Challenges for Graduate Students of Color in the Academy

You’re probably looking at the title, and then at my photo, and thinking, “Isn’t she white?” Yes. Yes, I am white. I was never a graduate student of color in the academy.

So, my insights are limited, and I don’t present myself as an expert on this subject.

But I did have a career that spanned no fewer than three racially-charged departmental environments. And during my time in these three departments, I tried my best to stay open and alert to the challenges posed to the white dominant system in those departments by the graduate students (and faculty) of color. I came to understand some of the ways that my own subject position and mode of operation were products of white privilege, and the many unthinking ways that I reinforced that through my work. I watched graduate students and faculty of color brutalized by the unacknowledged racism of the institution, and I did my best to serve as an ally. I don’t think I was always as successful as I wanted to be. But I did learn a thing or two. And it’s those things I share today.

First, my background. I went to graduate school at the University of Hawai’i. I got my first job at the University of Oregon. I got my second job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At Hawai’i the Anthropology department was deeply implicated in the conflicts on campus about the relationship of the University and the Native Hawaiian community. One cultural anthropologist on the faculty, not long before I arrived, had just been forced to abandon her research focus on Native Hawaiians after her informants revealed they had systematically and intentionally lied to her in her most recent published fieldwork project.

At the University of Oregon, the archaeology program, which was highly Pacific Northwest focused, had begun intensively recruiting Native American graduate students shortly before I arrived. When I was there, there were approximately five Native American students enrolled in the department, some in the Cultural Resource Management MA program, with the goal of getting training to manage their tribes’ museums, and some in archaeology and cultural anthropology Ph.D.s focused on their tribal cultures, languages, and histories.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, two Latina/o faculty members in cultural anthropology hired before I arrived had, over time, successfully recruited a group of approximately seven Latina/o graduate students, who were primarily enrolled in cultural anthropology Ph.D.s focused on a range of Latino, Mexicano, and Latin American cultural topics.

In all three of these departments, the presence of a “critical mass” of graduate students of color—that is to say, graduate students of “one” color, ie, from one particular racial and cultural background—fundamentally altered the department climate and profoundly challenged the graduate seminar environment.

At Oregon, because of a separate critical mass of white faculty members who were (within limits) willing and able to look directly at questions of race and their own privileged subject position, the department, at least during the years I was there, was able to adjust and grow as a result of these challenges.

At Hawai’i and Illinois, the departments proved unable to do this.

At Hawai’i, the cultural anthropologist who had previously worked with Native Hawaiians changed her research focus and left for a position on the East Coast. The department, during the years that I was there as a Ph.D. Student, indeed operated as if it was located on the East Coast. There was no indication whatsoever that we were a department at the very center of a profound social upheaval resulting from the newly powerful Native Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement, and the work of scholars and activists like Haunani-Kay Trask, right on our campus. The department stayed entirely mute. It was a department in total denial.

This despite the fact that at just the same time, the discipline of anthropology was itself reeling from a new interrogation from scholars of color (Edward Said foremost among them) of the profound involvement of the discipline in histories and mechanisms of colonialism and imperialism.  These scholars also queried the continuing racism embedded in a discipline that is based on the ideal of a white scholar writing about and making a career from studies of communities of color.

It was a curious fact that this critique was taken seriously at the most intensely white anthropology programs, while at the programs where the faculty felt directly threatened by actual people of color in the community, it was entirely ignored.

At Illinois, because the Latina/o graduate students had the support of two respected (albeit untenured) faculty members, and also the support of no less than the brand-new then-Chancellor of the University, Nancy Cantor (a long-time proponent of diversity in graduate education), they were able to break through the wall of silence and denial in the department, and force the issue of the racism of anthropology into the open.

The fascinating thing at Illinois was that the critique of anthropological racism was never explicitly denied. On the contrary, most of the white faculty members by that point were well-versed in “talking the talk” of self-reflexive anthropology and the imperialist origins of the discipline.

But when it came to taking the next step, that of interrogating their own privilege, and in particular, the readings assigned, and the discussions encouraged, in their own graduate seminars, then….well, things were entirely different. Far from being mute, the faculty became aggressive and hostile.

