On the Tenuousness and Precariousness of People of Color in the Academy

For the past few weeks, I’ve been reflecting on the tenuousness and precariousness of our existence as people of color in the academy of higher education.  The words tenuous and precarious came to me as I have been thinking about the academy writ large and some current events. 

One of the events was a Black woman student at University of Virginia. She was trying to claim a space for herself as a Black woman in a multicultural center at a predominantly White institution that was also being used by White students. I can only imagine her wounds from the “public whipping” she received for sharing her thoughts and speaking up.  Another event – the students at Syracuse, continuing to protest, being suspended and unsuspended, but protesting anyway.  And unfortunately, protesters are often “whipped” and attempted to be “silenced” and rendered invisible and marginalized….and so, tenuous and precarious.  They are protesting and others get to study, but how does change happen if we are silent and silenced?

Another collective set of events, the promotions and success of people of color in the academy. The recent announcement of new appointments of African-American presidents at Simmons University, University of Maryland, Occidental University; the celebration on Twitter and Facebook of announcements of the first full women of color professors at certain institutions; and the congratulations for students of color on Facebook graduating with their doctorates. 

Recent social media posts on the complicated relationship between people of color and White women in the academy has been sitting with me this week, including articles about the benefits that have accrued disproportionately to White women from affirmative action and diversity efforts, compared to people of color.

And one more personal event.  This week I was at Arizona State University as a Scholar-in-Residence.  https://asunow.asu.edu/20200131-asu-scholar-residence-offer-lessons-diversity

An initiative of the Faculty Women of Color Caucus – a five year old organization designed to support the advancement of women of color in the academy at ASU.  I had separate workshops and sessions with graduate students of color, women of color faculty, and also senior administrators.  I also delivered a keynote on my mother’s journey in the academy.


After the keynote, two Native American male graduate students approached me. They had heard me speak in the graduate student session and they thanked me for coming.  They asked for advice for continuing and persisting and succeeding.  They are passionate scholars thinking about masculinity and indigenous knowledge in the academy.  They need a voice and space in this academy.  They belong in the academy.  The academy needs them. There are others like them. Brilliant and powerful scholars of color in the academy that need to be there and need to succeed and need to have journeys that are less tenuous and precarious.

And I realize that so many conversations with women and people of color involve reminiscing and sharing how we are surviving, trying to survive, needing to learn how to survive a tenuous and precarious tightrope with no safety net below, no instructions or preparation, no mentors or guides. 

And so, when people of color, and women of color, graduate, get promoted, become tenured and also full professors,  and become leaders, and deans, and presidents, we must celebrate.

It is actually a miracle. They have attained “the thing.” And because the have “the thing,” then, we place all our hopes and dreams on them to become voices of the disempowered and the powerless.  We expect them to work to lessen the precarious and tenuous journeys of people of color in the academy.  They may or may not have that mission or vision.  It doesn’t matter.  We have to place our hope in them, regardless. Because if not them, who else?

The academy in the United States is structured to foster competition and individuality. It rarely promotes communal learning.  We may be together collectively in groups, but we are not “in community.”  We are often individuals of one, pursuing knowledge in isolation.  We are often alone in our pursuit of excellence in the academy. No one can read for us, no one can write for us, no one can do research for us.  So, the academy is structured to promote aloneness.  Only an individual can demonstrate mastery and mastery comes through courses, tests, and exams.  It requires hours of studying and learning.  All students are immersed in this environment.  Some succeed, others don’t. But our experiences are different for some of us based on our identities.

One of my best friends got her PhD in pharmacology.  A Black woman. In her PhD program, she was researching pain in rats and the rats kept dying.  I never went in to her lab.  But she was there, alone.  Trying to work with rats, by herself.  Needing them to live along enough to provide results for her dissertation.  It was such a lonely and isolating pursuit.  Her future depending on her ability to persist by herself in that lab.  Precarious.

She was at the time the first generation from a small Georgia town to go to college. She always wanted to be a scientist.  Her father, part of a long generation of Black farmers, working the field, owning the land, fighting the USDA, and actually farming, when White farmers were paid not to farm.  And she, created by the universe, for something different, was able to envision herself to be a scientist.

