Thoughts Halfway Through The Semester (#PhDLife)

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I’m in an interdisciplinary social-justice oriented doctoral degree. I’m currently taking the first two of my core classes. Within the first few weeks of the semester, one of my classmates stated that he’s not comfortable talking about race in “divisive” ways. Last week, another one of my classmates complained mentioned the previous cohort (who was majority African American, btw) and how she felt like they brought personal experience into the classroom too much, as opposed to just sticking to talking about theory. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what they said or what she meant. But when foundational theory includes excerpts like this gem, how do you not bring yourself into the classroom dialogue?

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Kroeber, A. L. (2001). What anthropology is about? In P. A. Erickson, and L. D. Murphy (Eds.), Readings for a history of anthropological theory (pp. 141-154). Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

It seems to me that if in the course of learning the theories, one has to be faced with demeaning references to self and others from marginalized communities, yeah, people are probably going to engage critically with the theory in a way that reaffirms their humanity. I get it, we’re supposed to be dry and academic and intellectual. But that’s not realistic. It’s a critical perspectives degree program, people. Like it or not, the influences of those theorists are still present in the discipline, as I noted while listening to a (White) anthropologist talking about her experiences studying village people in Sri Lanka. Too, the point of getting a doctorate, as my professors keep reminding us, is to build the theories and knowledge practices of the future. To shape new knowledge structures, we have to confront the old ones. I discussed this to some extent in my weekly reflection paper:

From its beginning, there seemed to be a heavy focus on the societies anthropologists deemed “primitive” and “savage.” Levi-Strauss (2001) speaks of social anthropology as serving to capture history past in the living incarnation of history present, via the so-called primitive societies. This discipline mission was echoed in Edward B. Tylor’s work, in which he maintained that anthropologists help to connect with the past through “survival” societies, as demonstrated in classical cultural evolutionism thought (Erickson & Murphy, 2001). Kroeber (2001) explained this obsession with non-Western societies as “a desire to understand better all civilizations, irrespective of time and place…or as generalized principles as possible” (p. 144). He goes on to say that sociologists tend to linger on their own societies, as the focus of study, while psychologists have a tendency towards centering their own culture as the norm (Kroebel, 2001). The implication is that anthropologists are broader in their coverage and more inclusive of topic, however the manner in which Kroebel speaks of non-Western cultures, including African American culture, reveals a paternalistic nod towards Eurocentric values and White supremacy…I’m also curious what role anthropology and other social sciences may have played in supporting or subverting colonization and the “civilizing” and assimilation of non-Western societies. What inherent power dynamics are built into the discipline, which might affect how truth is perceived?

Of course, my classmates would likely say they didn’t meant it like that. Sometimes, though, intent is less important than impact. My question is: if you can’t bring personal experience, as a black person, into dialogue with theories in a social justice oriented degree program, when can you?? Also, given that some of the theorists we’ve read have been straight up racist and/or white supremacist in their orientation…is the expectation that we should not engage with that in the classroom? How would one ideally critique racist theorists and theories without bringing up race in uncomfortable and “divisive” ways? I genuinely want to know. I’m trying to wrap my mind around this dynamic of discomfort. Is it that there is fear around Black emotions? Is that what this is? Inquiring minds would like to know.

 

 

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African American Doctorates in Education Disciplines

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“Even after twenty years of affirmative action, African Americans constitute only 4.5 percent of the professoriate (Hacker, 1992). In 1991 there were 24,721 doctoral degrees awarded to U.S. citizens and noncitizens who intended to remain in the United States, and only 933 or 3.8 percent of these doctorates went to African American men and women. If every one of those newly minted doctorates went into the academy, it would have a negligible effect on the proportion of African Americans in the professoriate. The majority of the African Americans who earn Ph.D.’s earn them in the field of education and of that group, most of the degrees are in educational administration where the recipients continue as school practitioners” (Ladson-Bilings, 1999*).

That last line caught my eye. In the midst of a discussion about social benefits African Americans receive from civil rights legislation, as compared to Whites, seeing as that the primary recipients of affirmative action are White women, I was intrigued by this question of why many African Americans choose to pursue doctorates. Since the book chapter I was reading is from 1999, I decided to see if I could find more up to date data regarding representation in doctoral degree conferral. I wanted to know if the statistics remain the same almost twenty years later.

