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Resistance Strategies for Black Graduate Students in Higher Education

Being a Black woman at a predominantly White institution (PWI), I experience simultaneously racialized and gendered encounters that leave me feeling anxious and incensed. The social justice spaces that I found in graduate school help me to navigate challenging experiences and to speak truth to power. I share this brief composition as a testament to the strategies of resistance that my peers, colleagues, faculty and I use to persist in higher education.

First, it is necessary to acknowledge that benign experiences are many times interpersonal manifestations of oppression, especially when considered from a critical perspective. One such example is hair. Being asked about my hair in a degradative manner by my White peers is an insult in itself. However, it is more than a simple insult considering these comments about my hair often come with unchallenged beliefs about Black women’s hair. When these unchallenged beliefs are held by potential employers, Black women can lose job opportunities. Depending on the hairstyle, the law may not protect Black women from this type of discrimination. This is a simple illustration of oppression — it is the experience of marginalized people when we face prejudice and discrimination based on identity that is supported by laws, policies and the community. Oppression perpetuates normative constructions of social power, in this case White supremacy.

Ulyssa HesterUlyssa Hester

Another manifestation of oppression is the “Black tax,” which represents the additional effort and pressure to be much better than our White peers in order to be considered equally for the same opportunities due to our race. Additionally, my racially minoritized peers and I are too often designated as the ‘expert’ to our White peers when navigating conversations around culture, bias and privilege. These encounters become tiring, especially when those being educated do not typically offer any form of compensation in exchange for this labor. These examples represent a subset of my own challenges navigating higher education, and they are reflected in my peers’ and colleagues’ experiences as well. Engagement in social justice spaces have equipped me with knowledge and strategies with which to counter these challenging experiences. I use the term “social justice spaces” to describe spaces created to advance social justice agendas in a wide spectrum of areas including, but not limited to: access to higher education for people with marginalized identities, retention of marginalized students in graduate programs, equitable pay for workers and reproductive justice. Social justice spaces exist as organizations, programs, meetings, or in the practice of studying social injustices and the associated approaches to dismantling systems of oppression. For me, these spaces are:

  • Academic counterspaces including peer mentoring groups and writing groups that serve as spaces for advice, support and encouragement for myself and other students with marginalized racial and gender identities.
  • Mentoring@Purdue, a program that hosts workshops and seminars to inform faculty and staff mentoring practices for women and underrepresented minorities and holds a summer program that aims to increase access to graduate education for students who attend historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
  • Younger Women’s Task Force of Greater Lafayette, a direct-action community organizing group outside of academia, which strategically plans, executes and supports political actions to bring our community closer to liberation.

The choice to engage in social justice spaces within and outside of academia is a deeply empowering experience for me as a Black woman doctoral student. Active participation in social justice spaces provided me a path to understand how oppression is embedded in our societal institutions, including institutions of higher education. Further, my participation allows me to understand through my own and others’ experiences how resistance to oppression can alleviate the deleterious effects of oppression and how resistance can function to heal some of the psychological and emotional damage such as the anxiety and racial battle fatigue that can develop as a result of racial aggressions.

The act of resisting oppression can transform individuals and subsequently the spaces we inhabit. For instance, by witnessing others’ ways of resisting, I am inspired to develop my own resistance strategies and challenge myself to plan meaningful shifts towards socially just cultures and practices in different environments. This resistance can take several forms to lead to a transformative effect including:

  • Creating formal and informal systems of support specifically for marginalized populations due to their racial or gender identity. Engaging in these supportive spaces allows access to instrumental, mental and emotional support from people who are more likely able to understand and name prejudicially racialized and gendered encounters. Peers found in these spaces can also share useful strategies to navigate and persist in academia despite these encounters.
  • Conducting research projects focused on marginalized populations that benefit the participant and the researcher, and destabilize White supremacy. I believe research holds the potential to inform transformative solutions for issues in higher education and broader society when it: 1) focuses on the experiences of marginalized people, 2) focuses on various programs meant to counteract social injustice, and 3) challenges institutions to change their oppressive cultures.
  • Confronting dominant norms in higher education regarding language and personal appearance. Professional standards regarding language and personal appearance are steeped in racism, sexism, transphobia, and more. I witnessed faculty and students alike take various measures to challenge these norms including intentionally using African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) in their presentations and writing, wearing their hair in its natural state, dressing according to their preferred comfort level and gender expression, wearing facial piercings and/or wearing multicolored hair.
  • Participating in social justice groups and actions (i.e., protests and demonstrations) within the local community. This serves a multifaceted role for me. In these settings, I connect with diverse groups of people; deeply discuss systems of oppression and the methods by which we can dismantle them; learn strategies for organizing; and physically show up to create the world in which I want to live.

The challenges of racialized and gendered aggressions and their harmful effects are evidence of why developing or adopting strategies of resistance is crucial for people with marginalized identities at PWIs. I encourage students, faculty, and staff to find and create spaces where they can participate and lead efforts to resist social injustices and oppression. I also encourage all members of institutions of higher education to interrogate how they identify and show resistance to oppressive cultures and practices within higher education, and how they may contribute to anti-oppressive change within their institutions.

Ulyssa Hester is a doctoral student in the Department of Agricultural Sciences Education and Communication at Purdue University.  You can follow her on Twitter @Ulychirp.

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