I’m often taken back to the moment when a prominent academic started a conversation about my MA research by pointing out the detriments that my brown skin would gift me in graduate school. I had asked for advice on navigating online research about extremist groups and hackers. The conversation continued and, through the fog of attempting to come up with a better response than “I know,” I heard them say that I should tell the RCMP and CSIS that I was “on their side.” I don’t recall much else apart from these snippets, as I spent most of it trying to process how a conversation that should have helped me thrive in my research had become an anchoring point for the realization of what being a person of colour (POC) in academia would entail.
I did my MA in a predominately white city, at a relatively white school, in a very white program. While being yelled at by white men from their cars, holding my breath during “but where are you actually from” conversations, and navigating my way through white feminism were common, the prejudices I would face in the university setting exhausted me the most. For two years I clenched my jaw through innumerable “you people” conversations, questions of biases in my research (for or against white supremacists or ISIS – I was never sure), the validity of my research funding, and being silenced by my own discomfort.
I often found myself being the only person of colour in the classroom, meetings and events, and treated as either the mascot of all POCs or the one who “always made it about race.” After I graduated, I felt as though I had escaped from the confines of the whiteness, leaving Kelowna, British Columbia, to come to Ottawa for my PhD. The visibility of minority groups in the city brought me a sense of belonging I had been missing; however, I was naïve. My ideas of racism in academia stemmed from the idea that because I had been in a demographically white city, the university was simply a reflection of that.
While I experience less blatant forms of racism in Ottawa, the quiet whispers of prejudice are weaved into my PhD. Again, I find myself having to defend myself for not wanting to be in a space I feel uncomfortable in, and having my experiences quickly shot down, causing my previous experiences to resurface – specifically, the conversation in which I was told how much bigger the academic mountain I would climb was going to be because of my skin colour.
While we as social scientists pride ourselves on highlighting power relations that are inherent within our lives that work to dehumanize marginalized peoples, we often ignore that we are within a system that has its roots in white supremacy. We tsk-tsk at the racialized past of our disciplines, pointing at how far we have come and applauding ourselves for our intersectional approaches. Yet, systemic racism is in the foundations of the ivory tower; its influence is insidious and persistent.
When prejudices are so ingrained into systems, it’s daunting to think of ways to combat them. As clichéd as it sounds, listen. Give people of colour space to express how we feel and what we experience. Do not diminish our experiences because you have not been in that situation. Don’t tell us it’s easy to “make it about race,” because it is not. To speak about racialized experiences is to expose a part of ourselves that is vulnerable, a part of us that needs to be given strength.
As a graduate student of colour, I hold onto guilt for allowing the irony of the ivory tower to make me question my self-worth as an academic, questioning if my role is to function as a checkmark for the lists and charts of diversity in universities. My biggest guilt is finding myself wondering (and, truthfully, at times fantasizing) what it would feel like to be white in academia, even for just five minutes. To feel as though I was extraordinary, while being ordinary at the same time, my opinions causing ripples of change and not ones that alienate. I have shied away from identifying myself as a race scholar because I was always scared of being “the POC who obviously studies race” and I realize now that it stems from the racism I have been subjected to in academia, and I am embarrassed for fighting against it.
Yes, it is hard because I am not white, but academia is exactly where my brown skin needs to be.
Jasmeet Bahia is a PhD student in the department of sociology and anthropology at Carleton University.