On being a black grad student.

A friend brought up the connection of higher education and elitism last night.

She reminded me not to be blind to discrimination operating where I am, specifically in the use of grandiose academic language (such as the prison industrial complex). That these terms cloak racism and muddle the issues, as well as make higher education an elitist institution where certain people can participate and how, in that way, we can all be carriers of white supremacy and elitism.

Her words weren’t new, but they caught me off guard last night.

And I would like to leave my thoughts here as I process.

They’re scattered and in some places undeveloped. Bear with me 🙂

Truly my race is not anything I let anyone forget, though they may want to.

I have been privy to conversations about black youth that made me go home and sob, wondering if I would every truly fit into this world of higher education.

Wondering how they saw me behind my back.

Each time, I would speak up and call a student out on her use of the word monster when describing a fourteen-year-old gang member or when someone else said that previous delinquents shouldn’t attend a mainstream school and that school in a juvenile detention center for these student would be safer….

All the while hearing their use of they and them.

Sitting down in the back thinking we and us.

And so that brings me back to the discussion we had: how can I be a carrier of white supremacy and elitism as a black woman in higher education?

Easy, you may think…


I am black first…and then a student, second.

Someone once said that elitism in the black community is likened to people on a slave ship saying they got better seats.

You’re still on the slave ship.

While I think this quote is a bit over exaggerated (there are certain privileges I am given as a woman with M.A. behind my name), it brings up an important point.

No matter where I am on this higher education journey, I am still black. 

I will still be slammed to the ground by the police like any other racially profiled black person (e.g. ASU professor Dr. Ersula Ore stopped for jaywalking on campus).

While I undoubtedly have been a carrier of white supremacy at points in my life, like a person who cares the sickle cell trait, I think it takes an additional gene.

I have a seat at this table of higher education and I can talk the talk (using big words) and walk the walk (dressing up in the nicest of suits for an interview), but my place always comes with an eject seat just in case I become too loud, angry, or aggressive.

I am always in fear that my grade will be lowered or I will face disciplinary action.

And it’s not all in my head. I got a B on my final because the teacher felt that I did not fully explain race and racism so that everyone completely understood before delving into the program I proposed…that I made too many assumptions of what people knew.

Yet the instructions for the assignment said to assume that a fellow classmate was reading the paper.

It hurt my heart to know that the teacher did not expect people to understand why I was writing my paper and why I developed the program. That while my program was given high marks, my justification for the program was lacking because I did not provide enough background for my classmates.

To be honest, she is probably right.

Black studies are offered as an elective and not a requirement.

Yet, it’s a lived reality for me so I often forget that some people never stop to think about it.

I could never stop, no matter how many letters and positions are behind my name.

And I may have notebooks filled with academic jargon and racist ideologies, but I would like to think that my political presence and academic contributions begin conversations that questioned previously held notions.

That for too long black students have not been in the room during discussions on the wellbeing of our brothers and sisters…

That me as well as other black scholars are bodies of resistance and carriers of change.

That while I write about black child development in the language learned by the oppressors, the way in which I redefine and challenge those same words is a strategy of resistance in that I am redefining and reconfiguring notions of race and gender held for years?

A final example before I go…

I refused to use the term “at risk” or “help” in my thesis.

I believed it ascribed to deficit language and assumed that I had something to give to someone, when they had just as much to give to me.

So every time I wrote about issues faced by black youth, it sounded something like this:

Black children and adolescents in America are situated within a more vulnerable ecological context than their white counterparts due to a persistent gap in wealth (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, 2011), a high poverty rate (American Psychological Association, 2011), disadvantaged access to resources, overrepresentation in the prison system (Alexander, 2013), and a host of other factors that perpetuate structural oppression and serve as barriers to achievement.


I refused to juxtapose at risk and black together as if they were intrinsically tied.

Without explaining the systems in place.


But I still lay up at night, tossing and turning…and evaluating my place in the field of higher education.

How my voice comes across.

Being black and being a student is emotionally depleting.


But I will never leave the table.

On being a black grad student.

4 thoughts on “On being a black grad student.

  1. This post brings tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat. My heart aches that this is something you have to struggle with, both on a personal, individual level and as a community. I can’t even fathom how many truly amazing, promising young men and women could have been in your shoes, past, present, and future, and who don’t make it because the struggle is too much for them as individuals.

    I am so grateful for your work. I’m grateful to be able to read the raw, honest truth of how you feel. I grew up in an extraordinarily White community, and it took until well into grad school to really begin to understand how I grew up with and continue to benefit from that privilege, and the realities of what it means to be Black and not look like I do. I don’t know how to express how much your writings mean to me, but you have given me so much over the last few years to begin to understand the effects and experience of pervasive racism. I’ll never be in those shoes, but I want to try to understand what it means, how it affects child development, and how I can help others in my position understand, so we can hopefully reach a point where it’s no longer “us” vs “them.”

    Thank you, Lauren. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I know I slip up, I’m not perfect, I’ll still make mistakes and barge in with my privilege entirely unawares, but I’m working hard to stop that and your stories, your true experiences are a big reminder to me to stop, check my privilege, and keep trying.

    Thank you. You’re amazing.

  2. Thank you so much for this message Abbe. Your support on my educational journey has been invaluable. Your willingness to read and listen and understand truly make a difference. I will carry this message with me, always. You’re a game changer and you are going to do incredible things for youth, including black youth, because you come from a place of love and understanding. It’s a journey and I am so glad to have you stand with me. And to always affirm my place as a student.


  3. Judith says:


    Your post really resonated with me since it is the constant struggle I feel as a grad student. I think the most important lesson I am learning as a grad student is that people don’t think about race and that what I believe to be true others have never considered. I feel as if I often walk a fine line when thinking about research and writing papers. I try to ask the question by using certain language or pursuing certain research what is the unintentional harm that can arise. You mentioned your refusal of using language such as “at risk” or “help” and the implications around these words. I admit to using these words but in a way that does not imply that Black and at risk mean the same thing. Why do I use these words? Because I believe that the people I am trying to reach may not understand any other way I explain the circumstances minority children face. I could be contributing to stereotypes or beliefs- something I consider on a regular basis. However, I feel that before I can change language, I have to use the language because how can I may others understand? I always include a strengths based perspective when discussing race and identity? Also the question I face is how do you get funding if people do not understand the context in which minority children are situated in?; what is more important- getting the money to create interventions or changing the language? I don’t know.

    You talked about your fears about disciplinary action or receiving a lower grade. I admit I don’t have these fears because if this happens, someone better have a really good reason. When I encounter situations where my race leads to some negative remark or consequence, I can’t walk away because I wonder about other minority students who have sat back and said nothing. I know that challenging and questions definitely puts me at risk as the angry Black woman or the troublesome student but I also have to sleep at night and silence, for me, eats at me. Obviously, I can’t fight every battle and that is one of the challenges of being a minority student and being minority with letters behind the name- what is worth speaking up about? What is your line in the sand? What do you have to accept in order to help others? I struggle every day with this.

    Thank you for sharing your struggles and thoughts. I am so excited to hear about your time at UVA!

  4. Mom says:

    Lauren, NEVER believe your voice is not meant to be heard! Sometimes the effects of what we say, do, invent, etc. is not immediately or in our lifetime, but resonates LOUD and CLEAR for those who near to hear them and for
    generations that follow. Keep speaking!

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