Systemic Racism & Why I don’t want kids

In this guest post, David Springer reflects on the ways experiencing and studying systemic racism influence preferences for having or not having children.  David Springer is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago who studies race, ethnicity & gender and African American experience. 

At this point in my life, I’ve ended many different friendships and relationships because of racism. It’s a normal part of my life. Often, these incidents begin with comments like “You’re really ________ for a black guy” or “I like you, you’re not like other black people!” I turn 30 in about 2 months, and I don’t have the energy to explain to people why that’s offensive. I certainly don’t have time to explain why I or other black people are upset over Trayvon Martin’s death or his murderer’s acquittal, the Ferguson protests and the Baltimore uprisings. Over the past few years, I’ve come to learn that a big part of experiencing racism is about experiencing loss. It can involve losing access to resources (if you even had access in the first place), losing your humanity, losing your life (literally), and losing relationships. I thought I knew how to handle the latter until this past week.

I ended a completely functional, stable, 2-year relationship with a woman I loved because of racism. She is Asian-American and I’m black, but it wasn’t because of a microaggression. It wasn’t because she thought #BlackLivesMatter protesters were just rabble rousers or because she thought black people would be fine if we just pulled our pants up and stopped “acting ghetto.” In fact, in 2 years, we argued about something race related exactly one time. We ended our relationship because I came to the realization that I don’t want children, and she does. That, in and of itself, is not explicitly related to race. People end relationships all the time because they disagree on whether or not to have children. However, I’d venture to guess that most people who say they don’t want kids don’t cite racism as the reason. For me, racism has everything to do with why I don’t want to bring children into this world.

With the #BlackLivesMatter Movement in full swing and the seemingly endless stream of stories of violence against black people, racism continues to permeate our daily lives. On a personal level, I’m confronted with racism in my everyday life in ways I’ve written about before. I’m also a race scholar, so systemic racial inequality also shapes my worldview. My own research focuses on the ways race shapes the lives of even the most successful, middle class blacks in this “post-racial” society. Between my own personal experiences, an understanding of institutional inequality, and an awareness of how that inequality literally kills black men, women and children every day, you get what scholars refer to as “racial battle fatigue.”

Racial battle fatigue refers to the stress people of color experience when exposed to discrimination. This stress can be psychological (frustration, defensiveness, apathy, anxiety, hopelessness), physiological (headaches, high blood pressure, shortness of breath, sleep disturbances, etc.), or emotional-behavioral (stereotype threat, impatience, increased smoking, alcohol, or drug use, and poor job or school performance). For me, chronic exposure to racism tends to manifest itself though a deep sense of anxiety and hopelessness. Though I know that progress has been made since the Civil Rights Movement and that my own success is a symbol of that progress, I’m also aware of how much that progress has stalled or regressed. On one hand, Census data suggests that black folks are generally less poor than they were before that era. That data also suggests that more of us are going to college and getting bachelor’s degrees, and that the black middle class has grown. Black success, at least on an individual level, is highly visible in our society. President Obama, as many have discussed before, is the most obvious example of this progress.

On the other hand, this racial progress coexists with racial disparities in income, wealth, poverty, unemployment, incarceration rates, housing and education. If black America were a country to itself, it would trail behind white America in virtually every measure of social mobility and life chances. It would have a worse infant mortality rate than many “3rd World” countries, a lower life expectancy than Mexico, a higher homicide rate (per-100,000) than the Ivory Coast, Sudan, or Haiti, and the highest rate of incarceration on the planet. While legally sanctioned discrimination has subsided over time, even successful blacks deal with racism in their neighborhoods, public spaces, stores, and the workplaces. Every day there is a new story of a black person being verbally harassed, followed in stores, harassed by security personnel, or killed by police and vigilantes. At this point, these kinds of stories are expected. I go through a range of emotions when I see these stories – anger, disgust, sadness, etc. But I’m never surprised by any of it. And from where I sit, I don’t have much evidence that it will stop. If Dr. King and the Civil Rights Generation could not stop it, what hope do we have?

