I am a Black woman from a mixed-heritage background who has spent most of my life within an educational system, from nursery school to my current role as a postdoctoral researcher in the field of Respiratory Immunology.
My education and career have taken place across three countries and two continents. During this time, I have evolved into a critical thinker, independent researcher, teacher, peer mentor, and collaborator. I have had the privilege of seeing many students who were nervous first-years, when I was their laboratory demonstrator, themselves grow into independent researchers who now have postgraduate degrees. It has been a blessing to be able to present my work in conferences, peer-reviewed articles, essays, research group meetings, and informally. Over the past few months it has also been startling to discover a deep interest in remaining in academia, provided I can secure the necessary funding to carry out research that doubles up as a passion project. My years in the academy have equipped me with knowledge and skills that are transferrable in many sectors. From my perspective the future looks bright, and my dedication is paying off.
This testimony of mine is the cherry-picked truth. It is the stripped-back version of the journey that has made me the academic I am today: fully aware of my privileges, grateful for my experiences, unwilling to close my eyes to the problems within academia, and unapologetic about using routes of the least palatability to tackle these problems.
Most academics of colour I have encountered have similar stories to mine. However, depending on the generation they are part of and other factors, their outspokenness differs. Certain themes among all our experiences are overlapping and recurrent regardless of the country we currently work in, academic system, and age.
Many of us have first-hand experiences of misogynoir (racialised sexism), racism (from the subtle to the outright), tone policing, elitism, and classism—all within academia, a global body that is meant to further the development of mankind. Indeed, many of these encounters I and others have had, whether online or in person, have been with people who have also had the privilege of education and the added responsibility from exposure to know and do better. Students, researchers, and professors! The young and the old.
During my undergraduate career, trying to stay functional while suffering silently for years with debilitating anxiety meant that I was constantly shying away from any extra emotional work. Unfortunately, this also meant that issues of justice and equity were things that I did not feel bold enough to speak about all the time. Being within a system designed to make People of Colour feel like second-class citizens in itself is already hard.
It took me years of honest self-reflection to admit my own complicity, then throw off the shroud of palatability I had worn for years. I own my past mistakes and can readily admit that well-being has been a major confounding factor in my ability to challenge injustice. It is now my commitment to fully inhabit the responsibility of promoting equity within any academic system I find myself in.
However, over the years, there has also been an anger that I live with. Some of it is directed at my past self, but most of it is directed at the system that seeks to uphold injustice or at the very least wilfully ignore it.
Ijeoma Oluo recently asked a pertinent question: “What are we going to do with our rage?” I have asked myself this same question time and again over the years, with many different words, particularly: “How do I stop being afraid of my anger and harness that powerful energy and drive into something useful?” Immediately, I always remember Joyce Meyer’s advice for when your fears try to stop you from doing anything: just “Do it afraid!” There will never be a perfect time or a perfect plan or implementation strategy. So once I was able to identify what I wanted to achieve, I made an action plan that wasn’t too stringent but if done properly could hopefully have a positive impact within my academic community—particularly on Black people and People of Colour, and other women who don’t fall into these identification groups.
There are different levels in academia which I aim for.
The first is my immediate surroundings: from everyday conversations about equality, equity, diversity, and inclusion, to being open and honest about my mental illness, appropriately signposting colleagues who come to me with a range of confidential issues (and being vocal about being accessible as a point of help), planning and organising workshops that seek to explain the benefit of inclusion in academia, and being respectful and inclusive to all levels of staff I work with.
Students I work with: reminding students that as paying customers in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), they have the right to just treatment, vocalising that they deserve my respect as much as I deserve theirs, encouraging them to question the system and question me—not just take my word as the final say—telling them there is absolutely nothing wrong with being an “average” student—because society wrongfully conflates intelligence with competence—and still encouraging them to do their best and reach out for help when needed. In spaces with Black students discussing issues that affect them specifically, I am always open about my experiences and remind them they have every right to an equal say in academia.
Black colleagues: a major part of the remit of my activism in academia involves amplifying voices and standing beside those who have something to say and need encouragement. This has been a beneficial two-way street, as in the process I have found Black women academics who have supported, encouraged, and rooted for me, as well as given me career opportunities that otherwise I would not have come across on my own.
The system itself: I proactively sought out equality fora within my surroundings where I could voice concerns, challenge problems, and, arguably most important, suggest reparative action points that should hopefully contribute to top-to-bottom change. I cannot overemphasize the need for more marginalised voices and allies/accomplices to be proactively recruited onto HEI action groups. Even the most well-intentioned systems that lack equal or proportional representation will have certain issues slip through the cracks.
The anger I have still simmers under the surface, and for the time being I am content with this. As long as I have life, I will continue to use my anger as fuel to call out injustices and call on those who are perfectly positioned to dismantle these systemic inequities. Since it is my intention to remain in academia for a while, this is where I will continue my quest.