I think it’s universally known that graduate school is hard.
What may not be universally known is that it is often painful.
Being a graduate student requires vulnerability. One must not only have strong beliefs and opinions, but it must be expressed. We are expected to lay ourselves bare in the classroom and in our writings, our truths uncovered before our peers and “superiors” who more or less become judge, jury and executioner. If you are lucky, you might find yourself in a supportive space, where you are encouraged to think out loud and grow– where you feel safe to make mistakes and learn. Unfortunately, more often than not, you will find yourself subject to critique that is less about you, than it is about someone needing to prove their own intelligence, needing to find the flaw, needing fill the space with their own voice.
The discomfort of vulnerability, mistakes and learning is where growth happens. While I think we all need a certain amount of discomfort in order to grow, it becomes quite easy for that feeling to become toxic and damaging to one’s self-worth.
And that’s just one level.
Now, imagine that toxic environment– imagine the hostility, the tension, the anxiety cluttering the air like smog– and imagine that you are Black.
Every time you have to point out racism, a pain cuts through you, like a dull knife. It won’t kill you, but it still stings.
When my blood boiled at hearing a white woman say that a freed slave was “afforded the opportunity to be great” by white people, I felt the muscles in my neck tighten and I tried to make my voice steady when repeated the words back to her, so she knew how absurd it was that she believed that the white people who had kidnapped, brutalized, enslaved and abused a man could also be responsible for his “greatness.” I felt my intestines knot themselves up when I had to tell a white man that Frederick Douglass never needed to be “vindicated” by white anthropologists– Frederick Douglass has never been a marginalized figure. Why is that Douglass’ observations weren’t valid to you until white scholars said it was so? I felt a pain like I had been stabbed in the stomach while I sat in bed, observing the minutes that passed– one minute past when I should have gone to my doctor’s appointment, two minutes, three minutes, four. I didn’t want to explain to her, yet again, how much pain I was in, only to have to feel like I was defending myself, trying to prove and justify my pain, when what I really need is simply to be helped.
By Thursday I was choking on that toxic air, nursing open wounds, and a hand over my chest, which throbbed with dull pain. On Thursday we talked, at least in part, about Black women, and despite knowing that only Black women are truly here for other Black women, I failed a friend. I watched her burn our class to the ground with the intensity of truth, and when she asked, “Do you think that white women have appropriated the term intersectionality?” I could do nothing but look at her in awe. The kumbaya answer added burns to my body, which matched the bruises I got from watching a film in which the Black feminists were marked as vigilantes and malcontents until the final minutes, when white feminists swooped in with their golden badges of support and allyship, and suddenly the media thought they might be heroes.
Even with in my own race, I have to keep my guard up. I often feel as though I have to fight to prove my value not only as a scholar but as a person with my classmates and my professors. The Black men in my life only rolled through to remind me that though we both might be Black, he was a man, and thus entitled to stake a claim on those who are absolutely not his– as though we are property to be claimed and protected as opposed to people to be respected.
This was the week that I learned how to articulate a brutal sensation that, until now, had been unnamed and had settled to a spot just under my ribcage: Black pain will always be less important than white pain in American society. When Black women and white women are both expressing pain, the white woman will be attended to first.
I have been talked over, down to, around and about. I have been ignored and forgotten.
My poor body, suffering from asphyxiation, blunt force trauma to the head and chest, with multiple stab wounds, took a fatal hit when I realized that even the best of intentions can kill.
It seems like nothing grows in America without Black blood.
Each day that I come to class, remember how I look. You will not be able to see the damage, so I have held up a mirror for you. When you wonder why I sharply correct your diet racism, despite it being the only offensive thing you’ve said today– remember that I’ve got a body covered in bruises. They never get to heal before I’m forced to return to my seat in class, before I’m forced to gag on toxic air again, be stabbed and hit, with hardly anything to shield me.
Remember that I walk through this world in pain.
So when I finally scream back, don’t you dare wonder why.