“He says there’s no such thing as race.”
She shrugged. “He’s right you know. About it all being constructed. But” –she turned to me, looking at me intently–“that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” From Caucasia by Danzy Senna
A few years ago I received a Ford Fellowship. It’s made a big difference in my ability to work on my Ph.D.. The Ford Foundation has funded these fellowships for more than twenty years with the stated goal of increasing the numbers of faculty from underrepresented minority groups. The fellowship was awarded based on merit, but applicants had to be African American, Chicano, Native American or Pacific Islander to be considered.
The fellowship is more than money (though the money helps). It’s about being part of a community of scholars of color. There’s an annual conference where current and former fellows meet to discuss research and also to support and mentor each other. (In fact, a number of fellows who are further advanced in their careers donate money so there can be more fellowships offered each year.) I’m not going to argue that Ph.D. students of color experience overt racism on a regular basis. I don’t and I don’t think that’s the case for many of us. But it can be very lonely. However diverse undergraduate programs may have become, graduate programs look basically as white as they ever did. There’s a lot of different reasons, but that’s the way it is. So we look forward to seeing each other. The internet helps the most isolated by allowing us to be part of a virtual community.
This summer, the Ford Foundation sent the Fellows a letter explaining that the Fellowship was being changed from one that was based on race to one that was based on “diversity.” I guess I should have seen it coming. Affirmative Action has lost a number of legal battles, which have left an odd situation where it’s apparently okay for a university to give preference to children of alums, but not to students of color. Meanwhile, the “news” that race isn’t determined by biology, but rather, is constructed socially, has led people like Ward Connerly to argue that since race isn’t “real” the solution to racism is to abolish race as any sort of legal or public construction.
As one fellow said mournfully this summer “It’s not that I don’t like white scholars. I hate seeing us lose the one place we had of our own. Where we could be ourselves and comfortable one weekend a year.”
I’m trying to be positive about the changes. But what I feel in my heart is that for scholars of color there really is no easy place to be.