Yet, there she was in the academy in graduate school.  Often, fighting, alone. Crying, despairing.  She could have quit….yet it wasn’t an option. There was no plan B for her.  She had to succeed.  And she did.  And yes, though, many scientist have this same experience in the labs, we cannot ignore the impact of race and gender on her experience, as a Black woman pursuing a PhD in pharmacology at a predominantly White university. Her Blackwomanness has shaped her entire life experience.  For how can it not?

Our skin color as black and brown people distinguishes us.  We show up as color in the often predominantly White spaces of the academy.  We stand out.  We feel it.  We enter spaces  in classrooms, labs, residence halls, conferences, meetings,  and we instantly are made to feel that we do not belong. We enter these departments as undergraduate students, as graduate students, as faculty, as staff, as employees, with our Blackness and Brownness, and especially our womanness, or dreadlockness, and we feel it.  It is a feeling that we have been conditioned and socialized to recognize. 

It is an energy field.  like a vortex. We are not paranoid.  It is in the room.  It is culture. It is how America has been structured, programmed and socialized to respond to difference that is not White.

And because of this socialization about race and gender in America, our journeys as people of color in the academy (as an example – for it is similar in corporate world, the not-for profit associations) are precarious and tenuous.  Our Blackness/Brownness and womanness or often Black/Brown maleness continue to impact our experience in the world of America, for how can it not?   

How does it manifest in the academy?

In the residence halls, we enter our rooms as freshmen, wondering if our roommate will accept us.  We wonder if there will be others like us on the floor, in the building. We wonder if we will be only one.  The only Black girl, Black boy, Brown boy, Brown girl?  When the n-word, or other racial epithets are left on our door, we are left to wonder who it is that doesn’t like us.  Yet, we must put on our armor of Ephesians that so many African-Americans speak about, and go forth.  Precarious, tenuous. As students, sometimes we don’t even tell our parents.  Sometimes, we don’t tell anyone.  We silently bear our pain.

We leave the residence hall and head to the classroom.  In the classroom, we continue to experience the impact of our skin color.  We rarely get invited to study groups – places where other students gather together in community to learn, to master, to assist each other.  Our difference is assumed to be incompetence.  We are chosen last, if at all.  I remember a conference where a black male at a university who was a senior said on the panel, “I am always chosen last.”  He tried to play it off, “I’m cool with that, you know.  I just know that is how it is going to be.” He had to do that on that stage.  We have to do that.  Perform our “we cool with it” performance.  We have to wear the mask that Langston Hughes reminds us. It hides our cries, our tears, our sadness.  We often have to become “cool” with a lot of the racism in society.  That’s how we survive the tenuous and precarious journey.  But, what does that do to him, to us, to know that we are always chosen last, if at all?  We all can imagine the elementary school line-up.  Ok, choose your team for kickball.  Bobby, Jimmy, Don, Dick, Jane, Sally, Susan, Becky, all get called.  JaQuan, Zakina, Menah, Raebekkah, Awadagin – our names are not called, or not called correctly, or laughed at while called.  What does that do to our spirits? Tenuous and precarious.

But, we persist, nonetheless.

We go to class, to the classroom, that sacred place of knowledge. Not only are not we not part of the study groups, we rarely have access to old exams. These old exams exist in particular communities — fraternities and sororities, student organizations — places where some students have access and others do not.  Access to these organizations is often determined by skin color and class.  People of color, even those who have their own organizations – often do not have access to these exams.  And so, many of us, are often, then, on the sidelines.  And professors, rarely creative or innovative or rarely holding sacred the responsbility of sharing knowledge, but promoted and tenured, use and re-use the same exams over decades.

We read about reading groups for graduate students where reading is divided up…some read this; others that, and they share notes.  Sometimes people of color, women of color, are part of these groups; most often not. We are doing all the reading, all the time, by ourselves. to combat this reality, women of color faculty often do more — meet with more students, create book clubs outside of work to be in community with others. But that is rare. Most often, we are alone.

Studying alone. Without a leg up, without the bootstrap that we are expected to use to pull ourselves up.  Not only do we not get the bootstrap, we don’t even get the boot.  We are barefoot. Without mentors, guides, roadmaps.  We  rarely get mentors. Teachers and professors, supervisors that pull us aside and share the code of the academy, the code of success, the code of knowledge, the secret handshake. 

