For many queer/trans people of color, college is often a pivotal time of self discovery. But as academia continues to push the conversation around both diversity and inclusion, many QTPOC students believe that higher education is doing a poor job of creating inclusive learning opportunities that validate their intersectional experiences.
One of the most common issues that QTPOC have highlighted is how colleges and universities alike have been slow to adopt policies, services, and programs that meet the intersectional needs of Queer & Trans students of color. For many QTPoC, specifically those who are seeking a master's or doctoral degree, navigating a college campus can often mean struggling to find support of your marginalized identities.
The issue around diversity and inclusion for QTPOC on college campuses is one that is not new. Since 2008, campus colleges have been in the news for the lack of support they have provided QTPoC. Schools like Hampton University have rejected multiple attempts by students to begin a student-formed LGBTQ-inclusive group. Morehouse College made headlines in 2009 for its anti-trans policy on dress code, and in 2011 schools like Florida A&M University were under investigation for anti-gay hate crimes that took place on their campus. Studies have also proven that the disparity on college campuses are even higher for queer Black students such that in 2016 it was reported that most universities in the US suffered a major achievement gap between Black and white students.
One of the greater issues that QTPOC scholar say they face is connected to those in position of power not understanding their positionality in academic spaces, specifically spaces in the classroom. Many queer scholars have commented that they feel institutions use buzzwords like “diversity” and “inclusion” to get them on their campus, but when they speak up about the injustices they face within their institution, support is very hard to find.
From my own journey in higher education, I know this struggle firsthand through my pursuit of my doctorate in education. In the second year of my doctoral program it took almost 3 months to get my dissertation topic approved. Being that my institution was a PWI and many of my educators had never worked with a queer Black man, let alone one who desired to do research on queer people of color issues, there seemed to be a great deal of pushback on my dissertation topic. Once my topic was approved, the institutional review board kicked back my dissertation application 3 times before the approval was made final. A great deal of what I wanted to do was removed because the institution stated they did not want to be held liable, but both my dissertation chair and I felt that there were other motives involved in denying me to do my original study.
Defending both my topic and my study wasn’t the hardest part of my journey. There were specific moments in my studies that made the program challenging, specifically thinking about the way that educators responded to me and my criticism of the content we studied. Reflecting on my own journey left me wondering: why is higher education harder for QTPoC, specifically those who are seeking a master’s or doctorate level education?
To contextualize the problem, one has to understand that going to college for QTPoC usually is not just about the education. For most, going to college often means being able to start over. Most QTPoC leave for college with a very weak support networks and college is usually their first opportunity to connect with others who might have shared the same lived experiences. For QTPoC individuals who do seek a degree, the journey can become much more cumbersome when you add in the total cost of higher education being a possible burden, along with not feeling as if you belong on that campus you attend. Keep this in mind: many QTPoC struggle with imposter syndrome when getting to college being that many come from low socio-economic backgrounds and poor K-12 experiences. In the studies that I used for my own research, 90% of the men survey in my study shared that they were never told that higher education was possible for them.
In addition, many QTPoC note that they often choose to go to college and live on campus to escape a very hostile home environment. For QTPoC scholars who are seeking a master’s or doctoral program, the risk of higher education is even greater when you begin to actualize the full cost of a program and the risk you take to complete a program that may not support depths of your intersectional experiences. For many QTPoC, finding sponsorships, internships or fellowships can be difficult specifically noting that often the only schools that might provide a fully paid internship or fellowship are located in rural, non-progressive areas of the country. QTPoC often take these opportunities to lessen their debt, only to take on the struggle of navigate non-inclusive campuses with high levels of anti-queer and racist campus climates.
The greatest struggle that remains is the lack of knowledge and understanding that cis-het individuals have around the intersectional experiences of queer Black and Brown Students. Emme, an out cis-gender Black lesbian woman stated that she often becomes the “go to person” about all things related to her identity. For her this meant having to educate her peers about what it meant to be both Black and queer on numerous occasions and what other students, faculty and staff could do to advocate for her. Emme stated that this is exhausting for QTPoC, specifically citing the work and the labor that goes into helping those understand their privilege.
Dr. Anthony Ocampo, a queer Filipinx professor who writes around the intersections of race, sexuality, and academia, notes that colleges are not doing enough to make QTPoC feel like they matter on campus. He explained that most QTPoC masters and doctoral candidate students share that finding spaces where they are allowed to fully speak openly about racial, gender and sexual identity are hard to find. Dr. Ocampo also spoke to the idea that much of the data that QTPoC master and doctoral candidates students are encouraged to use is based on white cis-heteronormative research.
Another issue that seems to never be addressed when dealing with the resiliency of QTPoC in higher education is the lack of visibility given to the community on a college campus. Dr. Eduardo Lara, Latinx lecturer at California State University Long Beach, noted that one of the greater concerns he’s had for QTPoC is the lack of support students get throughout their journey. For scholars like him, the issue continues to involve the lack of data that is present to show how higher education establishments are working to help QTPoC attain academic success.
Dr. Lara went on to explain that while there are some schools that have websites designated to showing faculty and staff who are designated allies, many of said allies are hard for students to connect with because they do not share the same intersectional experiences. While Dr. Lara expressed that mentorship is not the end all-be all solution to the issues that QTPoC students face, having informal connections with educators who share similar identities and experiences have proven help QTPoC student excel in their work.
The one theme that seems to be most common between all scholars who I spoke to on the question of resolving the issues that QTPoC face in the academy is connecting back to intersectionality, the intersections of identity, and understanding these frameworks. It is important to understand that it is not enough to just recognize the difference in the lived experiences that each QTPoC student has, but institutions must actively be working to dismantle the oppression that each student may face in and out of the classroom.
QTPoC students, specifically those in master's and doctoral level programs spend a great deal of time not only trying to assimilate to the demands of a program, but working to overcome imposter syndrome. Having more faculty and staff within a college campus that can speak to the struggles that QTPoC students face not only shows a university's commitment to the value of difference, but its interest in lift the voices of those who are often othered.
We have to understand that college is not just about the academic experience for QTPoC. While college can help build the human capital of QTPoC, most QTPoC students use college as a space to help them build both their social and cultural capital. The experiences that these students have both in and out of the classroom are crucial to the development of their intersecting identities.
As both a scholar and writer who has done a great deal of research around the issues that QTPoC have in higher education and what they need to excel, I know we must center the voices of our QTPoC students. We must acknowledge that they need spaces to feel safe and we must begin to reframe the ways we talk about inclusion and must dedicate more time to ensuring that all elements of their identity are welcome in the institution of their choosing, and the academy writ large.
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