Excellence As a Survival Strategy for Black Women in Academia

University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and the Environment
University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and the Environment

By Dellea K. Copeland for Conditionally Accepted, cross-posted with permission

I am a 22-year-old queer womyn of color, first-generation college graduate, first generation American. I wear my afro like it’s 1969. I speak openly about patriarchy and racism. On my desk, you will find an American flag that says “Black Lives Matter,” inspirational books of quotes by Black womyn, and even a copy of Essence magazine. My desk is the first thing you see when you walk into the office. Make no mistake — a Black womyn lives here.

These things have nothing to do with my research and everything to do with my survival. As a first-year graduate student, I am still trying on survival mechanisms. From closing the office door and crying with my colleagues to unapologetically tweeting my frustrations, I am figuring out what works for me.

I did not come into graduate school this way. I was timid, wary of expressing myself, and constantly oscillating between “souling out,” as Eric penned. I tied up my natural hair, bottled up my “militant” (otherwise known as passionate, pained, emotional, or revolutionary — depending on your color) speeches when Mike Brown was murdered, and aimed to please my new peers. There was a person in my department whom I was glad to know, having moved all the way up north from the same area of the country. I soon learned he was from the more rural, conservative (read: racist) area of our state, as his remarks became more markedly classist and sexist.

I guess it was the confederate flag tattoo that really put me over the edge. I gave up trying to please and began a crusade against this person and all others who think like him. Every infraction was reported to administration; otherwise, I personally opened a can of whoop ass.

But this is tiring. I didn’t come here for this.

I will never tell someone not to stand up for him or herself, but I will stress the importance of prioritizing. Are we here to fix stupid or are we here to be scholars? (“Are we gladiators? Or are we bitches?”) In other words, do their comments and opinions prevent us from achieving the bigger picture? My white friend and colleague is in the process of her personal crusade and has reached the moment where it’s become consuming. I periodically remind her of an ancient Negro proverb:

“Don’t let white boys who wear flip flops tell you shit.”

This is not always easy. I recently had a particularly difficult week, with my colleagues speaking over me, calling me “lazy,” and giving me all the eye contact when talking about minority issues. (I am not the only racial minority, but I am the darkest in the room.) These behaviors are especially frustrating because we have been over this. We have had workshops and meetings until the end of time, yet there are days when I can’t get out of bed and face these people. These people who make me feel different and unimportant. These people who probably wear flip flops!

As I write this, I am in the beginning of a three-day “positivity weekend.” A much-needed retreat from the smog of bitterness that has clouded my judgment. My email is off; I am not taking calls; I am not reading the news. I will not discuss white supremacy or graduate school, or engage with people from the office. I will watch Scandal, read Assata Shakur’s autobiography, listen to “Black” podcasts — basically be in my safe space so that I may recuperate and re-examine my purpose here. For the next three days, I belong to me.

As a Black womyn at a predominately white institution (PWI) (and a small town), it is not simply the lack of color that makes me feel isolated. It is the lack of understanding. When I can’t breathe, I run to my advisor and department friends who are wonderful allies because they listen and sympathize. I try to Skype with friends who are simultaneously going through this experience. I read blogs and connect with similar people on Twitter. I religiously listen to podcasts, not for the amusement, but to hear my own tongue. I don’t have friends here whom I can relax around and speak AAVE (African American Vernacular English). For some, it may be helpful to join the Black student groups on campus, but I found this insufficient. Again, it’s not about color. It’s about having a mutual understanding and enjoying cultural bonds. Simply put, Blackness is not necessarily an indication of one’s politics or cultural associations.

When my friend asked me to help her move on from her emotionally exhausting crusade, this is what I said:

I realized my issue with my officemate wasn’t with him specifically; it was everything he represented. People like him are a direct threat to my physical existence. While he can be “taught” to do better, it’s taken students and faculty to get him to be where he is today. Which means, your enemy will learn eventually, or he won’t, but it’s not up to you to teach him. Your job is to do your best and be great regardless. His actions sting, but who cares? Someone said my officemate is actually intimidated by me. Good. This didn’t happen because I am Black, proud, and will smack him down like the hand of God. It happened because I am his academic competition. How dare I be excellent when I am poor, Black, and female? Your enemy isn’t the problem; it’s the fact that he is not the last one you will have to deal with. Don’t spend another calorie teaching him, you don’t need him to be a better person for you to do your job. Be excellent, because that’s apparently the worst offense.

I wish someone had said this to me, so I am saying it to you. Those who feel the need to marginalize you are intimidated. Do not wilt to assuage their insecurity. Do not waste your divine energy on those who do not deserve it. One day, they will learn. Until then, pay attention to your survival, perfect your craft, and your work will speak for itself.

Dellea K. Copeland (@delleacopeland) is a first-year graduate student at Penn State University. She studies authoritarian regimes, democratic breakdowns, protest movements, and the Middle East. Fingers crossed, she will graduate in 2019 with a PhD in political science. As an undergraduate, Dellea was a part of the McNair Scholar Program, a federal program dedicated to diversifying higher education. She has published in two undergraduate journals and presented her work across the country at multiple undergraduate and professional conferences. She hails from Austin, Texas and will be your research assistant in exchange for street tacos.