Advice For Black Graduate Students On “Playing The Game”

My PhD graduation, May 2013.

My PhD graduation, May 2013.

The racism that ran rampant through my graduate program was like a swift, hard punch to the gut for me as a naïve, first-year graduate student. I had not even attended my first official graduate course before a cohortmate had marked by body as “ghetto,” despite growing up in the suburbs. I was devastated to find a self-proclaimed scholar of immigration saw no issue with her research assistant’s instruction to fellow students to avoid “talking Black” while conducting interviews. I was annoyed, but no longer surprised, that the faculty failed to see the problems with the ethnic theme of the annual department party.

My college days reside in my memory as a generally wonderful time of self-discovery, activism, and a willingness to have difficult conversations. My alma matter, University of Maryland Baltimore County, is where the seeds of my intellectual activism began to blossom. Undergrad did not, however, prepare me for the reality of oppression in higher education. The funny thing is, when I contacted my two main undergrad advisors halfway through my first-year of grad school, neither professor was surprised that I had been smacked in the face by racism in academe; in fact, they kind of alluded that I was naive to expect otherwise.

Whatever the reason for being surprised by the racism that I experienced and observed in my graduate program, I say with some reticence that my time in grad school has provided me with some insights that may be useful to others.

For Black prospective graduate students, I recommend, as a starting point, to be aware that racism is the norm in academe. Even if you are generally shielded from microaggressions, racism is deeply entrenched in the operation of graduate departments, universities, disciplines, and professional organizations. It affects who and what gets funded, who and what gets published where, who gets hired and tenured, who gets admitted, who graduates, and so forth.

As you select a graduate department, I’m afraid it is simply a matter of how much racism you will experience, not whether you will experience it. Weigh your options carefully. The supportive bubble of a program at an HBCU may come at the expense of your job prospects, yet the prestige of a top-ranked historically white college or university may come at the cost of your mental health and happiness. Don’t assume the presence of a few token Black faculty members or race scholars will be enough to overcome an otherwise racist department. And, given the devaluing of interdisciplinarity in the academy, don’t assume the presence of other, critical programs (e.g., African American Studies) will compensate for lack of diversity or race consciousness in your own (more traditional) PhD program (e.g., sociology).

Do your homework on each program you are considering. Contact multiple current students to ask about their personal and professional experiences — with coursework, support from and availability of faculty, with the university, with funding opportunities, with publishing, with teaching, with the surrounding city, etc. If you are interested in studying race, ethnicity, or immigration, ask whether that kind of work is supported by the faculty, reflected in the course work, and funded. You might do well with a few concrete questions that you email, and offer to talk to them by phone if they are available. Contact faculty to ask similar questions. Take note not only of the number of Black faculty, but also whether any are tenured associate or full professors; if you actually visit the department, use your budding ethnographer skills to observe how central Black faculty and students are in the department’s functions.

As you prepare to begin your graduate program, I recommend setting up your support network ahead of time. Your grad program is not in the business of looking after your personal well-being, so do not rely on it to feel your personal, social, spiritual, and sexual/romantic needs. I highly, highly recommend that you have a community outside of your program; I’d even recommend avoiding dating a fellow student (and professors are off limits). Get involved with a graduate student group, set up a Meetup account and your choice of dating app (if you’re looking), find a church, and look for an off-campus gym, doctor, and therapist if your finances allow them. My point is, do not center your entire life around your graduate program. When school gets tough, it’s nice to have other places to go to unwind without fear of your actions or words getting back to your colleagues.

I wish I could say this concretely — but navigating racism in a supposedly anti-racist or at least race-neutral environment is a messy affair. Find a balance between “playing the game” to succeed in graduate school (by mainstream standards) and authenticity. I made the mistake of “souling out” to such a high level that my mental health suffered. But, I saw others in my program who embraced authenticity so strongly that some faculty did not want to work with them or did not take them seriously, who struggled to advance through departmental milestones, and/or struggled to do the things that made them a strong candidate for the academic job market.

It is an awful catch-22 that Black scholars must choose between advancing their careers or advancing their communities. I am not sure that a happy medium exists, but I believe you can be successful on your terms and be able to sleep at night while making as few concessions as possible. It’s never too early to read The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure — Without Losing Your Soul.

The faculty advisors whom you select can either help or hinder your success and well-being. Before you jump to making a list of names, I recommend that you identify your needs, as there are many. In the words of Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, avoid the pitfall of attempting to find a mentor guru who will serve all of your needs; not only does such a person not exist, but it is perhaps unhealthy to rely on a single person for everything. You will likely have a main mentor who serves as your primary guide through department milestones and helps you to get a job. But, I strongly encourage a second mentor who perhaps isn’t as accessible, but whose insight is just as important as your main mentor. You can have mentors who are more of a sounding board for professional and/or personal matters, but may have little say over your progress in the department.

Your own preferences and actual availability will determine whether these mentors are Black or some other race. A Black professor may be more supportive by virtue of their shared experiences with racism in the academy. But, there is evidence that white men professors may lead to better job prospects in academe, perhaps owing to their wider, higher status professional networks, cultural capital, and other resources that are unequally distributed in the academy. Keep in mind that being Black doesn’t necessarily make one a good, reliable, or trustworthy professor; unfortunately, you cannot assume a shared Black identity is an automatic sign of solidarity. And, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the white faculty as potential resources; maybe they won’t be sounding boards for the racist crap you’ve dealt with (and might even contribute to it), but they may have other means to help you excel in your career.

Whatever you do, remember that graduate school is a means to an end. This is not the rest of your life. There will be times you simply have to suck it up and do something that feels crappy, or feels irrelevant to your goals to survive and thrive as a Black intellectual. But, you’ve just got to do it to get that PhD and then do whatever you want. These professors are mere gatekeepers. They can grant you a PhD, but they can never validate your worth or value.

One thought on “Advice For Black Graduate Students On “Playing The Game”

  1. Great advice! Very astute observations…

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