By Shameem Razack
A few months ago, I had multiple conversations with friends regarding the graduate school application process. Anyone who has gone through it or supported someone in that journey understands its toll on a person’s emotional and mental health. Especially when you are not given the same resources or frankly when you do not have certain privileges, it becomes abundantly clear of the challenges in applying. I can fully attest to experiencing exhaustion from the entire process. While applying amid turmoil and a global pandemic, there was the constant stress of waiting for a decision. Overall, one thing that became a shared understanding through these conversations and reflections is the idea of understanding your purpose in applying and being in that space instead of assimilating into academia. More importantly, is it even possible to be authentic and maintain certain morals and politics that ultimately challenge the current existence of higher education while within academia?
Of course, the common rebuttal has become this universal slogan of “being authentically yourself” in entering higher education or any other institution. I am critical of such a response as it creates a limited scope to the root issues of higher education as it permeates today. Mainly when we think of Black and brown students and professors navigating these spaces, they are often reprimanded due to their approaches in progressively changing the structure and environment of academia. There is a form of performance that we all participate in as individuals within academia. To be clear, I am not speaking about blatant tokenism but covert acts of conformity for an individual to advance in academia. Whether it is how we articulate our research interests, align ourselves with certain people within these spaces, or reserve/silence ourselves on specific political discourse and movements. These are all ways of performing as the ideal candidate/student, professor, or what Dr. Carole Boyce Davies defines as ‘the co-opted liberal intellectual,’ who does not connect theory as transformation actions. Those who are hypervisible due to the scholarship and political movements they align with tend to experience state surveillance, harassment, and other consequences. For example, I have witnessed professors and students alike who have openly aligned and advocated for the liberation of Palestinians who ended up reprimanded, chastised, and fired. This intimidation tactic by Universities and colleges towards students, professors, and staff that are politically involved or support grassroots liberation movements happen in various ways, particularly to Black people, even while these same institutions will plaster statements that say ‘Black Lives Matter.’ To be read or seen as a ‘radical’ intellectual with thoughts/discourse that incite transformative actions within our society is always seen as a threat by American institutions, including universities and colleges, ultimately making you an enemy of the state.
I am suggesting then that one cannot talk about intellectual work and practice among black and women scholars without raising some questions on the role of its practitioners who occupy the ‘‘status identity’’ of the professoriate. Additionally, our contemporary (twenty-first-century) political realities make it clear that one cannot assume that, by virtue of any generic subject location, one’s contribution is automatically radical just because it comes from a member of a subordinated group….Thus, one cannot locate all intellectual activity within the academy only, particularly when there exists (and existed) a Marxist tradition of the development of working-class intellectuals for whom the study of political theory and its praxis were critical. This is one of the traditions out of which Claudia Jones came. (pp. 9-10)
While reading Left Of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones, the section above struck a fascinating point as Dr. Carole Boyce Davies situates Jones as an intellectual outside of academia. As many of our brilliant freedom-fighting ancestors, Claudia Jones, work and contributions within Black and overall political movements during her time exemplifies and articulates a form of knowledge production that is not reliant on the logic of institutional education. Much of our Black movements show a correlation of knowledge production emerging from community spaces as institutions historically have created obstacles or become the gatekeepers of institutional knowledge. This brings me back to the initial conversation of conformity and reframing the purpose of entering academia. As a Black Muslim woman continuing to pursue my education, I have to consistently ask myself who am I doing this for and how am I expanding/progressing discourse and praxis? Am I constantly recognizing that it is not enough to belong within academia to create progress? More importantly, should my standing in academia outweigh my political ethics? We need to demystify the symbolism around the ivory towers or any educational institution as this strange fascination and praise only lead to slow progression or worse regression. Universities and colleges share a long- continued history of constant gatekeeping, marginalization, draconian budget cuts and, overall lack of support for marginalized students, professors, and staff. These are things I am constantly thinking and grappling with as I enter my graduate study. Hopefully other folks who are on this journey are thinking about this as well. Universities and colleges share a long-continued history of constant gatekeeping, marginalization, draconian budget cuts, and overall lack of support for marginalized students, professors, and staff. These are things I am constantly thinking and grappling with as I enter my graduate study. Hopefully, other folks who are on this journey are thinking about this as well.
Shameem Razack is a Contributing Writer for the Pedestal Project, LLC. Shameem recently earned a Bachelor’s degree in Gender and Women’s studies at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. Outside of being a student, Shameem is involved in various organizations that focus on social justice. You can also find Shameem on youtube, Sincerely Shameem, where she discusses all things pop culture, makeup, and book reviews. Be sure to connect with Shameem on Instagram (@SincerelyShameem) and Twitter (@box_hijabi)!