For Smart Colored People When Their Credentials, Knowledge, and Experiences Aren’t Enough

I’ve never been one to try to throw my intelligence or education in people’s faces. I have my thoughts and opinions about things and I make them known, but I don’t feel the need to puff out my chest and prove that I’m smarter than everyone. However, I do feel some kind of way when there are matters of which I am knowledgeable, but my statement is completely disregarded and dismissed. Particularly when I’m talking to White people and especially White men. There have been times in which I felt like people either immediately brush off my opinion, lecture me about how I am wrong, or just try to show me up in my own area of expertise. And that pisses me off to no end, especially when it involves matters of race. It is frustrating because I don’t want to get caught up in an argument, but I know that my statements and opinion are at least backed up some evidence in a field that I study for a living. I feel talked down to. I sometimes feel as if my skin color immediately invalidates my perspective in the eyes of these people. Never mind that my master’s thesis is in this area, my dissertation is in this area, I have publications in this area, and I have particular life experiences. I am not saying that you should agree with me; what I am saying is that I should not be brushed aside as if I am some child who is unaware of the world.

There are some members of this group who may end up reading this post and feel some sort of anger. Frankly, I don’t give a damn. Your opinion does not really matter to me (see what I did there?). Just ask yourself why when a person of color tells you something about their experience, you feel the need to immediately dismiss their opinion or tell them that they’re wrong? Why do you feel the need to immediately lecture them without actually listening to them? Why do you feel the need to center yourself when it is not about you? Why do you need to assert your “authority” when and where it is not asked for? Why do we not matter enough for you to listen to and empathize with? To anyone who feels silenced or invalidated: you have a voice. Your voice matters. Your experiences matter. Your knowledge matters. You matter. We do have something to offer to the world. Those of us in higher education, our research matters and helps to improve the situation of the communities we come from. Activists, the work you do on the ground brings attention to the social inequities we face and through your efforts change happens. Loud and emotional change. The best kind. Everyone else, you don’t have to be a scholar or activist or politician to matter. You live these experiences even when there isn’t some scholar to research it or an activist to protest for improvement. Your experiences matter. Your experiences cannot be denied and should not be denied. We’re all in this together and damn anyone who wants to deny our humanity or disregard what we have to say.

Suggested Reading List

Here are some books that I’ve read that I think quite a few people could benefit from reading. Forgive me if it’s a bunch of Black shit (actually not really, deal with it). Most of these are books that played a really big role in my personal development, scholarly development, and my overall worldview. I’ll try to update this list as I read through more books. I’m pretty sure you can find most of these on Amazon for cheap. If you are interested in any book in particularly, please comment and I can tell you more about it. Some of these books I have not read in a long time so bare with me if my memory is spotty for some of them. Or alternatively, if you have any suggestions for books I should read, I would be happy to get those as well.

  1. Creating the Opportunity to Learn: Moving From Research to Practice to Close the Achievement Gap, A. Wade Boykin & Pedro Noguera
  2. Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race, Derald Wing Sue
  3. Of the Dawn of Freedom, W.E.B. DuBois
  4. Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois
  5. The Gift of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois
  6. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  7. No Name in the Street, James Baldwin
  8. Stolen Legacy, George James
  9. Democracy Matters, Cornel West
  10. Hope on a Tightrope, Cornel West
  11. Silent Covenants: Brown V. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform, Derrick Bell
  12. Black Sexual Politics, Patricia Hill Collins
  13. Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon
  14. Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon
  15. The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, Glenn C. Loury
  16. Fences, August Wilson
  17. Postcolonialism: A very Short Introduction, Robert J. C. Young
  18. Native Son, Richard Wright
  19. The Outsider, Richard Wright
  20. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, Dorothy Roberts
  21. The Miseducation of the Negro, Carter G. Woodson
  22. A Gathering of Old Men, Ernest Gaines
  23. A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines
  24. Pedagogy of Indignation, Paulo Friere
  25. Undoing Whiteness in the Classroom: Critical Educultural Teaching Approaches for Social Justice Activism, Virginia Lea
  26. Segu, Maryse Condé
  27. Malcolm X: The Last Speeches, Malcolm X
  28. African American Perspectives: Family Dynamics, Health Care Issues and the Role of Ethnic Identity, Marian Harris (I co-wrote a chapter in this book, shameless plug lol) 

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.

