Thursday, July 3, 2008

Graduating While Black...

The graduation season has come and gone, a time of helium-filled balloons, celebratory brunches with extended family, bittersweet stock-taking of one’s student career, and the soupy mixture of fear and excitement about what unknown life chapters have yet to be written. For all students, but especially the ones earning advanced degrees, this yet-to-unfurl future means radically different things depending on whether or not there is a job option waiting on the other side of the ceremony.

One newly minted Ph.D., someone who should have been excited about her upcoming post at a liberal arts college, was busy pondering a colleague’s recent effort to place a purloined asterisk next to her procurement of that lucrative position.

The colleague, who was also a friend of hers, matter-of-factly stated, without any obvious displays of animus or contempt, that that aforementioned Ph.D. had only landed such an amazing job because of race, because she was African-American.

The argument is pretty straightforward. There are so few African-Americans getting doctoral degrees that the ones who do make it through the process have a relatively easy slide into the ranks of the professoriate.

First of all, this wasn’t the first student of color who admitted to such a seemingly dismissive response to her success from colleagues, and usually these responses are laced with a heavy dose of outward hostility. I remember finishing up at Columbia and having one of my peers, another graduate student in the department, finger-wavingly make the same point about my job prospects. I didn’t have a tenure-track job offer yet. I was headed to a postdoc instead. But the point was clear: My road would be paved with rose petals, because there are so few blacks in anthropology. The implication seemed to be that a grave injustice was being committed — and at this other student’s expense. Not quite reverse racism, but close to it.

Is that the end of the story? Really? Is that all the analytical work that need be done to explain how race operates in the academy today? I hardly think so.

On its face, this argument always struck me as peculiar, and decidedly self-serving, even as it also seemed undeniable, at least as one corner of a much larger political canvas. But most of the people who demonstrate recognition or melancholic resignation about the fact that students of color differently negotiate the academic job market always seem to stop just short of spending much time voicing the same amount of concern and righteous indignation about how few students of color are even admitted to prestigious doctoral programs in the first place — or ever end up teaching in tenure-track posts at American universities.

Can one really have it both ways? Flagging what seems to be but one of the many examples of how race informs people’s academic-job prospects while failing to link the job market’s racial dynamics to a larger story (bigger than just “supply and demand”) about the entrenched mechanisms by which past racial imbalances are effortlessly (and even unintentionally) re-animated?

(originally published as part of Brainstorm Blog for the Chronicle Review).

3 comments:

Winslow said...

A very interesting post, though all arguments when it comes to academia are self-serving. “I did not get into the post-doc program because of x student of color.” “I did not get into the post-doc program because I am a student of color.” I would much rather have students of color getting post-docs and putting up with questions of merit rather than having even less students of color in graduate school but who most consider to have "earned it". This is perhaps a false dichotomy, but right now I do not see any alternatives, short of a glorious colorblind meritocracy that many seem convinced will never happen or that is not worth instating, and yes I am completely aware of the difficulties confronting colorblindness. Besides, graduating while black does not take into account African or West Indian students experiences, which is another can of worms altogether, so it would probably be more accurate to say graduating while being a black American. In any case, between inflated egos, superfluous vocabularies, and useless life-skills, members of the academy are hardly the paragons of virtue that we would hope for, but rather people that are just as petty and snarky as anyone else. If it was not graduating while black, it would be graduating while being the professor’s favorite, or graduating while getting lucky that your PhD got published, or any of the other potential reasons to put down a fellow grad student who competes for funding and prestige.

John L. Jackson, Jr. said...

thanks for the post, winslow. you make some powerful points, especially the one about African vs. West Indian vs. African students. andi fear that you are probably right about the utter pettiness of the academy.

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