The National Science Foundation conducts annual surveys to measure the demographics of candidates who earn research doctorates, their fields of study, and their post-degree plans, among other data points.  In 2015, there were 2,281 research doctorate degrees awarded to African Americans, out of 55,006 PhDs earned nationally, of which 1,468 recipients were African American women. This was compared to 1,121 African American men who received research doctorates. According to the 2015 survey, roughly 15% of education doctorates were earned by African Americans, compared to a 6.5% representation in doctorate conferral overall. The other field listed in which African Americans have a relatively high representation was psychology and social sciences (8%).

Of the 761 African Americans (discipline non-specific) who already had firm employment commitments post-graduation, 53.6% of them were headed into academia. 11.2% had government jobs. 12.9% had jobs in industry-related fields. 8% were bound for the non-profit sector.

So then I decided to find out what African American PhD recipients (from 2015) were studying within education. Was there a singular focus on education administration still? There was not. In 2015, there were 635 doctorates conferred to African Americans in the field of education. But while there were 198 degree recipients in fields related to education administration, there were 308 degree recipients in fields related to education research. The three subfields in education research with the greatest representation of African Americans were higher education evaluation and research (80), curriculum and instruction (56), and counseling education/counseling and guidance (54).

African Americans in education doctorate programs were more likely to finance their own degree (58.8%), as opposed to holding fellowships and grants (16.3%), research assistantships (11.2%), teaching assistantships (5.3%), or having employer financed degrees (8.1%). This is compared to African American doctoral graduates, across all fields, who financed their own degrees (41.1%), relied on fellowships and grants (28.8%),  had research assistantships (13.7%), had teaching assistantships (11.6%), or had employer financed degrees (4.6%). It comes as no surprise, then, that African Americans lead in accumulated debt from graduate degrees overall, with an average debt of $43,337. The highest percentage of those who had accrued debt (21%) measured at $90,001+. Y’all, that hurts my soul.

The number of African Americans studying education doesn’t surprise me. Historically, African Americans were prevented from equal access to education under “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws. Post-Civil Rights era, issues relating to education equity for African Americans remain a concern. Within education, sociology, and family studies research, there has been an increasing research focus on how race, gender, socioeconomic status, and family wealth interact with availability of quality learning experiences and how this affects quality of life and life choice. It’s just kind of jarring that the majority of these doctoral graduates were paying for these degrees out of pocket or via loans. That’s some dedication…but it also leads back into talking about accumulated wealth. My theory is that African Americans are drawn to studying education because of a desire to make a difference. We all know education, academia or not, doesn’t pay that well. This means the majority of African Americans are breaking their backs (financially), to try to change systemic issues. Again, that hurts my soul. While doctoral degrees confer some sort of social capital (in which we use the system to beat the system, only to be beat again by the system), is it really worth it in the end?

One other interesting thing to note is that, while there has been discussion about the role HBCUs play in graduating doctorate recipients, the NSF also did a study in 2006 to measure whether there was any relationship between HBCU undergraduate programs and later pursuit of doctoral degrees. Measuring 1997-2006, they found that the top eight, as well as twenty out of the top fifty undergraduate institutions that produced future African American doctorates were HBCUs. I found this particularly interesting, given the ongoing stigma associated with HBCUs graduates as subpar in comparison to predominantly White institutions (PWIs). The top five schools to produce African American undergraduates who would later achieve doctorates were: Howard University, Spelman College, Hampton University, Florida A&M University, and Morehouse College. I’m curious how these numbers might be different or the same ten years later.

Things that I would love to know more about:

  • What motivates African American doctoral students to study education?
  • How is salary, socioeconomic status, and accumulation of wealth affected by the number of African Americans who self-finance their education?
  • How many African American graduates remain in education-related jobs post-doctorate?
  • What role do HBCUs play currently in producing African American doctorates?
  • The rates for other race/ethnicity groups who fund their own education doctorates is also very high. Where’s the funding for education students?

I guess I’ll go finish my readings now…

 

 

 

*Ladson-Billings, G. (1999). Just what is critical race theory, and what’s it doing in a nice field like education?. In L. Parker, D. Deyhle & S. Villenas (Eds.), Race is…Race isn’t: Critical race theory & qualitative studies in education (pp. 7-30).  New York, NY: Perseus Books, LLC.

PhD-ing It

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This week, I started classes for my doctoral degree. I must say, I’m glad the week is over. It’ll take a little while to get into the rhythm of being back in school.

I became serious about applying to a doctoral program in 2015, when I first heard about the Language, Literacy, and Culture (LLC) program that I am now enrolled in. However, I’ve had a Ph.D. in the back of mind since I was still in undergrad. One of my professors in my Bachelor’s program really wanted me to go to grad school, because she thought it would be a good fit for me. She was my favorite professor, so I gave it some thought. When I did go back, however, it was to get a Master’s in Library and Information Science, not a Master’s in Reading Education, as she’d suggested.

But I also remember, while still in undergrad, presenting a career plan to my parents with alternate paths. One track was to teach K-12 for a little while and slowly move in that direction and then ultimately get the Ph.D., if I was still interested when I tired of teaching K-12. I remember my dad saying if I was really interested in a Ph.D., why didn’t I just go straight for it and not meander about on my way? That stuck with me.

Later, at one of my teaching jobs, I had a coworker who was in the process of applying for her Ph.D. in Communications. We were pretty good work friends and hung out a lot outside of work. Talking with her about the process and expectations reminded me that maybe I wanted to enroll in a doctoral program as well.

I started my MLIS in 2013. The further along I got in the program, the more my interest in doctorate studies reemerged. At that point, I was interested in teaching in academia as a tenure-track professor, so I started looking into the tenure process and reading blogs by academics and former academics. Honestly, they made it sound like academia was a scourge worse than death to be avoided at all costs and that one should not pursue a Ph.D. if one did not want to be a professor. Because no jobs.

As time went on, I graduated from my MLIS program, but I was no longer sure that I wanted a doctoral degree. So I tabled that idea and set about finding a job.

By the time I found out about the LLC program, I was an academic librarian and I knew I didn’t want to be a tenure-track professor. I was more interested in leadership and research. The LLC program was attractive to me immediately, because of its interdisciplinary nature and potential for application across different platforms. It was all the things I love to the learn about and discuss! Sooo…basically spend several years reading and writing about social inequalities, so I could research action-based solutions to social problems?? Yes please! Sign me up. I remember telling my coworker at the time (well, okay, I told pretty much everyone) about the program and she was like, “When you talk about this program, your eyes light up. You should do it.”

I decided to wait until the following year to apply, so that I would be finished with my residency by the time I started the program. I spent that year investigating the program more in-depth and talking to professors, current students, and alumni of the program, as well as reflecting on what I wanted to gain from this experience. The more I learned, the more I felt this was a great match for me and my research interests. I also wanted to be able to develop my research a bit more, to inform my writing sample and the application. I decided if I was going to get a Ph.D., it would be this program or nothing. Because I didn’t want to get a degree just to have a degree.

I applied to the program in December, interviewed in February, and was accepted to the program a few weeks later. (In hindsight, that process went much faster than it felt.)

I will be pursuing the doctoral degree while continuing my position as an academic librarian full-time. (Yeah…bye-bye free time.) At times, this blog may serve as a reflection space for ideas I encounter in the curriculum. For example, I’m currently reading articles about critical pedagogy and critical race theory, which is giving me all the thoughts and feels, so that will be a topic in the near future. 🙂

Now, I do have to admit, being in a doctoral program feels weird at times. Or all the time. I come from a family that places a high value on education, but for whom the opportunity to pursue education has not always been a reality. Of my grandparents, only one ever completed a Bachelor’s degree. All four of my grandparents came to the DMV from southern states during the Great Migration, looking for opportunities and change in the 1940s and 1950s. Neither of my parents had a chance to finish their Bachelor’s degrees and it’s our (my siblings and I’s) generation for whom a college degree is somewhat taken for granted.

As a family genealogist, my family history is almost always on my mind. I’m in this program for me, but in a way, I’m also in this program for them. My focus on literacy, race, and social inequities, is because I have seen the very real effects of what it means to withhold literacy from an entire population when economic success, power of voice, and humanity are granted to those who can operate within a specific knowledge sphere.

I will not be the first person in my family with a Ph.D., as I have a cousin with a doctorate (shout out to my cousin). But it is sobering to look at my many lineages and remember that just a few short generations ago, my ggg-grands were bending over backwards to move on from slavery and give their children a chance to become literate, even though they themselves never would.

I’m currently reading the memoir by Trayvon Martin’s parents. His mom, Sybrina Fulton, discusses how she made the choice to go back to school to finish her degree after having her children, because she wanted to set an example for them to always seek excellence. She said, “…each generation has to do a little bit better than the last generation.” Each of my generations have tried to do a little better than the last, in terms of opportunities, education, and resources. It’s that determination that has allowed me to be here.