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.

Why Are They All Sidekicks? Black Representation in Superhero Films

 

As everyone is well aware, we are in the midst of a superhero boom period. The comic book superhero genre is probably as popular as it has been in decades. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a blockbuster behemoth that has made over $9 billion worldwide since 2008 as well as a producer of quality television on both ABC and Netflix. DC comics has followed suit, attempting to recreate the magic that Marvel made seem effortless. Yet, just as with every other genre of entertainment, the comic book/superhero genre has had an issue with representation of Black people. Unfortunately, there has been a relative consistent trend of portraying Black characters as either non-superhero supportive characters or superheroes who may not necessarily be at the rank of sidekick, but tend to mostly play informal sidekicks to White superheroes. Most of my discussion will be revolving around film adaptations during the last decade or so, but will also refer to materials from this comics to play these portrayals into the broader historical contexts of the characters.

Storm (X-Men Franchise)

The first character I will talk about is Storm from the X-Men franchise. Storm has long been a fan favorite. Blessed with the ability to control the weather, worshipped by some as a goddess, and one of the longest tenured X-Men, she is a force to be reckoned with. Even with all this, Storm has never seemed to truly shine on her own accord in many instances. In Uncanny X-Men #201, she beat Cyclops in a duel for leadership of the X-Men. Rather than set-up Storm as a formidable leader more than capable of heading the X-Men, much of the issue was spent positioning Cyclops as someone who just didn’t have it anymore and was consistently distracted by marital problems and insecurities. It’s unfortunate because the actual fight in the comic was a rather impressive display of Storm’s non-superpowered skills. Then, there is her portrayals in the X-Men movies. Storm in the films lacked any major character development throughout the series and was just another character neutered for the sake of positioning Wolverine as the focal character. There was a significant lack of gravitas to her character in the films, particularly when compared to her comic book and animated TV counterparts. X-Men: Apocalypse may end up having the best film depiction of Storm, but she is still positioned as subservient to another character as one the four horsemen of Apocalypse, the titular character.

Falcon/Sam Wilson (Marvel Cinematic Universe)

Sam Wilson was introduced in Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a former soldier who was a part of military program that resulted in his signature wings. A comparably better origin than his comic counterpart, who was a former pimp. Progress. Yet, as with his comic counterpart, Sam Wilson is certainly shown as a sidekick type character to Captain America. This relationship is further cemented in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, we see Sam Wilson for only 1 scene and we find out that during the time of the movie, he is tracking down Captain America’s once-believed-dead friend Bucky Barnes (a.k.a. The Winter Soldier). In Ant-Man, Falcon makes another appearance as the lone Avenger left to guard the headquarters. There is a physical confrontation between Falcon and Ant-Man, who is attempting to break into the Avengers facility to steal an item. Ant-Man gets the better of Falcon by shrinking and then disabling Falcon’s wings from the inside. Ant-Man proceeds to escape with the item, while the scene ends with Falcon reporting what has just occurred asking the person on the other end to not tell Captain America what happened. In true sidekick fashion. To those who may hold out hope for Sam Wilson due to the fact his comic book counterpart has taken over the mantle of Captain America, I would not get too excited about that. Captain America’s long lost friend Bucky Barnes once took on the mantle of Captain America and I see that likely to repeat itself in the film.

Lucius Fox (The Dark Knight Trilogy)

Lucius Fox is the character who gives Batman most of his toys and gadgets, other than that, we do not know much about him. We at least know that Batman trusts him, given that he knows his secret identity and that Bruce Wayne trusted him with some level of control in Wayne Enterprises. Morgan Freeman is wasted in this series. You can give him so much more than “guy who gives Batman stuff.”

Others

There are more examples of similar things happening to other Black characters in these movies. James Rhodes (War Machine) is always positioned as Iron Man’s sidekick coming to aid Iron Man when a task is too much. Heimdall is a servant of Thor’s Asgard as their guardian/gatekeeper, providing aid to Thor in times of need. Nick Fury is mostly portrayed as a behind the scenes character who will appear when one of the other heroes (likely Captain America or Iron Man) needs a good pep talk. We are never seen as truly running the show, always as background characters or the help.

