Yesterday I took a nap and had a dream about diversity In it, I was talking to colleagues in my department about a research presentation that I had to give later that day. As I looked around the table, I saw the same people I’d always seen except for one minority female faculty colleague. As I sat around that table talking the same old talk with the same old people, I felt tears welling up in my eyes. (These tears felt so real that when I woke up, my heart hurt, and I felt genuine sadness. )
I realized that the tears were closely connected to the fact that my colleague had been all but ignored during her last year at our institution. When she didn’t earn tenure a year earlier, I stopped seeing her at meetings, and no one mentioned her name. This woman had been a faithful employee at my institution for ten years, and, as far as I know, no one had even given her an engraved pen for her decade of service at the university. Within this dream, I talked to my colleagues, but I felt empty and was reminded of a phrase I’ve penned, “People are here and gone before anyone even knew they were here.”
This colleague’s story is one of many at this and other institutions- stories that will never make CNN or be protested about with a corresponding Twitter hashtag. I can’t begin to tell you how many of my minority colleagues have been bullied by members of majority AND minority communities; overlooked for top-level administrative positions; ignored and disrespected by colleagues; and assigned work that others didn’t want to do or didn’t have the interest to do. Instead of being respected for overcoming a lifetime of obstacles as academics of color, we are often ignored and talked about for not doing things the way that they have always been done. Instead of being mentored or challenged about a lack of productivity or being coached about ways to navigate the higher education system, we are pitied by “advocates” who didn’t quite know how to engage with or have real conversations with us.
Although I have garnered numerous awards and been validated for being a good academic citizen, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that being a woman of color in the academy has taught me to be bound by what others think about me and by the access that (I think) people in power can and cannot give me as an academician. After a life-changing event in my department, I reclaimed my life. Instead of hiding my views and overlooking injustices, I created a personal website with blogs that reflect my direct perspectives. I started my own business. Instead of working only on “safe” research, I began to work on research projects informed from my experiences as a woman of color and aligned with my passion for innovation and tech diversity. I branched out by speaking at tech conferences in Los Angeles and Atlanta. I hired (and parted ways) with a publicist. I hired a makeup artist and a stylist to freshen my looks. I bought and wore wigs and extensions. I joined Periscope. Each of these activities freed me from having to apologize for being a woman of color in the academy and from being different. They freed me from having to explain myself and for not fitting in a pre-defined box about what it means to be an academician or to be successful in the academy.
I choose to be honest, and I choose to stay and leave the academy on my own terms. I don’t want people crying for me in the same way that I have hurt and cried for my colleagues. Instead, I want them to say, “Dr. Monica F. Cox lived her academic life on her own terms and with no regrets!” I want people to realize that diversity is defined beyond my skin color or gender. My diversity is also embodied in the quirky, direct way that I respond to situations and the fearlessness in which I live my life and love the people in it. I realize that my voice represents the perspectives of numerous minority colleagues who never had a chance to speak up for themselves or who are too afraid to do so. I’ve always had high self-esteem but I REALLY like this new and improved Monica.
We live in a society where people feel sorry for individuals who are uneducated, but the reality is that many people with the title of Ph.D. are not really free to be themselves and to express their views. One of my biggest wishes for the academic community is for people to voice their concerns without fear. I hear so many people who know the truth about situations in their workplaces, but they are too afraid to speak up and speak out. We are taught to fear during the Ph.D. process, and we are taught to fear during the tenure process. If you are the first or only of your kind, you are cautious about doing anything that might misrepresent your entire group.
At what point do we put fear aside and start speaking up so that others who come after us do not suffer in the same ways that we have? One of the reasons that I started my business was so that if I ever need to do it, I can walk away from any job or situation that makes me compromise my beliefs or will not allow me to express my thoughts. There are too many people who walk around with advanced degrees and “power”, but they are more bound than prisoners in shackles.
I’ve cried my last tear for diversity. I am a woman of power, and no matter where I go or what system I am a part of, I will leave that place better and on my own terms. When I think of diversity, I’m reminded of the late Miss Nina Simone, “It’s a new day, and I’m feeling good.”
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