We were the ones who led the diversity trainings and workshops. We were the people called upon to help mediate roommate issues between white students and non-white students because “you know what it’s like” and “you can talk to those students.” I was personally asked to go recruit at the Navajo reservation so I could explain to parents why their children needed to attend college, as if history and decades of research suggested that education was not a hospitable place for Native students. Anyway, what this meant was that in addition to my work as a student, and my work as a hall director, I was *also* expected to do this work around diversity. It is likely you will get asked to do these things. You will get asked to serve on committees. You will be asked to attend photo shoots. You will be asked to contribute your voice as a “diverse” scholar. And my tip to you, #8, is to say no. say no unless it benefits you as graduate student. Say no unless it benefits your research. Say no unless it benefits your soul. You are here for you and for your family and for your success. You are not here to do the diversity work the university should be doing. Fill your time with the things that benefit you.

As you might imagine, my experiences in graduate school (and there were many, I only shared a few with you), are directly related to my own research on Indigenous students in higher education. Two years ago, I did a yearlong qualitative study where I met and interviewed Indigenous graduate students to talk about their experiences and how they made meaning of their time on campus. By the time underrepresented students enter graduate school, they usually have quite a bit of practice navigating white spaces, especially since much of the US is a white space. To paraphrase Audrey Lord, the oppressed is an expert of the oppressor. However, I wanted to understand more deeply how my participants’ identity influenced their academic and co-curricular activities.

First, the participants experienced ongoing colonialization. While colonization is something unique to Indigenous populations in the US, the ideology behind colonization—the belief in white supremacy—is continually maintained and replicated in educational spaces, which affects all Black and Brown people. One of the reasons colonialism remains so endemic and pervasive in our society is because people continually engage with Native American people in ways that negatively use colonial ideology against them. This often takes the form of microaggressions where people advocate for social political dominance by arguing for the value of colonialism and white supremacy (we see this often in the narrative of Manifest Destiny or the belief that the US could not have developed without the use of slavery) or they employ the logic of elimination and replacement where people argue that Native Americans are an extinct, or dying, community and therefore do not deserve recognition. The value of colonialism and white supremacy takes different forms for Black and Latinx people. These microaggressions occur when people make (false) claims about the difference in IQs of various racial groups, or argue that Black and Brown families do not “value” education and therefore do not support or create a home culture that values academic success. We know these claims are wrong but white supremacy allows them to persist.

Second, participants felt an ongoing need to defend or explain their racial identity to other people. This manifests itself in very specific types of microaggressions. The first is where individuals only acknowledge individuals through their stereotypes. We see this happen when people assume all Native Americans live on a reservation, all Black people live in urban cities, or all Latinx people are from Mexico. I am sure each of you have encountered someone who attributed a stereotype to you. The second is when individuals allege that Black and Brown people are oversensitive for caring about cultural appropriation. This is a particularly pervasive subject during Halloween around what should and should not exist as a Halloween costume. The third is that the legacy of White supremacy means Brown and Black people live with day-to-day cultural and social isolation. This isolation is not new to higher education, which often talks about what a “critical mass” of underrepresented students looks like. The idea being that if a critical mass of students existed on campus, then underrepresented students would feel more welcome. They would still be underrepresented but would have more people to commiserate being underrepresented with? This is where higher education institutions often fail. Leigh Patel wrote in her text “Decolonizing Educational Research,” that the term underrepresented (which she points out is a particularly popular term that acts as a proxy for racially minoritized peoples) speaks of a theory that social justice can be achieved through more equitable or more equal, or certainly at least different amounts of people from various backgrounds in an institutional entity.  And everyone in this room knows that feeling welcomed in academia means a lot more than that. However, what ends up happening to graduate students is that this cultural and social isolation turns them into de facto cultural experts for everyone around them. If you are spending time with your advisor or your peers teaching them about your culture, that is missed time for you to develop and grow as a scholar.

My guess is these findings do not surprise you. They have happened to you, they have happened to your friends. And while I wish they were an anomaly, they are not. The article where I wrote about this research is titled, in part, “Everyday Occurrences.” This is the part of the graduate student landscape that White students do not experience. And unfortunately, these everyday occurrences can often lead to another challenge in graduate school—imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome, for those of you who don’t know (and my guess is that most of you know) is the voice inside your head that tells you that you aren’t good enough, that you aren’t smart enough, that you do not work hard enough. It makes you worry that you’re a fraud, and that somehow you aren’t supposed to be here. And unfortunately for underrepresented students, sometimes your White peers make assumptions about how you got to Purdue. During my first year as an assistant professor, I shared an article with my writing group. One of the member’s asked, “are you Native American?” I said, yes, I was, and then she said, “Oh, so that’s why you got hired.” And I cannot tell you how many times Black and Brown students have shared their racialized experiences being dismissed by their white peers. These moments are crushing. And yes, some people are going to think that you don’t belong here. They are wrong. And imposter syndrome means that there might come a time when *you* don’t think you belong. And guess what? You’re wrong too. So tip #9—never forget that you belong here. Never forget you belong in the classroom or the lab. Never forget you worked hard to earn your place here, you worked hard to earn your success. This is where you belong.

As I wrap-up, I want to read you a passage from James Baldwin’s Talk to Teachers, given in 1963. He states, “The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.  The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not.  To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.  But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around.  What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society.  If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish.  The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk.  This is the only hope society has.  This is the only way societies change.” He is not just simply pointing out that you should be the change you wish to see in the world (although yes, you should). He is pointing out that the dual landscapes you navigate—graduate student and underrepresented student—these landscapes will make you into the type of person society does not want, but the type person society needs. Use the academic knowledge you gain here to push back against different structural forms of racism that exist everywhere—even in engineering. Use the social knowledge you gain here to find people who will fight against injustice with you, even if those fights are small. Continually examine this society in which you live and continually fight to make it a more equitable and just space.

Graduate school is tough. Being an underrepresented student makes it tougher. And here is my final tip for you, #10. Try to remember that you are not alone. Now all of you have me (my office is in Beering, I usually have candy). You have the people in this room who are committed to the success of underrepresented students. And you have each other. Call on each other when you need to. Support each other fully. Navigate these landscapes together.