Progress and Importance

Maybe given what is happening recently in comic books, the movies will be begin to follow suit. As mentioned before, Sam Wilson has taken on the mantle of Captain America, leading his own solo series. Marvel killed off Peter Parker in their Ultimate Comics and replaced him with Miles Morales, a Black Hispanic teenager. Miles Morales has since been positioned by Marvel comics as the main Spiderman, supplanting Peter Parker. Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing the new Black Panther comic coming out this year. The Black Panther makes his first cinematic appearance in Captain America: Civil War and will headline his own film in 2018’s Black Panther. Given Black Panther’s status as one of the first Black superheroes in comics as well as his demonstrated lack of deference to or dependence on the other main comic book heroes, this could be the start of more nuanced and impact portrayals of Black people in comic books movies.

These things are important not only because superheroes are very popular today, but because of the messages that are sent and the values that may be socialized through these movies. When Black characters are consistently shown as background characters or as sidekicks to a White superhero, it sends a message to the young Black children who likely watch these movies. It sends the message that no matter what heights they aspire to and achieve, they will always be second. Never first. When our superheroes are always secondary and subservient to others, what does that say about us mere mortals?

Why I Became a Community Psychologist

Ever since I could remember, I have always been interested in issues of social justice, particularly as it is related to African Americans and our place in this country. My grandmother would tell me about her experiences growing up and living in Mississippi. She was always very blunt and never sugar-coated things, particularly when it came to racism. There were things that she said and believed that I was unable to fully grasp at the time that she said it. A couple of those things being that racism never really went away and that they should have never integrated the schools. I did not agree with everything that she thought, but she definitely shaped my worldview and the lens through which I look at things.

As a child I read a lot of things related to Black history like the Civil Rights movement and ancient Egypt and Black historical figures like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Muhammad Ali. While all those things really interested me, they felt distant and far away, things of a bygone time. I grew up and lived in a predominantly low-income Black neighborhood so I had limited interactions with White people; racism and race were not quite as salient for me then or at least it did not have the same type of salience. One thing that happened that started to change that for me was an issue involving the confederate flag.

On the beach near where I lived, there was a structure where several flag posts stood with different flags on them. Of course there was the American flag, but there was also the Confederate flag. One day someone started sitting out in front the flags in protest. Days and days went by and he refused to leave. He would not leave until the flag was taken down. This went on for about a month or so until he finally left and the flag was eventually taken down. The discussions and debates surrounding the flag showed me that racism was not a thing of the past; there were still wounds present that had not quite healed yet.

Those previous situations still felt somewhat external to me; they were important issues, but they did not really resonate with me that deeply. During the summer before my freshman year in high school, we were given a reading for our honors English class. One of the books on the list was Richard Wright’s Native Son. I thought it would be an interesting book so I chose it as one of the books I would read and write about. For reasons I’m still unsure about to this day, the book really hit me. I think it was the first time that issues of race, racism, and identity had been crystalized to such a degree that I internalized it. Through my immersion into the story I became more aware of how society viewed Black people and what our place was in it. Coincidentally, this came right before I was to be made hyperaware of my Blackness because I had my first experiences of being the only African American in the classroom.

Such an experience was initially very shocking and unnerving for me. I was constantly on guard and wondering how people viewed me, so much so that my performance started to suffer due to my high discomfort. Eventually, I got over the discomfort, but there would still be reminders of my otherness, particularly during one semester in which I was called names by a White student every time I walked in the classroom. High school was definitely a time in which I began try to make sense of the racial landscape immediately surrounding me and in general. I always found myself being the only one or one of few African American students in advanced classes, despite the fact that I knew other African American students who were definitely capable of excelling at that level. I also noticed that in many ways, the experiences and contributions of African Americans were largely absent in the curriculum. I began to wonder if something else was going on. In trying to figure these things out, I used a lot of my class projects to study things that both interested me and helped me learn more about being Black in America and just what it all entails. In my English classes I wrote about things from the Civil Rights movement to the history of hip-hop to why African Americans should receive reparations. In my government class, I wrote a paper about the Dred Scott case. All of these things were topics that were not really covered in our classes and at some point as I got older, I began to understand why.

