It’s time to change the hue of the ivory tower of academia
- Published: 14 May 2011
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Despite diversity programs, academia remains an elite, white institution that fosters an environment in which people of color’s voices are silenced. This not only impacts negatively on their learning experience but also deprives wider society of fresh, important and innovative ideas, writes Toi S.
15 May 2011
It's apparent that the vast majority of scholars and researchers are white. Now this could be because of better opportunities: better mentors, a better economic situation, a supportive cohort (of similar race, gender, values) – all of which lead to higher retention rates.
I have to admit that being in a predominantly white institution has been a struggle for me at times. Unlearning the social conditioning of decades in just two short years has been one of the biggest challenges I've ever faced.
After much reflection and the prompt of the People's Institute “Undoing Racism” workshop I gained a set of new eyes. I realized that my being “quiet” in class was more than just anxiety to speak.
In other social contexts I could throw around my opinion with the best of them. Was I two separate people? There was something about the classroom setting that brought out this muted side of me.
I kept kicking myself every time I got home. Wondering what in the world was wrong with me: Why couldn't I speak? What was so hard about opening my mouth? Maybe, I thought, it was because I'm a writer and I prefer to channel my voice through the written word. But that didn't make much sense because in other environments I loved verbally sharing my opinion.
Then, with the help of some mentors, and the prodding of friends in my program I began to track the things that would happen in class that would affect if I spoke or not.
For one, many of the students talked over each other or offered their opinion ... a lot. (This was not just about personalities, but also had to do with privilege linked to race and class.) I began to reflect on the social conditioning and early messages that some people of color – especially women – may have received about social situations where it is best to remain silent or keep certain ideas to oneself).
Also, when I said something, many times I wouldn't be validated. And this really affected my opinions of what I had to say. A lot of times I felt like I was on a lesser wavelength or something because all my ideas on readings were so different from those in class.
Sometimes I'd make comments about culture, race, gender, or sexuality and would be shut down or my comment would be avoided like the plague. Silence ensued most times and certain comments would be entirely dismissed.
One time a professor let everyone jump in to talk during a presentation. I was so frustrated. People would say “Why don't you speak?” My professors would say “You need to contribute more in class. Your papers are insightful. Why don't you say this in class?”
All of this led to even more anxiety. I felt alone. At times it was as if only I saw and felt what was happening in that classroom. Like I'd made it all up in my mind. Friends would say “Well you didn't talk! That didn't happen!” and so on.
So why am I telling this deeply personal story connected to people of color in academia? Well, if I'm going through this, I'm sure many others are. Last year two women of color dropped out of our program and they'd voiced similar frustrations to me. I’ve also heard similar stories from many of the undergraduates of color on our campus. They are constantly fighting to be acknowledged and to be heard in a predominantly white space.
Academic institutions make it out to be the people of color's fault many times. They say that the candidate wasn't “strong” enough; that they were not “cut out for the program.” These institutions do not want to address the oppression that's happening within the classroom or the hostility within the campus climate or culture.
Or perhaps they just can't see it. I suspect that it’s more often the former, there are many students of color who constantly point out this dynamic and are ignored and silenced even further by their faculty and administration. Luckily, my program was up for hearing how it could change ... but for some it came too late. We've got a lot of work ahead for sure.
Recently I was looking at the Emerging Scholars of 2010 on the Diverseeducation.com website and I saw a similar trend in how some of these scholars of color felt in academia. The amount of people of color are increasing and this is contributing to all kinds of new research and programs, but what is this saying about us? (I have a lot of questions):
Are we getting “stronger”?
Are institutions finding better matches for their programs?
Is there a shift in the academic consciousness happening as it pertains to including people of color?
Why do people of color still feel isolated?
Could it be that “diversity and inclusion” efforts do not have the support necessary for the increasing number of people of color in academic institutions? Or is it that campuses are not being inclusive of new recruits and hires voice, so the climate remains the same.
Is academia still turning a cold shoulder to people of color or forcing them to assimilate/acculturate?
I am proud and inspired by the fact that more people of color are becoming a part of academia and are doing such phenomenal research that integrates and supports culture in innovative ways. People of color are going into higher education and using their specializations to help vulnerable communities – namely communities of colors – who are experiencing disparities for this reason.
Diversity efforts abound and things are really headed in a positive direction, now we need only provide the proper support. Programs that help students of color (and faculty of color) to breach the ivory tower and allow them to stay for dinner (Not a pun taken from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner – well, ok, maybe it is) by providing mentors and the resources and emotional support necessary to overcome the challenges of culture shock are seriously necessary in the continuation of diversity efforts.
Solutions for academia
Get out the paint because the ivory tower will no longer be pearly white – and this is a GOOD thing. See it as progress. Imagine the innovation. Envision the expansion of “depth and breadth of knowledge” (academic speak for stuff not known previously due to stuffy paradigms upheld by the same old people).
Also, provide support for people of other cultures who may not think like you or have your value systems—don't expect them to assimilate or acculturate. This takes away from their contribution to whatever academic advances you hope to make—or that may occur in spite of whatever you may think.
Be aware of the oppression that happens in the classroom due to race, class, and gender and address it accordingly. Also be aware of this in relationships among faculty and researchers. Be vigilant. Just say no to bigotry, even when it is labeled as tradition.
And please speak out when you see this type of oppression happening and ally with students and faculty to build and create a response (better yet, solution!) for these situations. Forums and teach-ins and any kind of campus-wide dialogue are terrific ways to create change on your campus.
For students of color
I know your ideas are different. Own that you see with a different lens and somehow make your voice heard – because it deserves an audience.
“Drop your knowledge” (i.e. speak the truth, and speak what you know), even if in increments. I am still working on this. Maybe we can do it together. Find other students who share your experience and speak out together.
Also, find mentors that support you and your work. They make all the difference. I cannot express this enough.
And one other thing: Get involved with some of the multi-cultural organizations on campus and (if your campus has one) your diversity committee or department of diversity or multi-cultural affairs.
Be the change you want to see – it’s a breath of fresh air (for everyone).
Toi S. is from Austin, Texas. They are best described as a multi-racial, multi-lingual, genderqueer philosophactivist, health advocate, queer and civil rights activist, grassroots organizer and “peacemonger”/peace activist. Toi is also an anti-oppression facilitator for medical and social service professionals, a womanist, a reluctant academic and a willing educator.
Toi is a screenwriter/playwright/poet/academic writer and is currently working on three projects: an interactive autobiography with poems, prose, and photos called “Saturn Return”, a chapbook of their original works, and a book about the many uprisings and revolutions of their ancestors and how these have informed their social justice activism and theories on social change.
Toi’s academic work includes papers on the failures of modern medicine to address pain, fibromyalgia and lupus in women of color and the perpetuation of the pain cycle within the community and by the medical profession, a paper on the ethical implications of transgender medicine, and a paper on African and African American women healers of the South, healing as a resistance to the institution of slavery, and the co-optation, failed acknowledgement, and denigration of Native American and African healing methods by modern medicine.
Toi is also writing, co-editing, and has organized statewide community involvement forums in Austin, Texas for the upcoming book Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, a comprehensive resource guide for the transgender/genderqueer/gender non-conforming community that covers health, legal issues, cultural and social questions, history, theory, and more.