It is really hard. You think you are prepared for it, until you actually experience it. In many ways, it is difficult to put into adequate words, but I will try. The best way to explain it is as a constant paradox of feeling both under scrutiny and invisible. You feel under scrutiny because you are visually different than most people around you. A lot of times I find myself as the Black face in a crowd and even at 25 this is still a discomforting experience. It is things like going to social events and having people come up to you and touch your hair without permission, examining it as if it were some kind of specimen from another world. A sense of bewilderment and awe at how someone’s hair could possibly look the way mine does. Additionally, there is the uncomfortable position of feeling kind of violated but being afraid of making a scene to express your discomfort of such things for fear of being labeled the angry Black man. Or it’s having your friend tell you that one of his colleagues is uncomfortable and afraid of African Americans. It is always fighting that imposter syndrome mixed with its own flavor of stereotype threat. Always being afraid of seeming not as intelligent as your White peers. It is always wondering if the people you are friendly with genuinely like you or if you’re just another background character in the story of their path to racial enlightenment. The Black friend. It’s meeting a friend’s family and having them try to dap you up instead of the handshakes that they gave to everyone else. Or being told that kids would relate to me because they would like my hair. It is feeling different, looking different, and always getting reminders of difference. It can create a completely different kind of social environment that highlights your difference.
Then there is the invisibility. The feeling of seeing so many of your peers get so many opportunities to publish and work on different projects with faculty and being left wondering what is it about you that precludes you from receiving those same opportunities. You come to realize that it may be due to the fact that there are so few Black people around and that there aren’t enough of you work together to have the same level of productivity that White students have because there are so many more of them to work with each other. This is also probably related to the fact that many of us study issues related to Black people. There is the ubiquitous first day introductions in which everyone talks about their research interests. Everyone else gets follow-up questions about their topics. “My name is Dominique Thomas and I study how parents talk to their children about race and how those messages influence academic outcomes” usually gets met with a blank stare and some variation of “ok cool” or “that’s interesting.” Happens at social functions too. The implicit message that your work doesn’t really matter that much. There’s going to bi-weekly brown bags with periodic guest speakers and none of them being Black during the 5 years you’ve been there. There’s disappearing of Black faculty because they realize that their efforts will not be awarded with tenure. There’s going to a national conferences, applying for a mentoring program, asking if there are African American mentors, and then being told to not “segregate yourself.” The endless stories of some Black person who finds new life as the latest #hashtag because they met a premature death at the hands of a police officer. The things that affect you in a different way than your other classmates because you are all too aware of the reality that it could have easily been you.
It’s feeling lost in the shuffle. Feeling marginalized, forgotten about, and invisible. It’s a constant of wondering what’s just your perception or what’s reality. Weighing whether to confront someone about a racist thing they said. Picking which fights are worth fighting. Which things are worth speaking out about. Whether to put yourself out there for fear of repercussions when you are already fighting an uphill battle. It’s tiring, exhausting, painful, and lonely. But you do it because people are relying on you. Your family. Your community. You’re driven by some greater purpose probably. You probably realize that your struggles will probably make it easier for the person behind you. Make some kind of positive difference in your community. Whatever the reason, keep doing it. Surely all this is worth it. I’m going to keep pushing. I’m going to keep studying my “Black shit” and do it very well.