By BRiDGE Committee Member Raquel Bryant
Are you right-handed? If you are, you probably haven’t encountered much difficulty using scissors or finding a desk in lecture halls. As for the left-handed among us, they are familiar with having to seek out the left-handed pair of scissors or the one desk for them at the end of the row. Handedness is often used to illustrate unearned privilege. It’s the idea that some of us are born or raised with privileges that we did not earn, and these privileges help us navigate different societal institutions like the classroom. Right-handed folks are used to living in a right-handed world and may take their institutionalized privilege for granted, while left-handed folks can’t help but be aware of their societally disadvantaged difference.
Consider the unearned privileges that may help someone become a professor: having parents that are professors, growing up visiting museums and parks, or attending a well-funded school system. This doesn’t mean that folks with privileges are illegitimate in any way, but it does mean we need to examine how we allocate resources to address structural inequities in STEM academia.
In her BRiDGE2Impacts talk, How Does A Microbiologists End Up in the Earth Sciences?, Dr. Paula Welander led us through her personal science journey, including the challenges and opportunities she experienced along the way. She discussed how she was able to take advantage of and learn from her experiences, and how her journey influences her goals and priorities as a professor and faculty member now.
Dr. Welander stressed the importance of supportive and engaged mentors. From high school to her postdoc, Dr. Welander utilized her mentors for career opportunities and advice. These positive mentoring experiences engendered a commitment to excellence in her own mentoring. Dr. Welander encourages her students to have extensive networks and meaningful friendships and relationships to get through graduate school successfully. She is a strong advocate for more emphasis on mental health in graduate education, and recognizes the toxicity of academia and the trend of increased depression rates in graduate students.. Being an engaged mentor and advocate for her students is one way Dr. Welander pays her positive experiences forward.
What I appreciated the most about Dr. Welander’s talk was her ability to be vulnerable as the speaker. She ended her talk by recognizing the privileges she has and how she leverages them to advocate for others. It may seem unproductive to discuss the unseen privileges, but acknowledging the ways certain aspects of our identities and lived experiences advantage us is necessary for contextualizing how those of others act as barriers to success. During Dr. Welander’s talk, I was inspired to consider my own privileges. Not to atone for them, but to name them so I can be conscious of them and follow in her lead. It’s something you can’t quantify, but it undeniably affects your experience and journey navigating graduate school and academia.
As I’m approaching my last semester in graduate school, I am thinking about the types of professors I meet that I look up to and consider role models. I am realizing that real strength as a faculty member comes from acknowledging your privileges so you can identify the most responsible and ethical ways to use them. So, I will model vulnerability, as Dr. Welander gracefully did during her talk.
Privilege #1: I attended an Ivy League University
Sometimes in class or at conferences, professors will point out where I went to school or use it as a way to connect with me. It feels like I have met a benchmark of ‘intelligence’ and ‘legitimacy’ in their eyes just based on where I got my undergraduate degree. However, I have met amazing scientists from a variety of backgrounds and schools. Yet, studies have shown that prestigious awards (like the NSF GRFP) are disproportionately awarded to well-resourced schools like the one I graduated from. As a professor and mentor, I should be conscious of projecting elitism and make a commitment to affording opportunities for students from a range of colleges and universities, including HBCU’s, Tribal Colleges and R-2 universities.
Privilege #2: I identify as mixed race and am light-skinned
Colorism is real. It’s a type of prejudice that can be perpetrated within communities of color that associates lighter skin tone with superiority. It can manifest in the academic realm too. For example, I feel like I am sometimes made to speak for the whole Black community, even though my appearance can shield me from specific issues that darker-skinned members of my community face. It is challenging to communicate the nuance and acknowledge the privileges I have as a light-skinned individual especially when working with white folks. I have to be intentional about how and where I take up space and when my voice is being centered over the voices of others.
What privileges do you possess? & how will you leverage them?