By Whitney Laster
I was so excited when I started receiving acceptance letters to pursue a graduate degree in Sociology. I knew that picking a graduate school was a big decision; I decided to focus on finding an institution that would provide me with the skills and support to be successful and a place I felt excited about.
The first campus visit that I went on happened to be to the school that ranked the highest out of my acceptances. In one of many awkward conversations, my graduate student host was not hesitant to tell me about the fellowship she landed for her high GRE test scores. I naïvely interrupted, telling her that fellowships were awarded to people without the scores she suggested—I knew this because my scores were below the supposed cutoff and I was already promised a fellowship. Her response was straight to the point: “oh, well, that is because you have a diversity fellowship.”
During my second university visit, the recruits were invited to an off-campus working group. On this particular day the assignment was for everyone to bring in her or his favorite feminist song, listen to it as a group and then discuss. It wasn’t until the song, “Women are the Nigger of the World” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, began playing that I realized I was the only black person in the room. My heartbeat increased as I prepped myself to speak up and state my disdain for the song (see The Crunk Feminist Collective for a great discussion on why this song is problematic); however, when the song stopped the room was completely silent. I, a 21-year-old recruit, did not have the guts to say a thing—but neither did the other 15 faculty and students in the room. This was the only song that had no discussion.
My final campus visit went fine. I don’t remember any specific moments where I felt alienated or judged critically because of my race (not saying it didn’t happen, but I just didn’t notice it). And in the end, I chose this school. While a variety of factors weighed into my decision—such as geographic location, financial support, and familial connections—I cannot say that the awkward, disheartening conversations that I encountered elsewhere were left out of my final decision.
Despite the non-occurrence of a racist event happening during this recruitment, I knew that I had to prepare myself. I was a budding race scholar and understood that racist experiences were just as much a part of the academy as they are in every other institution, organization, and interaction within our racialized social system (Bonilla-Silva 1997). I, as a young woman of color graduate student, would have to go through things that others without my gender and race, even in a sociology department, would not even think about.
I am now in my fifth year of graduate school and working on my dissertation. I am so thankful and blessed to be where I am but I have, as I thought I would, encountered many awkward, disheartening moments. I have been the only person of color in a seminar class and assumed the role of the ‘minority voice’. I have been excluded from nearly department-wide student happy hours. I have had the standard greeting and smile unreturned from faculty as we passed each other in the halls. These experiences are not only a result of my surroundings—I want to be clear that I enjoy my department and university—rather, these experiences are a result of who I am as a woman of color.
Since being here I picked up another research area, mental health, which has actually been extremely helpful in my quest to understand the world around me. One of the most prominent theoretical models used in the sociological study of mental health is the stress process model, which explains why and how stress has a direct, significant, and negative relationship with both physical and mental health.
According to the theory’s founder, Lenard Pearlin (1989: 240), “many stressful experiences…don’t spring out of a vacuum but typically can be traced back to surrounding social structures and people’s locations within them.” In other words, individuals are differentially exposed to stressors because of their social location (e.g., race, gender). Furthermore, social statuses that are situated in disadvantaged positions (e.g., blacks, women) have greater exposure to stress and have more health problems as a result.
Certainly, stress impacts everyone, including academics. As a graduate student we might have financial strain because of our relatively small stipends. Additionally, feelings of inadequacy abound within departmental walls. However, I believe there is a different type of stress that can impact women of color in the academy above and beyond the more typical stressors. The term microagression captures it well: “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color” (Sue et al. 2007: 271). It is these microagressions that accumulate on top of the other stressors that graduate school typically brings that has very real health implications. Yes, most graduate students are struggling financially, but some of ‘us’ cannot fall back on our parents’ wealth. Yes, we all want to fit in, but ‘we’ often have to wonder if our exclusion is on the basis of our race and gender.
The research on the stress process model is clear: the more stress, the worse health. I, however, don’t need to rely on the research to agree—my friends and I have lived it. At some point in this process I began grinding my teeth at night and they have now shifted (it doesn’t help that we don’t have dental insurance). Hair loss, extreme weight fluctuations, skin rashes that break out under stressful situations are all very real to us.
