Thoughts on Navigating Academia as a QTPOC

Academia sucks.

Point blank. I transitioned to academia from working in a community mental health setting and doing community organizing. I was generally surrounded by radical queer and trans people of colour (QTPOC) finding ways to survive and thrive in this fucked up world. I left artists, changemakers, creators of tomorrow, and activists to pursue my PhD. And it sucks.

To be clear, I knew going in that it was going to be bad. While I was applying, I told those close to me that I knew I would have to go in fighting. I knew that I didn’t want to apply to programs in cities or states where I wouldn’t be able to find QTPOC community outside of school to hold me through the long and arduous 5–7 years that is a Psychology PhD.

I knew it would be bad because I had completed a one-year master’s program at a predominantly white institution (PWI) and remembered how I had to fight, day in and day out, just to be heard. I remembered the casual microaggressions, the underlying racist comments, and the white obliviousness that make up the fabric of graduate student life at a PWI. And I remember it being this bad without even adding the research component into it; this was just classes. When you get into psychological research, things get even messier and more problematic (more on that another time).

I chose the best university that I could, a so-called “social justice oriented” program within a relatively diverse institution. I realize that academics are known for their surface-level diversity initiatives and complete failure and unwillingness to do the deep work it takes to create real equity and this program is no exception but — this was the best I could do in the context. Trust me when I say that the other institutions interviewed me because I checked off multiple diversity quotas for them (and because I had a bomb ass application, but let’s be real). They didn’t realize what it would actually mean to have a queer, genderfluid, mixed-race, Muslim immigrant in their program. My future advisor in this program at least seemed excited about the possibility of me shaking things up.

I don’t think he realized how much though.

Within my first semester, I have already gotten into multiple arguments with faculty members, specifically the ones I thought would be on “my side.” I was later told that these professors hold their “social justice” identities very dear to their hearts and don’t take kindly to when a student is “more left” than they are. I have been told that my language is too “black and white” and “all or nothing.” Essentially, that I don’t coddle the feelings of white folks when I speak and thus, I’m making them feel some type of way. I’ve been told that I can’t be “sloppy and critical,” that if I want to criticize the program then I must be on top of my game too.

When you are an activist in an academic setting, you are constantly questioning yourself. It is the feeling you have when you know that you’re right about something, you know it in your bones, and yet everyone around you is looking at you as if you’re tripping. When you are interrogated, over and over, made to produce research literature, articles, books to support your ideas and theories rather than have them believe your experiences. When you are made to produce the right literature, articles, and books, the “objective” ones, not the ones written by Black feminists or activists, but the ones written by the white academic forefathers.

After struggling with these experiences, I reached out to my connections, specifically the queer and trans academics of colour that I know, as well as several queer students and students of colour within the program, to seek advice. I asked them how to reconcile my identity, my values, my commitment to creating true change, my refusal to become more mainstream, with the surface-level bullshit and showoff-y fake diversity of academia.

No one could give me an answer. Because they themselves had never been able to find one.

Some left academia all together. Realizing that these two spheres were irreconcilable, they decided they would rather live in line with their true selves and not have to compromise, ever. Some kept their head down and just got through their program, deciding to speak up only when something blatant and in-their-face happened, but ignoring the “smaller” things, the daily -isms, the regular racism of academia. They reasoned that once they got to a tenure-track position, then once they got tenure, they could create change. Some stayed true to themselves and were as vocal as they wanted to be, calling out bullshit while doing the grassroots work they came to do, and were usually penalized for it. Some told stories of splitting themselves, living as an activist in half of their life and a mainstream academic in the other. I will never forget one person who told me that they would never show their publications to anyone in their community, because they would be ashamed of the things they had written, the language they had used to speak about their own community.

Part of the problem is that obtaining grants, fellowships, publications, and presentations involves using their language. Involves fitting your work into their pre-existing paradigms of what “research on marginalized communities” looks like. When it is too radical, too out there, they will not understand. And when I say too radical — I really just mean what I see as common sense. Within psychology, I am still met with confusion when I say that the best person to do work with a client is someone from their community. That research should be done by the people, for the people, and not by some outside investigator who knows nothing of their lives. And when they do not understand — they don’t fund. They don’t approve. They don’t award.

So what is the answer? I don’t know. I’m just finishing up my first semester. I think that ultimately, everyone must decide for themselves. It’s whatever feels right to them. For me, I know I am someone who doesn’t believe real change can come from within the system; yet here I am, attempting to create change within a system. I am here because I believe I can use my relative power and privilege as an academic to leverage institutional resources (i.e. money) and work with (i.e. give) community organizations what they need to create true, systemic change. My plan is to be as vocal as I want, to disinvest from whiteness and the opinions of my classmates and professors, and to invest myself fully in the work I set out to do, the work I believe will actually help my community. And until roadblocks are actively placed in my way, I will keep doing that.

Are you a queer and/or trans POC in academia? Have you navigated some of these same issues and found a way that works for you? Please share your stories — they are needed!

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