Black academics need to stop reproducing anti-Black notions of exceptionalism
Our desire to make ourselves palatable to white institutions is undoing us.
I received my undergraduate degree at a public institution, and now I am at an Ivy League. This is my first dive into the world of elite academia, and soon I will leave this program with both my degree and my brokenness. Though I am proud to be receiving my Master’s degree from a top university, it is making me increasingly aware of the unhealthy and violent dynamics that exist within the academy. Rest is decentered as important, while white notions of excellence are the standard for belonging. Initially, I really struggled to find ways to feel like a whole person in this cutthroat culture, and I thought that surely my fellow Black students were struggling as well.
But as a Black academic who openly critiques academic institutions, particularly for the ways that they fail to support or even care about Black people, I have found that the detractions that sting most are not from my professors or the institutions themselves, but Black students who have formed symbiotic relationships with the very academic spaces that mistreat them.
When I say, “These universities are not giving us enough,” some of my Black colleagues respond with, “What more could you want than a degree?” They say this as if being cared for is secondary to be seen. But what is there to gain from prioritizing validation from oppressive institutions at the cost of our very well-being?
It is important examine how race intersects with feelings of professional belonging and fulfillment. To be Black in America is to be denigrated and conceptualized as sub-human and less than. Concurrently, whiteness is aligned with prestige, privilege, aesthetic value, and spiritual worthiness. As a result, white institutions are esteemed as the preeminent institutions in nearly every sector.
Academia is no exception, with private white institutions (PWIs) all but monopolizing the right to be conceptualized as academically credible. For Black students who attend these institutions, the resources are abundant and overflowing. We have access to stellar faculty, unending internship opportunities, and the promise of a — hopefully — well-paying job.
However, attending a PWI comes with one other underexplored privilege: proximity to whiteness.
Attending a PWI, especially an Ivy League institution, enables Black students the rare opportunity to see the power of whiteness work in our own lives. For many of us, we garner praise and awe when we tell people where we attend school. We are constantly reminded that our educational attainment makes us special, marked for greatness, and set-apart.
When I tell people I now attend an Ivy League institution, the reaction dwarfs any response I ever received when I was attending the University of California at Berkeley. Due to the fact that UC Berkeley is itself a well-known and well-respected institution, I find this difference in reaction to be telling of the power of the prestigious image that PWIs have manufactured. And I would be lying if I said this acknowledgement of my intellectual achievements did not make me feel uniquely exceptional.
Thankfully, though, I have friends and family members who hold me accountable to myself. When they see me drifting into the abyss of white validation, when they see me begin to say things like, “I am so lucky to be at this institution,” they remind me that my degree program is not what makes me worthy, and that I will continue to be worthy after I leave. They ensure that I never believe the central that lies within many of the compliments that I receive: the falsehood that I have intellectualized myself out of a pejorative conception of Blackness.
As I call into conversation Black academics for reproducing problematic notions of exceptionalism propagated by white institutions, I am not doing so without compassion and context. Whiteness is protective, both literally and figuratively. Literally, white bodies are protected by the state; figuratively, white bodies are insulated from the emotionally traumatic effects that systemic racism has on the individual self-esteem and the collective self-worth of Black communities around the world.
To be Black in America is not for the faint of heart, and to seek refuge from the blows of systematic racism under the umbrella of whiteness is not always an act of malice or weakness, but an attempt at self-protection birthed out of the never-ending fatigue of being Black in America.
Nonetheless, when Black people align their self-worth with white validation, it is not without individual and communal harm. From my fellow Black academics, I have noticed troubling and harmful behavior born out of a desire to protect white academic institutions. Many deny the trauma these institutions inflict upon Black students in order to protect the site of their identity and self-worth.
To receive affirmation from whiteness means dismissing its oppressive truths. For graduate students, this often looks like denying the harm done by white academic institutions under the guise of, “this is what we must work through to receive our degrees.” But trauma is not a right of passage. Black students should not have to undergo racial trauma to receive our degrees and we should not normalize trauma as the plight of Black academia.
This internal emotional policing often manifests in the form of intra-communal tone-policing as well. If one Black student begins to claim their pain, another Black student will quickly remind them that they “should be grateful to be here.” This messaging is violent and silencing and places Black students in a space of perpetual gratitude; we must always be thankful for our degrees lest we appear jaded and maladapted to the culture of academia.
Receiving admission to elite academic institutions should not require Black student to shrink with thankfulness. We earned our admission through hard work, dedication and resiliency. Admitting us is just the first step. We, like all Black people everywhere, deserve to have the fullness of our humanity cared for. We deserve faculty that look like us, we deserve professors who do not say n***** in class, and we deserve to enjoy our common room spaces without fear of having the police called on us.
Perhaps the most harmful effect of seeking validation from white institutions is the way it politicizes Black pain. In an effort to ensure that their own Blackness is never threatening, many Black academics align the expression of discontentment with a dangerous militancy. I have seen Black academics adopt this same mentality and marginalize their own pain in an effort to ensure that they never appear threatening. But Black pain is human. When I speak about my adverse experiences, it is not so that I can belittle my program, but uplift other students of color. I boldly claim my experiences — the good and the bad — because I deserve to acknowledge the fullness of my truth, without being told that my truth is not palatable.
And ultimately, I believe that our desire to make ourselves palatable to white institutions is undoing us. Academia is built upon the exclusion of Black bodies, Black consciousness, and Black humanity, and while we may now exist within the walls of PWIs, there is still so much work to do.
Yes, these institutions are a tool for us to do meaningful work, but they will never love us the way we deserve to be loved. It does both ourselves and our community a disservice when we try to squeeze ourselves into the narrow mold of acceptability that academia is built upon. Our trauma is worthy of being heard and held, and should not be dismissed as weakness or a lack of gratitude. White institutions will never love us and they will never be enough to fill us. It is okay to for us to acknowledge that, even when are doing important work within them.
To my fellow Black academics: remember, as Maya Angelou says, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” When a fellow colleague or student tells you that they are struggling, we should not dismiss them, we should not silence them. Instead, we should hold them and remind them that they are trying to thrive in a place that has often been the architect of their racial trauma and exclusion. It’s okay if they need a little extra support to make it through the day. To be a Black person in academia is brave. Profoundly brave decisions warrant great displays of love, patience, and care.
Editor’s Note: This month at BYP, we will be exploring Education & Schooling, and we are interested in publishing works that address these topics. What are the implications of charter and private schools in communities of color? How do we counteract anti-Black textbooks and teachers in our childrens’ education? How did you heal from bullying or other school-based trauma? What tactics are most effective in deconstructing the school to prison pipeline? What role do alternative schooling methods play in Black liberation?
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CJ is an alumna of UC Berkeley and is currently Master’s of Theological studies candidate studying the intersection of race, religion, and sexuality. You can find her writing on Huffington Post, The Tempest, and Medium.