Constrained Blackness

I think I have figured out at least one reason why graduate school has been difficult. I am rarely around more than one or two Black people at a time. Many times I am the only Black person at social gatherings. Most other times there are only one or two more. I’ve talked about this before, but not so much regarding the cultural mismatch. This is something that really hit me yesterday. It is challenging to go through this period when you are around many people who do not share the same cultural background as you. It is valuable to be around people from different backgrounds certainly, but something can definitely be said about having those shared experiences. I want to be able to talk more about the music I like to listen to without getting a blank stare or some kind of dismissive comment. I want to play my music at my desk without worrying about getting weird looks. I want to freely suggest movies to watch without wondering if people will assume some kind of negative stereotype about me or use the movie to stereotype Black people. And then the food. That has been really rough for me too. Particularly when there is a potluck event and hardly anyone eats the food you bring. The food you spent four hours making. And goddamn I want to have someone to talk basketball with. Basketball is my favorite sport, but I guess it is too lowly of an activity for some people to engage in. I wonder why (this is sarcasm, I know why). I just want to freely express my cultural background without fear of being stereotyped or insulted. I do not like to feel that I have to constrain my Blackness for the comfort of others. Sometimes I wonder if that is why some people are okay with me. Black enough to say you have “diverse” friends, but not too Black to make you uncomfortable. I think this is always something I am going to struggle with: being a Black face in a mostly White space.

Frustration

“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a a rage almost all the time.” James Baldwin said it and I feel it. I experience it. It’s not always related to being Black, but I have felt like this for quite a while. A few months at least. I am frustrated, angry, and just generally not very happy. I’m frustrated with so many things.

I’m frustrated with my career. I have about another year in this Ph.D. program. I wish I could be done sooner than that. There’s so much I’ve had to deal with during grad school and I’m just over it in general. I’m tired of extending the olive branch to people who don’t deserve it. The relationship with my previous advisor was unhealthy and I recently ended it. She discouraged me from publishing my master’s thesis and now that I have a new advisor who thinks I should publish it, I have to extend the offer for collaboration with her since she was the chair of my thesis committee. It’s the “professional” thing to do. I’m tired of professional meaning that people can exploit, discourage, degrade, and insult you while still benefitting from your work. It makes me sick. She’s part of the reason I needed to go to therapy 2 years ago. I’m tired of having to be the one to smile and nod in the face of people who care nothing for me and who abuse their power and authority. I’m just tired of being devalued and being expected to prostrate myself for people.

I’m frustrated with feeling like I have to shoulder the burden for multiple people. I’m only one person, but I feel like I’m carrying the weight of the world. So much is needed and expected from me, frankly unfairly so. It’s gotten to the point that I get anxiety whenever my phone rings because it’s inevitably going to be someone asking me to do something when I’m already really overwhelmed. Too often I have had to bring myself away from the brink of breaking down. It’s rough. I feel like not too many people know/care about this. Me, me, me, me, me. I feel lost in the shuffle of everyone else’s problems particularly when asked to help with them. I feel overburdened and I feel like no one is/will mitigate that burden, particularly if they are adding to them.

I also am frustrated with just the general state of things. Relating back to my first point, I’m frustrated with seeing so much Black pain, suffering, and hurt only for it to be ignored, downplayed, and disregarded. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of finding myself in situations in which I have explain my perspective as a Black person in America only to have it challenged by people who have no fucking idea what it is like. I’m tired of these damn White faux-progressives and their damn performed liberalism that’s used as a tool to talk down to Black people and tell them to behave properly. I’m tired hearing people talk about things they know nothing about and having to challenge people about their erroneous assertions of reverse racism and other nonsensical concepts that allow White people to deny the advantage that they’ve had in this country since before it was even a country. I’m tired of being nice and trying to spare people’s feelings because they want to play dumb and be blind. I’m tired of being someone who possesses much more experiential and scientific knowledge of this area than the people I find myself in these scenarios with, only for them to try to employ half-ass tricks of debate and logical fallacies to tell me how I’m the one who is wrong or mistaken. As if their White opinion trumps my reality and years of academic study. I’m tired of feeling like the token/Black friend who has to tell people how things are because if I wasn’t a grad student as well, they likely would not have much of a reason to associate with me and I’m the only Black person most of them probably interact with past some hierarchial relationship in which they are on the higher level.

I’m tired, I’m frustrated, I’m unhappy. I share all of this for the comfort of some level of catharsis. None of this is up for debate or argument. I’m not backing down from what I say. This is how I feel in its rawest form. Anger and frustration laid bare in front of you. Also, do not use this as a means of projecting your own insecurities onto what I am saying. Basically, don’t come asking me if I am talking about you. If you really care, you wouldn’t ask that question in the first place. I’ve said my piece. Maybe I will be in a better place tomorrow or hopefully things turn around. I need it to because I need to be able to take care of myself and its difficult to juggle that with so many demands from so many people and so many pressures. I want to help, I really do. But sometimes I need help too, but it’s hard to ask for help when so many other people are asking me for the help. Maybe it will get better.

Being Black in Grad School

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.

2015 Was Some Year

This has been a really long year for me. It’s been a long time since I last posted something on here and I figured I would give an update to people who may have wondered what’s been going on with me. I came into the year coming back from my trip to Haiti, which was an amazing experience. Unfortunately, I came back to my apartment being flooded due to a busted pipe under the building. Additionally, my roommate had lost his job and the responsibility of paying all of the rent and all of the bills fell to me and that caused additional stress for me. On top of this, I’m dealing with grad school stuff, particularly studying for my comprehensive/qualifying/doctoral exam, which I had originally planned to take in April. To digress a little, the format of this test is essentially a long essay that you’re given 16 hours over 2 days to complete. The content of the exam differs depending on your specialty, but it is essentially testing you on everything that you have learned during grad school. Just imagine trying to study for that.

On top of this, I took in my younger brother for a few months because of all the terrible things that have been happening from our hometown, specifically violent things. In retrospect, it may not have been the best/healthiest idea for me because I ended up taking on too much stuff and it wore on me very quickly. Add to that, a relationship that was not going well and did not end very well. There were points during that first 5 or 6 months of the year in which I felt like I was on the verge of cracking. Some days, I just stayed in bed the entire time, not wanting to deal with anything. Eventually, my roommate got another job and my brother was ready to go back home, so some of that burden that I took on dissipated.

One way in which I tried to cope with these things was to try and put my energy into my work. I started trying to do more things with my department’s graduate student association as well as our diversity committee. Also, I ended up becoming co-president of the Black Graduate Student Association, something that actually gives me sort of fulfillment outside of the purely academic stuff that I do. I did 2 presentations at one conference, complicated by the fact that I left my laptop on the plane when I landed in Philly for the conference. Somehow I got my laptop back, but that was definitely additional stress I did not need at that point. Ended up both organizing a roundtable with friends and volunteering at another conference later that year. A conference that I probably would not have afforded if I had not gotten a travel award and/or taken out a student loan for the summer. I was also working on a manuscript based on one of the presentations I did earlier in the year and I submitted it to the Journal of Black Psychology. It was rejected. Talk about a blow to the ego. I’ve edited and fixed it since then, but I have some level of apprehension in terms of sending it out again to another outlet, given how long this process can be. On top of those things, I had an internship in which I worked with a consulting firm and I also was a field interviewer for the Atlanta Youth Count project, which was a study on the needs and experiences of homeless youth in Atlanta. Both of these experiences together were very informative and opened my eyes to a lot of things. It also provided a distraction from some of the other things I was dealing with.

Another source of conflict and stress (really has been for the last 4 1/2 years) has been my relationship with my advisor. It’s been rocky, a generous term, the whole time and I’ve tried my best to get through the situation. A bit of miscommunication between us resulted in me scrambling to find committee members for my exam for my goal of taking the exam in April. Ended up not getting enough people in time and I had to wait until the end of September to take the exam. This put me in a bit of a limbo for a few months because I was unsure for most of that time when I would be able to take the exam. I ended up passing the exam, but that was after I had to redo one of the sessions during an additional hour and 15 minutes on top of the 16 hours I had already done. After the exam (actually before the exam and during the time I was studying), I started working on my dissertation. I had a general idea of what it was I wanted to do. I really wanted to move forward as fast as I could within reason to get to where I wanted and needed to be. However, there was period of a month during which we did not meet. This was due to a sick day from me and honestly a day she just didn’t show up. Unfortunately, but not too unexpectedly, the fault landed on my shoulders for us not meeting during that month.