The department fractured in the end over a truly heartbreaking and appalling incident centering around a plaque that the university, in its infinite wisdom, saw fit to erect honoring long-deceased UI anthropologist Oscar Lewis and his “Culture of Poverty” thesis (which, for those of you unfamiliar, basically blames poor Mexican people for being poor). I will not rehash the dreadful events that ensued here, but you may read about them in this account by a former Ph.D. student who was at the center of it: Brian Montes, “No Longer Silent: A Historical Moment of Latino Student Activism” Latino Studies (2005) 3, 280–287.

I’ve written too much without even getting to any thoughts on the purported topic of this post: “Challenges for Graduate Students of Color in the Academy.”

Here’s what I want to say. I learned through these interactions that the vast majority of white people in the academy are absolutely clueless when it comes to race. Not race as some abstract category of analysis “out there,” but race as it is manifested daily in their/our own subject position and actions.

One archaeology colleague remarked to me at a cocktail party, in the midst of the Oscar Lewis debacle, “Too bad for you cultural anthropologists. You should be like us in archaeology. We don’t have any race problems. Because all of our students are white!” I gamely tried to explain to this colleague that the absence of students of color in her program was actually a more profound sign of a “race problem” than any visible conflict could be, but she was unmoveable. Kind of like the Republicans blaming Obama for the debt-ceiling crisis. If a problem emerges under your purview—you must be the cause of the problem.

Anyway, it goes without saying that graduate students of color so often feel heartbreakingly isolated in their departments and completely without a friend or ally. That when they try to talk to white faculty about race—not so much as an analytical concept, as a systematic source of blindness about how syllabi are written (ie, with exclusively white scholarship) or how classroom discussions are conducted (ie, when the tentative critiques of students of color are instantly and angrily shot down by defensive white students and faculty), they are met with on one end, bewilderment, in the middle defensiveness, and on the other end, hostility. That when they try to engage their white graduate classmates in a collective intervention, the white graduate students are often MORE defensive, angry, and hostile than the faculty members themselves, probably because of their own status insecurity.

I am not the first to say these things, and I won’t be the last.

What I do want to say is this: the starting point and the ending point for so many graduate students of color in the humanities and social sciences is frequently (although not always) fundamentally different from that of white students. While some graduate students of color most certainly do turn their scholarly interests to subjects unconnected to their own racial or cultural background, and that is entirely to be supported, for the majority, I believe, scholarship starts and ends with the question, “does this help or hurt my people?”

And that is a question that white people don’t get. Because white people don’t have “a people.” Of course the most ethical among us will ask this question about the people we study. We might care deeply about those people and spend a professional life intimately involved with them. But they’re not “our” people. Even when we marry one of them, they are not our mothers, our fathers, our grandmothers, our cousins. We have not seen our closest family members ravaged by the widespread, all-encompassing systematic poverty and alcoholism and disease that has ravaged the Native Hawaiian community, the Native American community. White people have not seen our families torn apart by oppressive immigration policies that victimize so many in the Latina/o community and force so many into hiding.

Sure, white people can feel a sense of belonging to an ethnic group, or to a class. Working class white people in the academy do indeed feel systematically excluded from the in-groups and from classroom debates. I am not denying that. But it is different, because the stakes are different. When your people are dying, literally dying, from forms of cultural genocide, your approach to academia is going to be different. It’s going to be urgent. It’s going to be impatient. It’s going to be angry. You’re going to ask questions about why their stories are not being told, and why scholars aren’t asking how the discipline helps or hurts a group of people, your people, who are already suffering from so many histories of neglect and disregard.

