A break-up letter with academia: Not your token guinea pig, show pony, or likable person of color

By José Alfredo Menjivar

Here’s what they don’t tell you about being a brown, first generation, raised poor/rising working class student attending graduate school and navigating higher education:

    1. You will be made to feel that you have to be a martyr. You will have to choose between your studies and full-time gainful employment that produces actual, physical and substantial money that adults should have.
    2. There will be times when your bank account will threaten to close or be completely depleted, because of bureaucratic bullshit. Old wounds, triggers and the past trauma of growing up poor will flood you all at once––undo you, undo adult you––and threaten to engulf you and bring you under its tide.
    3. White people will shamelessly make gross generalizations about poor and working class people and communities of color right to your face and not flinch or bat an eye, and invite you too to join in.
    4. White people will align themselves with you if they can benefit from you, pick at your brain (for free) and profit off of your thinking, trauma and lived experience. They will do this all while building lucrative careers off of you, other people and communities of color, expecting your complicity.
    5. You will find out the meaning “not all skin folk are kin folk,” time and time again.
    6. You will find yourself having to simplistically and reductively describe the complexity of what you do to your family, the people that raised you and have known you the longest, as “going to school,” “work” and “studying.”
    7. You will arrive to these “Aha!” moments: a) Western education is bullshit, b) your higher education is a replay of your entire K-12 education, and c) American schools, American schooling and American public education is not meant, was never meant, and will never be meant for folks like you to survive.

***

Growing up, white folks never tried to befriend me, in or outside of schools. They never introduced me to their families or invited me into their homes. They regarded and treated my mother–a visibly brown skin woman of color–and her two children like roaches that dared to walk on their streets in broad daylight, take their subway trains, sit on their seats and shop at their stores. They always made the extra effort to remind us that these, and other things, were theirs–not ours.

The deeper I get in academia, my teaching profession and political activism, however, the more white people want to befriend me and “pick my brain.” They want to spend time together–my time–with no compensation or tact to inquire about forms of reciprocation without crediting me for my intellectual work. They want me to be their connection and bridge to their liberation. They want access into my world while humanizing and legitimizing theirs.

Their violent desire to “pick your brain” leads to nothing but co-optation and the theft of your production. They will discard you when you are no longer serviceable, then blame you for their violence. Because white people always think they know more than you. Even when demanding information from you, they believe they are experts of you about your own life. They fetishize, fantasize, and want to be us without actually giving up their power and privileges.

They do without taking on our issues or problems head on, or challenging the systems that they, and their people, create, recreate and participate in. They go back to their white worlds, white families, white lovers, and white lives that remain untouched. But then they wonder why people of color desire and actually choose not to engage with them. When and why people of color tell Becky: “No, you can’t sit with us.”

***

Being brown, first generation, raised poor/rising working class, attending grad school and navigating higher education in an era of social media and technology, you, your words, your thinking and image, will be constantly surveilled by friend and foe alike.

You will never be able to appease everyone. Your family will threaten to disown you if you keep posting “radical” and “liberal” things. Your work-related educational queries and questions will annoy your childhood friends. Your “personal posts” will annoy your grad school acquaintances and coworkers. Even people whom you aren’t Facebook friends with will know what you’ve written because people will always find a way, reason or excuse to have your name in their mouths and other’s ears.

Words like “professional” will be thrown around to measure, evaluate, judge, critique, and control you. When in reality what they’re saying without saying, what they’re asking without asking, is for you to be more white.

I post “personal” and “professional” things on Facebook because I am a person and a professional. I cannot divide or separate those two things. Asking a person of color to do so is colonialist and racist as fuck.

I am a person of color in professional settings and spaces that were not designed for me or people like me, but that people of color––no matter what––still have to participate in and navigate.

Defining what is and what is not professional to a person of color is colonialist. You can’t hold people of color accountable to things they never agreed to, created, or asked to be evaluated by.