An area in which I got an unexpected lesson about where Black people stand in America was the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina. Living on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, I unfortunately have first-hand knowledge of the damage that was done and the lives that were changed. For the month or so after, we were pretty much cut off from the rest of the world because of the periods without access to lights, water, and cable. When we finally got access to television again, I began to have a better idea of how things were being portrayed in the media. One thing that I noticed was how similar acts were being reported differently based on the individual’s race. In newspaper articles, a picture of an African American getting food from a destroyed grocery store would be reported as “looting.” Yet, similar images of White Americans doing the same thing would be reported as “searching for food.” The African American hurricane victims were being portrayed in a negative light while the White victims were being portrayed in either a neutral or positive light. That difference in reporting angered me and I wonder what kinds of messages such reporting and information sharing sent to individuals. I was particularly angered because in times of desperate need, we were still denied our full humanity. Whether it was the lack of response on the part of the federal government or the unfair reporting, it was unfortunately clear to me that we were not valued.

Around the same time I had decided that I wanted to become a lawyer, because I thought the best way to help my community was through the justice system. An event happened, once again in my hometown, that paradoxically made me want to be a lawyer more, but shook my faith in making changes through the legal system. An African American man had been arrested by the police and taken to the county jail. Somehow he ended up dead after being in custody. Eventually video of what happened surfaced and it was revealed that the police officers had beaten him to death, while he was hog-tied and had a plastic bag over his head. Right there, plain as day, it was apparent something was terribly wrong and broken within the system. I believe whether or not the officers were charged, which they were, is irrelevant to the broader point of the complete disregard for Black lives. That has always stuck with me and it is something that I always think back about when I hear about the most recent tragedy or injustice.

After I graduated from high school, I attended Morehouse College. This was partially because I had attended a summer program hosted at the school and also because I tired of being the only Black person in my classes. I knew how important representation was and I wanted to see more people who looked like me in both the classroom and in the curriculum. While at Morehouse, faculty and administration had the goal of instilling in us a sense of responsibility to the community and that is one thing that I definitely took to heart. As previously mentioned, I originally wanted to be lawyer, but I became a psychology major rather than a political science or other major because I believed that having an understanding of how people behave would help me in my law practice. Eventually I became disillusioned with the idea of becoming a lawyer because I did not believe that it would be the best route for me to do work related to social justice. I decided that I would be a psychologist instead.

My first research experience was my time in the Ronald E. McNair program. As part of the program, I had to work in a research lab under a faculty mentor. I started working in Dr. Bryant Marks’ Morehouse Male Initiative lab. The research we did in the lab was related to the experiences that Black men had in college. My first project in the lab was examining racial identity as a predictor of mental health. Specifically, I looked at how racial centrality, private regard, and public regard predicted self-esteem and depressive symptoms. That was the first project that sparked my broader research interests that I would continue to develop. At first my research interests were mainly involving mental health outcomes as they related to racial identity, but I started to become more interested in education related outcomes given that our lab’s focus was the Black male college experience. During my senior year, our thesis project was examining the relationship between the attachment that an individual has to their school and their self-esteem. After that, I started to consider how such things were related to factors such as racial identity. My interests in racial socialization started to emerge because I realized that these aspects of identity did not come out of nowhere; they had to have come from some source whether it was parents, media, or schools.

My consciousness grew and through community psychology, I was able to better understand and articulate the various m phenomena I witnessed both in my personal life and in society. I first heard about community psychology at Morehouse. One of my professors was a community psychologist, but I did not really have an idea what community psychology was, yet it seemed interesting. During my senior year, I took a community psychology course with that same professor. Once in the class, my interest in community psychology grew as I was exposed to more of what it entailed. Perhaps coincidentally, I took this class during the same time I was applying to graduate school. I applied to other programs, but I made sure to apply to a community psychology program.

I wanted to go into community psychology because of the focus on enacting social change and engaging in community based research. I also felt that community psychology was the best blend of the different things I wanted out of a future career. I believed that community psychology, more than other areas of psychology, paid attention to the various contextual factors that influence people’s behavior. Also, the idea of a strengths-based perspective appealed to me very much as an alternative to the typical deficit-based perspective that is common in mainstream psychology. There was also something that gave a sense of hope that things can be improved to some extent. A positive outlook was something that was refreshing to me, given the pessimism that I have at times. I hoped that community psychology would be the vehicle through which I could help enact some level of change.

Through my first three years in the program, much of that time was spent trying to determine the direction in which I wanted my research and future career to go in. I used many of my class projects to develop ideas and get feedback on them. For example, in the Community Intervention, Prevention, and Social Change class, we each had to pick specific social issues and frame our weekly discussion questions and final position paper around this issue. The social issue I chose was the achievement gap between African American students and White students. For the final paper, I proposed advocacy and creating alternative settings as two intervention strategies that could be utilized to reduce the achievement gap. The reason I chose those two particular strategies were because of the ongoing internal dialectic I have. My preference for practical solutions and my exposure to political science and law lend me to see the utility of using political and legal avenues to enact social change. On the other side, my pessimism born from experience, has me wary of using political and legal means due to those systems being used to disenfranchise and oppress African Americans. That part of me wants to not bother with that and just create something outside of those existing systems.

In weighing the pros and cons of these approaches, I came to have a better understanding of what happens in schools, particularly those with large proportions of African American students. Reading the literature reminded me of my own experiences in school and I saw the same themes and trends over and over again. Disproportionate tracking places large proportions of African American students in lower tracks; couple that with the social isolation that the few African American students in higher tracks experience. Disparate disciplinary actions remove African American students from class at higher rates and too often expose them to the criminal justice system. It was at this point that I realized that aside from studying issues of race such as socialization and identity, I definitely wanted to do work that would help to improve the educational prospects of African American students, whether they are in K-12 or post-secondary institutions.

This realization helped me to figure out what I would be writing for my master’s thesis. The thesis merged together my interests in race-related factors such as socialization with my interests in academic outcomes for African Americans. My topic was the effect that racial discrimination has on the academic attitudes (educational expectations and educational value) of African American college students and whether being prepared for that discrimination (preparation for bias) can lessen the negative effects of that discrimination. I thought about this topic through an ecological perspective. At the individual level, there is the student and the attitudes of the student. At the microsystem level, there is preparation for bias from the family within one microsystem and there is the racial discrimination experienced in the school setting within another microsystem. These two processes interact at the level of the mesosystem to influence the student’s attitudes regarding education. Not surprisingly racial discrimination had a negative effect on both types of academic attitudes. Preparation for bias had a positive relationship with only educational value and did not lessen the effect of racial discrimination on any of the academic attitudes. In my head, it would make sense that being prepared for discrimination would in some way better protect a person from the harmful effects even though this was not reflected in the data. I started to wonder whether there was something more to it that I was not really thinking about. I thought that there may be something related to the experiences of African American college students that facilitated positive academic outcomes in the face of likely racial discrimination.

I realized that something that was likely missing from my analyses was the actual experiences of people. Although my strength is in quantitative methods, I do realize the weaknesses in such an approach given the reliance on numbers and data rather than people and experiences. For this reason, I took a qualitative methods course. My hope was that learning another skill set would allow me to better answer the questions that I had. I also hoped that I would come out of the course being able to ask better questions. For the final project, we had the option of creating an interview guide and piloting it. I chose to create an interview guide that I could use to attempt to understand the lived experiences of African American students in the education system. I wanted the guide to be able to help me find themes across people’s experiences and to determine what were the kinds of things that influences decisions about education. One thing I learned from the project was not to necessarily assume that the information that I get from the interviews would be negative. I acknowledge that I came into the project with a particular lens that colored the types of responses I thought I would get. I realized that I needed to be more intentional in framing the work within a strengths-based perspective. So my broad question ended up morphing into: what are the experiences of African American students that lead to positive academic outcomes? This question could be answered in several likely ways, so the goal now is to determine the best way of answering this broad question and figuring out more specific questions that help to answer the larger question.