I have no solution to offer for white blindness and cluelessness. I don’t present myself as a hero of enlightenment in this regard. I am still blind to my own privilege much of the time, despite my best efforts. I would still be even more pathetically blind if not shaken out of my complacency by living in Hawa’i during a powerful moment in the Native Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement, and if not directly confronted by a group of Native American graduate students in my Foundations of Social Theory Core Graduate Seminar at Oregon. If they had not asked me why all of my readings were by old, dead white guys, and insisted on an answer that wasn’t stupid, and if those students had not already been empowered by an archaeology program that was dedicated to supporting them, and if they had not been defended by a white cultural anthropologist Department Head who stood up for those students and our tumultuous class when they were attacked by the white students enrolled in it…..well, if all those things had not been in place, at that one moment in time, I would most likely still be totally comfortable with the idea of a Core Seminar in Anthropology imposing an all-white world view onto graduate students, and those Native American students would have been silenced once more.

Perhaps it takes a lightning in the bottle kind of moment to shake white people out of their race-blindness. That is depressing, and not good news. What I know is that graduate students of color bear far more than a fair share of the burden in pushing departments to confront race. And they all too often pay a terrible price for it.

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Challenges for Graduate Students of Color in the Academy — 27 Comments

  1. I think this is spot-on in many regards, but I think there is a blind-spot to religion. While most students who come to study religious groups that they may be a part of are not necessarily watching “their people” being systematically destroyed, they do often feel separate or different or isolated from academics who are not particularly sympathetic or even hostile to religion. This is not to downplay issues facing graduate students of color but to add to the discussion for it is often — though not always — students of color who are more comfortable with religion than others. But religiously-affiliated white students do have “a people,” it’s just “a people” that many in academia are, and choose to be, blind to.

    • Jordan, this is a good point and valid, I think. Certain strong religious affiliations are often explicitly dismissed in and excluded from academic discourse. They’re assumed to be incompatible with a “properly academic” world view.

      • Strong religious affiliations ARE incompatible with a properly academic world view. One of the hallmarks of intellectual curiosity and intellectual integrity is an openness to new ideas and concepts as well as a periodic reassessment of your assumptions. Blind certainty, especially in the face of an evidence problem, is antithetical to analysis.

        • Not all strong religious affiliations come with blind certainty. Indeed, many of the strongly religious people I know are skeptics who wrestle with faith, with ideas, with assumptions. Some — not all, but some — religions (or traditions within religions) place a high value on curiosity, insight, debate, argument, and analysis. There are plenty of people who hold deep religious convictions who are intellectually curious, resist easy answers, and approach their work with the utmost integrity.

    • This is an important addition to a wonderful article./post–speaking as someone who is IN the study of religion and (God/ess help me) Christian theology. Last semester in a small doctoral course in religion we had an ongoing “sidebar” conversation about a women’s studies seminar two of the students (one is Puerto Rican and Catholic while the other is African -American and Muslim) happened to both be taking. The toxicity of their experience as religious women of color was breathtaking. Jordan’s point is important–if you take the issues of “your” community seriously and your community is one that could be termed “marginalized” (and I think the whiteness issue is a little more complicated here than Karen suggests) then you WILL be taking religion seriously as a positive and, also, a negative force.

  2. I here what you are saying– and can relate–coming from Anthropology. I was fortunate to get a teaching position in Ethnic Studies–while pursing a Ph.D. in Anthropology. My suggestion: We need to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Too often –we shy (run) away from any hint of controversy–unless it is something we feel comfortable talking about (e.g., postmodern critique–would be a safe topic). In Ethnic Studies our canon was from people of color/working class/ from the margins. I was very fortunate to work with faculty and students as we challenged our assumptions, pushed our thinking, etc. I think it was most successful when we focused on structures and moved away from individual acts (discrimination). I also think that saying that something is “too controversial” is a strategy that is used to shift/displace the conversations we need to have. Finally, structural racism is complicated–it has a long history–and to really understand contemporary struggles–one must understand the historical/social legacies. Unfortunately, these are often not addressed in the curriculum.