I understand that this isn’t a 100% rational reaction. There are many people who are fighting for black lives. And that fight is not always for naught, as the students of Mizzou showed us this past week. Things like this provide some hope, but that hope is quickly tempered by how people reacted to those protests – death threats, terrorism, and general hostility. Which brings me back to having children. When I’m aware of the many ways racism hurts and kills black folks in this country, how can I justify bringing a child into this world? How do I handle the inevitable day when my child gets called a nigger or some other epithet? We live in a world where that’s a virtually a guarantee. So how do I explain that to them? And do I try to give them hope that it will get better, even when I know that probably isn’t true? Do I just “keep it real,” and shatter their innocence? These are the kinds of things my ex-girlfriend and I had to think about. How were we supposed to explain to a child that the police, who they will be taught to see as the good guys and heroes, are often hostile and hateful towards black people? I didn’t really interact much with the police outside of a D.A.R.E. talk here and there, but I can remember knowing very early in life that police didn’t like black people. And when kids are taught that people who hurt people go to jail, how do we explain that when white people hurt us, they’re more likely to avoid punishment? How do I help that child avoid the pain I felt the first time a girl’s parents rejected me because I was black?

These questions are what drive my preference to not have children. Since I was in an interracial relationship, I had to think long and hard about how race might affect a child’s life. And since my ex wasn’t black, many of the child’s experiences would be tied directly to me, especially if that child looked more like me than her. Of course being/looking Asian comes with many of the same problems and discrimination, as well as some unique experiences (“Where are you really from?”). But anti-black racism is, as critical race theorists often argue, a cornerstone of American society. And black people are often viewed as inferior to Asians on cultural grounds. And since I’m the darker one in the relationship, I am aware that the more the child looks like me, the more likely they are to experience discrimination in their neighborhoods, in stores, at school, and at the hands of police officers. Again, I know that isn’t a 100% rational thought. And it wouldn’t be my fault if my child experienced racism. But it would feel like it was, and I’m not sure how I’d be able to deal with that as a parent, let alone how to talk to a child about it.

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Comprehensive Exams are a Glorified Hazing Ritual

 

The following anonymous guest post is by a doctoral candidate at a public research university in the United States.  In this post, he discusses experience with comprehensive exams often required for doctoral study, and the ways such exams mirror hazing patterns in other institutions and groups.  

As many graduate students know, comprehensive exams (sometimes also called preliminary exams, qualifying exams, prelims, comps, etc.) are often part of the grad school process. I’m sure I’m not the only person who heard horror stories about such tests from senior graduate students and faculty alike from the earliest days of grad school. The stories from graduate students went something like this:

 

“Oh my GOD. The semester you take the test is the worst semester of your life.”

“Get ready to hate everything when you take them.”

“I mean, people have failed before. It’s been documented.”

“Jeez, I don’t even remember half the stuff from the test, but make sure you know the stuff for the exam.”

“They’re so hard. The worst. Ugh I hate them.”

“Take them seriously or else you’ll have to take them again.”

 

From faculty:

 

“You will seriously need to study. Plan on doing nothing else the semester you take them.”

“Your exams are what first demonstrate that you are going to be a scholar in (area X) of (discipline Y). So you need to take them seriously.”

“You need to remember everything from the readings. Yes everything.”

“People have failed them before.”

“Take them seriously or else you’ll have to take them again.”

 

Now, in my particular situation the students were assigned or selected a certain number of texts to read in order to reflect their expertise in a specific area of the discipline. Then over the course of many hours (sometimes in one day, sometimes in two) they sat in a specified room and typed our responses. Faculty then assessed our responses and assigned a score.  Then, we learned our score, but never saw the test again.

For me, as someone who struggles with anxiety, hearing all of this before taking my exams was extremely disconcerting. As I listened to my colleagues and faculty gush about the horror of the tests I started to wonder why we even do them anymore. Over and over again I heard graduate students and faculty alike reinforcing the notion that the tests need to be taken seriously, that they’re intimidating, horrifying, traumatizing even.

In the midst of all this advice, multiple graduate students repeatedly told me that no one ever asked them about the test in the months/years after completing them, so “just get through it and move on”. Each person I talked to portrayed their method of studying as the way to study for these tests. People shared their “survival strategies” with me in what seemed like an effort to soften the blow of this supposedly horrendous process.