In trying to answer questions like the one above, I often find myself trying to figure out what kind of scholar I want to be. My experiences both in school and outside school have shaped my worldview and in many ways I wonder how that influences my current and future development as a scholar. One thing I know for sure is that I do not want to be good at just one thing. I want to be able conduct face-to-face interviews with the same ease that I can run regression analyses. I want to do work that helps me personally and professionally and I also want to do work that helps to make a difference in the community. I think that if the research that is done does not have the potential to make a positive societal contribution, then it is not really worth doing. I do not want to be one of those ivory tower scientists that only worries about publication numbers and grants.

In wanting to be an effective community psychologist, I want to make sure I stay informed of not just the most recent research, but also the current events. I think that if one is not connected to what is actually going in society, then there is the risk of producing research that is irrelevant and outdated. In addition to reading current research articles, I also keep track of things going on through the news. I also read books about various issues that are mostly written by academics, but are written for broader audiences. A lot of those books get at the some of the issues that we study as community psychologists, but often it seems it is without all of the esoteric theory and jargon. It is much more grounded in the reality of these problems and is more relatable. I believe that there is a place for both in the field: empirical and theoretical articles and books for non-academic audiences. I want my work to be relatable and relevant to people, but I also want it to be accessible. I would like to be able to reach people in a way that has an impact. I do not want my work to be limited to journal articles that only a privileged few may have access to. I want the work to matter and to get to those who need it.

Related to the previous points, community psychology has come to mean several things to me. First, it means being able to see the larger picture of what goes on in society. Understanding how different levels of society impact people’s behavior allows one to get at the root of certain problems and be better prepared to intervene. Second, it means using our scholarship to help make people’s voices heard who would have not been heard otherwise. Community based research should incorporate the needs and input of those it would affect. Third, it means finding the inherent strengths within a community in order to build upon them to improve people’s lives. Too often mainstream psychology uses deficit-oriented approaches to research without acknowledging people as functioning and contributing members of their community. Finally, it means using our scholarship to enact social change. If our scholarship does not help to enact some level of change, then we need to rethink what it is that we are actually doing.

When I engage in those kinds of activities, I feel most like a community psychologist. There are some times when I question my place in the field and do not necessarily feel like a community psychologist. A lot of these situations stem from my racial identity. I feel out of place many times when I go to community psychology conferences and see how few African Americans are present. I feel out of place when I read all of the seminal articles in the field and most of them are authored by White men. I feel out of place when there are serious issues in society that are related to African Americans and the field seems to be relatively silent on these issues. I feel out of place, but then I remember that I have to change the situation by contributing to the field and helping to bring in more African Americans to the field.

For my future career as a community psychologist, I want to continue doing research, specifically on African American students across different stages. In addition to conducting research, I would like to be able to evaluate and consult programs that serve African American students.  I also want to use my position to expose more African American students to the field of community psychology, while also making sure that it is a field that is more ready to support them. In short, the reason I became a community psychologist is to improve the situation of the broader African American community.

Presenting Alternative Images

An anecdote Gladwell tells in Blink Suggests the importance of presenting alternative images when attempting to construct lenses that position people of color as capable and powerful. The story revolves around the race IAT (Implicit Association Test). The race IAT is a computer-generated test that measures our implicit racial valences (http://www.implicit.harvard.edu). More than 80% of all those who take this test end up having pro-white associations (Gladwell, 2004, 84). This includes about half of the 50,000 African Americans who have taken the test. Gladwell reports that after months of taking the test daily and scoring with the majority every time, one day an IAT researcher was stunned to discover that he got a positive association with images of black people. He was deeply puzzled by this turn of events. Finally, he realized that he’d spent the morning watching the Olympics on TV. From this, he and other researcher surmised that repetitive and recent exposure to positive images of black people had affected the racist features of his adaptive unconscious and thus his response to the IAT. They extrapolated that altering our exposure to the images we come into contact with regularly is one way to alter adaptive unconscious.

