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Today’s post is by Dr. TaLisa J. Carter.
TaLisa J. Carter, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Justice, Law, and Criminology at American University. Her research broadly focuses on criminological theory, social institutions, race, social control. When she’s not earning tenure, she loves to people watch, dance and cross things off her many to-do lists.
Like every other first-year graduate student – I remember being tired yet determined. My mind was tired of trying to make sense of Foucault and Weber, but my tongue was determined to contribute substantively to class. My closet was tired of me picking its limited selection to attend departmental events, but I remained determined to build a professional network and look the part. My social meter was depleted, tired of trying to connect with a cohort at venues void of the bass, beats, rhythm, and soul that moved me. Yet, I remained determined to at least try to be their friend. That, however, died the day of the privilege walk.
Mid-semester a student duo introduced the discussion-heavy graduate seminar to the privilege walk. The privilege walk was an activity meant to link privilege to justice, reflexivity, and a bunch of other lovely concepts strung together in what seemed like a harmless announcement. We rose, formed a frumpy horizontal line across the middle of the classroom.
And it began.
- If your ancestors were forced to come to the USA not by choice, take one step back. I stepped backward.
- If you had to rely primarily on public transportation, take one step back. I stepped backward.
- If you travelled outside of the country before you were 18 years old, take one step forward. I stood still.
- If your family ever had to move because they could not afford to pay the rent or
- mortgage, please take one step back. I stepped backward.
- If your parents told you that you could be anything you wanted to be, take one step forward. I stepped forward.
- If you attended private school or summer camp, take one step forward. I stood still.
- If you were told that you were beautiful, smart, and capable by your parents, take one step forward. I stepped forward.
- If you were ever discouraged from academics or jobs because of race, class, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back. I stepped backward.
The questioning continued, unrelenting, ignoring the thickness in the air, the reddening faces of my peers and the manifestation of my marginalization becoming more and more unmistakable. The privilege that my Ivy league undergraduate label afforded me for the first several months of graduate school was fading. Every step backwards I took – ripped it to pieces. A mixed-race peer with a sweet and brave spirit began to affirm me with her facial expressions and finally short sentences. But there was little to be done, the privilege walk continued.
Another question. My back hit the chalkboard.
Another question. Nowhere to step now. I turned around and faced the blackboard. Its blackness a welcome sight, relative to the uncomfortable backs of my privileged peers.
Another question. Nowhere to turn now. I squatted.
Another question. I’m tired but determined to share my truth. I sat on the floor.
And even after sitting, I should have taken four steps further back. That fact screamed in my brain loudly as we found our seats in silence. I am so many steps behind that I shouldn’t even be in this room. Imposter syndrome wasn’t in my head, it was real, living, justified by the onslaught of questions that left me on the floor.
The duo led a debrief that was maddening. Students openly discussed how less visible marginalized identities (e.g. sexuality and religion) related to privilege, playing a carefully articulated game of verbal hopscotch to avoid issues related to race, ethnicity, and class. I stayed silent. Numb. Annoyed. After class, I recounted the story to my family and friends. One asked: “Why didn’t you just lie?”
Truth is…I’m proud of my truth. There is no reason to lie. I was led to this predominantly white space, discipline, department because of my lived experiences. I was not ashamed. I was not embarrassed. I was disappointed, angry, and hurt that the exercise was ultimately a waste of time, rather than an educational tool.
My professor followed up, checked in, called, we met. And I shared my truth, my frustrations, my disappointment. I was a first-year, tired yet determined to relate why I chose to participate so openly in the exercise, how the debrief was beyond problematic and what I believed should be done to move forward in a healthy way. And the following week in class, she led us in a real debrief. A debrief that affirmed me in that space and provided room for a critical analysis of the exercise. The conversation led to tears from my peers, blunt statements about “not knowing what to do,” feeling bad, and extreme discomfort. I didn’t know how I felt. But I learned lessons:
- Being an imposter is only an issue when you buy into the negativity around it. From the floor onward, I’ve owned my differences in ways that empower me. Ultimately, you frame your identity in this space – not other people.
- Making other people uncomfortable is MORE THAN OKAY. I didn’t share my truth to teach others nor to have a powerful moment with myself. I just told the truth. And the dominoes that fell as a result – not my problem.
- Related, I believe that integrating exercises in the classroom that confront sensitive issues is a critical part of higher education. However, faculty and students must prepare properly, engage fully and debrief appropriately. Most importantly if something goes wrong, there must be a commitment to correct- even if that means reengaging with discomfort. To be clear, I would participate in another privilege exercise if 2 conditions were met: (1) I trusted the facilitator and (2) understood the intended learning outcomes for all involved.
- Speak up. If something doesn’t feel right, say something. And it doesn’t have to be in the moment or cause a scene. Speak up in whatever way works for you.
- Hard times suck, but they will show you your advocates, and the people you can lean on to thrive in this experience. When my professor checked in, I could’ve easily avoided the conversation, lied, and pressed on. But from that experience, I found a true mentor and advocate.
- The purpose of cohorts is not friendship. Together you learn to be good colleagues, not good friends. The week between classes, most of my cohort avoided me like I had done something to them. In that isolation, I grew stronger.
- Be you. You’re enough.
To this day, sitting on the floor in that classroom was the best thing I could have done my first year. It shaped my perspective and approach to a process structured in ways without me in mind. The lessons learned were priceless. No regrets. Period.
- When a Cup of Coffee Means More Than a Cup of Coffee: Mentoring as a Woman of Color – WOC Guest Post
- What Can You Do: Being Black and Tired in Academia – #BLM Guest Post
- “You Don’t Belong” and Other Myths WOC Ph.Ds Believe – WOC Guest Post
- Always Have a Side Hustle, and Other Lessons I Learned from Academia (Part 2) – WOC Guest Post
- The Power of Privilege: a Mexican Ecologist in Academia in the USA? – WOC Guest Post