When it came time for me to start studying, I kept all these things in mind: the terror of the test, the embarrassment that would come if I didn’t pass, the stress of being a slow reader trying to get through thousands of pages of texts. I woke up in the middle of the night in a fit of anxiety more than once. It seemed my colleagues were right: comprehensive exams are terrible.

“But why?” I wondered to myself. “Why do they have to be terrible if this thing is just a valorized essay test that no one will ever ask me about ever again in my life once it’s over?” it was during this reflection that I realized that all comprehensive exams really are is a glorified hazing process for graduate students.

And I get it, if you think about it as a hazing process it all makes sense:

The tests are framed as the thing that will make you an expert in a field. This framing reinforces the notion that they are not only important, but that if we all really want to be experts then we need to do really well on them. In reality, a completed dissertation or set of publications is more likely to reflect your expertise in a given area, but pointing this out might undermine the ritual of comprehensive exams.

The tests are vaguely framed as scary and something we need to take seriously, even though most people pass, most programs allow you to take them more than once, and no one will ever ask you about them ever again. This fits the guidelines of a hazing ritual perfectly. If we aren’t repetitively told that the tests are scary then maybe we would see them for what they really are: timed essays shrouded in hype. Also, if students are scared into (over) studying for the test, then faculty can say “you must not have studied hard enough” in the face of someone who does fail. In this framework, failing the test becomes a personal failure, instead of a problem with the structure of the examination, and the structure of academia more broadly. Namely how the structure itself is specifically disadvantageous to neuro-atypical, racial/class/gender/sexual minority students who have been told over and over that we aren’t good enough, will never be good enough, and can’t succeed.

“Surviving” makes you one of the team, and then you get to tell future generations how awful the process is. This makes me think of a friend of mine who was involved in Greek life during his time in undergrad. A few years before he pledged his fraternity, their chapter got in trouble for hazing. As a result, they were under serious surveillance from the national office of their fraternity. The brothers who were seniors during his freshman year were the last pledge class to get hazed and were extremely bitter that the incoming class didn’t have to navigate the same emotionally stressful, degrading, “bonding” activities that they did. To these older brothers the initiation of my friend’s pledge class cheapened the meaning of brotherhood.

Comprehensive exams, as they exist now in many programs, operate in effectively the same way: Faculty and senior graduate students who made it through this format get to maintain boundaries between “them” and “us”, those who are “in” on the knowledge and those who are “out.” They do this by engaging in the same, ritualistic scare tactics that they experienced before they made it through the process, and in so doing justify and reinforce the meaning of their own experiences with the hazing process. Otherwise something that they spent a significant portion of their time in graduate school worrying about might be rendered meaningless.

Once you pass them, they don’t really matter. I took my comprehensive exams. I passed. And I’ve never been asked about them since (with the exception of other nervous graduate students who will take them in the future).

Now, to be fair, I learned a lot while studying for the tests, and it was not a total loss. I also understand the argument that we need to have something in place to make sure that people who are getting PhDs are truly experts in a field. I agree, I’m just not convinced that this format of evaluation is it. I also know that not all programs use this format, in fact some of them have (what I think) are much more useful evaluation methods.

For example, in an academic context where publishing is becoming increasingly more important, why not have students review a specific body of theoretical literature, craft a paper that makes a new theoretical contribution, and then submit it for publication? This format allows students to get the experience of reading broadly and deeply across a field, and the written result of all that work isn’t thrown into a vault where their ideas just waste away. Students could also do an archival research project of all the literature in one or two journals that relate directly to their dissertation topic and give an oral or written (but not timed) defense of that literature. Doing this could help students expedite their dissertation proposals and would give them a wide and deep understanding of their disciplinary sub-field/ fields.

I don’t expect changes to the current format overnight. So while what I mention above are just two potential alternatives to this format, I would like to share some thoughts for students who may be getting ready to take comprehensive exams that look like the ones I took:

Do take them seriously, but remember that they are not the end of the world. Yes, these tests do determine when/if you get to move on in the program, but they are not the be all and end all of your worth as a scholar or a human being.

If your program allows you to take comprehensive exams more than once, think about the first time you take them as a practice round. This is easier said than done, especially when the implicit knowledge around one’s department might be that failing is shameful. However, if you can do this it helps put them in perspective – just think, if you have to take them again at least you will know what you’re getting into. Also, you can spend the semester(s) between the first and second time taking them as a chance to work on your dissertation proposal, and then defend your proposal immediately after you (in all likelihood) pass them the next time.

