Today’s guest blogger NotYourOther is a doctoral candidate at a large public university in the Midwest.
As a multiracial woman I have always been an “other”. From childhood on I have struggled with what box to check to identify my racial heritage. Then there was that ever annoying “other” option that further disenfranchised my developing racial identity. My racial ambiguity was never really an issue for me, but always seemed to perplex others, particularly my peers, who often asked the dreaded “so what are you?” question. It seemed as I moved into adulthood and started my career the focus on my race was slightly diminished. I consciously chose to work in agencies where people of color were not always the minority [in number] and my brown skin did not indicate an “otherness”. I contently existed in this fabricated environment for several years until I decided to return to school and pursue my PhD in Social Work.
I am the first to admit that I was desperately naïve in believing that my return to academia would be a utopian experience. I assumed that there would be a higher level of consciousness and self-actualization among faculty and peers. I mean we are social workers, right? Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Early on feelings of “otherness” began and have resurfaced periodically since my first year in the program. I fight with all my self-esteem to keep them at bay and to pack away the subtle microagressions I encounter. I move forward by focusing on my goals and using self-affirmations to get me through the inevitable next set of “other” remarks. I have acquired these coping strategies to survive in an environment that sometimes does not feel ready for me. Such coping mechanisms also keep me guarded and distant from those whose “other” remarks have attempted to damage my spirit whether consciously or not. But eventually, each new encounter adds a little more weight to my load, making it too heavy and I succumb, self doubt creeping in.
I have recently felt an uncomfortable level of animosity from a fellow PhD student who perceived my presence as a possible opportunity they did not receive. I am disheartened by such peers or colleagues who aren’t always conscious of their words that sting and alienate me. How should I have responded to that peer who said “you get asked to do a lot [i.e., presentations, sit on committees]. It would be nice if they asked someone else, there are other types of diversity that they could include”. What this student failed to realize is that I may not always want to be the face of the people or the voice of the voiceless. But the burden weighs heavy as I am asked to speak, to offer my views. If I say no I question whether I am giving up an opportunity to speak in honor of those who are never been asked their opinion or who have never been given a chance to sit at the table. I see it as an opportunity to defy stereotypes and dispel myths that surround my brown-skinned persona. So I say yes when I may want to say no, I take what is offered and I speak, I lecture, I participate. At times I burden my schedule with these things that I feel are necessary to do because my grandparents and so many others like them didn’t have such opportunities. No one asked them their opinion, but they want mine, so I speak. Yet sometimes I feel as though all my peers see is opportunity folded in brown skin that doesn’t acknowledge the struggle and the work it took to get here.
They don’t understand that I never just get to be me… I am always that [insert race] student. In academia I am a commodity that is drowned by “otherness”. I fill quotas and offer “diverse” perspectives in classes, committees, and any other forum that needs to be “inclusive”. I “get” opportunities other students may want and in doing so I become a symbol of others’ missed opportunities. But what they don’t realize is that I also get so much more…. I get the anxiety of perceptions. If I mess up it’s not just about me, it may be attributed to my people and my upbringing or lack thereof. I get to wonder if they all just think I am here because of the legacy of affirmative action or some other diversity initiative that calls for more color, please. I get to second guess and doubt myself and wonder if they are right, if somehow I am an imposter that is not supposed to be here at this predominately white university, a place that I often feel was not made for me. I also get to wait for the next time I achieve a milestone or earn something and have it slighted because they wonder if “diversity” was a deciding factor more so then merit.
I have received wonderful opportunities throughout my educational journey, but none of them were given to me. I have worked for everything I have received and I have counted my blessings with each new achievement I reach. I may get a fellowship designated for “minorities” and you might see “women and people of color encouraged to apply” on job postings, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t earned my place to be here. Instead it means that I represent a history of people who were denied such opportunities and continue to be excluded from the conservation. I also represent a group of people that is still grossly underrepresented in academia, so yes when an opportunity arises where I get to flex my “privilege” I will. Because my type of privilege is not reflected in the faces of the people I see at my school…because my “privilege” is laced with a history that is too painful to be ignored…at least by me.