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The NBGN Blog offers brief articles, essays, poetry, artwork and reflections related to Black Studies and written by graduate students in our network. Blog posts are public, only members can comment on posts.

Being Black in the Academy

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By Dalia Elsayed, Concordia University

As I bid farewell to 2020, I reflected on the many conversations I had with my Black female friends. During that year, while going through a global state of lockdown, we became more concerned with our state of being, more aware of the factors that contribute to our poor mental health. As a result, I realized that anger was the dominant theme of our conversations. I want to speak of anger because I have come to believe that it is a major component of being Black and female; not only in North America but globally.

Before moving to Canada in 2018 to pursue my PhD, I worked in Qatar, the country, where I had lived since the age of three. Since moving to Canada, I have come to understand what it is to be Black because I finally have the language to describe my previous experiences of discrimination and to understand being Black in the Middle East. Coming from Sudan, an Afro-Arab country in East Africa, the forms of discrimination I experienced in Qatar, like others from my community, are based on our racial, national, and gender identities. I became more cognizant of these experiences in my years as an undergraduate student at an American campus in Qatar. My blackness seemed to pose a threat to that university community since I started as an undergraduate student. In our class of about 50 students, seven of us were Black Sudanese women, and somehow that was too much for both the staff and the student body to handle. We were referred to as a “gang” and a “cult”, language that tremendously contributed to a negative and hostile educational environment.

Additionally, we were discouraged from forming relationships with one another. From the first few weeks of school, we were “advised” not to spend time with each other so as not to be perceived as “unwelcoming.” This was deemed so important it was communicated to us by some of our advisors during orientation week. Other students who appeared to be equally threatened by the number of Black students raised the subject for discussion during a small school event. All of this occurred even though we didn’t all know each other at the time. The occurrences made us self-conscious about our interactions with one another and with the rest of our classmates. At such an age where we were constantly trying to understand who we are and how we fit in this world, this cost us the opportunity to form a community where we could reflect on our shared experiences. I still feel as though my interactions with other Black folks in academia are watched and scrutinized today, as a PhD student in a Canadian institution. This adds another layer to social interactions, that is uniquely felt and navigated by Black students, and further deepens the sense of exclusion we tend to feel.

From walking on the sidewalks where I am met with hostile looks and claims over walking space, to the classroom where I am stereotyped and excluded, I’ve become aware of how my everyday interactions with the world are defined by my blackness. Since moving to Canada and starting my PhD experience, I have become a “Black Sudanese woman.” Speaking to my Black female graduate friends, I realize that our classroom experiences are quite similar. Many of us express anxiety about participating in class. When we disagree, we are seen as hostile and when we speak about race and racism, conversations often come to an end. So, the classroom is no longer that space where we can engage in meaningful open conversations; it becomes another space where we have to navigate our blackness. Being the only Black student in my class, I was labelled “threatening” by some of my peers. This is the same hostile and negative language that impacted my undergraduate learning experience; the language which contributes to the silencing of Black women in academia.

Our educational spaces do not provide the opportunity for Black women to express themselves, so we often return to our private spaces experiencing a sense of isolation and exclusion. While isolation is a shared experience of many graduate students regardless of their backgrounds, exclusion is an additional layer experienced by Black women in academia. Classrooms, curricula, and pedagogies do not take into account the necessity of representation. The works we are often exposed to, rarely take into consideration our Black understanding of the world and ourselves. What we consume as students; from written works to faculty representation reflects a White existence and White perspective of the world. We rarely see faces that look like ours, skin that resembles ours, and experiences that mirror our own. So, when attempting to research Black areas of study, if not enrolled in a program that specifically focuses on that, neither faculty representation is present nor pedagogical and curriculum representation. So, we find ourselves trapped in educational spaces that we struggle to navigate. These experiences of isolation and exclusion contribute to my anger as a Black woman in academia.

Women who share my experiences are angry because having to exist in unwelcoming spaces is exhausting. It takes a toll on our mental health. This anger, however, became my source of motivation. I have decided to direct my anger towards my work. My PhD thesis has become an expression of my identity and my existence. I look at my research as an opportunity for expression and understanding. The simple act of reading work about Black people by Black authors makes me feel that we can claim and create spaces in academia. My research project has become another medium for me to understand the Black experience.


NBGN Contributor

May 26, 2021

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