I am a woman who identifies as a minority on multiple, intersecting levels and who also happens to consider herself an intellectual. Working in higher education and surrounding myself with other academicians of color has allowed me a unique perspective on the complex world of #blacademia.
I hold a master’s degree in secondary language arts education, and have been in not one, but two programs that aim to place high-achieving educators in schools where the students are at risk. In other words, the Teach for America type deals: Pluck an Ivy-League kid out of New England and plug them into the inner city/rural south and see what happens.
During one such program, I was given an assignment where I was asked to “unpack my privileges.” The assignment was based on an article called "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," by Peggy McIntosh. The article is intended to illuminate how most white people are oblivious to the many unspoken advantages they have grown accustomed to. Which is a perfect activity for those enthusiastic young do-gooders who are ready to save those poor black kids. However, for those of us in the program who were already minorities and who have not quite enjoyed so many invisible privileges, it was quite difficult to identify and talk about how we "will be more sensitive to those less fortunate than us."
"Um… excuse me," I thought, “Some of us don’t actually have privileges in our backpacks. And the few we have fought for, we would like to hold on to them, thank you very much!”
In a similar vein, a colleague of mine, who happens to be the only woman of color in her PhD program at the university she attends, was recently asked to perform an assignment wherein she was required to “attend an event where she was the minority in a group of people she would normally oppress.”
Hmmm, let’s unpack that one. A woman of color in the United States would normally have the opportunity to oppress whom? A woman of color in the U.S. in a situation where she is the minority? Eh… pardon me? We only need to wake up in the morning and walk outside our homes to find ourselves in a world where we are the minority. What is the benefit for us in purposely subjecting ourselves to yet another situation where we are the minority?
My colleague felt the assignment was not relevant to her and that she could easily accomplish the objective by simply recounting a normal day in her life. However, the professor insisted that she most assuredly is an oppressor in one form or another and if she thought about it hard enough she would realize this and surely gain something from this assignment (side eye).
These well-meaning exercises are doled out every day at institutions of higher learning or training programs, and maybe they are helping those in the majority in some small way to gain sensitivity. But as we poor, less fortunate souls begin to rise from the ashes and make it into post-graduate programs, curriculum developers must begin to find more meaningful ways to accommodate our experiences. Academia must now understand that black intellectual lives matter, and that these cute little diversity assignments that they have meticulously worked into their syllabi are not one-size-fits-all. Minority intellectuals are already contending with a completely unique set of micro-inequities from their peers and advisers. Our classrooms should be a safe space where all students are permitted and encouraged to create their own experiences of learning and growing. Otherwise, what's the point?