Stacey Patton

Assistant Professor of Multimedia Journalism at Morgan State University

After Ferguson, Some Black Academics Wonder: Does Pursuing a Ph.D. Matter?

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Original image: Alex Majoli, Magnum Photos

This summer, as street clashes erupted over a police officer’s shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo., Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein monitored the events, many miles away, through television, Facebook, and Twitter. A postdoctoral fellow in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Prescod-Weinstein—who identifies as black—found herself crying through her calculations as she saw a middle-American suburb turned into a war zone.

Watching and reading about the killing of Michael Brown—followed by the indelible scenes of tear-gas canisters and armored tanks—she looked down at her research on theoretical cosmology and thought to herself: “I can’t do this.”

“Who cares about cosmic inflation during the first seconds of the universe’s existence when black people are getting shot left and right by police officers and vigilantes?” she remembers thinking. “I felt guilty. I wanted to go to Ferguson. I wanted to be a body in the streets and a barrier between the police and my people.”

She was not alone.

A number of professors have told me that a summer’s worth of racial turmoil—most prominently in Ferguson, but in a number of other American cities as well—has taken an emotional toll on students of color pursuing advanced degrees. Although mass-media attention to Ferguson has already begun to subside, those students are still struggling as the fall semester gets under way.

It’s not just that reading about Ferguson (and encountering the vitriol that comes with it) takes a lot of time and emotional energy away from doing research. For those attending predominantly white institutions, the business-as-usual feeling of a new semester and the isolation of being “the only one” in a department makes the stress even more acute.

“People expect underrepresented students to perform at the same level as white students. But white students aren’t always worried about being pulled over by the cops or walking out their front door and asking themselves if they are dressed in a way that minimizes the possibility of getting harassed or shot by the police or a neighbor,” Prescod-Weinstein says. “How do you stay focused? How do you keep working in the lab and get your research done?

Broader questions intrude, too. Does students’ doctoral work matter? Does teaching matter? What about having a Ph.D.? Should they continue to channel their passion and intellectual pursuits into higher learning or should they redirect that energy toward activism?

For graduate students working on issues of race, the racially-charged killings of Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Ezell Ford, John Crawford, Eric Garner, and Victor White have called those students “out of their theoretical silos and into a space of activism, both in terms of getting physically involved and shifting how distant their work may be from the assault on black bodies in the every day,” says Jeffrey McCune, an associate professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies and performing arts at Washington University in St. Louis.

McCune and other professors say they have heard from many black graduate students questioning the worth of pursuing doctoral study and academic careers. McCune has urged those who approach him to hold strong and seize this historic moment: “They have to begin to make more valuable the role of teaching, in giving undergrads language to interpret what is happening in the world.”

‘This is Still Happening?’

Maco L. Faniel is a second-year doctoral student in history and the only black male in his program at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. For weeks, he says, he has been walking around with a lot of anger about the police killings. Those incidents speak directly to his dissertation topic, on how state violence is an indelible part of the machinery of white supremacy.

“When Ferguson broke, I was writing about George Jackson, Angela Davis, and other black intellectuals who were imprisoned because of racism,” he says. “I sat down to do my research but I didn’t have the energy because I was so focused on the ‘What the fuck? This is still happening?’”

At a welcome-to-campus picnic, Faniel wore a “Don’t Shoot” T-shirt. He says he’s frustrated by the campus silence on police brutality, and he feels resentment toward white professors and fellow students who do not have to share the fears he carries of being arrested, beaten or shot when he walks off campus.

“As much as I try to explain how white supremacy works to some people in my cohort, I feel like they don’t get it. It makes me feel like my work is in vain as a black man in the academy,” Faniel says. “There is nothing I can do that will protect me from being shot down. No matter how good my grades are, no matter how well I code switch, no matter how professionally I dress, my black body is always out of place and I can be shot like a dog.”

The frustrations expressed by Faniel—that it’s hard to focus on work, that personal safety has become a concern, and that white students and professors don’t seem inclined to discuss Ferguson—are echoed by other graduate students of color.

“I’ve been struggling to focus on my work rather that the constant deluge of one outrage after another,” says Michael Sawyer, a doctoral student in Africana studies at Brown University. “You keep getting alerts and the constant loop of bad news distracts me. I’m constantly adjudicating this stuff in my mind while I’m waiting for things to wrong.”

Vincent Basile, a biracial fourth-year Ph.D. student in the school of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is researching the treatment of boys of color in science and math classes. Watching the events of Ferguson was emotionally arresting for him: “I didn’t want to touch my work. I couldn’t read or write. I retreated from social interactions because my anger was ever-present.”

