PhD’ing whilst black

Let’s start with the fact that I went to a predominantly black secondary school. When I got to college there were less black people, when I was at university there were even less black people and by the time I started my PhD… well… our rarity indirectly catapulted me into the involuntary position of ‘spokesperson for all black people’.

My doctoral training center consists of 12 students spread out across three universities. Out of all 12, 3 are women and one of those women one is black (you guessed it…. that’s me). So not only do I fight the good fight for ethnic minorities, but I’m also representing for women in engineering.

So, at first it was all good and don’t get me wrong it’s still alright now, but I do have a lengthy list of irritations – things here and there that get under my skin. For example, I’ve been to a few conferences where I’m one of the very few if not only black people in attendance, our under representation in such spaces leads me to feel slightly awkward and sometimes out of place. In a room of about 100 people, surely I can’t be the only black person here… it is definitely not naïve or optimistic for me to expect there to be more! Embarking on a journey to obtain a PhD takes a high degree of personal motivation that stems from a natural curiosity and love of intellectual pursuits. I for sure know there are people within our community that poses these qualities and more, but may not have been afforded the opportunity, or quite simply are not sure how to go about getting into it, or haven’t heard first hand experiences of the benefits (more of which I will detail in a following article). 😉

Our erasure from certain spaces often leads to an onslaught of microaggressions. There are times where I hang out with my colleagues and I get asked questions such as “why do certain black girls put on so much blusher” or stereotypical assumptions about my sporting abilities – because you know that’s all us black people do… And let’s not forget my automatic admission into the ‘cool’ club, the convo usually goes like this: “yhhh… you’re so cool” to which I ask why and I’m met with the response “well… you know.” No! I don’t know. This is not to mention the fact that every time I change my hair my colleagues have a field day wanting to touch it but thankfully never muster the courage to, so I catch stares and glances out of the corner of my eyes. One colleague even thought my hair grew in length overnight… she was dazzled by the ‘magic’, whilst I just stood there thinking babes it’s just a middle part Peruvian straight 20” wig.

To cut a story short, we all experience being awkward and black in the workplace. I hear a lot of work stories from my friends, but 90% of the time, we bottle up those frustrations and vent to each other. Maybe we could use those moments as opportunities to educate, re-write the narrative and edify those around us because leaving it at that sometimes seems like an injustice.

Microaggressions and stereotypical comments are never acceptable.

However, I’m working on not being so quick to ball into a rage, and I try to take a step back when blaming ‘them’ for their ignorance? I mean you don’t know what you don’t know because you don’t know it, right? Yes and no. As a black woman, I do not know all the customs and hair regimens of races outside of my own. As much as I may try to educate myself, I do tactfully ask my friends from other backgrounds questions to enlighten myself and I appreciate getting first-hand information. I do sometimes ask myself, if I were to be a white woman, at what point would I randomly research into black culture to learn about how wigs are a thing etc. We’re unfortunately not all exposed to a mix of races, cultures, religions etc. so for some one way that can help with the learning process is by being around someone who simply and openly tells them. Of course this should be met with personal research as Google is free and one single account is not representative of an entire race.

You may disagree, but I think our voices have a far greater impact when we decide to have conversations with our peers and share our culture. I really do believe that it takes one conversation to spark change. What I’ve found that’s working for me is instead of getting annoyed, I challenge myself to correct and share my personal opinion on matters. Mind you, it’s not been easy or doesn’t necessarily always lead to a light bulb moment for them but I do believe it’s worth a try. All we can do is try.

What are your top tips for dealing with microaggressions in the workplace and/or whilst studying? We’d love to hear your stories and coping mechanisms!