K.T. works as an Associate Professor of Psychology in New York.
“It’s not somebody calling you names, but they are chipping away at you at every turn.”
If you had to describe your time spent at PWIs in just a few words, what would they be? Infuriating, unsafe time, polarizing, marginalized, and voyeuristic [Amber: How did you choose those words?] Infuriating because they just pissed me off all the time. In meetings, I’m hearing what my colleagues really think and feel about people of color and things like institutionalized racism. Seeing them actually mess with people’s careers. And even for myself, try to put you in a position to fail or make you fail. I speak up for myself, but I’ll speak up for my students before I speak up for myself because they don’t necessarily have the same power as I do. So then thinking that the same people who are actively working to discredit and sometimes destroy people of color in the workforce are also going into the classrooms and teaching our Black and Brown students. So that’s infuriating. I also said unsafe. I’m tenured now, but there’s always been this “Well don’t say anything until you’re tenured.” Even if it means speaking up for yourself, or speaking out against injustices, or saying you don’t like something, or advocating for yourself or others. It’s not an environment where you really can come in and be you and not have bits and pieces of it used against you. As for polarizing and marginalized, I think, for those same reasons, right? Like you don’t fit in. In a book chapter that I wrote, I describe being in a meeting and feeling like my colleagues are talking about me, because they’re really talking about our students. They’ll say things like “These students don’t have this, their parents are like this”, “They’re coming from these neighborhoods”, and I’m like, you’re talking about me – I am our students. Either they don’t recognize that they’re doing that or if they do, they don’t care. And then the voyeuristic piece, I just feel like even the people who are “allies” are like, “Oh wow, it’s so great all the work that you’re doing”, because I do a lot of work in diversity and advocating for other faculty and staff. It’s like they’re always looking at you. Or “Oh, wow, you dress so nicely.” You’re on display for them.
What is the most impactful microaggression or discriminatory act that you can remember experiencing in the workplace? Two things come to mind. I started at the same time as a Chinese colleague and I feel like folks are constantly comparing us. Usually, in my institution, you go up for tenure and then you apply for a promotion. There’s a technicality where you can apply for promotion, pre tenure and we both decided to do that. My chair encouraged her to do it, but not me. I started putting my promotion materials together and the chair proceeds to try to convince me to not apply.
I remember I was teaching one day and saw him standing outside of my classroom. When class was over, I came out and he showed me documents from my Chinese colleague and basically said “She has all of this, you don’t have all of this, I don’t think you should go up for promotion.” He felt like my scholarship wasn’t up to par with hers.
It was months and months of him emailing me and asking me to prove this and to prove that, and ultimately, [the decision] didn’t come down to him. I was going to pull my application out of the running but one of my colleagues was like, “Don’t pull it. You’re good.” [My application] got all yes votes and then it went to the next stage. At that point, he was emailing me furiously telling me to pull my application. Finally, I told him “I understand if you don’t support me, you don’t have to, but I am not pulling my application.” And ultimately, I did get the promotion. But even when he called to tell me, he said, “Just so you know, they were concerned about this, this, that and the other.”
And that continued through the time I had to go up for tenure. He wrote something in my evaluation that I didn’t agree with and he wanted me to sign off on it. Basically it said I understand that in order to get tenure, I need to produce X amount of publications. I’m not signing that and it doesn’t belong in my annual evaluation. And so it just went on like that for three years until I went up for tenure last year. He still was trying to find different little things [to prevent my tenure], but I had more than enough. Ultimately, I got tenure and we actually voted him out of his position in the spring. It’s not somebody calling you names, but they are chipping away at you at every turn.
How did your experiences of microaggressions and discrimination affect your health? I gained a lot of weight [during a time when I was experiencing a lot of microaggressions] because I tend to lose my appetite with stress. And then all of a sudden, I’m hungry and just made bad choices. Emotionally, it was hard. I think it could have been more stressful, but the way that my colleagues went to bat for me, because a lot of my colleagues were on those committees that were making these decisions. It was hard to be in that sort of environment, but it was countered so much more by the support that I had in my colleagues. It was difficult for me to experience a significant amount of distress, but I know it could have been worse.
What kind of strategies would you like to see people who consider themselves allies in the workplace to do to advocate for Black women? When I started my job, they had this group that was sort of like a reading group where you pick a book for the semester and discuss it, but it was for diverse faculty. That’s where that formal network was. But some of us really connected and informally, were able to support each other and do things like have writing groups or just talk through all of these things. The administration took notice of some of the stuff that we were doing and what we were wanting to do and last year, they allowed us to create a resource center on campus for historically underrepresented faculty and staff. We created informal mentorship circles and have these informal talks, where anybody can come and ask and answer questions. A lot of our mentors are also allies. You don’t have to be a Black woman to mentor, but if you understand what it means to be a Black woman on this campus, or you have empathy, mentor somebody through the process. A lot of why we don’t stay at jobs or don’t succeed at jobs is because these informal networks don’t exist. All the guys get together and go for drinks, meet up early for coffee, or the water cooler talk. And we’re excluded from that, because people connect with folks who look and sound like them. I think allies need to recognize that they are privy to information that a lot of us are not and they need to freely share that information.
Are there any additional comments you want to share about working in a PWI? My rallying cry is always self care. It needs to be a part of your lifestyle – it shouldn’t be an event. That’s something that I always say. A lot of times, Black people in these institutions will give their lives to the institutions and when they’re gone, they have no legacy there and will be replaced by somebody else. I think self care looks like what you eat, how you sleep, all these different things, but it also looks like doing the best at your job but not giving a job every single part of you. I really believe in self care as resistance because we are not expected to survive, to be healthy, or to do well. When we show up and we continue to do that, that is a form of resistance.