So for you. My dad. My mom. My grandparents. My greats. My great-greats. My great-great-greats. My great-great-great-greats. And all the ones whose names I don’t know and may never know. Thanks for getting me here. I stand on your shoulders.

I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise. 

— “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou

 

Librarianing Abroad: Two Weeks in South Africa

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I recently returned from South Africa, where I went as a faculty assistant for a short-term study abroad class. Ironically, right after I returned, I saw an article about librarian-led study abroad trips on In The Library With The Lead Pipe. So that’s my next adventure in the works 😉

The sociology course studied the legacy of Apartheid, looking at inequality and resistance from an international perspective. Lasting about two weeks, we split our time between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Our experiences ranged from touring Robben Island where anti-Apartheid political activists were imprisoned to attending lectures at the University of Johannesburg to penguin watching on the Western Cape to visiting Langa township in Cape Town (which I fell in love with and am currently plotting my moving plans) to observing the stark disparities in housing conditions and availability in urban Johannesburg and much, much more. It was a bit of a whirlwind trip and every bit as much of a learning experience for me as I’m sure it was for the students.

Perspective

I visited South Africa last summer, as a tourist, with friends. As such, my exposure was mainly to Cape Town proper and all the beautiful things. I was certainly aware of the troubled history of race relations in South Africa and suspected that there were ongoing challenges, especially given the country’s relatively new democracy and current leadership. Last summer, the driver who took us from the airport to our lodging happened to be black. He told us about how black and brown people largely still live in segregated communities, before dropping us off in what he termed as “rich, white” neighborhood. And it was. Very white, to the extent that we were pretty much the only brown faces aside from wait staff at restaurants. Because that’s what having American dollars does.

So when I returned to Cape Town this summer as part of a study abroad trip, it was to a familiar city, in more ways than one. In some respects, South Africa reminds me of home. There’s de facto segregation. There are white people in denial, complaining about affirmative action. There is white supremacy. There are misguided liberals who want to do and say the right thing, but still don’t ever really interact with the communities they’re speaking on behalf of. There are black and brown people passionately advocating for change, because their lives depend on it. There are apathetic folk. There’s abject poverty that follows the path of redlining in urban and suburban regions. And there was the ever-present clerk or “security guard” to follow me around the store and make sure I’m not stealing anything since, you know, my skin is brown. Therefore, I am a suspect.

But I guess it should remind me of home, since our histories are so intertwined. In fact, the U.S. was one of the countries South Africa studied before implementing Apartheid. Under Apartheid, American leading politicians largely turned a blind eye, while our CIA played a role in training the South African equivalent (as we learned at one museum) and imprisoning those who were against the system. It’s amazing to me how simply desiring to be treated as human can so easily become a crime. And how many people have died, in South Africa, the U.S., and other nations, to try to realize this dream.

Parallels

Race has played a huge role in the development of South African society. Starting with segregated communities following colonization by the Dutch and the British, the emphasis on white and non-white snowballed before culminating in what we know as Apartheid. I found it interesting that there was this alternative history being shared in conversation with South Africans involved in the cultural heritage and tourist industries about how pre-Apartheid everyone lived harmoniously and got along. Me being the skeptic that I am (and having some prior knowledge of South African history), I did some digging around and verified that, yes, segregation was a thing well before Apartheid was formally enacted in 1948. After all, Matahma Ghandi was involved in anti-segregation work in the 1920s…which made me wonder why this story was being told and did the tellers actually believe it? How does creating alternative histories impact the integrity of cultural heritage work? Might cultural heritage and information institutions not be neutral after all? *gasp*

Under Apartheid, race became white (self-explanatory) and black (everyone who wasn’t white. This included black Africans, coloreds, Indians/Asians, and those of Muslim faith). Persons of color residing in communities that were reclaimed or desired for white people were forcibly removed and resettled in segregated townships and homelands under the 1913 Native Land Act. Mind you, white people were the minority in South Africa, but they had political power. Control was maintained in part by limiting access to quality education. Education for non-whites was dismal by comparison, particularly for black Africans. Higher education was primarily conducted in Afrikaans, which very few black Africans were fluent in.