There’s a bit more to this story, but I’m keeping it as brief as I can while trying to get to the main points. During the last meeting we had, I wanted to talk about our dissertation, but I felt as though she would rather talk about why we had not met in the last month, which I felt was counterproductive. During that meeting, I felt as though the blame was being placed on me and there was more interest in lecturing me about missed meetings than about talking to me about my dissertation. Four years of frustration, feeling unsupported, doubt, and anxiety boiled over and I finally had just had it. I stepped out during the meeting, not sure if I was going back for the meeting, but eventually deciding to not go back to the meeting. I hadn’t made a conscious decision to switch advisors with that action, but it was probably the only thing I could have realistically done after that. I feel like the relationship was too strained, at least for me, and I had dealt with enough negative feeling during that to continue any longer. I ended up making the switch a couple of weeks after that and I have to say that I feel a sense of relief from finally making that decision. It was long overdue honestly.

So remember earlier when I mentioned having to fix part of my exam? The first day of the exam went pretty well. I wrote 8 single spaced pages and felt like the exam was not as difficult as I thought it would be, or at least as hard as I was afraid it would be. I had basically written everything that I wanted to include except for one of the sections. Right after I finished my writing for the first day, I found out that my apartment had been broken into. Most of my stuff outside my clothes was stolen. My Playstation 4, my laptop, all of my DVDs, and more. Once again, something that happens at the absolute worst time. To make it worse, they broke in through my bedroom window. I basically did not sleep in my own apartment for 2 weeks straight because of the combination of my apartment complex dragging their feet on fixing my window or at the very least covering up the hole and that I just did not feel safe there. The next day, my brain would not work. I spent much of the time staring at the computer screen in a semi-daze. Needless to say, I did not get as much done on the second day as I did the first day. The next week I had my defense and afterwards I was told I had to revise one of the sections. Of course it was the section I hadn’t finished on the first day and had to struggle through on the second day. BTW still have not heard anything from the police; it’s been almost 3 months. I don’t plan on hearing anything else on the matter.

This has been a really rough year for me, but I try to think of the positive things that have happened for me too. I ended up replacing a lot of the stuff that got stolen. I was hesitant to at first, but I went through with it because I made a decision not to let that situation make me afraid. I was on a panel discussing the movie Straight Outta Compton and NWA’s impact on the Black community and society as a whole. That was interesting to say the least. The roundtable that we organized at the conference went relatively well and we decided to write an article for our field’s newsletter. It was accepted and you can find it here if you want more info (page 28). It’s about culturally sensitive mentoring of graduate students in community psychology. I also wrote an article about my first trip to Haiti, which you can find here. I’ve been trying to do other things where I can put my skills to use, but in a non-academic realm. I just became a contributing writer for this online magazine called Those People, where hopefully I can utilize the things I’ve learned from my research to communicate to a different audience in different way.

I saw two of my best friends each get married over the summer and I’m about to see a third friend get married in a few days. Also for me, I am in a relationship again, this time a much better one with none of the drama. Not to mention how supportive she’s been during these last few difficult months, particularly with the situations with the break-in and my advisor troubles. Definitely lucky to have someone like her. I also taught my first class during this semester. That was definitely a highlight for me this semester. I found myself unexpectedly at ease when I was teaching. The anxiety that I normally have when I give presentations was largely not there during my lectures. It may have something to do with an increased sense of control over the situation. This experience definitely helped me to feel as though the work I do matters because I can actually see the impact. It’s been a long and trying year, but I can take lessons learned from this year and use them to make sure the next year is better. I know that this marker is rather arbitrary in terms of making a change, but given how the last 356 days have gone, I would want to make sure that the next 365+ will be a vast improvement. So here’s to hoping that 2016 is a great year.

Contemporary Racial-Sacrifice Covenants

Any number of other examples can be found throughout almost every area of public life. Blacks with skills are hired by corporations, government, and other institutions, but usually in limited numbers so as no to arouse concern among white employees, customers, and suppliers. When this unacknowledged number is reached, blacks of equal or even higher qualifications are turned away. The same is true in the housing area. Where blacks are not systematically excluded, as is still the case in countless housing developments, all manner of procedures are in place to limit their numbers. That remains the unspoken policy in much of academia. Each black or Hispanic or Asian that is hired for a tenure-line position makes it that much harder for any subsequent minority applicant. Policies of involuntary racial sacrifice prevail, despite the obligatory “equal opportunity” statements on business stationery.