I post about grad school to dispel any (white) myths about this (white) ivory tower, because navigating it ain’t easy. I post for all the people of color who wonder what grad school is, but will never get to go to.

My grandmother had an elementary school education, my mother a high school education. No one in my immediate family has graduated college, let alone gone on to grad school. I post about grad school to honor them. Because there have been too many women of color in my life who have worked their fingers to the bone so that I can have an opportunity to do something different. Something that’s not manual labor, like they had to do. I post to honor them because I carry them, their hard work, their dreams and visions, their fighting spirits inside me all the damn time.

I post about grad school to write myself into a structure and system that constantly tries to write and take me out of it.

***

Four years into this program, and now in my 5th year of teaching in higher education, I’m realizing more and more how glaringly similar Pre-K to 12th grade public education and higher education really are: the hoops, the obstacles, the forms of assessing knowledge, the gatekeeping, and the overwhelming and unbearable whiteness of it all.

How they are designed to inform, mirror and reflect each other. How they are cut from the same cloth.

Academia and American educational institutions are and have been colonial projects. They are institutions and practices that exist and operate on stolen land and have been founded through violence, genocide and white supremacy. They are cut from the same cloth, and thus are designed to inform, mirror and reflect those same principles, processes, practices, tools and tactics.

Policies and practices don’t just exist in vacuums or on their own accord. They are created, shaped and carried out by individual and collective ideologies. Educational institutions and educational systems are microcosms of our society, societal culture and values at large. Our education system reflects what our society values.

They have value because we give them value: knowingly and unknowingly, implicitly and explicitly. Thus, the policies and practices that educational institutions carry out generation after generation, cohort after cohort, student after student will continue to exist and function the same or similarly because they also do in our larger society as well.

White educators, faculty members, and administrators in these educational institutions would have to really step up and help create these structural changes, reconceptualizing and redistributing their own power because students and folks of color shouldn’t be the ones carrying the brunt of this work.  Students of color should not have to go through their racialized experiences as well as worrying and working themselves to death for change, for a change to the systems and practices they or their people did not create.

In my experience, that’s where the alliance from white people ends.

José Alfredo Menjivar is a poet, writer, educator, activist, doctoral student and scholar primarily interested in how the lived and educational experiences of teachers of color inform their pedagogy and relate to their students. He also loves to cook thangs and is notoriously known to Instagram the meals he makes. Some of his writings can be found on http://josealfredomenjivar.com

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  1. Not to mention anti-Blackness is traditional to “higher” education. We built these institutions and were forced to “entertain” the student body. You can see echoes of this in the ways everyone still expects us to be their tokens.

  2. Briana LeFlorie May 7, 2017 — 5:56 pm

    Damn Jose!! I am currently in grad school for occupational therapy and I am Black. Your words truly resignated with me. I have personally experienced every subject that you touched on and I am so happy to hear you reflect on the white graduate system all people of color have to assimilate to in order to get through. The terms professional, personal posts, and being discarded once you’ve been used speak volumes to me. Thank you for sharing your story, it validates my feelings and motivates me to push through.
    -Briana LeFlorie

  3. I see you! Thank you so much for writing this, I find it to be an accurate reflection of my experience as a black woman who went through the phd mill (in the sciences, which are particularly white and male).

    “Because white people always think they know more than you. Even when demanding information from you, they believe they are experts of you about your own life. They fetishize, fantasize, and want to be us without actually giving up their power and privileges.”

    So very true.

  4. Thank you. Your words are water to the desert of my soul.

  5. The editor may want to look up the definition of “notorious.”

  6. Yes, Yes, and YES!

  7. “Defining what is and what is not professional to a person of color is colonialist. You can’t hold people of color accountable to things they never agreed to, created, or asked to be evaluated by.”

    Wow. Never heard it phrased like this, but you are totally right.

    (also I’ll be sure to save your name and link to this post in my quote book to properly credit you for this if I ever quote you in the future)

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