Ann Berlak, Undoing Whiteness in the Classroom: Critical educultural teaching approaches for social justice activism

Just finished watching the documentary series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross

All of the episodes deal with some heavy stuff of course.  The last episode is the one that actually got to me for real.  About half of the time covered in the final episode is during my lifetime.  While there was a sense of hopefulness in the episode, there was also this deep sense of loss and hopelessness in my opinion.  Whenever there seemed to be gains, something happen to set us back.  King’s assassination, the “War on Drugs,” the crack epidemic.  Hurricane Katrina and Trayvon Martin got me.  Surviving Hurricane Katrina and remembering the immediate aftermath…man I will never forget that and those memories really get to me sometimes.  All the destruction, people misplaced, the government just basically left people out there to suffer and die.  It’s hard to think about.  The Trayvon Martin was just another instance of Black bodies being devalued and treated as if they were dispensable, like trash that needed be thrown away.  Definitely makes me less comfortable walking around, especially in a neighborhood I’m not from.  All of those things just have me feeling a certain way right now.  I just wonder will things ever right for us.  Is this a losing battle that we’re fighting, will any of us alive today live long to see the battle won? I don’t really know the answers to any of those questions. All I can really say is that I know that I’m going to make sure that I’ll use my talents and skills to the best of my ability to aid in this fight.  This Ph.D. is going to mean something, it’s going to put to use, somehow someway.  Knowing everything that I know and having these experiences, there’s no way I will leave here without at least making some contribution to the struggle.  Whatever it is, I”ll have something to offer

What are we taught about race?

Ok it’s been a while since I’ve actually done an original text post, but I’ve got all this “creative” energy that I don’t really know what to do with.  I’m working on my master’s thesis and needless to say, the process is really difficult. So much thought and attention has to be given to the project because this is one of the first major milestones before you really establish yourself as a productive and competent scholar.  One of the things that I am interested in, and is hopefully the topic of my thesis, is the messages that African Americans receive regarding race and how it relates to academic outcomes.  I’ve always been interested in matters of race and just how race has such a pervasive impact on our lives.  What society tell us (parents, peers, school, media, etc.) definitely shapes how we see the world and the more frequently you receive certain kinds of messages, the more those messages color your view of the world around.  Unfortunately, in the area of race, there are so many messages that denigrate all forms of Blackness. These messages are so ubiquitous you don’t even notice them.  On television, we’re mostly drug dealers, gangstas, athletes, or entertainers.  There’s not enough doctors and lawyers and scholars because those things do not fit the national narrative of what it means to be Black.  The school system also sends it’s own messages about race.  They’re not as explicit as the messages in media but they can be just as damaging if not more damaging.  Tracking sends messages about race.  The dearth of African American in Advanced Placement classes and the over-representation of African American students in special education courses sends the message that African American students are not smart.  The curriculum also sends its own messages.  Most of what we learn in history classes revolves around American/European history and sends the message that Black people and other people of color haven’t made any important contributions to world history.  All we get in school is slavery and maybe the Civil Rights Movement.  Teachers and administrators play into this system due to the way they treat African American students. African American students are much more likely to punished and are more harshly punished for their actions.  Their interactions with African American students in general are problematic.  All of these can make students feel alienated and that they do not matter.  It can make them feel like academic success is not a viable reality for them.  The school system is an all too early reminder to African American children that they are fighting an uphill battle against racism and all of its manifestations (individual, cultural, structural/institutional).  With the constant bombardment of negative messages awaiting African American children and adolescents, parents are faced with the difficult task of preparing their children for this harsh reality.  This preparation can come in different forms.  Parents can teach children about their heritage and instill a sense of cultural or racial pride.  They can also emphasize how everyone has their merits regardless of race.  Parents can reinforce their child’s personal strengths.  Parents can explicitly prepare and inform their children of the discrimination they will face and the racial barriers they will have to overcome.  One of the reasons why I want to look at how this process impact academic outcomes is because the educational setting is a child’s first exposure to the larger society and this setting is a major socializing agent for roles and expectations of society.  Racial stratification is reinforced here.  I also want to find what leads to positive academic outcomes.  I know things aren’t looking good in general, but I want to be able highlight things that do work and what parents are doing right.  One of the problems with psychology (and any other research on African Americans) is that it too often operates from a deficit model and that it promotes victim blaming, looking at only what is wrong with the individual and how it’s their fault.  There has to be more about what we as a community are doing right.  Hopefully, I’ll be done with this project in a few months so I can get my master’s, but these are just the thoughts that are running through my mind.  I welcome any comments and reflections on what I wrote.