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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.

Our Experiences are Truth: Anecdotes from Black Graduates and Students of Black Studies


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Here it is – the collection of our answers to the questions: what do you like and find challenging about being black graduate students and/or engaging in black studies? You know, the engaging post I promised you (intentional emphasis on the engaging). First, let me qualify that the use of “black graduates” always includes law, medical, graduate diploma, and other professional accreditations. To build solidarity around the Canadian black graduate experience and black centric research we privilege black graduates and all students of black studies. That being said – to all the human beings reading this, we are happy you to share with you. Enjoy.

Now, back to engaging with you. As I am passionately transcribing our collective ideas, I guide you to seek solace in this moment of getting to know each other via reading our collective experiences – this seemingly fleeting moment of staring at your computer or phone screen half skeptical and now intrigued. At this moment, fellow members of the NBGN, you are responsible for fostering a space for black empowerment, self-care, solidarity, innovations and enhancing the visibility, engagement in black studies on a national scale. A space to transform our futures as students, as activists, while setting the foundation for a better condition for younger generations.

Being black graduate students has so much promise. On one hand, it feels like we have transgressed stereotypes of marginality and powerlessness. What a privilege – am I right? We should be proud of our achievements; we have worked hard as human beings to get to the position we are in. If you are too humble to gloat – I am proud of you. Looking at your responses, many of you feel the same way. We like the position that being black graduate students afford us, it gives us the authority and reach to positively impact society, as one of you stated perfectly in the quote:

“being a graduate student offers the potential to be equipped with information that improved my community. I like the opportunity that a graduate education presents…”

ANONb

In our collective answers we celebrate being black graduates for the credibility and visibility it can offer to our achievements and knowledge as young black scholars:

“I am passionate about the arts and graphic communications… my studies have allowed me to give credibility to my talent, knowing that I am not only creating a few simple drawings – but that I am a creative director, strategist and creator, that my skills and knowledge deserve to be paid for and be seen as valuable”

Yasmeen Souffrant, Graduate Diploma student, Université Sherbrooke

As black graduate students we love using use our racialized and cultured experiences to bring new perspectives to academia – challenging the status quo and institutionalized inequalities:

“… being African and coming from an African country, I have a different vision from that of other students. I have experienced situations that they have not experienced and will probably never experience. I think that having a different – perspective allows us to understand each other better and be closer”

Mamadou Sanogo, MBA student, University of Prince Edward Islands

“My lived experiences as a black person provide a unique perspective to many of my educational experiences.”

ANONa

“what I like as a black student is the privilege of being exposed to two sides of the coin… this gives me a richer experience and insight”

Toluope Afolabi, MSc student, University of British Columbia

“the black world brings together experiences from all walks and all places. There is a wealth of culture and history in African and its diaspora that isn’t limited to borders”

Aaron Wilford, MA student, University of British Columbia

“…being the only black person in a room is a daily occurrence which is exhausting and challenging, but also motivating because it means I get to make a difference in challenging stereotypes and addressing biases.”

ANONa

We – black graduates and our allies – enjoy specializing in black studies for it is a field that propels our counter-narratives to anti-black discourses and stereotypes into academia and the greater society:

“I am able to subvert stereotypical notions of black people and black students”

Josh Kamera, MA student, Carleton University

“I like that I get to be part of conversations that disrupt some commonly held negative stereotypes about black people. Although it might not bring significant change, it helps to challenge other people’s thoughts and beliefs, thus enabling them to have a greater appreciation of black people’s diverse cultures and identity.”

Julian Kapfumvuti, Ph.D. candidate, Memorial University of Newfoundland

“I like being in an environment where I can cultivate, question, learn and challenge ideas. I have access to historical perspectives that give a better understanding of my present location in society”

ANONb

“My research amplifies the black voice, promotes tangible anti-racist, healthy equity outcomes”

Tola Mbulaheni, Ph.D. student, University of Toronto

Black studies offer’s black graduate students specifically, a safe space to mobilize our lived experience and unlearn our colonial training:

“I like the idea that I am able to see people for the first time that look like myself in great numbers, higher numbers than I ever seen in my undergrad in law school and two masters, I like to have a space to say race and black and not feel heavy in the room and see glares of disdain. Working in black studies in the short time that I have been doing so, has helped me to unlearn the colonized methods that have taken place as common.”

Cherie Daniel, Ph.D. student, University of Toronto

“I [learn] about and from scholars who critically speak to – my lived experience and political position. Black scholarship [has] enriched [me] on a political, personal and intellectual level”

Tola Mbulaheni, Ph.D. student, University of Toronto

“my studies came to support and enhance what was already in me. This is what I am most proud of. It was a choice I made, despite all things. It taught me to act with intentions in everything I do, in all spheres of my life.”

Yasmeen Souffrant, Graduate Diploma student, Université Sherbrooke

On the other hand, too whoever needs to hear this (the ignorant lurker in the back), I want to say in a raised voice “we know that our education and professional positionality is not an accomplishment because we are black… it is an accomplishment in its own right. One that does not make us better than our black brother and sisters that have different educational backgrounds and professions.” Together we are united by racialization that oppresses us while, creating the potential for collective empowerment through solidarity – like this moment… right now. And unsurprisingly we all acknowledge that our “positions” that western society upholds as “status” do not exempt us from the discriminatory stereotypes and treatment. Let’s face it… there are so many occasions when we are not taken seriously. As many of you explain better below:

“The challenging part of being a black graduate student is being taken as seriously as some of my non-black counterparts especially since the field I want to enter and study in has a virtually non-existent black population.”