Precarious, tenuous.

And, then, the silence of poverty.  We are struggling financially.  Working all the time, taking out more loans, juggling jobs and studying. Supporting our families back home. At any moment, a financial crisis in our families could mean that we might not make it. In my own journey as an undergraduate, I was $5k short one semester.  I didn’t have it.  I was an independent student.  A faculty member in the Honors Program loaned me $5k, and told me to pay it back as I was able.  That loan was the only reason I stayed in school.  Tenuous and precarious.

But, we persist, nonetheless.

But persistence has a cost. Those of us who persist have shouldered a larger burden. We have had to do more; we have had to overcome more. Our skin must be twice as tough, our emotions must be twice as controlled, our persistence must be twice as much, our courage to continue must be twice as strong.  And so, when we succeed, we are actually twice as good. And even, then, because of our skin color, alone, we are presumed to not be good enough.  And even when we are twice as good, we are often paid twice as less.

And, the cost of persistence are our scars. Our health – emotionally, physically, spiritually, mentally – tenuous and precarious.  Many scholars of color are dying young.  Many are fighting health issues.  Many are not making it.  Those of use who make it feel like twisted barks and branches of trees in the desert.

Vortex impacted tree in Sedona, Arizona

There is a toll and tax of racism and sexism — the isolation and loneliness, the looks, the chosen lastness, the rethinking of everything.  Is it me? Am I good enough? Am I prepared? Can I do it? What if? What if?

Institutions, in response to those who have protested and often sacrificed their lives and their educations, decided they needed to assume some level of responsibility for diversity. And, so, many institutions have diversity programs, diversity directors, and diversity commitments.  These should make our journeys as people of color better.  Some do.  Some ease the precariousness and tenuousness.  But, sometimes it is an unfair burden and expectation to expect the person of color to fix the racism, sexism, and oppression of the institution.  Yes, we, as people of color, understand it, and can help facilitate much, but we cannot do it alone and many offices of diversity and inclusion and equity are small, under-resourced operations, leaving the director in a tenuous and precarious circumstances – vulnerable to criticism of slow progress, unresponsiveness, ineffectiveness in structure that was designed to fail.

And so, when people of color, and women of color, graduate, get promoted, become tenured and also full professors,  and become leaders, and deans, and presidents, we must celebrate.  Our hope must be that they can become voices of the disempowered and the powerless and to work to lessen our precarious and tenuous journeys.

And because of the tenuous and precarious journeys of women of color, in particular,  the Faculty Women of Color in the Academy conference http://www.cpe.vt.edu/fwca/

becomes a sacred space for women of color, to gather in community, to learn, to be empowered, to form community, to pause, to breath, to focus on oneself, and to strengthen the sinews of our souls and spirits, so that our journeys and those of our sisters, are less precarious and less tenuous. This year has an amazing line up of keynotes from women of color scholars who have produced incredible scholarship that has impacted many of our journeys – Black Feminist Thought and Presumed Incompetent are foundational must-reads for us as women of color. The workshops are about personal and professional empowerment. http://www.cpe.vt.edu/fwca/program.html#agenda

I hope that departments, colleges, deans, and provosts in the academy – often White, mainly male, but also female, who seek to be allies, advocates, and sponsors to and for women of color, will see this conference on April 19-20 at Virginia Tech, as an opportunity to demonstrate tangible support for the amazing and incredible talent that women of color bring to the academy. That support includes funding the cost for women of color to attend the conference. This conference, in its 8th year, is one of the few national conferences that exists solely and exclusively focused on women of color. The registration fee is deliberately set to be affordable to a vulnerable population often precluded and prevented from attending these types of conferences, because they must attend their disciplinary association conferences. An institution’s support for women of color — graduate students, faculty, and administrators — to attend can positively contribute to their retention at their institution. it is these small acts of sensitivity that make a tremendous difference.

Finally, I am reminded by Clarissa Pinkola Estes that “although there will be scars and plenty of them, it is good to remember that in tensile strength and stability to absorb pressure, a scar is stronger than skin.”

And, we who survive, scar and all, become mountains upon which others can climb. My mother reminds us that “we rode on the backs of those who went before us and we have a responsibility to be the backs for those who come after us.”

Bell Rock in Sedona, Arizona

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