On Being a Queer Black Woman in Academia

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by t.d. mcinnis

As a queer, black, woke womxn graduate student at a private, majority-white institution, you will only awaken further—you will, in fact, have trouble sleeping. You will excel just enough to be seen, but you will always know that your visibility, the mere tolerance of you, is contingent on your silence. Should you speak—when you speak—you will be ignored, talked over, challenged, laughed off, or worse, deified as the only one who can relieve the white guilt of faculty, administrators, graduate students. Please, they will say without saying, tell me that I am good.

You will realize quickly that you cannot give them the satisfaction; you would be lying. Whether you lie or devastate them with a truth they will quickly explain away, they will never let you be. They will email you syllabi on their classes about race and stare at you, seeking your approval. They will talk condescendingly about the other whites who are not as good as they are.
They will read Baldwin, Coates, Hurston, Morrison and angle their books so that you might see how aggressively they have highlighted the words that they somehow still do not understand. No, you will say, you have not yet read the new Coates book. You will grimace as you watch them feel smug and work to mask their contentment that they are more in touch with Blackness than you are. This, they must believe, is the cure to their white guilt.

They may even read this essay, and share it on Facebook. They may want to talk about it. Already, you are tired of white people intruding on the work you have written, this healing work, that though in part about them, is not meant for them.

When friends ask, you will compare them to parasites that feast on your life force and leave you emaciated. You will reference the scarabs from The Mummy franchise, that wreak havoc beneath your flesh, hiding all the damage they have wrought. They will focus on the skin beneath your eyes, leaving permanent bruises from every microagression, every question, every sympathetic smile.

You will ultimately become distrustful of your white professors (even the allies), your white colleagues, your white friends. You’ll wonder, Is your presence in their life their absolution? On your best days, you can only speculate as to the answer.

You’ll question friendships you once thought pure, genuine. You will burn bridges and hope they will light the way to a better place. You will burn bridges to places you hope to never visit again, cut ties with people you hope to never again encounter.

You will learn the difficult lesson of keeping a healthy distance from white people in your life; you will only trust those who you know will put their bodies between yours and whatever threat the world presents to you as a Black, queer womxn.

In shedding this extra weight, you will have several moments wherein you believe you have lost yourself. You’ll look at yourself in the mirror for hours, just to remind yourself that you still exist. At its worst, your silhouette will start to blur.

At its worst, you will consider heeding the advice of the Black faculty member with shifty eyes: “keep your head down.” You will wonder what manner of trauma she has endured to ask you to remain silent about your own.

You’ll learn that she has advised many of your colleagues in a similar fashion. You will, in this order, resent, forgive, and pray for the students of color who have chosen selective ignorance as their route to survival.

In your third year, when comprehensive exams seem to threaten what remaining stability you have, you will, for a bit, follow this advice. Because you will know but not be able to prove that you have been barred from opportunities because of your race, gender, and sexuality. You will know but not be able to prove that your work is of greater relevance, and use, to the world than that of those who are awarded for their writing within your department. You will know but not be able to prove that the arbitrary rubrics of excellence your department hides behind obfuscate the mechanics of marginalization that bolsters most institutions. Knowing these things, and being powerless to change them, will drive you to self-destructive coping strategies:

You will drink and eat too much.

You will devote (too much) time to learning how to explain these mechanics, the machine of white supremacy, to anyone who will listen.

You will master it so much that people will ask you to do it ad infinitum, and you will fall behind on your own work.

When your advisor tells you that you are falling behind your colleagues, you’ll nod, say thank you, and cry in the stairwell of the old brick building that houses your old white department.

In your shame and embarrassment, you will decide for your survival that it might be best to be quiet. It might be best not to punctuate every sentence with “white supremacy” to remind white academicians on whose backs they stand, that not citing the Black womxn who already wrote the argument they are so proud of is an act of violence.

You will re-commit to your own work, to writing about diversity and anti-blackness in your hometown. To teaching for the future. You will comfort yourself that success will be the best revenge.