In addition to housing and education, discrimination was seen in criminal justice and employment practices. The racial hierarchy put those of European ancestry at the top. Coloreds (those descending from mixed race individuals) and Indian/Asians (often lumped together) were second tier, while black Africans were regarded as the bottom rung of the social ladder. In the criminal justice system, this hierarchy was enforced, with black prisoners being given worse treatment and facilities than colored and Indian inmates. Black South Africans essentially had their citizenship stripped under Apartheid and were required to carry passbooks at all times. White employers had to sign the books each week in order for them to be allowed in the city, where whites resided. Without  the passbook in hand (or without the signature), blacks could be arrested and beaten. One woman said they got in the habit of saying goodbye to their families each time they left the house, because no one knew if they would return home that evening. Prison was just as much of a likelihood. Sometimes, white employers would force black employees to forego wages in exchange for a signature. Resistance efforts included literate black South Africans forging signatures for themselves or others.

In the workplace, people of color were often relegated to labor positions, such as working the sewer or electric lines. Even in those positions, the racial hierarchy was enforced and they were reminded of their “place.” For example, at one museum, we learned that female, black prison wardresses were required to wear a separate uniform, could not advance in rank, and were required to remain on their feet for an entire shift (which would last twelve hours). White wardresses were afforded chairs to use during their shifts. I’m telling you, the detail put into this system would be impressive if it weren’t so depressing.

The legacy of Apartheid is obvious even today. Quality education for children of color in K-12 remains a struggle; student activism against colonialist higher education structures is present. Housing remains an issue, with Johannesburg and Cape Town being overcrowded and under-resourced. Stereotypes prevail that cast black South Africans as lazy and untrustworthy and colored South Africans as thieves. There aren’t enough jobs to go around; unemployment rates are highest among black young adults aged 18-35. Xenophobia towards immigrants creates tension, as Africans immigrating from other countries are seen as better workers (see stereotypes) and hired over native South Africans. It seems you can’t create an unequal system and expect it to go away in twenty years, when it took hundreds of years to create. The problems continue to exacerbate rather than subside. Sound familiar, America?

In Johannesburg, the city center is predominantly black and brown, because of white flight post-Apartheid. The suburbs encircling the city are white communities. One of the most striking things I encountered in Johannesburg was the way that middle and upper class white people (basically all white people, because Apartheid) lock themselves away. They reside in nice homes in white-only neighborhoods, but remain behind walls with barbed wire on top. They hire security guards to patrol the streets around their homes…I couldn’t help wondering what they are afraid of.

Librarianing

In terms of what I did as a librarian and assistant faculty person pre-trip, I engaged in research to compile a packet on the HIV/AIDS crisis for students who might be interested in exploring this as a final project. This packet was made available via Blackboard, along with a few other topics the leading faculty put together on criminal justice and housing reform.

While in South Africa, I accompanied my colleague, the onsite coordinator(s) and the students on excursions to various lectures, cultural heritage sites, and tourist locations. And I talked, a lot, with my colleague about parallels to the U.S. and other nations that attempted or succeeded in building social systems around race. We brainstormed about what to revisit during debriefing sessions with the students and provided “actually…consider….what about…are you sure?” statements to push them to think more critically about their initial reactions. The students were responsible for writing journals a few times a week, so occasionally we bounced ideas around to restructure journal assignments.

Oh, and I said, “Actually I’m a faculty member” about a hundred times when people mistook me for a student. Interesting bit of trivia: in South Africa, “faculty” are what they call colleges within a university. So instead of being liaison to the College of Education here, I might be liaison to the Faculty of Education there. Another trivia fact: I would be in gross violation of the borrowing privileges at the University of Johannesburg Library, because they have stricter limits. Can you imagine being allowed only six items at a time as an undergrad??

Upon returning to the States, I served as the primary contact for questions about the final assignment (my colleague remained abroad) and to provide any research assistance with developing topics. I also accompanied the students home from South Africa. And they all made it in one piece, although it was a little iffy there for a minute, with last-minute security checks. I learned that when you’re traveling internationally, probably don’t tell students to be at the gate ten to fifteen minutes before boarding, because A) They might show up five minutes before and B) There might be a surprise extra screening that will result in actually getting everyone on board ten minutes before the door closes and this will kinda stress you out.

That was my two weeks in brief. There was a whole lot more to the experience, so I could probably write five more blog posts…

Coming out as Black: Negotiating identity in professional settings

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“If every time we felt unwelcome in a space we decided not to stay, then that space would, indeed, be no longer for us. In taking ourselves out of a place, we designate that place as not our own.”

~ Rori Picker Neiss

As a professional of color, I have a lot of experience being in spaces that seem to not be for me. When I say it wasn’t for me, I don’t mean that as a reflection on my ability. I say that as a reflection of the structures, expectations, and allowances of professionalism within those environments.