Derrick Bell – Silent Covenants: Brown V. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform

The Academic Circle Jerk

Even though I want to go into academia, I definitely have some problems with its culture and how things are done.  One thing that I definitely hate is how exclusionary it is, especially in terms of the information.  The information created from research and academic should be available and accessible to the public if indeed this research is being done for some sort of public good.  What good is any of this if the findings that could be applied to real world situations are not disseminated to the masses in an accessible manner?

One example: how expensive singular articles can be if you don’t subscribe that journal or attend a university that has a subscription.  If you’re not lucky enough to find somewhere else on the internet that happens to post that article, you’re gonna be out of a bit of money if you do decide to pay for that article.  One time I found an article that cost $32. Yeah, that number is no exaggeration.  What’s crazy is that memberships in organizations that produce these journals and that give you a free subscription don’t even cost that much.  But if you are not in an academic circle, you may not be privy to such information.  A lot of academic texts are very expensive.  Handbooks and other texts can costs hundreds of dollars.  Why does all of this have to cost so much?  The monetization (hope I’m using this term correctly) of information is something that worries me. By making these things so expensive, it precludes anyone who can’t afford it from having access.

Then there’s issues of copyright with these things so they can’t just be posted anywhere and to make sure you have to pay for it.  My research lab wrote a book chapter for this handbook that’s coming out in a couple of months.  When our chapter was accepted, we had to sign this contract giving our rights to the material to the publisher.  Basically means that we have no control over how the information is disseminated and the publisher can do what they please.  Additionally, referring to two things I mentioned before, I received a contributor’s copy of the e-book that is locked and the print version of the handbook is $150+.  Even though I had a hand in creating this material, I cannot disseminate it in anyway.  I can’t even print out any part of the e-book because of the lock that is placed on the file.  Also, if I wanted to be able to post our chapter anywhere or even be able to print it or do anything with it, I would have to pay the publisher quite a bit of money.  If I wanted to buy the print version, I could not afford it.  What does that say when people who have a hand in creating a product cannot afford the product?

I know some people will say “but you have a copy of the book, so why you trippin about it?” That is not the point, my point is that these things should not be this expensive.  This is indicative of a part of academia I don’t like.  You have these publishers and journals that want to make money in combination with this overall idea that publishing in peer review journals (particularly the big ones) is the gold standard and only legitimate form of disseminating knowledge.  It’s basically a group of people who want to keep their club as exclusive as possible.  I think a lot of people revel in their own “intelligence and knowledge” and that knowledge being easily accessible threatens that sense of intellectual superiority some academics have.  Hence that’s why I call this the “Academic Circle Jerk.”  A bunch of cats in their own little group feeling themselves about how smart they are.  It seems so masturbatory. “Oh I published in this journal” or “I edited this book, I’m the shit.”

I know all of these things are prestigious in academia, but why does this prestige have to come at the price of accessible information and making sure the people who this research is supposed to help or inform actually get this information?  Yeah I want to publish in journals and be invited to write book chapters and stuff like that.  I also want to know that my work is actually going to get to the people who need it.

One of my friends asked me if when I became a professor would I make students buy a book I wrote. At first I said no, but admittedly if the book was actually relevant to the class, I would probably make them get the book.  BUT…considering everything that I said, if that book ended up somehow costing like $150 or some wild ass price, I’d just photocopy the pages or something like that because I think its absurd for a professor to make students pay that much money for something they produced.  If I wrote a book, if I had a say in how much it cost, I would want it to be really cheap. Like less than $20, if they really had to buy the book. I also would not be offended at all if they somehow found a free pdf version of it on the internet (which I try to do all the time lol).

I’m all about sharing information and everything, which is why all this stuff bothers me so.  I get why it happens. Elitism, capitalism, all those isms.  I guess the points I’m trying to make are 1) information should not be exclusive and inaccessible to a large majority of people, 2) academics need to stop trying to hoard the knowledge and keep it among themselves, and 3) all this research and information does no good if the people who really need it can’t get to it.  Ok, my rant is done.  Please feel free to provide your own comments and insights.