Imagine what it feels like to be the only Black person in a setting where you’re simultaneously seen as an expert on your identity and an interloper for daring to discuss it.
While I love being a grad student and I’m glad for the chance to make my mark on academia, the thing is, that I only ever have problems in grad school about my Blackness. Not about queerness. Never about queerness.
In the two-and-a-half years since starting work on a master’s degree in Literature, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been in a graduate seminar course where I wasn’t the only Black person in the room. Every time professors bring up slavery, civil rights, or anything even vaguely related to Black history and/or Black suffering, it feels like a spotlight lands squarely on my head. I have to steel my spine in order to handle the fact that many of my classmates – who are largely liberal-minded, queer, and/or identify as people of color – are really bad about discussing or being aware of Blackness.
As a queer Black person, I’ve become increasingly aware of the fact that many white people who pride themselves on their progressive politics simply don’t know what to do with me or how to engage with me. They can handle my queerness and are always eager to share stories either about their own queer relationships or their queer friends and family members. The moment they become reminded of my Blackness – because I slip up with code-switching or I talk about racism in my life or in relation to work – things get awkward. They get uncomfortable. Inevitably, it ends in my either disassociating in silence, or speaking up and getting written off as yet another Angry Black Woman.
Ciarra Jones was spot on in “Grad School Is Trash for Students of Color and We Should Talk About That” when she talks about the ways that graduate school programs allow white students to treat Black people as intellectual curiosities. The primary way they learn to engage with us or our identities is through theoretical texts. I have firsthand knowledge of how it feels to experience someone discussing Blackness and dismissing it as if you don’t exist beyond an academic thought experiment.
Last semester, during a class discussion on Toni Morrison’s Beloved, one of my classmates argued with me for several minutes, trying to shame me for talking about my personal connections to the text and what I would do in the main character’s shoes. Time that should’ve been focused on the book was spent complaining about how much I was getting out of it. They even tried dismissing me by claiming “we’re all the descendants of slaves, aren’t we?”.
Considering that no one in the room identified as Black or AfroLatinx and that we were specifically talking about chattel slavery, the question was disingenuous. As was the suggestion that we should “agree to disagree.” Things escalated to a point where I was portrayed as being irrational to other people in the department. In this moment, I was perceived as out of line for daring to have emotions in the “absolutely analytical” classroom setting.
What got me about this situation and other moments in this vein is that few people spoke up. The lack of action – something that never happens during heated discussions about gender or sexuality unless they also involve race – wasn’t that surprising two years into the program. It was just plain disappointing.
While the experiences I’ve had in grad school (e.g., the racist microaggressions and mediocre allyship in the face of anti-Blackness) have been annoying to face, they aren’t exclusive to academia. Unfortunately. The job market, comic book stores, and even parties are all places where my Blackness has put other people on edge because of their own internalized beliefs about what Black people are like. However, my queerness is largely treated as a non-issue when brought up.
My existence and my identities are inherently and automatically political by virtue of the world around us being so inhospitable to people of color and queer folks. It’d be nice if my existence could be accepted in its entirety rather than in uncomfortable and uneven pieces.
Many so-called allies honestly believe that they’re fighting the good fight because they donate or protest at every chance they get. But if they’re not standing up for people like me when it counts the most, when we’re alone in institutional spaces that don’t make room for us, maybe they need to rethink their use of the label.
You've been part of the work so far, and you can be part of so much more in the coming year. So, let's build.