Who Will They Marry? Black PhDs and the Marriage Market

There is a marriage crisis among Black students in graduate school. In all my classes Black women out-number Black men by a ratio of thirty to one. The women are on a reproductive cliff if they want to have children. They must do so soon, or Mother Nature will dump them over the edge.

Chronologically, the average life expectancy for women is 88 years in Canada. Reproductively it’s game over at age 35. Most of the women in my classes are about 30 years old – near the end of their reproductive lives. Mother Nature is not so decisive when it comes to men and reproduction. Male chronological and reproductive ages are in synch. As long as a man can get up and get it up, he is still able to seed children.

Marriage has never been a neutral act. It has always reaffirmed cultural norms in terms of who is acceptable or unacceptable as a marriage partner. It has always been a political act, reflecting patterns of racial and gender dynamics and hierarchies. Traditionally, women aim to marry up the social ladder or at least on the same rung. Cinderella wishes to marry a prince, not a stable boy.

Feminism has opened up education for women, giving them an alternative to hoping for a prince. Generally, more education leads to better marriage prospects, higher jobs and fewer children. This accepted truism is more complex for Black women. From media reports it seems that no one wants to date, never mind marry, educated Black women.

Black men don’t want us because we are seen as too demanding. White and men from other racialized ethnic groups, don’t want Black women because we are too Black.

Feminism can help Black men to unpack the toxic box of stereotypes about educated Black women, and examine its foundation on the capitalist bedrock of racism, sexism and class. In the process Black men can also learn how these same forces shape their own lives as men.

Capitalism, and its tentacles of racism and sexism, continues to mold the economic reality of Black lives. The intersection of these affect women and men differently. It created steady jobs for Black women as nannies, cleaners, and nursing assistants. These are physical, low-paying jobs based on caring for others, especially white people. Race and sex has also systematically kept Black men at the margins of the labour market. It is no accident that the unemployment rate for Black men is three times the average.

Getting an education is the quickest way out of unemployment or the dead end jobs. The strategy has worked successfully for the Black women in graduate school. It has not for our men due to their high drop-out rates. Black men are systematically pushed out of school so that they can continue to function as capitalism’s disposal source of labour. Hired when needed. Fired when not.

Yet, Black men too believe the patriarchal philosophy that their masculinity is tied to their roles as bread-winners and heads of the household. Due to systemic racism it has always been difficult for Black men to be the former. This has not stopped them from clinging to the latter.

Black feminism questions the patriarchal privilege of Black men. Rather than taking part in the debate, it is easier and more acceptable for Black men to lash out at the women. Economic gains made by Black women are seen as compromising the integrity of the race or cultural group. In extremis, successful Black women are seen as emasculating Black men. The same logic extends to marriage. Black women who marry outside the race are seen as sleeping with the enemy. While men who do the same are seen as making a personal choice. This falls hollow when one sees row after row of Black male celebrities with their white wives. Why is it so hard for Black men to confront their fetishizing of white female skin?

The Black women in my graduate class are grappling with complex issues while their biological clocks are in free fall. It is culturally acceptable for a male doctor to marry a women with elementary school education. The reverse is not true. So what are the women to do?

Each woman will have to choose how the intersections of race, gender and class plays out in her personal life. With or without children. For some that may mean being single. For others it might mean marrying a bus driver or outside of their racial or cultural group.

Whatever choice the women make it will be tough. It may mean letting go of some long held values, traditions and dreams. It is far better to make the choices with eyes wide open. Black men can help by respecting the choices of Black women. They don’t have to like it, but respect it. Black men also need to question how their male privilege and notions of masculinity plays out in the marriage market. Rather than seeing educated Black women as competition, they need to start seeing us as allies. We are in the same quest for social justice in all areas of our lives, including marriage.


Next Year in the PhD and in the Woods

The thing is, in the end, 2017 turned out to be a good year for me. Even though it did not feel like that during some of the months when the PhD, activities or the people around me felt as inviting as a soggy blanket.

The big surprise of 2017 was my Black History Walks. I had assumed that only a few people would be interested, and only in the summer months. I was wrong on both counts. It’s January in Toronto, it’s as cold and white as the last Ice Age and yet people have signed up for the walks. I am now scheduling them for every month, confident that people will sign up.

My motivation for doing the PhD was tested many times in 2017. Some days I felt like the smart kid in the class. