For the past three years I have had students who were “offended” or “insulted” because I have made it a point for them to call me Dr. Garcia. There’s usually the follow up question asking why, and then the statement, “Dr. So and So, let’s me call them by their first name.” How ironic, that in the same sentence they still refer to my colleagues as “Dr.”
When your first response is not to call me “Dr.” in an academic setting, you erase not only me, but the generations before me. Let me explain.
These are the names that came before me. My grandmothers and mother, a strong lineage of women of color. They worked long hours in labor intensive jobs and passed down stories through oral traditions. The one thing the women before me all have in common is they did not attend college. That was left up to me, and it was a challenge I took on whole heartily.
While I am the first in my family to attain a Ph.D., it is not mine alone. It is a collective document. Or what The Latina Feminist Group call, papelitos guardados: “sacred documents that contain stories held from public view.” In “More than ‘papelitos:’ A QuantCrit Counterstory to Critique Latina/o Degree Value and Occupational Prestige,” professors Lindsay Perez Huber, Veronica Velez, and Daniel G. Solorzano argue that papelitos can be higher education degrees.
Attaining a degree for the Latinx/a/o community is worth much more than momentary value. Perez Huber, Velez, and Solorzano state: “These degrees are symbolic of a collective struggle and a collective victory that extends far beyond the individual … We knew that economic measures of degree value did not accurately reflect the significance of those degrees for us.”
I agree. Our degrees have so much more worth that is not wrapped in capitalist voyeurism. They are personal, represent struggle and are shared. I feel a personal responsibility to write down these collective stories to be shared, heard and witnessed.
When I request to be called Dr. Garcia, it is a collective witnessing and the reason why I sit in the Ivory Tower. You are not only calling me a “Dr.” but you are honoring the women before me. I have had to establish myself in different ways from many of my colleagues. As a woman of color who is young, I am perceived by many (both White and people of color) as not being faculty. In my previous writings, I have written about being underrepresented, and what my representation means in institutions of higher education. Yes, I operate every day in systems of oppression, racism and White supremacy. Now that we know that, how do we engage in anti-racist struggles in everyday practice?
I contemplated on writing this piece out of fear. Fear of what people may think. Fear of who may get offended. Fear of backlash. Fear of vulnerability. Fear of reproducing power and privilege. Fear of not being radical enough. I revisited my previous piece, “You Don’t Look Like a Professor,” and found a reminder. I stated, “To some, I may not look like a professor, but I do not compromise myself for someone else’s idea of what I should be. I offer this affirmation to the future generations of women of color professors.”
Yet, again, I offer an affirmation. To ask to be called by your formal title, “Dr.” is not complaining, it is educating. Yes, there is power involved by having a Ph.D., but consistently be in question of who has the power? Is it you, a student, a colleague? How is this power systemically exercised and who does it benefit most?
I recently picked up a copy of Decolonizing Academia: Poverty, Oppression, and Pain by Dr. Clelia O. Rodriguez, and was left stunned by her courage. She states, “… math is a universal language, and so is pain.” Pain is universal language. The pain we share is your point of entry into anti-racist practices. Welcome to our language.
Dr. Nichole Margarita Garcia is an assistant professor of Higher Education at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. You can follow her on Twitter @DrNicholeGarcia.