Basile says he already feels isolated and invisible in his graduate program. It’s a daily sacrifice, he says, for underrepresented students to walk into overwhelmingly white spaces and “pretend like we don’t feel othered, or that our skin color and ethnicity don’t matter.”

To cope, Basile says, he has spent as little time as possible on the campus. He reaches out to his own informal community of graduate students and faculty of color for support. But he stills finds himself asking: “Is this Ph.D. going to do anything? Save me? Save my people?”

Even graduate students who don’t have to come to a bricks-and-mortar campus are feeling the emotional toll. “There’s no talk of Ferguson in my online classes,” says Binti Mfalme-Barafu, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in social work from Walden University. “I don’t have a place where I can talk to people and say, ‘this scares me.’”

Mfalme-Barafu has turned to Facebook, something many scholars and writers of color have done to air their grievances and to find a network of like-minded people. But she says she’s burned out and procrastinating more.

‘It’s Normal to Feel Like You Might Snap’

Should professors or administrators do more to broach the issue with graduate students of color? “At MIT not one person in a position of authority has checked in with me to see if I’m OK,” says Prescod-Weinstein. “People are not talking about Ferguson and that’s weird. How can you not talk about this? I think the majority of white people don’t think this is a big deal.”

She attributes much of that to her campus environment: “I imagine that if I was doing my postdoc at Spelman or Clark Atlanta there would have been conversation and some consoling.”

Still, she realizes that “it can be confusing to raise the issue, and people may want to respect my desire to get work done since as a postdoc my time is limited.” In the meantime, many faculty members are at universities to do research, not counseling. Some may worry that attempting to console students would be looked on as patronizing, or they may simply feel awkward discussing the events of Ferguson, knowing how easily the conversation could go wrong.

Campus health centers might seem like natural places for black and biracial graduate students to seek counseling, but for a variety of reasons, they aren’t. Campus counseling services tend to be geared toward serving undergraduates, and at many centers, most staff members are white.

One-hundred miles from Ferguson, David Wallace, director of counseling services at the University of Missouri in Columbia, met with campus administrators and the head of the black cultural center before the start of the semester to discuss how best to support students. “We have a significant number of students who come from the Ferguson area,” he says. “As events in Ferguson were happening, people here on campus said, ‘Hey, this is happening. We need to be ready.’”

But Wallace says that it has been a challenge trying to connect students of color with counseling services on campus because the majority of counselors are white, and because many students don’t view mental-health services positively. “We’re trying to break down those barriers and normalize the counseling experience as something that is congenial,” he says. “We are trying to tell students, ‘We are safe people. We are going to be here for you. This is a safe place and you don’t have to worry that every corner you turn you are facing a threat.’”

Ayana Watkins-Northern, director of counseling services at Howard University, says the topic of Ferguson has come up on campus, where students have organized around the issue of police brutality and held group discussions. Counselors there, she notes, are trained to help students deal with the psychological impact of otherness, racism, and environmental stresses.

“To be an African American in an environment where there are few of you, while you’re watching your folks being shot down like animals and people don’t want to talk about it, leads you to hold in your feelings and be consumed by it,” she says. “These students are experiencing normal depression and they have to remember that they are not unhealthy individuals. It’s normal to feel like you might snap, say something destructive, or feel like you can hit somebody.”

Watkins-Northern offers several recommendations for how doctoral students on predominantly white campuses can cope in a period of racial crisis and tension: Unplug from the computer and manage how much news you’re consuming. Don’t isolate yourself. Get out and be social. Draw closer to family, friends, a church, or other off-campus networks. And when things get really rough, seek out a mental-health professional. “You have to pay attention to what you’re feeling,” she says. “Do not shut it down. You need to stop and think about what made you feel this way, because all of this is designed to make you feel defeated.”

White students and scholars, she says, may be reluctant to talk about these issues out of fear of saying the wrong thing, or because they struggle to express empathy for victims of racism. But she issues a challenge to colleges and universities: “If you want to take care of yourself as a healthy thriving institution, you have to take care of all of your parts, including those parts that aren’t white. Stop and pay attention to the experiences of people who don’t look like you.”

Precod-Weinstein goes even further. She says institutions need to figure out how to make campuses safe places—not just physically, but emotionally—for students of color. “Are black students wasting their energy during study groups worrying about whether their classmates think they deserve to be there?” she asks. “Or are they worrying about the magnitude and direction of the electric field that the problem asks them to find?”

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