What I wish I could tell my 14 to 18 year-old high school self working in the NYPL (New York Public Library):
Stay. Don’t go. Don’t attend college in search of a career or path. You know what you know, and what you’ve always known. What’s already been known. By you and those before you. Those that paved the road for you and for those like you. What you already know is suffice. Academia cannot, will not, change that. The truth and funds of embodied knowledge already exist inside of you. Are etched, sketched, and embedded in your DNA. In your bones. Line your marrow and courses through your blood. That which is ancient, inherited, passed down to and through you. For you.
The violence of your education will continue to replicate and reproduce itself, no matter how many degrees, accolades or institutionally and artificially designed knowledges you obtain. Because that is what education in America is designed to do. It is not meant for people like you. The brown/the poor/the queer/the immigrant/the borderland/the gutter likes of you. That is not you. Was not made by you. Does not belong to you. It is not yours to own.
See those books? They are your friends. They have always been your friends. They have never let you down. Stay with your friends. The answers will never come from that which seeks to destroy you.
Your future self.
So here’s the thing about grad school: it’s hard as fuck. And not just the actual work of reading and writing—because if you have gotten to this level you probably have somewhat mastered those skills by now—but rather hard because of everything else that surrounds the actual work, and the things that one goes to grad school to work on and think through.
Here are the things that they don’t tell you about being brown, first generation, poor / slash / rising working class, attending graduate school and navigating higher education:
You will be made to feel that you have to be a martyr; have to choose between your studies and full time employment that produces actual, physical and substantial monetary checks that adults, like one that you are, should be receiving;
There will come times when your bank account will threaten to close, and at other times completely deplete, because of bureaucratic bullshit, and old wounds, triggers and 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;
White people will talk about poor and working class people and communities of color, make gross generalizations, unapologetically right to your face and in your presence, in your company, and not flinch or bat eye, but rather, gloss over you, and invite and expect you too to join in;
White people will align themselves with you if they see they can benefit from you, pick at your brain (for free) and profit off of your thinking and theorizing, off of your trauma and lived experiences, while building lucrative careers off of the likes of you and other communities of color, and invite you too to join in;
You will truly find out the meaning, through lived experiences, how “not all skin folk are kin folk,” time and time again;
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”;
You will arrive to your aha-moments of crystal clear clarity that a) education is bullshit, b) that your higher education is a replay of your entire K-12 education, and that c) American schools, American schooling and American public education is not meant, was never meant, will never be meant, for folks like you to survive.
Here’s the thing about grad school, in an era of social media and technology: you, your words, your thinking, your image, will be constantly surveilled, by friend and foe alike. Will be used against you, held up to the White Eye and White Light, whenever possible.
You will never be able to appease everyone: your family will threaten to disown you if you keep posting “radical” and “liberal” things. Your childhood friends will get annoyed by all your work-related educational queries and questions. Your grad school acquaintances, work affiliations and professional connections will get annoyed by all your “personal posts.” Even people who you don’t have on your Facebook, or who don’t have Facebook at all, will know what you have 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 are saying without saying, what they are asking without asking, is: be more WHITE.
“Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power — not because they don’t see it, but because they see it and they don’t want it to exist.” ―Bell Hooks
Here’s the other thing about grad school, in an era of technology and social media and: I post “personal” and “professional” things on my Facebook because I am person and a professional. I cannot divide or separate those two things. Asking a person of color to do so is colonialist.
I am a person of color in professional settings and spaces. Settings and spaces that were not designed for me, or people like me, but that I––that we people of color––no matter what, still have to participate in and navigate. Defining what is professional and what is not 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. As Audre Lorde has been reminding us: “The master’s tools will never, ever, dismantle the master’s house.”
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 like and who they themselves will never get to go.
I post about grad school to write myself into a structure and system that constantly tries to write me out of it.
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 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 about grad school 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 convince myself that I am not crazy and to be in community with others that fear that they might be too.
“When I was in college I was told that if I learned the codes of power I could then use my knowledge of these codes to work to challenge the marginalization of communities of color. Now that I am positioned by many people as proficient in these codes of power I am now told that my critiques of dominant conceptualizations of language that marginalize communities of color are invalid.
The system is rigged. People of color who are positioned as not competent in the codes of power are blamed for their own marginalization. People of color who are positioned as competent in codes of power are told that they cannot critique this marginalization. People of color are damned if they do and they’re damned if they don’t. Meanwhile, white supremacy remains intact.” –Nelson Flores
When I got accepted into this Ph.D. program, I left the transfer high school I worked at, and stopped working in Pre-K to 12th grade schools altogether, to further my own studies. To spend time with my own thinking and thoughts. I thought that doctoral studies would be different–as a student, as a practitioner as an expert. Having completed a masters in teaching program and degree–having proven a mastery of a discipline and a craft–I thought that engaging with adults, and at this level of my academic and professional career, would somehow be easier. Having been a professional student for the past 25 + years, for the majority of my life, I thought I had it all down. Thought I understood the system, and how to navigate it, only now better with age, time, emotional distance and lived experience. I had grown up.
