Imagine walking into your orientation, class, or job on day one and seeing folks who represent every color in the rainbow. You see your Black brothers and sisters and your Latinx cousins. You notice some Asian and Middle Eastern friends. You might even hear different languages. It’s beautiful. It’s the educational experience you’ve always hoped for. You sit back in your seat and breathe a little sigh of relief because you know this time it’ll be different. This time, you won’t be a token; you’ll be in one of many. Your voice will be heard and ya’ll might even be out here singin’ kumbaya.
Then imagine the professors or administrative team walks in the door. Nothing but white faces. You see it. You acknowledge it. But you’re still hopeful. As the year goes on, you realize that nothing is different. Those colorful faces you saw on day 1 serve no other purpose than to make the picture at graduation look more colorful. That was my experience in graduate school.
I grew up being the token. To some extent, I had become used to it. “Can you be in this picture on the cover of our flyer?” “We’d love for you to meet with our rotary club.” “What’s your opinion on this (insert any Black event in history ever)?” At a young age I was acutely aware not only of the idea of the token, but the feelings associated with it.
I began graduate school hopeful that something would be different. When I met my classmates, I was certain that would be the case. However, throughout the year I became disgruntled to find that very few of my professors looked like me or shared my experiences and even fewer of the syllabi for the required classes included scholarship written by people of color.
Herein lies the problem.
We’ve come to a point in time where we recognize the inherent problem with tokenism; it isolates underrepresented communities in an effort to “diversify” institutions. In an attempt to rid students of these feelings of isolation, tokenism’s neoliberal cousin, diversity has begun to appear more and more. It’s a buzzword, if you will. The problem, however, is that while some programs have begun to tout high numbers of students from different racial/ethnic backgrounds, very few have changed in regard to positions of power and authority or even in academic representation (faculty/scholarship). People continue to feel this isolation, but in new ways.
We feel it every day that there are no Black or Brown people (or at least not with tenure) in a particular program or department. We feel it every time we ask why no scholars of color are represented on the syllabus and we’re told to start an organization. We sense it each time particular journals or even our research interests are invalidated for one reason or the next. We understand all of the subliminal messaging: you’ll admit us, but you’ll never truly accept us. And while I acknowledge that this may not be the intention of those with power, the difference between intention and impact is real; the intentions to diversify a program may be pure, the impact of doing so without changing anything about the structure of the program is highly detrimental.
So where do we go from here? I’m almost positive there is tons of scholarship about this topic, but here are my thoughts:
The first step is to admit that diversity alone is not enough. What good is it if the organization looks diverse, but doesn’t work to serve the diverse needs of the diverse population? If academic spaces plan to make their programs truly equitable and suited to the needs of students, those making hiring decisions must begin to take a long hard look at the people currently represented in positions of faculty and administration compared to the student population. If Whiteness is overwhelmingly dominate in administration and faculty that’s a pretty large indicator that the effects of it (Whiteness) are going to trickle down to every area of student life.
Another solution is to look to students. As students, we often forget the amount of power we truly have at our institutions. While creating an organization is one way of going about making your voice heard, organizing is a completely different strategy that may hold even more power. Determine what it is you think your program should look and feel like to best serve students. Figure out who it is you have to talk to in order for change to happen. Schedule meetings, record everything, and follow up often.
The change won’t happen overnight and it will most certainly require hours upon hours of work. But if we truly want our programs and institutions to be reflective of equity and not just diversity, we’ve got to be willing to step up to the challenge.
The Blackademics - Tiffany & Autumn
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