Being a Minority in Academia: Some Unexpected Challenges

An Opinion Piece

On my first day as a Ph.D. student, our department’s graduate coordinator sent out an email with the subject “Another UT-Austin Student of Color Attacked by Bleach Bomb.” I didn’t have an office yet, so I was settled into a comfortable chair in the lobby as I read the details. Here’s what happened: a black student walking to a friend’s house was hit with a water balloon full of bleach. He was the 5th minority student to be the target of this type of attack near the university. The supposed concept behind the bleach bombs was to “whiten” students of color (1)(2). After digging around on the internet and reading several more articles on the subject, I stood up from my lobby-chair, went to the bathroom, walked into a stall, and had myself a cry. The first week of graduate school can make even the toughest students break down into tears, but I had not anticipated that my first cry would be caused by reports of alleged racism so close to my campus.

I am half-black and half-white. I am told my appearance is racially ambiguous. Since moving to Austin, I have been called a “wetback” exactly twice while waiting for the bus and a “nigger” once while waiting in line for tacos with a research assistant, who is also black. I am not sharing this to make people feel bad or sorry for me. I am sharing this so you know that these things happen, and happen even in a university community in a relatively liberal city. Maybe something similar has happened to you, or maybe something similar has happened to someone you know—and if there is one thing I’ve learned since starting graduate school, it is that talking to people you trust can help in immeasurable ways. I have trust in our field and in the communities that social psychologists have built together. So I want to talk about some of the challenges I have dealt with, not as a minority in general, but as a minority student in academia. My hope is that by articulating these things, we can start a dialogue around building a strong, integrated community of support among students, advisors, and everyone in between.

Unexpected Challenge #1: Being asked about my race at inappropriate times.

This is a tricky situation, and there is no formula for when it is and is not appropriate to ask someone his or her race in a professional conversation. As such, I would like to provide an illustration of when I have felt it was inappropriate and when it made complete sense.

Inappropriate—During an interview: At a social psychology conference, I was near the end of a very positive and lengthy graduate school interview, when my potential advisor asked me whether or not I was a “legal minority.” A range of things went through my mind. First, I was not sure what he meant by “legal minority,” and I thought that perhaps he was asking about my immigration status. Second, I was not sure why I was being asked about my race during an interview for graduate school in the first place. He quickly clarified that he was asking me for scholarship purposes because I would be eligible for certain funding packages as a function of my minority status. The reason this felt like an inappropriate time to ask me about my race was as follows: an offer of admission had not yet been made to me, which could have implied that my race might play a role in whether or not I was admitted to the program. But despite the lack of propriety, I believe that he was navigating the difficult terrain of racial ambiguity as respectfully as he could. Given the fact that minorities make up less than 20% of Psychology Ph.D.s (3), it is not unreasonable to assume that this was the first time he had been in this type of situation. He is not to blame for his potential lack of experience with minority candidates; institutionalized racism* is to blame.

Advice: In these situations, I believe it is important for students to respond with as much patience and understanding as possible, which can sometimes be difficult. In the situation described above, I am quite sure I stared into space silently for longer than expected—then eventually managed to confirm that I would legally qualify as a minority. However, the more we promote dialogue around when and how to tactfully discuss racial identity, the more prepared students and advisors will hopefully be to communicate respectfully with one another.

Appropriate—When the deal is done: After you’ve been offered admission to a program, it makes rational sense that your new advisor will want to ensure that you apply to any and all scholarships available to you, which means they may need to ask about your race. After my offers of admission, six advisors all inquired about my race in a range of appropriate and creative ways. One advisor in particular handled the situation with exceptional thoughtfulness. She said: “I apologize you have to deal with issues of race during what is already a very stressful process of choosing a graduate program, but I want you to know that I am asking you about your race for both scholarship opportunities as well as because it is vital for me to feel connected to my students, and understanding their racial identity is an important part of that.”

Advice: As a graduate student in general, I believe it is important to always let people know when they have made you feel comfortable and supported, especially around sensitive topics like race. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but consider sending an email or having a conversation where you say: “Hey, I really appreciate the way you handled this.” There is a lot a confusion and well-intentioned curiosity around talking about race in our field, and vocally expressing appreciation for respectful behavior will go a lot farther than punishing disrespectful behavior.

