Scholars Of Color Should Create Supportive Communities To Thrive

Note: this was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Macy Wilson is a doctoral student of clinical psychology, currently completing her internship at a federal prison. She identifies as a biracial (African-American and Xicana), queer, cis woman. Macy’s research integrates issues of masculinity, womanist and feminist issues, and culturally competent proactive intervention.

Self-Care Through Intentional Community

Earlier this year, I gave a presentation on mental health, cultural competence and services for African-American/black folks at the Cultural Impact Conference. This particular conference was one in which multiple cultures were highlighted, and special attention was given to the ways that mental health impacts these groups. It was an inspiration to see so many people collectively dedicated to the advancement of mental health for marginalized communities.

Unfortunately, however, such crucial conversations are more of an exception than a rule, and they are recurrently missing from our personal experiences as scholars of color, particularly in navigating the academy. That missing link contributes to fostering a highly polarizing atmosphere for academics of color. It is important to recognize the value of community when navigating these experiences; the presence of community can often be a form of self-preservation, rejuvenation and comfort.

Lately, a lot of attention has been paid to self-care and the ways in which we practice it (or fail to). I firmly believe that, as a woman of color, having conversations about what it means to survive and thrive in predominantly white spaces is integral to my self-care and self-preservation. In order to embrace this aspect of self-care, though, I learned that I had to be intentional about the people with whom I spent my time, the mentors I sought out and the opportunities in which I partook outside school (read: the communities I formed or with which I engaged). It was sometimes a difficult balance to achieve as a graduate student, because time is a luxury.

Throughout all of my years of higher education, I have simultaneously worked while taking a full course load. This is a common experience for many college students, but the demands of graduate school add an extra layer of difficulty to the mix. Integrating the totality of one’s identity can also be a difficult task when many spaces are not fully welcoming of those identities — or even “conditionally accepting” at best. The importance of community during such times cannot be understated. Whether it’s having a fellow graduate student take detailed notes in your absence, someone lending a listening ear when you are feeling stressed or having someone with whom to celebrate the good times, I occasionally found myself relying on the help of others in spite of my “strong black woman” complex.

One thing I didn’t realize until the final years of my program was how crucial it was to communicate with, and seek advice from, mentors and scholars of color. Upon beginning my program, I quickly developed a feeling of resentment because it felt as though fellow students and many faculty members were not as invested in (read: vocal about) cultural competence and the myriad ways in which mental health must be tailored to suit the needs of complex individuals. All of this was compounded by the Eurocentricity of our readings. During those times, I felt as if parts of my identity were being dismissed, and I, subsequently, executed poor self-care strategies by isolating even further. I internalized the notion that I was a complex individual and that others would not understand, or care to hear about, my grievances.

In keeping quiet, however, I did myself a disservice because no one understands how to correct a problem that is never verbalized. Further, I prevented myself from making meaningful connections by not voicing my concerns to the scholars of color who had already paved the way and probably experienced similar feelings along their journeys. Had I done that from the beginning, I believe that my approach to self-care would have improved rapidly and that I could have made meaningful connections even sooner with scholars of color whom I greatly admired.

This is not to say that all scholars of color will automatically take us under their proverbial wings and happily share their own stories, but speaking with scholars of color at my institution and in the community (even if it wasn’t directly about how I was feeling) helped to create a safe space in the midst of an experience that sometimes felt unwelcoming or silencing. Hearing some of the frustrations from their time in graduate school was encouraging and liberating, because I realized that I wasn’t alone.

That understanding was especially helpful because it made me feel visible and heard. That visibility was (and continues to be) empowering and it has encouraged me to be more intentional about expanding my chosen community. One small thing I’ve prided myself on over the years is remembering and using people’s names. It goes a long way, probably because it recognizes one’s individuality among an abundance of generalities. Not only does it make the person with whom you are speaking feel good, but it increases the likelihood that they will remember you.

That will definitely come in handy when you need some help down the road. In hindsight, I’ve realized that many of the scholars of color to whom I reached out were beyond happy to share their experiences with me, and part of that enthusiasm may have been because they knew what it is like to be glossed over, ignored, rejected or just not taken as seriously in predominantly white academic spaces.

Standing out positively in academe is important but sometimes difficult, and it can be easy to slip into the comfort of anonymity by just doing your work and graduating, or quitting altogether. As an introvert, I loathed conversations about “networking” because I assumed that meant small talk, but I slowly learned that it doesn’t have to! One-on-one conversations with individuals can be as meaningful as you choose to make them, and a big part of that depends on how much you are willing to share of your authentic self. That is easier said than done, however, because it takes courage to make oneself vulnerable and willing to humbly learn from another.

Scholars of color know well that we must work at least twice as hard to be considered half as good as our white counterparts, and that this work is augmented by our other identities that may further marginalize us within predominantly white spaces and institutions. Attempting to compensate for the “black tax” and other penalties for being a minority can be exhausting. The work that we have chosen to do is important, and it is imperative that we take care of ourselves while staying the course; we owe it to ourselves.

Looking forward, other people will be able to stand on our shoulders as they journey to improve academe and the broader world in which we live, because we were proactive and not reactive. Additionally, we can be a lighthouse for those behind us because we stayed true to ourselves in the midst of the isolation and attempts to silence us — because we were committed to our own self-preservation. In the words of Audre Lorde, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Lorde, and many like her, reclaimed their time in efforts to practice effective self-care, and it will be a boon for us to integrate these same efforts in our personal and work lives.

The academy and future scholars need our voices now more than ever. Speaking out, writing and intentionally connecting with others will enable us to survive and thrive within these spaces, because this work cannot be done alone.