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 and parallel 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 schools, schooling and public education, are and have been colonial projects. Are institutions and practices that exist and operate on stolen land. The most destructive force and dangerous nature–currently and since the inception of this nation–has been the White, male (and almost always heterosexual) ego. Of the deep investment of White people in Whiteness and White supremacy. Of the deep investment of White people in White people. Have been founded through violent, genocide, White supremacists and White supremacism. Are cut from the same cloth. Thus are designed to inform, mirror and reflect those same principles, processes, practices, tools and tactics.
Being part-time faculty at private institutions like The New School makes me grateful that I am no longer an undergraduate student, there or anywhere else. Honestly, nothing’s changed there since I graduated. Only now I have language–something I did not have back then. I have the language, theories, frameworks, and tools to articulate that which acutely felt and experienced but did not have the language for yet.
And still, I’m constantly worried about how much time, energy and effort students of color put into trying to change structurally racist, violent and dehumanizing policies and practices while also trying to get an education and graduate. Trying to change the university’s White culture. Trying to change White administrators. Trying to change the hearts and minds of White people.
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 people’s ideologies. Schools, schooling and educational systems are microcosms of our society, societal culture and values at large. They reflect the culture, ideologies and beliefs of our society. What we value. They have value because we give them value–knowingly and unknowingly; implicitly and explicitly. Thus, policies and practices that schools, colleges and universities carry out have value because we give them value. So generation after generation, cohort after cohort, student after student, these institutions will continue to exist, function and operate the same or parallelly similar because our larger society does as well.
It is the responsibility of White educators, White faculty members, White administrators, etc. in schools and educational systems to really step up and help create these structural changes. To reconceptualize and redistribute power–their own power– because students and folks of color shouldn’t be the ones carrying the brunt of this work––both the lived, racialized experiences as well as worrying and working themselves to death for change. For a change to the systems and practices that they did or their people did not create.
Four years into this program, and now in my 5th year of teaching in higher education, I have come to the realization that academia is just as corrupt, if not more, than private corporations. Just more fucked up because they–we–know better. And like Maya Angelou has been telling us: “…when you know better, do better.” We know better, yet still do wrong.
But White people will always think they know more than you. Better than you. Study you, and believe that they are the experts of you, in and about your own life. “Pick your brain,” learn from you, and then co-opt and steal your own production from you. Use your own words, tools and analyses against you. Benefit from you, and then discard you when they no longer need you. When you are no longer, to them, serviceable. Then blame you for what has been done to you. Leave you to survey your own damage, assess your own devices, and still have the nerve to charge and bill you for you.
Growing up White folks never tried to befriend me, in or outside of school settings. Never introduced me to their families. Never invited me into their homes. Never asked me to participate in their extracurricular activities. 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. Dared to take their subway trains. Dared to sit on their seats. Dared to shop at their stores and establishments. They always made the extra effort to remind us that these, and other things, were theirs–not ours.
The higher, further and deeper I get in academia, in my teaching profession and political activism––that despite it all I made something of myself––the more White people want to befriend me. Want to sit down, converse and “pick my brain.” Want to have and spend time together-–my time––with no form of compensation or at least the tact to inquire about forms of reciprocation. Without crediting me for my intellectual work, intellectual production and intellectual property. Want me to be their connection and bridge to their liberation. Want access into my–our world–while humanizing and legitimizing theirs.
They fetishize us/fantasize about us/want to be us. Without actually giving up their power and privileges. Without taking on our issues or problems head on, by locating its source and origin, and aiding in its destruction. Without challenging the systems that they, and their people, historically and currently, create, recreate and participate in. The systems that disenfranchise, silence, and eradicate us. Want to absolve themselves of all responsibility and lull themselves into historical and cultural amnesia. Want to be seen as singular and individuals, while people of color will always be forced to speak on behalf their entire race. Want to seemingly befriend and surround themselves with us, yet go back to their White worlds, White families, White lovers, and White lives that remain untouched. But then they wonder why and when people of color desire to not, and actively choose to not, engage with them. When and why people of color tell Becky” “No, you can’t sit with us.”
The reality is that no matter how many years of teaching a White educator can have under their belt, how many courses or students of color they may have taught throughout their career, how well traveled or “authentically” well they may speak non-English languages, how thoughtful they “participate” in cultures not their own, how many years they may have lived in “urban communities” in proximity to people and communities of color, how much they want, feel or believe to sympathize, empathize or understand issues that effect and impact people and communities of color: these things cannot, will not ever replace the racialized, lived experiences of said individuals/people/communities of color. Point, period, blank. End of discussion.
While there is certainly no singular, monolithic “people of color experience”––has never been and will never––a racialized body is a racialized body. Is read and treated in society and in schools as a racialized body. Something a White body––a White person––cannot ever experientially understand. A racialized experience and existence that cannot ever be (re)created or (re)replicated unless personally experienced, and thus never understood intimately. Always at a distance and never in lived proximity.
While it may be perhaps important to create opportunities for White educators and White people to share their, perhaps, unique, individual stories and life trajectories, these cannot center or privilege those stories and narratives while (consciously or inadvertently) glossing over, dominating, silencing, invalidating and erasing those of individual people and communities of color. Not on our time. Not on our watch. Simultaneously, White people need to know is that people of color don’t need White allies. What we need are accomplices: White folks ready to get and go down when shit goes down.
And often, that’s where, in my experience, the alliance from White people ends.