*Institutionalized racism is a term that describes the way a government or other public and private institutions systematically afford one racial group an array of social, political and economic advantages, while marginalizing and putting at a disadvantage other racial groups.

 

Unexpected Challenge #2: Coping with research findings that suggest racial bias is alive and kicking.

One of the most meaningful services social psychologists have provided to society is fearlessly lifting the veil on racial bias—in schools, in workplaces, in social settings, between friends, and amongst families. That being said, I could not have anticipated that I would feel anything but pride at how progressive much of the research is in our field. But it turns out that I also have many unexpected negative emotions in response to research that exposes personal and institutional biases concerning race: anxiety, anger, and sometimes weakened self-esteem. It is essential that we continue to publish these types of findings because they have played a central role in fighting against racism, but when these findings are discussed in classrooms or at conferences, it is important to remember that the results may feel particularly personal to minorities.

For example, at a conference in Washington, D.C., a photograph of a black man being lynched was displayed on a huge projector screen as an illustration of mob mentality and racial extremism. I think that everybody in the audience was understandably horrified, but for black students and faculty in the audience, the image may have been especially impactful. For comparison’s sake, I cannot imagine a researcher ever displaying an equally graphic image of a woman being raped to illustrate the issue of sexism. The talk was outstanding, but I remember experiencing a strong feeling of demoralization at its close. This does not mean that my enthusiasm for the research was tempered, but rather that I found myself having to sort through a variety of complex self-relevant emotions in response to the research. Am I at a disadvantage during negotiations and job interviews because of my race (4)(5)? Will people think of my skin as being “lighter” the more educated I seem (6)? Are people more likely to associate me with aggression and violence than they are a white person (7)? Do people think I feel less physical pain simply because I am a minority (8)? The answer to these questions tentatively appears to be “yes,” which is a hard, but necessary, pill to swallow. Nonetheless, I am proud of the work these researchers have done. Moving forward, I simply encourage people to remember that these findings are more than statistics; they are battles your fellow students have to fight.

Unexpected Support from Every Direction

Being black isn’t hard; being black is awesome. It’s being the subject of discrimination that is hard, and that is a fight we can all fight together. Almost everybody I know has experienced some form of discrimination because of their gender, age, year in school, sexual orientation, hair color, or any other number of personal characteristics. It took me a very long time to talk about the issues I’ve discussed here with anybody in my department, but the moment I did, I was met with overwhelming support. Liz Keneski, the President of this organization and my office mate, has been a constant source of inspiration. She reminds me that racism is not acceptable, that it should not be normative, and that she and others are more than ready to be allies in this struggle. These are things that are easy to forget if you don’t reach out to others and trust that you can be open about your experiences. Remember, your fellow students are on your side! Discrimination makes everybody angry, not just minorities. And this is definitely the field to be in if you want to be on the side that works to end it.

References:

(1) Sherman, B. (2013, August 23). Another UT-Austin student of color attacked by bleach bomb. Retrieved January 10, 2015.

(2) McGuinness, W. (2012, October 4). Bleach balloons launched at minority students at University of Texas. Retrieved January 10, 2015.

(3) Smith Bailey, D. (2004, February 1). Number of psychology PhDs declining. Retrieved January 10, 2015.

(4) Kubota, J. T., Li, J., Bar-David, E., Banaji, M. R., & Phelps, E. A. (2013). The price of racial bias intergroup negotiations in the ultimatum game. Psychological Science, 24, 2498-2504.

(5) Kouchaki, M. (2011). Vicarious moral licensing: the influence of others' past moral actions on moral behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,101, 702-715.

(6) Ben-Zeev, A., Dennehy, T. C., Goodrich, R. I., Kolarik, B. S., & Geisler, M. W. (2014). When an “educated” black man becomes lighter in the mind’s eye: Evidence for a skin tone memory bias. SAGE Open, 4, 2158244013516770.

(7) Payne, B. K. (2001). Prejudice and perception: the role of automatic and controlled processes in misperceiving a weapon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 181-192.

(8) Mathur, V. A., Richeson, J. A., Paice, J. A., Muzyka, M., & Chiao, J. Y. (2014). Racial bias in pain perception and response: Experimental examination of automatic and deliberate processes. The Journal of Pain, 15, 476-484.

 

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