At its core, academia in the United States is still a white supremacist institution that was not made with us in mind.
Institutions of higher education in the United States have never been particularly hospitable to women, less so to women of color, and even less so to queer women, trans, and non-binary people of color.
While we’ve made some progress in terms of lowering access barriers for queer and trans people of color, there are still many aspects of life in academia—whether you are in a graduate program or working as a lecturer or faculty member—that make surviving in the ivory tower significantly more challenging if you are not a cis man, and you are not white. At its core, academia in the United States is still a white supremacist institution that was not made with us in mind.
For those women and queers of color who are in the ivory tower or for those who are thinking about entering it, here is a short list of tips to make the process slightly more bearable. It won’t be an easy process. You might feel like giving up, a lot. But if you take care of yourself and follow some of these pointers, academia can also help you grow intellectually and can give you the resources to develop an idea that matters to you or your community—hopefully both.
Don’t Let Academia Define Your Entire Existence:
In graduate school, you’ll encounter a toxic work culture, in which people try to prove their worth by demonstrating a single-minded dedication to their field, their project, their work, etc. to the point of excluding any other interests or hobbies. While this may make you look like a very “serious” and “committed” scholar, it doesn’t actually work. People who do this burn out very quickly. They develop chronic health problems and/or have nervous breakdowns. You are allowed to have multiple identities and interests that don’t revolve solely around your academic work, and in fact, allowing yourself to maintain a sense of self outside of the ivory tower will be key to your overall well-being.
Build Community with Other QTPOC academics:
This goes without saying, but academia is Very White. You will likely find yourself in settings, often, in which you are the only person of color in the room, the seminar, the conference. Over time, repeated exposures to such settings are psychologically taxing, which means it’s important to find other folks within or outside of your program that share your identities and sympathies.
If you share academic interests, take classes together, read together, write together, share and comment on each other’s work. When a white professor or student says something racist, it really helps to have someone in the room that you can exchange glances with, to reassure each other that you have each other’s back.
Build community with people outside of academia:
This goes along with the first pointer, but try as much as possible to build community and supportive relationships and friendships with people outside of academia, or at least people who are invested in you for being you, and not for whether or not you’ve read certain books, have met certain famous academics, or have been invited to certain conferences.
Choose your advisor VERY carefully:
Don’t apply to graduate schools based on the name of the school alone. Read some books in your field, figure out whose work and whose ideas inspire you, and figure out who you want to learn from FIRST—then, apply to the graduate school where they teach. If possible, meet them beforehand, or at least talk to other people who have worked with them. Does this person have a good track record with helping their students get jobs? Have women and queer folks who have worked with them felt supported by them? If you do end up with an unsupportive advisor, try to find other faculty who do support you. You’re not supposed to do this alone, and you shouldn’t have to.
People will ask you do things for free, very often, especially if you are a woman or femme. You are not obliged to say yes all the time. Prioritize yourself and your work. Will this benefit you or help you in some way, or is this person flattering you so they can get you to do something for them that won’t actually have any benefit for you? Time and resources are limited in academia. Look out for yourself and protect your time.
Know Your Rights:
Join a union if your school has one. If you are being underpaid, harassed, overworked, or treated unfairly in any way, you can file a grievance through your union. You are a student but you are also a worker, and you have legal rights that protect you from being exploited.
You Are Allowed to Change Your Mind:
Sometimes you’ll feel like quitting, and that’s ok. Sometimes you’ll want to change your dissertation topic, and that’s ok. Before making any big decisions, *talk* to people that you trust, and others who have been through the process before you. If you decide that leaving academia before you finish your degree is the best thing for you, then don’t be afraid to do that, and don’t let people convince you that you’re a failure for not staying in the academic world. There are plenty of other things you can do, and you’re not locked in to the ivory tower. Don’t be swayed by the cult mentality.
You Are Allowed to Take Breaks:
Take a semester or a year off if that’s what you need. Academia is overwhelming, things happen, and sometimes you need to rest and unplug to take care of yourself and do your best work.