Hey, senior graduate students and faculty, stop treating failing like its shameful. If you passed, good for you, but just because someone doesn’t pass their first time (or ever) doesn’t lessen their value. Help shrink this as a departmental (and academy-wide) norm. Yes, there might be people who fail because they didn’t study, but it can often be significantly more complicated that that. Again, minority scholars specifically are told their whole lives how likely we are to fail at any time. Instead of reinforcing this logic, work to create an environment where students can do better the next time.

Develop your own studying method(s). In the months leading up to comprehensive exams you will likely be inundated with advice on the best study methods. Really, the best method is whatever works for you. Maybe you audio record conversations you have with yourself about the readings, maybe you make flashcards. You could be someone that needs to structure every hour of their day, or a person to whom that degree of structure feels suffocating. Perhaps you discuss the readings with a study buddy over drinks or coffee, or conversely, you might like to study more solitarily. These and dozens of other methods exist – trust yourself to figure out the one that works best for you and run with it.

Don’t lose yourself. Take some evenings off and hang out with friends (or not), allow yourself to watch Netflix between a reading or two, take a long walk and listen to music – whatever feels like a relaxing activity to you, don’t be afraid to do it. In all likelihood that one evening, or one episode of Breaking Bad won’t make or break your experience with comprehensive exams.

All in all, we could seriously use a critical examination of the pedagogical reason these tests exist in this fashion. For now, though, hopefully this framing will help bring the process back down to earth for folks who will be managing this ritual in the future.

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Call for Submissions

Write Where It Hurts – an online forum for scholars doing deeply personal teaching, research and / or activism within and beyond the academy – invites guest blog posts (500 – 1500 words generally) regarding navigating the emotional, political and inequitable aspects of scholarly practice and experience. As part of our ongoing efforts to shine a light on the personal elements of academic and applied experience as well as provide a space for voices from a variety of backgrounds and groups, we seek those wishing to share their experiences, educate others, and encourage debate around such issues. We thus encourage contributions from people from various backgrounds, disciplines, perspectives, and careers. We further welcome and encourage anonymous posts by scholars seeking to draw attention to important issues while lacking the institutional, financial or other forms of security often necessary to speak out in one’s own name. Submissions should be emailed to wewritewhereithurts@gmail.com. Please briefly describe your own biography, your decision to be anonymous or named in your post, and how your post fits into the focus of the blog. You can gain more information at our contributor page or by emailing us directly at the aforementioned address.

Suggested Contributions

 

Personal narratives concerning the following:

Conducting research in an area that is personally salient

Managing negative and / or positive emotions that arise in the course of research

Teaching subjects that resonate with lived experience and / or trauma

Engaging in activism within the context of the academy

Engaging in activism via the use of personal experience

Conducting research in marginalized or controversial areas of study

 

Experiences navigating the following:

Gender and sexual nonconformity in the academy and beyond

Racial marginalization and / or empowerment in the academy and beyond

Neuro-atypical experiences in scholarship and advocacy

Experiences with chronic mental and / or physical health conditions

Navigating intersections of race, class, sex, gender, sexualities, relationships, religion,

age and / or nationality in the academy or activist settings

Navigating familial, personal, work, and / or romantic life balances and trade offs

 

Graduate student experiences with:

Publishing and job market concerns

Navigating PHD programs and academic structures

Interacting with other scholars at conferences or in other settings

Participating in campus efforts at reform or change

Building online and other public profiles

Balancing the needs of a graduate program with aspects of personal, political, and occupational

experience

 

Advice concerning the following:

Completing PHD programs (i.e., comprehensive exams, thesis and dissertation, networking, etc.)

The Job Market (i.e., academic and applied)

Challenges in the classroom

Challenges to research endeavors

Challenges to activism endeavors

Department and conference politics

 

Personal experiences and advice regarding the following:

Dating in academia

Parenthood / Pregnancy in academia

Nonreligion / Religion in academia

Race, class, gender, and / or sexual marginalization in academia

Discrimination in academia

Me-search and / or Imposter Syndrome and / or Insecurity in academia

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