How My Southern Roots Prepared Me For Racism In Grad School

I would not be able to move forward if I did not understand the past of my people.

My Mommy

My ability to navigate my PhD program and all of its challenges was first developed as a black woman growing up in the South. For those who don’t know, I am from Alabama and am extremely proud of my Southern roots (play Beyonce’s Homecoming). The micro aggressions and other obstacles at Michigan I faced were minor compared to the overt racism and discrimination I faced  in the South. If you ask any Southerner that has migrated to the Mid-West or Northern region of the US, the difference between racism there and that of the South, they would say it’s way more passive aggressive. Racism in the South is direct and overt which I prefer since I like to know who my enemy is and therefore can decide how I want to proceed or not proceed. At Michigan, I never knew who my enemy was which was frustrating at times. I watched my non-white friends crumble when stereotyped or judged by the majority. I remember thinking “they better grow some thicker skin” or they won’t survive this environment. It’s the same words my mom said to me during my freshman year at the University of Alabama after an incident between me and a white male student. During my freshman year I took a math class with students that were more senior than me. After the first exam, the instructor handed back each exam one by one. When he approached my desk, he stated “you all let a freshman break the curve”. At the time I had no idea what a “curve” was or how I happened to break it, but what he meant was since I scored a 100, everyone’s grade would be scored out of a 100 points. Which meant if you made a 50 that equated to an F. Yikes. Let’s just say no one in the class was happy for me. One white, male student chased me from the math building to my dorm yelling out racial slurs and screaming at me for simply doing well. I was in tears as students stood and watched me be berated. I felt like Cersei during her walk of shame. To date that has been the most horrifying experience of my life, but more than 10 years later it is the one I am the most thankful for. I could have quit because trust me as an 18 year old, that’s what I wanted to do, but I am not a quitter. More importantly it would have been the start of giving other people control and power over my life. Neither which I was willing to do. If I would have quit I would have been doing myself a disservice. Obviously I am meant to be here, I have a PhD in engineering.

There was also the time a Professor said to a class of 10 people. “to not let the women be in the same group because women have a hard time getting things done”. There were only two women in the class and we felt like crap after he said that, which is why women need to stick together and support each other especially those in STEM.  I should add that we both now have PhDs so obviously we can get things done. Another lesson in giving peoples words power over your life. I could go on and on about the racism I faced in undergrad but thats not the point. So when I got to Michigan and the white lab technician in my group asked me to explain something him and his wife saw on blackish as if all black people were the same or when he accused me of disrespecting him as if I owed him respect I laughed and said to myself  “COME HARDER”. Classmates would make ignorant comments based on stereotypes and again I would say COME HARDER”.

My lessons from the South had already taught me the importance of thinking smart and working hard. I already knew that there was no obstacle big enough or white enough to stop me from excelling or obtaining my PhD. My mom taught me to own my blackness and be proud of my Southern, Black heritage and therefore, no person could use that against me no matter how hard they tried I never crumbled. From an early age I knew that my life would be different, for one I was a nerd who loved science and math and carried around a portable microscope. Once my mom realized I had a thing for math and science she knew that I would be the only “black” in a lot of scenarios so she taught me how to adapt and persevere. Black history was 365 days a year in my household. She would always say that I would not be able to move forward if I did not understand the past of my people. So when that boy chased me, his words didn’t bother, the fact that I couldn’t stop him bothered me which taught me another lesson sometimes the only protection you have is that from God.

I know that every one’s experience is not the same but it does raise the point of how prepared minorities are for operating in all white environments. Are we prepared for both negative and positive consequences and are we sheltered when it comes to race relations in America. My experiences in the South made me work harder to change and improve my environments for the next generation. I wanted to be the person who made the rules.

From Aeriel, With Love

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