One of academia’s biggest problems right now, tied with funding as the number one crisis facing higher education, is the gaping disparity between the demographics of undergraduates and the demographics of graduate students and faculty. The narrative of academia is the narrative of white men (and to an increasing extent, the narrative of white women, hi!). People of color are still shut out.
And so the next step, after recognizing a problem, is to think about why it’s around in the first place. It’s a complicated issue, and it can’t be covered in one blog post. I know, judging from the last two sentences, I am basically playing the part of Captain Obvious, but bear with me, please? There are gigantic institutional barriers to people of color entering academia. The educational system is in many ways a wolf in sheep’s clothing – painted as the great equalizer, a way to better your station in the world, quality education is disproportionately denied to people of color.
In academia, the further up the ladder you go (from undergraduate to graduate to post-doc to professor), the less support there is for people of color. The academic environment, especially due to its greater-than-average homogeneity at the graduate and professional level, can be an inhospitable and unwelcoming place for people of color despite its progressive reputation. Thinking about how to create a more welcoming environment, a truly safe space for people of all races, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender identities, and disability statuses, is important, and it will require a lot of conversation, and for people with privilege, a lot of self-guided education and introspection.
As a white person, I have a few things to say to my peers who share my privilege:
- Listen. Listen. Listen. There is little that you can do with your time that is more valuable than listening. Listen to people of color when they share their experiences. Listen to people of color when they voice their concerns. Listen.
- Listening is great, but it’s good to move on to the next step: acknowledgement. Acknowledge what people are saying. Do not get defensive. Do not try to make excuses. Do not call their concerns “too sensitive.” Do not take it personally (unless you’re told to take it personally). Acknowledge the comments and think about them.
- Educate yourself. Academia is really into the whole self-guided research thing, so it never fails to baffle me when people in academia seem at a loss when it comes to trying to educate themselves about the experiences of oppressed groups. Look at social justice issues the way you would your research – before you can embark on your research, you need to go through the literature and get familiar with the topic, and the same background preparation is equally useful in engaging in conversations about social justice problems.
- I’ve used this analogy before, but I find it useful, so I’ll use it again. We all have experience with class discussions. Generally, we are required to have done some reading or homework before we have the discussion. If I don’t do my reading or homework, I cannot fully participate in the discussion. I can listen and learn from others, but it’d be inappropriate for me to just charge ahead full steam and talk talk talk without doing the pre-requisite prep work. While I appreciate it if my friends offer to fill me in on the reading or homework so I am not lost during the class discussion, I do not expect them to help me out; it is my job to be prepared for class, not their job to prepare me. And even if I did do all the reading or homework, I wouldn’t want my voice to be the only one – class discussions are much more fruitful if many people have a chance to speak and interact. Take this attitude and apply to discussions about social justice issues, specifically the experiences of people of color.
Cultivating a culture of respect and inclusivity is crucial for making academia a welcoming and safe space for everyone. While it is clearly not the only thing that needs to be done, it is one step toward dismantling the barriers that are in place now. I would very much like to hear about the experiences others have with diversity in academia and what they or their universities or programs have done to address the lack of diversity at the graduate and professional level.
Also, I want to invite anyone who is interested in writing about these issues in a longer form to submit it to Persephone. If you want, I would be happy to dedicate posts in the Women in Academia series to exploring this issue further, and I would be thrilled to have another writer join me in this series to specifically address these issues. I present one voice and one perspective, and while the comments on these posts are always informative, thoughtful, and amazing representations of the different experiences in academia, I would love, if there is interest, to see more experiences and perspectives presented and discussed.