Last week, I attended ACRL. Frankly, I came into the conference feeling tired and not much like being there. I was coming out of a couple of emotionally intense weeks, because of stuff going on in my personal life. The last thing I felt like doing was going to sit with a bunch of strange people and talk about the same ol’ conference things. But before I got to ACRL, I attended the #critlib unconference that preceded it. There was a session at the end of unconference that ended up being mostly LIS practitioners of color talking about self-care. One of the things that came up over and over again was this feeling of isolation as an Only, along with all the accompanying issues that come with being an Only: the lack of community, the lack of understanding from administration and colleagues about social issues related to cultural identities, the lack of recognition of work and professional accomplishments, the need to work two or three times as hard in order to prove your existence was/is not a mistake. The microaggressions.

I attended #critlib with one of my good friends, which was cathartic in and of itself. The circle-talk on self-care was good, but I still wasn’t really feeling ACRL. On the second day, though, I ran into one of the women from the #critlib circle and we talked. And then I connected with other librarians of color and we talked. I ended up with a group of conference buddies who redeemed my conference experience. And it was nice to know that my frustrations with the conference and the profession were not all in my head. It also touched something deep inside that I didn’t realize needed touching.

The conversations I had with my professional peers of color at ACRL reminded me of one I had during my intergroup dialogue (IGD) facilitator training this past summer, in which one of my IGD peers of color and I talked about the idea of coming out as Black in the workplace. And what it means to work in a predominantly white workplace versus one with a high percentage of people of color. I volunteered at an African American cultural heritage institution before I started my residency and I remember telling my IGD colleague about how amazing it was to be in environment with so many African American professionals and to not have to feel on guard all the time or to feel like I had to constantly explain myself, my culture, or my existence. Being there felt like home. And that’s not a feeling I often get to have in a professional setting.

One might argue that your workplace shouldn’t feel like home. And I agree to a certain extent. I mean, I’m at work to do my job, get my paycheck, and go home. But when, like in one of my past workplaces, you overhear your white colleagues publicly joking about African American death as a good thing, because then there are less of them around…it does something to your psyche. How likely is advancement, professional support, or even exposure to the right information or opportunities, if the death of people who look like you is fodder for lunchtime jokes? It contributes to a hostile workplace.

I wasn’t always conscious of or vocal about these things, though.

I started my professional career in early childhood education. I worked as a literacy educator with a nonprofit that partnered with the local school system. My first year, I was one of few people of color on the team. The second year with that organization, I transitioned to a different role. For one part of my job, I worked solo in multiple elementary schools. The other part of my job was collaborative in a different school. My colleagues were all women of color. The leadership in our organization were mostly white. Most of the teachers in the schools I worked at were white. Most of the students and their parents were African American.

As an educator, I was trained to teach, but not make waves. I was supposed to be respectable, above reproach. Care for the children, yes. Advocate for them, yes. But also, stay in your lane. And don’t be visibly Black. I had private conversations with African American teachers about how frustrating it was for them to work in predominantly white environments. How they watched their colleagues of color get forced out. The pressures they dealt with. I would talk to white colleagues and hear about how so-and-so was such a horrible teacher, had attitude issues, etc. And then I’d talk to my Black colleagues and get a completely different story from their perspective. And one of my personal miffs: in most school systems, teachers aren’t allowed to wear anything on their heads unless it’s for religious reasons. I used to wear headwraps a lot, before I graduated undergrad. So I was particularly salty about that detail. I got over it, though. But you know who wears headwraps, right? Mostly Black and brown people.

Additionally, becoming a professional in predominantly white spaces meant learning whole new schemas about how to conduct oneself; the language, the ways you interacted with those in seniority. For example, I grew up in a pretty traditional African American community. There, elders were highly respected. You don’t talk to adults any old kind of way and you don’t call them by their first name without a title (Aunt, Uncle, Ms., Mr., Brother, Sister). And there are reasons for this that go back to historical oppression outside the community. It was really hard for me to transition to calling those older than me and those in authority by their first names. Likewise, becoming comfortable with challenging authority and speaking out when I saw something wrong. It took time to get to that point. To make it more difficult, when I encountered older Black adults in my work, if I accidentally step outside the bounds of what I knew to be culturally acceptable, I would be scolded. Because I should know better. I had to know both worlds and when to apply which rules with which people.

