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This author chooses to remain anonymous, but shared a photo.
As a black woman I am used to occupying spaces where I would be the only black person in the classroom. This reality did not scare or deter me, however, it made me much bolder in the classroom. By bolder, I mean less afraid to speak my mind, even if I knew I would be isolated. Being in a PhD program, I believed that some of the issues of racism and implicit bias would be less, or better checked in academic spaces. I was primed by advisers throughout my undergraduate studies that racism was still very much part of academia, often sheltered and protected by its supporters who upheld academia as a space of “free thought” and a space to “challenge” each other. This may have been true, but not for students of color.
I thought I was strong – I was not.
The second year of my doctoral studies, I took a course focused on the prominent theories and principles of my field – public administration and policy – and was frequently engaged in civil discourse with my classmates. We had just finished readings on a core theory to the field – representative bureaucracy theory. The theory states, simply, that the demographic of an organization should mirror the demographic of the community it serves. The theory provides many examples of people of color providing better services and positive policy change for their communities through roles such as teachers, social workers, and other “street-level bureaucrats” who have frequent contact with the community.
However, like any scholar, I had issues with the theory.
I voiced these concerns in the classroom, citing the assumptions the scholars made regarding a minorities perceived identity about themselves and how that influences their decision-making process. More importantly, I did not agree with the theory’s assumptions about organizational culture and diversity in hiring practices. Though I was only in my second year, I felt my opinions regarding the theory were just as important as my colleagues.
It was clear, this was not the case.
I received prompt backlash from other students in the class for disagreeing with the core tenets of the theory. I understand that we were all junior scholars at the time, but instead of engaging with me on this theory, I was almost scolded into believing that my understanding and opinions were baseless. My predominantly white colleagues, who an hour before were speaking with me collegially and friendly, had turned on me. I was not sure why. Was it because they wanted to show their own understanding of the theory? Did they want to impress the professor? Or did they honestly think I was wrong? Nevertheless, after about a fifteen-minute debate – near dehumanization – I stopped. I was done speaking for the day and remained quiet through the remainder of the class.
We had submitted an essay on the theory a few days before. My only reprieve that day, what helped me sleep at night, was that I scored an A on the paper. I knew I wasn’t crazy! I knew my opinions were valid!
I vividly remember this story as a prime example of how being Black in academic spaces means that I am often the only one. I used this example in job interviews and discussions with other academics or administrators to emphasize the challenges black students go through in their classrooms. I carried this experience throughout my PhD coursework and later involvement in university initiatives on diversity and inclusion. I wanted people to know what happened to me, but I also wanted them to know that this was not an isolated event. Stories from other black academics confirmed my feelings and experiences. Tenure-track faculty had the same experiences I had. This trauma of isolation in spaces that are supposed to be welcoming and inclusive often kept many black academics from engaging with their colleagues and departments.
The long-term gains from that day have been in my favor. The professor who taught the course became my advisor and strongest advocate, helping me to publish papers and connect with scholars in the field. She remains a great resource to this day. I also am submitting a paper for publication, stating my exact issues with the theory that I iterated in class that day. Prior reviews of the paper have confirmed that these insights are critical to the field. Representative bureaucracy theory has also become a major research interest of mine and has led me to my current work of diversity, inclusion, and Human Resources.
When I see other black academics being silenced, it is not surprising. This silencing often happens during the early stages of study and continues through an academic’s career. It is times like this, that I feel that black academics are valued as a statistic – a number- but not as a voice.
I will continue to work towards justice for all black people in their respective spaces. While I am hopeful the situation changes, I am remain vigilant and active in the work.