    • I completely agree, Melissa, that white people in the academy need to get used to being uncomfortable. We tend to get hysterical the moment the unspoken assumptions behind our intellectual practice are called out and made visible. The trouble is, of course, that for so many people of color in the academy, being uncomfortable in that way, and having your operating assumptions constantly undermined and dismissed, is a way of life. So the terms of engagement are patently unfair…

  3. Thank you for writing this. As a graduate student of colour, I’d like to also add that faculty of colour – especially junior faculty about to go up for tenure – have a difficult time juggling their roles in these departments. I have had several junior faculty advisors who I would call colleagues in every sense of the term – loving, supportive and always challenging me in ways many white faculty would not. On the other hand, I realized too late that a major advisor of mine, a junior faculty member of colour, caved into the pressure of her departmental environment and catered exclusively to her white students. This not only led to a classroom exchange in which she refused to intervene while a white graduate student alleged race directly correlated with criminality, but a serious impact on the grades and morale of the (2) students of colour present. To say this was a betrayal would be a major understatement.

    On the one hand, at a major public university in New York, the pressures on this faculty member are understandable. Not only a woman of colour, she was teaching in one of many departments described as “illegitimate” by scientific research-oriented university administrators. But on the other, her students of colour suffered. Suffered, in fact, to the degree where she has very few students of colour who are willing to take her on as a PhD advisor in a department where there aren’t enough faculty to go around as it is.

    Melissa is absolutely correct – whether students or faculty, we must become comfortable with discomfort. And in many ways, this includes a focus on teaching as *learning* – all of us, learning from one another, and being willing to step outside of ourselves and say, “How can we best be allies when it’s the last thing that feels possible?” It means creating environments, as teachers and learners, in which we allow our students to bring their problems – even if they be with us – into the room without fear of academic or professional repercussions. And it means, in many ways, that we must not shy away from the notion of loving as an essential part of a healthy academic environment.

    • Sophia, this is a beautifully-written and moving comment, thank you. A post on “Challenges For Faculty of Color in an Academic Environment” is needed, but I don’t think I will write that one—it’s gotta be a guest post from someone who’s been there, faced the fire, and survived, spirit intact.

  4. I’d also add that things can be even worse for students of color working in fields that don’t square with their racial identities. I’m in one, even though most of my work is vaguely about my heritage, and my experience in graduate school has been heinous. But what makes it worse is that not only are the white faculty ignorant in the ways you describe (and I think you couldn’t be more right about the supposed liberal faculty), but the student of color can easily find hirself in a situation where there are virtually no scholars in the field who aren’t white, where it’s highly likely that even the most senior of faculty advisors have never worked with a student of color, where any potential communities of intellectual, emotional, and political support that are built around the study of a certain ethnic or racial group aren’t relevant to that student’s intellectual project, and where, when trouble comes, all racial components will be shoved under the rug and the student will be sold down the river so as not to cause a scene.

    • I hear you, frogprincess. If it’s possible for you to share any more specifics of your situation (even just the discipline), it might be illuminating. But I understand the stakes can be too high. If you are curious about the way some members of one field, Feminist Philosophy, have risen up to repudiate my post, please visit the blog Feminist Philosophers ( It is extraordinary to watch academics turn their big brains to deflecting any hint of an accusation of racism.

  5. To El:

    Sure, white privilege may be a myth, but myths can hurt people. Myths get some people jobs and opportunities and deny others a fair chance at getting what they deserve. If you don’t believe this, try submitting your resume or CV for a job using a name that shouts “ethnic” instead of your own (presumably) white-identified name, and see how you get treated. If you get an interview, set up a phone interview for that job instead of letting the prospective employers see your whiteness, and see how it goes. I challenge you to do it and test your own hypothesis about white privilege!

  6. Ugh… here is the argument of diversity and tolerance… again. Yet what that argument doesn’t acknowledge are two things you even admitted in your article: the person being honored with a plaque is being denigrated for researching what he believed in because it doesn’t conform to the leftist assertions of academia, and that ‘white people’ are people-less. The first argument is typical of academic leftists that believe in free speech and tolerance… unless it doesn’t agree with your agenda. Remember: ‘tolerating’ and ‘celebrating’ diversity means celebrating the things that you don’t agree with. Blind relativism requires that you praise the criminals, the bigots, the warmongers, et al., because, after all, isn’t it just their cultural beliefs that makes them think the way they do? You can’t simultaneously blame structural oppression for creating worldviews and then criticize the worldviews of others.