My first LIS job was a private university, which had a predominantly white student body. I was the only person of color on my team and maybe department (there may have been one other, but I don’t know how she self-identified). There were a handful of us on the entire library staff, but it was a very siloed institution. It was here that I first “came out as Black.” Growing up and training to be a teacher, there was a strong emphasis put on looking professional. For this reason, I typically wore my thick, natural hair in braids or twists, I wore small earrings, etc. But while at that institution, a few things happened:

  1. I was deep in the middle of genealogy research. Something about learning who I was and where I came from gave me confidence. You know they don’t teach African American history…anywhere. It’s a niche subject. But as I realized my family has been here a long time and played a major role in building this country; even after being disrespected, mistreated, and forgotten, we’re still here. So you can’t tell me what to do.
  2. Wearing natural hair became more en vogue. I’ve always been natural, but I used to think natural hair worn “out” was not professional. Seeing other people rocking their tresses made me curious to try it.
  3. I began studying African American studies and gender studies as a discipline (self-taught knowledge is still knowledge). The library had a decent collections budget and I voraciously read anything that came in in my interest areas and mulled over things a lot.
  4. I found my voice. The school was a very liberal institution, meaning that people considered themselves open minded (whether they were or not). It was a great environment to start pushing the envelope and having dialogues with colleagues and students about critical issues. The more I raised my voice, the less I was inclined to stay quiet. And there were always things to bring up.
  5. The dress code was very casual. Like, t-shirt and jeans casual. I still tried to be semi-professional, because as an Only…well, you know.
  6. I met other Black women in academia. Let me tell you, Black women in academia are a special breed. Black women in general are some of the most supportive, giving, fierce, amazing people that ever were. Then add the fire and tenacity it takes to deal with academia nonsense on a daily basis and you get the picture. They opened their arms to me.

The end result was that one day I said, To hell with all this. And one day, I came to work with my hair out and hoop earrings. And that was my coming out day. Granted, I think my speaking against stereotypes of Southeast DC, objecting to generalizations about Black folk and microaggressions, and staging a mini temper tantrum over being ignored in staff meetings had already outed me. But it was now complete. And there was no going back. I had some of my best hair experiment days while at that job. My signature earrings made their way into my professional wardrobe during that time. And you know what? I was still regarded as a quality employee. You know what they say about positive-negative reinforcement.

When I came into my current job, I toned it down a bit. At least initially, until I got the feel of the environment. Though I did inquire prior to my first day, whether purple hair would be okay, as I was on a purple braids kick at the time. I ended up showing up with red braids instead. And proceeded to go through purple, red, and blue braids for my first several months. People commented on my frequent dye jobs. I forget that a lot of white people don’t know many Black people and don’t know about extensions. 🙂

It’s also a more conservative professional vibe, when it comes to dress and attire. (I miss my jeans.) Over time, I’ve tested the waters by rocking my fro. Which at times, feels uncomfortable, because I am, once again, one of a handful of people of color. I’ve found that no one has said anything, at least not to me directly, but that some of the white faculty I work with are endlessly fascinated by my hair and the rapid transitions I undertake in styling. I’ve gotten used to the comments about my earrings and take it in stride. I get that I am different. Every day is another lesson in code-switching and identity balancing.

On the weekends, you might find me in a headwrap with sunglasses and wide-legged pants, being all the way Black. Or you might find me in sweats and braids, curled up under a blanket, being all the way introvert and Black.

 

 

Disclaimer: I was talking to a friend some time ago about code switching and the process of “becoming professional,” both within and outside of academia. She encouraged me to write about my experiences. This is my attempt to do so. In so doing, I make no claims of speaking from the black experience, the black female experience, or the black information professional’s experience. Though there may be some similarity to the experiences of others,  I speak from my experience alone. 

 

 

 

Holiday reflections on “self” and self-care

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As I prepare to embark on a much looked-forward to break, I wanted to share some reflections from another blog of mine:

…I attended a presentation on campus for a candidate interview. At the conclusion of the presentation, the candidate asked the attendees to share one thing they were going to do between now and inauguration day to practice self-care. Almost everyone in the room shared something about looking forward to being with family. Given the rather uncertain present and the constant immersion into justice and works of equity, the people, I think, were stretched thin. They were tired.

As I listened to each person speak, I thought of how little we actually know of each other. How we wear the mask and hide our eyes for safety’s sake, in order to survive. The vulnerabilities that we allow to be seen are only the tip of the iceberg. But with those who know us best, the masks fall off. The tiresome duties of being human can be left on the floor with dirty laundry as, in some respects, we’re allowed to be young again. Holidays are sometimes more than days off work, but days off call, to refresh our human performance. For we all perform in some way.