Josh Kamera, MA student, Carleton University

“…we have a lot more difficulty getting our ideas approved. In addition, we suffer stigmatization which leads to our opinions being rarely heard.”

Mamadou Sanogo, MBA student, University of Prince Edward Island

“stereotypes and biases – challenge my intellect because of my race… feeling like you will never be good enough for someone to actually acknowledge your potential and skills to recommend you for career opportunities – despite hard work and proven academic results”

ANONa

“…the feeling of uncertainty or not being enough, this include the thought that I have to prove myself worthy most times”

Toluope Afolabi, Ph.D. student, University of Toronto

“Ce que j’ai trouvé comme étant un challenge pour moi, en tant que femme noire, est le fait qu’il faut s’en cesse en faire plus pour faire ses preuves et se faire un place. Les gens autour de nous ont beaucoup de préjugés, donc en plus de faire face au stress d’une étudiante typique, il y a aussi le stress de se trouver un emploi à la hauteur de ses ambitions par la suite, en plus de la peur d’être discriminée, malgré notre éducation et nos experiences.”

Yasmeen Souffrant, Graduate Diploma student, Université Sherbrooke

We sometimes feel isolated, mostly from the lack of support. Where are our black mentors and conscious supervisors? Where are our library and support for our research topics? Being a scholar is a tough gig, you captured this so eloquently:

“I find solitude difficult as a graduate student.  The hours spent reading and writing have to be spent alone to support scholarships.  Despite knowing of others in the same boat, the feeling of isolation is still present. It is challenging to feel part of a community of scholars.”

Joanne Prince, Ph.D. student, York University

“As a student in Public Health, there is no institutional support for undertaking critical race theory, black feminist theory, postcolonial theory, etc. and thus, I must commit the additional labour of taking extra courses outside of my faculty, independently finding mentorship (which is extremely difficult due to the scarcity of Black scholars at the University of Toronto) and building a network. Navigating and confronting anti-black racism in the academe is exhausting.”

Toluope Afolabi, MSc student, University of British Columbia

“…some institutions and/or entities…are not supportive”

Georgette Morris, Ph.D. student, Carleton University/York University

“… I am not suggesting that I came to grad school with the thought it was going to be an easy ride (since no part of my post-secondary education was easy). I just didn’t expect to have to work this much harder than my non-black peers nor did I expect to have used up so much of my time and energy fighting for the basic benefits of higher education that are taken for granted by my non-black peers. This is time and energy that would be better spent completing my studies rather than having to always fight for them.  Access to engaging with black studies and/or scholars is limited to finding faculty of colour with interest and expertise in black studies. And there are very few black faculty members in universities across Canada. Because of this gap, I find I am always asked or forced to change my research interests to match that of the mentoring faculty available, hence reproducing knowledge that continually leaves black histories, knowledge and experience out.”

ANONb

“I have the personal expectation for my work to encourage collective action amongst black people. For me, the stakes of studying African history and the Black Atlantic go way beyond intellectual interests. Yet, other scholars in my department or field, while instrumental in my education, do not necessarily share my personal interests.”

Aaron Wilford, MA student, University of British Columbia

“I read queer Caribbean literature as counter-policy to traditional and regional public policy practices, while also thinking about how queer Caribbean writing as counter-policy can bring about regional and sociocultural changes using the Digital Humanities. This is work I have decided to undertake in what remains one of the most rigid and unforgiving Humanities disciplines in North America, English Literature. I spend as much time orienting myself in a largely foreign experience that is a majority white, Euro-canonical view of the human while also making space for my research that is often perceived as hostile and counterintuitive to the ethos of many North American Literature departments. This type of approach to reading and writing about the Black experience is challenging and sometimes limiting, but it can be done.”

Linzey Corridon, MA student, Concordia University

“It is sometimes difficult being a black graduate in Canada since in some universities and departments there is few or no faculty of colour who share the same experiences and empathize with the challenges we face as black graduate students. Therefore, in some instances, the feeling of isolation and lack of mentorship hinders the learning process.”

Julian Kapfunvuti, Ph.D. candidate, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Ok – so we are black graduate students and students of black studies in a privileged yet insecure position. We have a platform to influence micro and macro-level change, to propel black voices, epistemologies, and experiences yet we feel that we have to fight for and against the select, tokenized opportunities made available by this white supremacist, capitalist patriarchal nation. I have a better idea, how about we create our own opportunities, visibility, and support through the collective mobilization of our networks, expertise and lived experiences? Listen, we are now plagued by a viral pandemic… in an apocalyptic world where discussions about anti-blackness and white entitlement have entered the mainstream.

In ways that our friends, families, colleagues, and odd strangers won’t let us forget over email, social media, texts… I digress. As we prepare ourselves to ‘be’ black graduates and specialists of black studies in our new normal, let’s struggle and transform together.

What do you say?

Jamilah Dei-Sharpe
Ph.D. student, Sociology, Concordia University, QC
2019/2020 NBGN Coordinator

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NBGN Contributor


July 19, 2020

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