Prepared but not ready

Behind the Veil: The journey of a POC at a PWI

Prepared, but not ready

I’m prepared, but I’m not quite ready. I understand how contradictory that sounds, but it’s true. Academically, I am prepared to handle the intense rigor associated with a doctoral program. Bring on the long articles, late nights and overwhelming amounts of data. I can take it. In fact, I’m actually looking forward to it. This is what I’ve wanted for a long time and the moment has finally arrived. So, I should be jumping for joy and eagerly awaiting the first day of school; but I’m not. While I am academically prepared to kick butt and take names, what I’m not ready to do is deal with all the things that accompany being a woman of color at a predominately white institution.

Don’t get me wrong, it is beyond a blessing to be at GW and I couldn’t be more grateful.
However, while cautiously optimistic, I have not deluded myself into believing that my
experience will be different from that of other POCs at PWIs across the country. The reality is  that, in addition to the normal pressures and obstacles related to being a doc student, POCs also have to deal with things like prejudice, racism – and the ultimate thorns in my side – microaggressions. While the act has been around forever, the actual term, “microaggression,” is relatively new and unfamiliar to many. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group.” I think this definition is spot on, but please do not let words like “subtly” or “unintentionally” mislead you into believing that microaggressions are benign. Their mental and emotional impact is hurtful and damaging. Due to their “subtle” and “unconscious” nature, you are often hit with a second one before having sufficient time to even process the initial attack. How can a would properly heal if it is constantly being picked at?

Although I am new to GW, this is not my first experience at a PWI. I went to one for undergrad and dealt microaggressions on a consistent basis. I am all too familiar with what they feel like, and I’m not exactly waiting on the edge of my seat for an encore performance. I vividly remember what it felt like to walk into my political science class on the first day and be told that African American studies was next door. Oh, that’s right, politics is for white men, so clearly the brown girl had to be lost. She couldn’t actually be a poli sci major with a pre-law concentration who had dreams of becoming the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, right? I guess Sonia Sotomayor showed them.

I can also still hear the whispers of my classmates as they said, “she’s pretty smart for a Black girl.” Silly me, this whole time I thought I was just smart period. I was unaware that my intelligence required qualifiers to make it more comprehendible. They had to mentally repackage me in order to make experiencing me more palatable. I wasn’t allowed to be smart or, God forbid, know more than them. That is, unless it was a black or brown specific topic. I know it sounds ridiculous – mainly because it is – but most people of color who have been in a predominately white class know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s that moment in class when a question of diversity or race is brought up and all eyes in the room are suddenly on you. Well, of course they are. Isn’t it your job to speak on behalf of all black and brown people in the world? And since you’re a poc, you should be able to speak on poverty too, right? Aren’t you all poor and from the hood?

 Something else I’m not ready for is “the look” on people’s faces when they see me for the first time. You know, the look that says, “how did she get here?” Their faces have to say it because we know good and well that their mouths never will; at least not in front of me. I haven’t even started school yet, but I have already gotten the face several times, often with an extra side of microaggression. The conversation typically goes something like this:

Them: “What brings you to DC?”
Me: I am starting my PhD.
Them: “Oh, at Howard?”
Me: “No, at GW”
::insert the aforementioned “look” here::

For those of you wondering why I consider that a microaggression, let me explain. First of all, Howard is a fine institution. It’s one of my favorite uncle’s alma matter and it’s a school I seriously considered going to for undergrad. However, the people I have encountered don’t automatically assume Howard because of its great academic reputation. They choose it because it’s an HBCU, and therefore, the only school I could possibly be attending. There’s no way this little brown girl can be going to GW, Georgetown, or American. Oh wait, that’s not true. There is a way – affirmative action, right? Once again, not something most will dare say to me directly, but I can almost pinpoint when “the look” of confusion turns into acceptance. It is in that moment that I know they have used “diversity” to explain away my admission into the program.
And the worst part is that sometimes I internalize those thoughts and adopt them my own. I am guilty of occasionally questioning whether or not my multiple marginalized identities are the only reasons I got in. Am I here to fill a quota? Am I just a series of checked boxes? Do I really belong here? Obnoxious thoughts that occupy my mind more often than I’d like to admit. But then, I remind myself of my 4.0 GPA, competitive test scores, and strong resume – the real reasons why I’m here. At least, I hope.

Which brings me to why I am writing this column. I want to be able to share my journey – the good, the bad, and the ugly – with others. I want to be as open and vulnerable as possible because I believe the truth, though not always pretty, is incredibly powerful. I want to provide comfort to those in similar situations, while also educating those who have no idea what we go through. I have chosen to call it, “Behind the Veil,” after W.E.B. DuBois’ concept of the “veil of double consciousness,” which speaks to the feeling of having your identity divided into several parts. As I willingly take on this new identity, that of a PhD student, I will never just be that. Among other things, I am also Latina, Black, and a woman. Join me over the course of the next couple of years as I attempt to navigate them all.

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