Race Matters, Even In Academia

Let’s start with something that is of critical importance, but very embarrassing to admit: I was surprised that the realities of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism exist in academia, just like the rest of society.  I can recall instances of prejudice, discrimination, invisibility, tokenism, invalidation, and so forth within the walls of the ivory tower that are very similar to those I experience outside of it.  Just as higher education as an institution is not immune to prejudice and discrimination, neither are academics.  The extremely embarrassing part of this self-disclosure is that I continue to be surprised with every new encounter of stereotypes, hostility, denials of opportunity, and so forth.  I suppose my blessing is also my curse: seeing the potential for good, kindness, and justice in all people.

Racial And Ethnic Differences Among Sociology PhD Students

I find comfort and discomfort in the findings of a recent survey of 685 doctoral students in sociology graduate programs in the United States.  This survey was presented at August’s annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, entitled, ““Diversity and Its Discontents”:  A Report on Graduate Student Experiences in PhD-Granting Institutions.”  (Download the Powerpoint presentation online here.)  A few interesting findings from the survey:

  • Top 3 reasons students go to Grad School: [African Americans] 1) Contribute to advancement of minorities, 2) grow intellectually, 3) improve occupational mobility; [Latina/os] 1) Grow intellectually, 2) contribute to my community, 3) contribute to advancement of minorities; [whites] 1) Grow intellectually, 2) improve occupational mobility, 3) make a contribute to the field.  Notice overlap in wanting to grow intellectually, but contributing to social change and social justice is top 3 priority for whites to attend graduate school.
  • White students are least likely of the three groups to consider the racial and ethnic diversity of a PhD program when considering where to go for graduate school.
  • Black and Latina/o students are more likely than whites to note an advantage for white students in their department; whites are more likely than students of color to perceive an advantage for people of color in their department.  (It’s striking that even among sociologists, some whites believe that there are advantages afforded to people of color!)  These two sets of perceived inequality predict less satisfaction with the climate among fellow PhD students.

I want to emphasize that first finding again.  Here’s the slide that demonstrates the rank ordering of the top three reasons why white, Black, and Latina/o people decide to go to graduate school (in sociology):

Top 3 Reasons Students go to Grad School

Though the placement differs slightly, all three racial and ethnic groups note wanting to grow intellectually.  That makes sense.  It would seem strange to embark on an intense educational training for 4-8 years (sometimes more) simply to advance one’s job prospects.  But, that is a reasonable priority, hence whites’ and Blacks’ mention of improving their occupational mobility (e.g., getting a better job).  But, what stands out most to me is that the #1 reason for Blacks to pursue a PhD in sociology is to contribute to the advancement of racial minorities, and reasons #2 and #3 for Latina/os are similar (minority advancement AND to contribute to one’s community).  Instead of a similar or parallel reason, a desire to contribute to the field of sociology ranks as the #3 reason for whites to attend graduate school.

Why Does It Matter?

Let me say up front that the reasons offered are all important and noble.  I don’t mean to suggest that any of these reasons are bad or selfish.  But, what I wish to illuminate is that whites in sociology and, arguably even more so in other disciplines, may not list as a top career priority to contribute to the advancement of racial and ethnic minorities.  This means that Black and Latina/o sociologists work with, and are even trained by, white sociologists who may not be interested in the same goals of racial equality and social justice more broadly.

I speak from personal experience that it is often frustrating to have what feels like “shop talk” about race and racism with a white sociologist, while each conversation about race for me feels like the difference between life or death.  I am sometimes confused why I feel such urgency to convey that race shapes almost every aspect of our lives and literally structures society, yet a white colleague I may be speaking with seems light in mood, with the ability to easily change the subject to who won American Idol.  Unfortunately, it often leaves me and other academics of color questioning whether we are in the right field to work for social justice and equality.  (Of course, it is the right field for me, given my interest in research, teaching, and serving both the academic and broader communities; but, I had not anticipated as a naive undergrad that I would have to convince fellow academics to care that inequality persists.)

A Caveat

You don’t have to worry that I’ve prepared a case for radically altering the academy, or restructuring graduate training programs.  I realize that this is only one survey, and it may not accurately reflect the experiences of every student of every race and ethnicity in every academic program.  But, it does offer a sense that I am not alone in my experiences as a PhD student of color.  One further concern that causes me to hesitate in my read of this survey is that other dimensions of difference and inequality — namely gender, social class, and sexual orientation — were not considered.  As a group whites may not rank a commitment to racial justice as a top reason for pursuing a PhD in sociology.  However, we don’t know how many white women, working-class whites, and white lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people have pursued or are pursuing PhDs in sociology, women’s studies, ethnic studies, LGBT/sexuality studies, and so forth with the intention of fighting sexism, heterosexism, and classism in society.

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