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October 2012

Black and Degreed: Privilege and Persecution

It is a very tricky line that you have to walk as a Black person who has attended college. You have to check your educational privilege (and what that may entail in terms of benefits and perceptions, though said benefits and perceptions are still shaped by your race, gender, sexuality, complexion and weight etc.—they don’t magically become the benefits of White cis gender heterosexual able-bodied men or women with degrees) but you may still want to talk about persecution at school, your experiences with racism, and the unique experience of racism AND sexism as a Black woman, and have those experiences heard and those feelings validated.

Once, I talked to a few Black people that I know about one of the (many) racist experiences that I endured when I was working on my Master’s degree a few years ago. I was in class with one other Black female student, about 10 White female students and 2 White male students. During the “get to know you” portion of the class, the White female professor asked about our hobbies and interests. At the time, I danced salsa, so I mentioned that when it was my turn. A bit later in the class, as the first lecture started, and we were discussing the role of psychology in urban communities and the conversation lead to condoms, yay or nay for students, she asked if any of us had ever seen a female condom. I and the other Black female student raised our hands. None of the White women did. None. Of course they were lying. A few of them worked in healthcare or social work and clearly had exposure to female condoms. It is unlikely that anyone in that class was a virgin, and unless they had unprotected sex their entire life, they had to have come across a female condom, even if they chose to use traditional condoms. Further, how rare is it that someone that highly educated had not learned about or come in contact with the variety of condoms that exist? Apparently, they viewed admitting this as shame. Their facial expressions said it all. The professor then said to me and the other Black woman "of course you’ve seen them!" What was that supposed to mean? She then continued on and said to me "oh and you dance salsa, so I KNOW you have!" to the laughter of the entire class. (I’ve never been laughed at in class, by the whole class, not from kindergarten through undergrad, so that was new for me.)

In other words, adult Black women (as this was graduate school, and the youngest in the class was 25, the oldest was 45) would “automatically” know about female condoms and dancing salsa, a dance with roots among people of colour, automatically meant that I am definitely hypersexual. The racial implications were made CLEAR. And, of course the logic problem here should be noted—seeing a condom or using one does not correlate to the actual numbers of partners or frequency of sex that someone has.  (I am not even going to get on the issue of WHY is sex a source of shame or being policed in a graduate psychology class—because even the basic logic issues here are a big FAIL. Further, I am not even going to get on how PROBLEMATIC these racist beliefs among students discussing urban communities and expect to work in psychology are.)  The coup by the White female students with the White female professor leading was utterly disgusting to me. I was a good student, so I still got a A in the class, but my experience in that class (and subsequently her performance review…which I took pleasure in utterly annihilating her in it) took a major hit. 

After sharing this story, instead of a "wow" or "I experienced that at a job" or "sorry to hear that, at least you still did well in the class" I got a "so what, at least you got a Master’s degree. Everybody Black person doesn’t have that!" I just sighed.

I learned from then on that speaking about work environment racism/sexism or academic racism/sexism is not something that I can do with anyone, even if I think of the person as a “friend.” I learned that unlike racism occurring other places (i.e. a mall, a store, cop-related) where everyone is quick to want to go out with me to snatch wigs in response, some of the many…so many experiences like this and worse that I have dealt with have to be stored away and only revealed, deconstructed and examined with certain people.

When I say that my closest friends are all like me, 30-something, Black women, Master’s degree or above, liberal political ideology, definietly not wealthy (we are still Black and female and our income is impacted by that, degrees or not) but usually (not always, as many degreed Black people can attest to) financially “okay,” and ones I have known since middle school, high school, or undergrad, this is why. I need close friends with whom I feel safe to discuss my experiences…any and all of them.

I am fully knowledgeable of the benefits and privilege of an education. I am consistently trying to check my privilege there. (Though for me, said privilege has not included big bags of cash. I’ve had many years of financial stress. My possible class privilege is more nuanced than the degrees would allude to.) At the same time, if I have to bury the microaggressions, racism and sexism that I experience because the sheer mention of college makes me elitist, it’s a pretty heavy burden to bear. Simply because I have access to the spaces where educated White cis gender heterosexual men and women of a certain educational status do doesn’t mean that I get to share their level of experiences. I am still used as a tool of ridicule by them and face a great deal of oppression in those spaces—spaces still deemed (by society, not me) “above” spaces where non-degreed Black people may occupy.

(Of course there’s other politics that I could discuss such as the specific stigma of being a Black woman with a degree [the “it can’t keep you warm at night” and other heteronormative sociopolitical issues etc.] and the gender/race issues there and how that is shaped by media etc. but I won’t get into that for this post. It is relevant though.)

Thinking about academic racism has me a little anxious in that I am in the Ph.D. application process right now (as I wonder about future class experiences. I haven’t been in a class of any kind since 2008 when I graduated from grad school). At the same time, even mentioning that I am in the Ph.D. application process right now has opened the door for elitist labels and I feel anxious before I even send any tweets about it or mention it to anyone in person. In fact, I barely tweet about it compared to other topics, despite the fact it is the largest thing going on in my life in the last couple of months, even so that I have slowed up a bit on my photography redesign and genre changes that I have instead set for 2013.

It’s a very tricky line to walk. Very.

Related Blog Posts: Intersectionality Meets Social MediaThoughts About “Useless Degree” Lists…, Hierarchy…Even Among The “Useless” Degrees?, White Women and White Privilege: Telling Them NO