    The second comments is deplorable at best. To say that ‘white people’ do not bear an ethnicity is arrogant and a sign of a true naive apologist. Cultural origin and ritual are sacred among people of all colors, creeds, and ethnicities. To say that ‘white people’ are just wandering the Earth with no point of origin or ethnic past, that we are undeserving of such pride and celebrations, that we have no past to take comfort in or nothing that makes us distinct is abhorrent and racist. How dare you?

    I often find those militantly supporting ‘diversity’ and ‘equality’ do so at the expense of what true equality means. Handicapping others does not create an equal society. Praising minorities for feeling ‘ethnic’ and ‘diverse’ cannot be done without also saying that typical whites lack such novelty or individualism. If you want equality, start promoting it. Otherwise, it’s just another rant of the myopic left.

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  8. Frogprincess’ comment brings up something… well, an anecdote: my friend is a nonwhite man working in anthropology, focusing on another nonwhite group. And his department is *constantly* pressuring him to teach courses focusing on his own ethnicity — an area in which he’s had no formal academic training, and really has no interest in teaching.

    So what’s up with that? Why are people of color presumed to be interested in studying anything they want (just like women are presumed to be working on women’s history), but white men can have this big, diverse range of interests? Why is my friend’s insistence on his field of expertise treated as secondary to other people’s expectations?

    Yes, I know the answer. It’s just making me pissy.

    • It makes me pissy too. It’s a real problem in anthro, which as a whole field is founded on the model of white men/white people (there are a lot of white women in this field, to be sure!) gazing outward at all of humanity.

    • Yes, and on the flip side, it says a lot about those who insist that somebody of a certain ethnicity cover courses on hir ethnicity and how they view the seriousness and sophistication of that ethnicity’s history (and i’m a historian, so I find this particularly problematic). As though Asian-American, African-American, Latino-American, and Native American history aren’t sophisticated enough bodies of scholarship to deserve a trained expert in them. Somebody who grew up that ethnicity will do.

  9. When a department in my field is looking for a person of color, they advertise for something who studies [insert race/ethnicity] specialist. A good friend got her position that way, even though her research is about dead white men. Good for her!

    But, this trend is really unsettling. White people can teach about everything, people of color only have the mental capacity to teach about “their people.”

    • I have friends who insist this is the route I should take. Does this hold true for history? I always assumed that departments expect you to teach at minimum the survey of the field they’ve listed the ad in…hence some training in that field might be a good thing.

  10. What I need, right now, is someone who has written about the ways that this stuff impacts the crazy silence / passive aggressive evals I am getting as a queer woman of color teaching about structural and systemic racism to white and class privileged students.

    for instance, my students never bring it up in class but they talk amongst themselves thinking that i hate white people. i know this is normal for folks facing this stuff but i can’t address it directly since they haven’t brought it up directly in class or in discussion. or can i?

    • haruki–i edited this comment to remove your photo and email address so it’s all good. thanks for posting it. it’s very important. I’ll have responses later.

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  12. Hi Karen, how are you? Thanks for your notes and insights about academia experience. This article about graduate students of color or just plain, Black graduates, hits me right on the spot. Are you not glad to learn that I am a formal grad student of University of Oregon in Eugene, my first step in US academic institutions and what an experience! A nice one for me then but I have walked the walk around and witnessed some of the things you and other commentators of your blog talk about. It’s a pleasure to read from you and to appreciate other views. Thank you and enjoy your vacation if you are still in Italy 🙂

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  14. Thank you for writing about the experiences of graduate students of color. I am a woman of color currently in an MFT and School Counseling Credential program in a mostly white school. My research paper is focusing on historical trauma and its effect on Mexican American families where I will discuss how the colonization of the Americas has impacted the mental health resulting in depression. It has been difficult not having any faculty of color I can always go to and there are very few people of color that understand me. Those that do, I just found out, are stressing out a lot, feel ostracized, lonely, and need to collaborate with other students. That is where many of us started talking about these issues and spending more time with each other on and off campus. It has become of high importance for me to communicate with other students of color especially women. I hope we can discuss more about this in detail.

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