What Can You Do: Being Black and Tired in Academia – #BLM Guest Post

[We continue to solicit #BLM guest posts. We pay $150 for accepted posts. 1000 words ballpark; profanity welcome. Please send a draft or query/pitch to Karen at gettenure@gmail.com]

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This writer chooses to remain anonymous. She is a Black queer woman from the west coast who is sick and tired of being sick and tired.

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I write this post sitting in my apartment, a place I have spent most of these past few months, and as I write I feel compelled to take stock of my feelings to center my mind. Like many of my Black friends, family, and colleagues, I feel anger, grief, exasperation, fear, and tiredness. As a graduate student, I should be writing my papers for my Ph.D. qualifying exam. Instead, I am having to meditate every couple of hours to calm my nerves.

I am signing petitions and attending protests to ensure my family, or I won’t be the next person murdered by police.

I am helping my sister figure out how to explain the world to her four Black sons.

I am attending virtual City Council meetings to try and convince them NOT to increase the police budget.

And instead, I am sitting with other Black academics at my University to plan a way forward.

This last task is what infuriates me the most.

I am infuriated not because these meetings are happening. Not at all. These meetings, while the reason for them is unfortunate, avoidable, and never should have happened, are a relief in some ways. Sitting and working through my feelings with other Black people in the same or similar spaces as me can be cathartic in a way that soothes both my mind and my soul. No, these meetings infuriate me because we are not meeting to just check in with our fellow Black folks but to fix a problem that we did not create. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests, University and student leadership approached a few Black faculty or students from the meager amount of Black faculty and students on campus to ask the age-old question: “What can we do?”.

What can we do to help our Black faculty and students?

What can we do to fight racism and anti-blackness?

What can we do to ensure another George Floyd (or countless other deaths) doesn’t happen on our campus?

What. Can. We. Do.

I am tired of this question. I am tired of this question because I have received it a lot over the last two weeks from my well-meaning white friends and family. I didn’t fault them at first because, as a Black woman in America, I was taught to give white people the benefit of the doubt on issues of race because they just don’t know any better. I am used to educating white people on racism. Countless scholars and people of color have written about how expecting Black people to educate you on anti-Blackness and racism is white privilege.However, soon I started to become exasperated with this question. Then, last week, when I began attending these meetings with other Black academics, I realized it wasn’t just my white friends and family asking this question but our University and student leaders as well. What can we do? They came to us, who make up less than 4 percent of the student body and less than two percent of academic faculty, and asked: what can we do?

In the first meeting that I attended, the general graduate student council reached out to the Black graduate student group to ask What Can We Do and to seek help with writing a statement condemning the deaths of the last couple of weeks. Though my first inclination, on hearing this, was to join the necessary letter writing committees, a point brought up by another student gave me pause. The student asked why we couldn’t just send them the letter and list of demands that was written ten years ago when an event so racist took part on campus that the Black student group was compelled to declare a state of emergency to address it. An event that, moreover, sparked other racist acts aimed at Black students. Occurring during the winter of 2010, this time period would eventually become known as Black Winter and would inspire parts of Justin Simien’s movie Dear White People. In the second meeting, our focus was more on checking in, but eventually the question of what the University can do came up. A question that was posed by University leadership to Black faculty. The demands from Black Winter emerged once again. We, both then and now, were being asked to bear the brunt of racism and the bear the weight of fixing it.

After Winter 2010, Black students and faculty sent the University a list of demands that focused on increasing the admissions, retention, and on-campus support for historically underrepresented minorities like Black students. Not only were the Black students, and students of color in general, who were the victims of these racist acts, tasked with fixing them, but only the bare minimum expectations were met by the University. The admission of Black undergraduate students increased from approximately 2% in 2011 to nearly 3% of the student population in 2019-2020; diversity, equity, and inclusion courses became mandatory for undergraduates in Fall 2011; and a Black Resource Center was opened in 2013. Several demands, like an increase in accountability for discriminatory behavior or more focus on improving retention rates for Black students and faculty, were not fully met.

So, what can you do?

Well, we told you. Every time something like Black Winter or George Floyd occurred, we asked and demanded to stop being treated like second-class citizens. And yet, here we are. Again.

What can you do?

Why do you come to us for the answers? Many of you are researchers and academics yourself and there are countless books, articles, blog posts, research reports, etc. that have been written about how to address racism and anti-Blackness.

What can you do?

Why do you come to one of the smallest minority groups on campus to do this work for you? Can’t you see that we are tired? Can’t you see our anger, our sadness, our fatigue?

What can you do?

Someone on twitter joked that the academic version of “thoughts and prayers” is “we will form a committee”.

What can you do?

You can let me breathe! Let me be a student without having to fight for my right to exist at every turn.

What Can You Do?

Do your own research! Stop making Black people at this University fix problems that we did not create. Or, at least, do not expect us to do this labor for free. Pay us.

What can you do?

 You can leave me the hell alone.

Sincerely,

A tired Black woman just trying to get her Ph.D.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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