Everyone intrinsically desires to not have to fake it. But we are afraid, even in our desire, to be real with those who may despise our realness or wound us in their quest to know. And so we reserve our truest selves for those few. Home represents the ability to go to a place where we can be nurtured, safe, and know that we belong. We only want to be held. When not with physical arms, with space and energy.

For some, family is biological blood; for others, family represents the people to whom you belong, blood or not. Family is people who can’t get rid of you if they wanted to; family is who we always come back to; family is those who know our crazy and our calm and love us still. However, whatever, family means to us, family allows us space to be the whole people that we are, in all of our messiness.

And this is what we want, most of us. To be wholly present, in all of our messiness. But we only do this with a few. Parents, siblings, lovers, friends. These are the ones we call family. The witnesses to our need to be known and to know. To be counted. To be seen.

You are terrifying and strange and beautiful. Something not everyone knows how to love.

— Warsan Shire

So love the families you have, whoever they be, and be loved. In that, know that your definition of family is enough. You love what’s yours; others love what is theirs. And therein, let us be grateful.

I’m thankful for the people I call family, whether blood or not. And I’m thankful for the opportunity to recharge and gain a fresh perspective to bring back to work in January. I hope everyone has a wonderful winter break and if indulging in holidays is your thing, enjoy it to the max!

To 2017, whatever it may bring.

In which I return to my lists

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The sun is perfect and you woke this morning. You have enough language in your mouth to be understood. You have a name, and someone wants to call it. Five fingers on your hand and someone wants to hold it. If we just start there, every beautiful thing that has and will ever exist is possible. If we start there, everything, for a moment, is right in the world.

~ Warsan Shire

It’s been a whirlwind semester. Remember how in Cinderella, the clock struck twelve before she had a chance to fully comprehend everything that was going on? I can identify a little bit with Cinderella.

I had a lot of good intentions for this semester. I was going to reflect each Friday on my instruction for the week; I was going to keep up with my blog; I was going to be on top of all the things….in case you haven’t guessed, none of that happened. I scheduled, planned, and taught classes and then scheduled, planned, and taught some more. The lightning spark reflections happened only in my head. But even if I never got to write any of it down, I did learn some things from my first semester of permanent-track employment.

Each year, I make a long list of things I want to accomplish or focus on throughout the year. I check in with myself periodically over the months; sometimes I add things to the list. I let other things go. At the end of the year, in December, I check in for the final time and celebrate my accomplishments and create a new list for the next year. I’m in the process of writing my 2017 list, but I wanted to share some of my  work-related list items that were either formal or informal “wants” for 2016:

Apply for jobs in the fall – I think I can safely cross this one off the list. I was offered and accepted a permanent track position at Towson University in July, so I get to continue to work with wonderful people in a supportive, creative environment. Excited to see what happens in the next few years.

Learn a new skill or brush up on an old skill – This semester, I’ve taught sessions for incoming freshman, seasoned upperclass-ers & grad students. I’ve worked with a lot of different faculty members and had to adjust my instruction to stress different skill sets in different classrooms. I also guest lectured in a few sections of a School Library Media course. What a cool way to be involved in the future of education and library practitioners! I was also a mentor for our student leadership program at the library and served on a hiring committee or two.

Cultivate new experiences (#NoRegrets) – In Spring 2016, I taught an undergrad course as an adjunct at one of our sister institutions. This semester (Fall 2016), I’m co-facilitating a course-integrated intergroup dialogue group. It’s been challenging and rewarding at the same time and I’ve learned a lot about myself as an educator, learner, and individual. Pretty neat experience. For next semester, I’m planning a student symposium with a theme of activism and resistance in the 1960s, which has also allowed me to get out and connect with others on campus with whom I might not ordinarily cross paths.

Get published (article, book, whatever) – I’m really excited about having a book chapter proposal accepted. It won’t actually be published for a few years, but I’m crossing it off my list nonetheless.

Be smart, keep learning – I’ve discovered so many new authors, talked to new people, and been exposed to many new things this year. I presented at some conferences and listened to people present at others. It all makes my learner’s soul very, very happy. Regardless of formal education, I believe everyone should be learning always (and we often are, even when we don’t realize it). Formally speaking, I also went ahead and applied for a Ph.D. program, to start in Fall 2017. We’ll see what happens. *fingers crossed*