Behind the Veil: The journey of a POC at a PWI
The only thing a doc student does more often than contemplate why they voluntarily signed up for 4 years of torture is articulate their potential research question. Every time you meet someone, that’s what they want to know, sometimes before they’ve even asked your name. It’s as if it becomes how you are identified. Hi, my name is “insert research question here.” I am fortunate because I know what I want to do, and I believe in the importance of my work. I want to look at the mental health implications of the experiences of first-generation students of color at predominately white institutions. I believe there are plenty of programs and initiatives that get students into these spaces, but fewer that support them once they get there. I specifically want to look at the psychological effects of their experiences so that I can provide recommendations to universities on how to increase support in these areas. Sounds great, right? I love my topic so much that I literally get chills thinking about the work I will get to do in the future. However, it wasn’t my first choice.
Originally, I wanted to look at the correlation between high-achieving students and mental health issues. As a high school counselor, I came across many students who were struggling with things like anxiety, depression, self-injurious behaviors, and suicidal ideation, and noticed that the vast majority of them were my high-achieving students in rigorous classes. I wanted to be able to create interventions to help support these students. After figuring out what I wanted to do, I presented the idea to my favorite professor, assuming he would share my excitement. He did not. While I don’t remember his exact words, the overall gist of the conversation was that I would do better researching something related to students of color. My heart sank. And not because I was against researching students of color, but because I resented the idea of having to. Why is that White researchers can study Black students, and be admired for it, but I get the side eye for wanting to research White students? Mind you, when coming up with my initial topic, I hadn’t even thought about the race of my students. Yes, the majority of my students were White, but I didn’t go into it wanting to research “White” students, I went in wanting to research students struggling with mental health issues. It made me think of my frustration with the “White savior” narrative often depicted in film. There are dozens of movies about the White person that comes in and saves the day for Black people – Dangerous Minds, Hardball, The Blind Side – to name a few. But when is the last time you saw the reverse story being told? Are we to believe that a Black educator is incapable of changing the lives of White children? Well, I have several former students who would gladly share a different narrative.
Though I reject the notion of having to stay in my academic lane and only research Black and Brown people because of the color of my skin, I do wonder if it is my responsibility to do so. While I try not to put too much stock into the expectations placed on me by White society, it is hard not to be impacted by the opinions of people within my own community. Of course, for different reasons, but do people of color also expect me to research our own people? As we know, Black and Brown students are struggling across the country, so isn’t it my responsibility to do work that advocates for their needs and brings about change for them? I would say yes. But, does also wanting to research non-color-specific issues mean that I’ve turned my back on them? I would hope not. I believe that I can research African Americans and still love my Latino people, just like I can do work with young men and still believe in the power of young women.
Thinking about all of this has led me to a bit of an identity crisis. What am I? Am I researcher? Or a Black researcher? Am I a counselor? Or a Puerto Rican counselor? And what exactly does the qualifier describe? The person or the work the person does? Is a Black researcher a researcher that is Black? Or a researcher that researches Black people? The expectation appears to be both, that one informs the other. Perhaps that’s why other researchers get to study whatever they want. Their work isn’t limited by racially qualified titles. They are simply “researchers,” not “White researchers.”
As I move forward with my current research topic, I do so proudly and confidently. I believe in the work I am doing and eagerly await beginning my dissertation. However, I do wonder what impact my choice will have on my future work as well as my research identity. I have not yet figured out what I am, but I hope you continue to follow my journey as I figure it out.