The manifestation of stress has also been extremely detrimental to our psychological well-being. The gallon of accumulated tears doesn’t capture the anxiety, anger, or fear that we have experienced. Many of us have gone to the campus counselors and psychologists, while some of us have even used medication to protect our mental health.
Thankfully, the story does not stop there; one final dimension of the stress process model needs attention: protective factors. Factors include religion, social support, self-esteem, a sense of control, etc. and can have strong, and mostly positive, impact on health directly or through a mediation process that helps ameliorate the impact of stress on health.
I have relied on a few very important protective factors that have helped me tackle the stress related to being a woman of color in academia. I would like to share a few that have been my saving grace.
- Seek support from your peers – On my initial visit to my current department I met with another woman of color. She was positive, welcoming, and most importantly honest. She told me it would not be easy, but that she would support me—and that she has. Our department and networks have grown and we now have enough people we can call on in times of need. In fact, we decided to found a group, the Women of Color Social Science Collective, and have created seminars for undergrads, offered tutoring, and organized those much-needed debriefing sessions after a particularly tough experience. If you feel like you don’t fit in, make your own place!
- Seek support from professionals – When I thought I was pregnant, I walked straight into the doctor’s office for help. They gave me a diagnosis, shared resources, and provided the technical help I needed to carry and deliver a beautiful baby boy. When I thought I was ‘losing it’ (i.e., too distressed to be productive), I hesitantly walked into the counseling center. I found that they too are able to give diagnoses, provide resources, and are qualified to carry you through recovery. Faculty that I have sought out, in my department and across the country, have also been extremely helpful—they know the ropes and most are happy to share.
- Tap into your own personal resources – Yes, academia has its perks, but the many years of schooling, long hours, and the constant threat of rejection make up some of the pitfalls of the job. We are academics because we felt compelled to do so, not because it was the easy way out. We are smart, dedicated, and can make a change. On top of that, as women of color academics, we are strong, resilient, and passionate. We can do this.
- Remember that there is something more important – Being a part of the greater community is also important: visit parks, volunteer, go on dates. Have a (temporary) escape plan if necessary. Relatedly, and significantly, always remember that life is bigger than a season. Life is bigger than passing exams, landing a job, or those snooty and/or racist people that make us feel less than what we are. I have also found that seeking someone/thing (for me God, for you maybe something else) that is bigger than you is always a way to put things into perspective.
I have yet to finish my program, land a job, or get tenure. I am sure that these required obstacles will present a whole host of problems—times when I am excluded, degraded, judged, laughed at, and so on. I’m not sure I will have it all together but I know the research: if I continue to let the stress get to me I will not be physically or mentally prepared to tackle what is ahead. So for now, I will cling to my list to get through. Then, maybe one day, we will have enough power to make a change in academia so that others who choose to follow in our footsteps will travel a less thorny path.
“I Saw the Sign but Did We Really Need a Sign?: SlutWalk and Racism” The Crunk Feminist Collective. http://crunkfeministcollective.wordpress.com/2011/10/06/i-saw-the-sign-but-did-we-really-need-a-sign-slutwalk-and-racism/
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 1997. “Racialized Social System: Toward a Structural Interpretation.” American Sociological Review 62(3):465-480.
Pearlin, Leonard I. 1989. “The Sociological Study of Stress.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 30: 241-256.
Sue, Derald W., Christina M. Capodilupo, Gina C. Torino, Jennifer M. Bucceri, Aisha M. B. Holder, Kevin L. Nadal, and Marta Esquiliz. 2007. “Racial Microagressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice.” American Psychologist 62(4):271-286.
Whitney Laster is a graduate student at Vanderbilt University. She received her BS in Sociology from Grand Valley State University. Her research areas include race across the African diaspora, racism, identity, and mental health. She hopes to develop a more comprehensive understanding of racial liminality and has studied mixed race groups in the U.S., Brazil and South Africa.