What is an academic to a BIPOC? Late night thoughts of a young Black scholar

What is an academic? As a Black woman in higher education, this question has been at the forefront of my mind for as long as I can remember. Now, however, this question seems even more relevant, accompanied by the current social lens shining an intentional light on the ills of many that academics have traditionally labeled as “minority” (defined as “the smaller part, especially a number that is less than half”) for so long. The “default” image of an academic as a white cis man represents a deeply missed opportunity for long-overdue institutional transformation. Redefining what it means to be an academic could very well be the beginning of a paradigm shift in higher education. Will we take this time to change the ways we see Black scholars as a need to reform all of higher education? Or, will we simply see this as a way to check a box that we have included a minority and found a missing piece?

A personal story: I grew up in the University system. My mother was a collegiate coach and instructor, and my extended family were all tenured professors. I went to elementary school on a college campus and my after-school and summer activities centered around the university setting. I thought an academic was a picture of myself and, because of my background, I never wavered from that picture growing up. If you consider the context, I frequently saw people who looked like me, spoke like me, had similar backgrounds as me all thrive in this space. How could my life as an academic be any different? I knew at a very young age that in some way, my career would involve higher education and working on a college campus.

I was not only in the wrong room that day, but I would be perceived as being in the wrong room for the rest of my career.

I went to university and thought that I’d complete the required degrees and eventually be revered as someone who belonged in the space. Most of all, I was just excited to learn, study, and to be somewhere that I had a sense of belonging my entire life. It wasn’t until my first week at my Master’s program that I realized my naïve expectation of belonging did not apply to the truly weird “powers that be” (White, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic) in this system. I remember my induction into higher education like it was yesterday– at orientation, one of the deans of the college I was attending told the white men in my small cohort that they needed to band together and rise to the opportunity of mentorship “because all other races were doing it and soon they would take over the space.” I sat there, mouth dropped, looking around the room to an un-stunned crowd. And instantly realized, “you know what, I might be in the wrong room.” It was the first time in higher education I was told, inadvertently, that I did not belong. Yet, the microaggression sat with me my entire Master’s tenure. I remember looking around the room: I was the only person of color, the only Black person, and one of two women. Where was the University setting that I remembered? This was the beginning of a long realization that I was not only in the wrong room that day, but I would be perceived as being in the wrong room for the rest of my career.

This path to becoming a scholar and practitioner has proved difficult in ways that are not attributable to my age and experience. As a practitioner, I am still studying and always learning, but I am considered an expert in my area. However, every time I walk into a room that calls for this expertise, the almost immediate questions that I receive are directed at my competence and ability to be at the table. It is not until I share my background, education, certifications, scholarly interests, and other qualifications that the meeting participants or stakeholders decide that I am worthy of “eating,” but I am still not invited to the “cookout.” To the lens of someone who isn’t in these rooms, the scrutinization of worthiness might seem normal, but these encounters are very apparently centered on my gender and race, while others who enter with more privilege in their repertoire are taken as experts at face value. I’ve also noticed that after I share all of my expertise, my meekness in these spaces has been uplifted and praised, because it helps the individuals in the room feel more comfortable around me. If I share my opinion, then it needs to be in a way that massages the egos of the majority stakeholders, which are usually, in this case white women. I am exalted with words such as “gentle” and “elegant” as a contrast to the stereotyped “aggressive” and “basic” when showing up in this manner.

…in academia, I am required to perform and not inform.

Why is this important? It’s time that we as academics consider the facts. Being seen as a minority—part of a whole—and specifically a Black Woman, means that in academia I am required to perform and not inform. This means that I must do the extra work of being willing to always share my reason for belonging in an academic space, every time I enter that space—just as actors do when they announce themselves on a stage in order to be a believable character. Being considered the “minority,” I am expected to shrink, mold, and become the person who tenderly fits the reflection of the majority so well that they don’t notice me in the room. And that, to the proverbial institution watching and cheering, is considered an ultimate win they are able to appear inclusive while not being required to sacrifice their comfort.

If we as academics are again rounding discussions of what it means to be a BIPOC and woman in academia, then we need to be honest: the conversations that we are having are and will still be dominated by white-centric views, points, and lenses because these lenses designed these institutions. How do we break free from the need to play roles in order to actually create an institution that is equitable throughout? This begs a question: What is an academic, and how do we escape the traditional idea of what an academic isn’t? No matter how far I go up the ladder in higher education, I understand that I will not be seen as an academic until I choose to mold to the white, male, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied idea that the founding fathers of these establishments represented. I will not be regarded as intelligent or “average” in these journals and spaces until I make the choice not to use AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) in papers or until I concede that my experience in any space might not be worth sharing for the greater good of all of Academia. So as academics, we transform the Academy by demolishing the vision of what an academic is and isn’t—the roles themselves—and realize that anyone who doesn’t fit the mold still belongs. We will not be ready to move forward until we see all languages, experiences, races, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, bodies, etc., as worthy of academic valor and the norm.

My personal charge: As you move through these Black authors listed on this website and endeavor to teach anti-oppressive work in your classrooms, take a moment to ask yourself why? Your “why” is where this transformation begins. Why are YOU here on this site? Is it because you want to make sure to include a seat at the table for these authors, or are you inviting them to be fully present at the cookout? Are you diversifying your academic space because you think you have to, or are you here because these scholars are the unrecognized experts in your field?

If you are working toward creating change that not only includes diversity, but also nurtures and promotes the individual expertise of every single person listed on this site, then you might be ready to begin answering the question: What is an academic?

Tiara Cash: Tiara Cash is a sport and social psychology scholar with a deep focus on mindfulness and resilience. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University, a Master’s Degree from Western Illinois
University, and is currently a graduate student at Simon Fraser University where she researches the
intersections of transitions, pro-social behaviors, and well-being outcomes. In addition to this scholarly
work, Tiara owns Crowned Vitta LLC an organization focused on mindfulness, meta-awareness, and
meaning where she conducts presentations, workshops, and consultations through an emerging
framework: Equitable Mindfulness. Her career interests include working with underrepresented and
underserved populations, resilience training, and research on life transitions. To reach Tiara, view her profile on the Team Page.

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