I recently attended a summer research conference at Columbia University in New York hosted by an organisation that aims to promote the entrance of students of colour into academia, in a context in which the majority of teaching staff at universities have historically comprised white and male academics.
Ideally, this organisation envisions a diverse academy; to make sure that this goal is fulfilled it invests in the development of young minds such as myself who hope to become academics. The space is aimed at allowing us the chance to share experiences, opportunities and advice, largely regarding how we navigate the university and research space.
There is a ceremonial event at every conference when a panel of fellows who have recently acquired their PhDs speak about their experiences. The justification given for the inclusion of these ceremonial panels is that they are a way to motivate current students.
I have always felt uneasy at these sessions; the feeling was often subdued but at the last conference, it became more pronounced. I felt out of place: I found myself asking whether I actually belonged in that space, whether I actually belong in the academy.
The narrative presented by the speakers was positive and uniform. From where I was sitting, it felt as if the academy was the land of milk and honey. I fully understand how this could be, but is that all there is to say about it? Is that all that they have experienced in the space?
My challenge is in grappling with how the modelling of space from their perspective — or, more precisely, the perspective they delivered — made the academy into this image of the perfect place to be in, whereas for me it has never been that.
Partly due to this, as I was sitting listening, I began to second-guess my ability, my place and my worth because the dominant narrative being delivered was one that I do not entirely identify with.
From my personal experience — even though I cannot say that I am an expert on the experiences of graduate students, specifically those of colour — I have often felt a dislocation between myself and the university space. This has been both on a social and a professional level.
When we come into spaces, especially under the guise of supporting each other as minority groups or previously disadvantaged peoples it is important to be transparent and speak out — not only about the good but also to share the negative experiences. Identifying with each other in our struggles creates solidarity and instils belief for a better tomorrow more effectively than a titivated version of events.
I feel as if we should be at a stage in our level of consciousness when participating in such platforms to acknowledge that academic spaces are riddled with contradictions. We need to speak out against those contradictions with each other and find ways to dismantle them or, for the time being, to go around them.
It is a constant mission to remain within these institutions as a person of colour, because for generations they have been designed to exclude us. In most respects, our background does not prepare us for such conditions, owing to the sociohistorical conditions that have systematically contributed to the marginalisation of people of colour.
If discussions and programmes aimed at redressing historical injustices are to achieve their role, there needs to be an acknowledgement that for a person of colour, the journey to attain a PhD at a historically white institution is not smooth sailing — even though it is possible.
We need to speak about this dissonance as much as we are quick to speak about our triumphs so as to make the narrative more real and humane. There is a high probability that we will attain those PhDs but there is a cost to it that people barely talk about: the psychological one. There are dark days that no one really talks about even though they are such an important determinant of the direction our lives take.
Sabelosini Mpisi, a friend of mine, noted, “I feel … because of our struggles, which make us alienated from the rest, even from ourselves, we cannot relate to the experiences of those PhD panellists. While their stories ‘reveal’ that it is possible to become an academic; equally, at the same time, they do not capture the full complexities of the journey, wherein, amid other things, one becomes the archetype of a whirlwind of contradictory feelings and minds.”
Now, if we cannot honestly relay and relate to the experiences of one another as people of colour and we experience so much entrapment and exclusion, then the negotiation that we go through to survive in these institutions becomes much more difficult and the isolation becomes more prominent.
Zimingonaphakade Sigenu is a student at the University of Cape Town who is pursuing an MPhil in development studies