Earning a bachelor’s degree is an accomplishment that should always be celebrated. The US higher education system was not historically designed for people of color to succeed. As resilient as we are (not by choice), still there are challenges for people of color to get into college, let alone persist and earn a bachelor’s degree.
For many of us that get through undergraduate work and earn that four-year degree, we tend to be the first in our families to do so. Many families of color with a first generation college graduate think, “Okay, that’s it you did it, now go to work.” When the response is, “I’m going back to school. I want more,” the unfathomable happens… and we go back.
Although there are more people of color, especially those identifying as women, pursuing degrees beyond the undergraduate level than ever before, the numbers still are nowhere near our white counterparts. When you add the intersection of identifying as QTPoC (Queer & Trans Person/People of Color), the uphill battle with predominantly white cisgender academia gets even steeper.
As someone who identifies as a Black gay man that just crossed the stage as a student for the LAST time, I can attest to just how steep the hill was beyond my undergraduate studies. There is something to be said for reflecting on the journey, and looking back, there were a few pitfalls I could have avoided when identity issues surfaced in the classroom, conducting research, and interacting with faculty.
For students of color, particularly those identifying as QTPoC, that have managed to achieve what some white folks deem unthinkable, obtaining a master’s can unmask those that do not even want to stand on the same street corner as us, let alone comprehend that we aspire to acquire more knowledge. As a student in a master’s program, QTPOC may encounter faculty that express their uneasiness in both subtle and overt ways, especially when called out on their “expressions” and hide behind academic freedom.
Academic freedom ultimately means that both faculty members and students can engage in dialogue without fear of being censored. What academic freedom does not mean, is that students can be discriminated against for who they are. This is a particularly of concern since free speech has recently sparked numerous violent controversial uprisings on college campuses nationwide.
QTPoC students can and should speak out and not be afraid to do so. I found that speaking out in class, coupled with turning in research papers citing QTPoC researchers, helped introduce queer intellectual discourse to the academic freedom discussion. As a faculty member I often reference journalists, artists, authors, and historians that identify as QTPoC just to make sure I made my course curriculum as inclusive as possible.
For classes with faculty that are less inclusive, referencing scholars like us can inspire faculty to become more inclusive and advocate for inclusive curriculum in the future. As QTPoC students, we have the responsibility to advocate for ourselves, especially in academia. In a system that is not built to sustain us, it is our charge to make sure we are responsible for our education. I figured that I needed to cite as many QTPoC folks as I could regardless of what class I was in. It is ok to force the hand of faculty that tend to remain in their lily white academic world. This course of action worked for me in both the master’s and doctorate programs. And here I am, Dr Jamal Evan Mazyck, EdD.
Empirical research was my key to success when it came to opening up the hearts and minds of faculty that were not otherwise exposed to queer intellectual thought. It was especially effective when the pushback from unruly faculty centered on lack of awareness. Your comeback will always be, “Well now you know, and when you know better, you do better.” What person of color hasn't heard that Maya Angelou quote?
Moving the academic needle toward inclusivity is never easy. In my current role as a student affairs administrator, I can only hope to continue to push, and push, and push uphill so those coming behind me have an easier time “pushing”. Some use kindness to combat hatred in academia. I use research. Research that reflects who we are and who we as QTPoC are destined to be: Great.
Jamal Evan Mazyck, Ed.D. can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @jmbeyond7.
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