You will do so with little to no celebration and affirmation. You will do so after you’ve cultivated a reputation as an angry Black womxn who is aggressively anti-racist. You will do so while internal fellowships and awards are given almost exclusively to the white women in your cohort.

To survive the lack of celebration, the lack of affirmation, you will have to convince yourself that any award from an institution so morally and ethically corrupt would prove that you have failed your life’s work of dismantling white supremacy. You will wonder what kind of life you lead where you must convince yourself that some success is not for you.

Audre Lorde, who you will encounter time and time again throughout your career will call to you during your reading for comprehensive exams. She will meet you where you are, and you will hear her voice in your head, gently telling you to do better. She will remind you that “your silence will not protect you.” Her words will repeat in your mind until you realize how tightly your throat has clenched around all the words you ought to have said.

You will search desperately for and find a community who, like Audre, understands you and encourages you to scream your truth and be brave. They will take you in and take you hiking, dancing, sightseeing, shopping. They will cook for you, cry with you, and affirm you. They will create a space wherein you can be a person with interests besides the white supremacist world to which you are always reacting to in the classroom.

Within this community, you will find, date, and fall in love with a Black womxn who understands, and loves you, and helps you heal. You will relish in the comfort of not having to explain what you have been made to endure.

Over time, your obliterated self-esteem will make it difficult to tell where you end and she begins, and you will rely on her as your only source of joy and fulfillment. Although you will advise your friends on their relationships over cocktails, quoting bell hooks and her reminders of how being “solitary is central to the art of love,” you will gradually, though unknowingly, forget how to be alone. You will fall into codependent patterns that inhibit your growth, and hers.

When you realize that you are seeking her light to shine for you both, you’ll know that you will soon drain her dry. You realize on days that you are both depleted and you expect her to lift you up that you will soon lose her; or rather, that for both your sakes’, you will need to let her go.

When it ends, when you both realize what white supremacy has made of you both, you’ll accept that you must work to survive and heal on your own; that it is not fair or sustainable to rely so heavily and exclusively on another.

You will roam the halls of your department vengefully, snapping at your colleagues and implicitly blaming them for losing what you mistakenly, and harmfully thought was the best thing in your life. It is not that simple, you know, but for a while it will be the only thing that feels right.

You will cry every day, like clockwork. Your dog will curl up near you, knowing when it is time.

You will undertake the work of learning to be alone in a world that has never loved you.

You will have to write down why it is important to be with, and love on, yourself, because when the break up turns sour (they always do) and when you overhear her packing the last box, you will too quickly forget.
You will lay on the floor and bawl while your friends remove every trace of your lover from the home you built together. You will read Rupi Kaur’s “to do list (after the break up)” 112 times. You will wallow for fourteen weeks.

You will return to your dissertation with a vigor that feels metaphysical. You will impress yourself with your writing and you will wonder why things had to fall apart so that this could come together.

You’ll have to remind yourself that you can sleep like a starfish; that there is no need to curl up on the left side of the bed.

When you find that the cure to what ails you is the time alone of which you were so frightened (and sage, lavender oil, crystals, therapy, and countless hours outdoors, preferably by the sea), you will tell your lover that you will take the chain off the door and leave it unlocked for her, should there come a time when you are both ready.

But you will not hold your breath.

You will learn a valuable lesson of radical self-love…and reflecting on the scars no one else can see, you will wonder if there were other ways to learn.

You will sit down to write your manuscript, and find that your need to write against academia has its hands around your throat, over your eyes, so that you cannot think until these words are on the page. You will hope, against hope, that in giving in for just these three pages, you can move on to your work.

t.d. mcinnis is a PhD candidate at an elite Southern university. She hails from Miami, Florida and researches the intersections of and within anti-blackness and diversity in her hometown. Her hobbies include crafting, writing, and reading to a preferred playlist of Beyoncé, Trick Daddy, and 90s R&B.

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