Yo’ Paper: Tips for Success for Black & Brown Women PhDs

(Photo: Google Images)

(Photo: Google Images)

On October 27, Tiffany Martinez, an aspiring professor  posted  “Academia, Love Me Back,” to her blog, as a response to the wave of emotions she felt when a professor circled  “hence” on her paper and wrote “this is not your word.” Her professor’s “blue pen was the catalyst that opened an ocean of self-doubt” (Martinez). Temporarily paralyzed from working on her next assignment, Martinez turned to her blog to vent.  When I read her story, I read my own journey towards a PhD. Seeing my reflection, I wanted to hold the mirror up to other young brown and black women with similar goals and, in my Beyoncé voice, urge them to get in formation and to use instances such as these as catalysts for greatness, instead of self-doubt.

Like Ms. Martinez, I too aspired to be a college professor and was judged on my appearance. The first day I reported to my master’s program in English Literature, my advisor informed me that I couldn’t possibly have a graduate assistantship. “They are highly competitive” he assured me. Like Martinez, “my appearance immediately instill[ed] a set of biases . . .” I nervously held up a piece of paper and petitioned, “But I have the letter they sent to my mom.” At that moment his face turned bright red. He had suddenly realized his mistake. “Wha-what’s your social security number?” he asked, as he typed frantically on his keyboard. And then he turned white. Ghost white. “I-I’m so sorry, Rachel. Yes, of course you have a full scholarship,” he stammered as he continued with some lame excuse for the mix up.

This man didn’t know me from Eve and assumed I didn’t have the chops to compete. I was disheartened. So what did I do? I twirled on my haters. I concentrated on narratives written by women of color and completed my coursework a semester early.

I dream it, I work hard, I grind ‘til I own it.

Later, in my PhD program, I was encouraged to research the problems of black women (since I wanted to study us so badly). Nope. I wanted to study what we do right.  I basked in the work of Sarah Lawrence Light-Foot, esteemed African American sociologist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and discovered that she had developed her own methodology. Portraiture.  I used her foundation to write the narratives of middle-class, college educated, Black women who were leading their communities on holistic practices.

I stunt, yellow bone it.

Doctoral programs typically give students 7-10 years to complete the dissertation and coursework. This particular program was accelerated and students could possibly complete it in three. In my second year, my then- husband and I found out we were expecting. Then the comments came, “Good luck finishing on time now” from some of my peers.

Catch my fly and my cocky fresh

I birthed my baby and my dissertation the same year and I was the only person of color in my class to finish “on time.”

Prove to me you got some coordination

With each disparaging word I made my way. I stayed in connection with supportive women and to spirit. I kept writing and empowering myself to supersede any perceived limitations. And for those of you like Ms. Martinez and myself, you’ll need to do the same. Keep writing your stories and shining a light on instances where others attempt to make you feel inferior.  Align yourselves with professors of color and white faculty advocates who might be feeling just as isolated as you and can help you navigate rough waters. Trust me, I sat at their feet and drank from their wells of wisdom when I felt overwhelmed.  Hence, I sought support.

We gone slay

Reach out to like-minded peers and create a game plan. Make a pact with other women who have similar goals as you.

Be good to yourself. Exercise, rest, and eat well. Talk to a mental health counselor and/or a spiritual advisor if needed so that you don’t begin to internalize the negativity of others.

Martinez wrote, “The entire field of academia is broken and erases the narratives of people like me.”

And this is why we have to continue to write ourselves in it. Tell your stories. Go off.  Go Hard. Write yourself to wellness and graduate with honors.

In the end, the best revenge is yo’ paper.

Rachel Panton, PhD is a wellness writer and founder of Write my Life Memoirs. She is the creator and co-editor of the forthcoming book, Sassin’ through Sadhana: Narratives of Black Women Yoginis. Dr. Panton is a Lecturer at the University of Miami.  Follow Dr. Panton on Twitter @rachelpantonPhd.

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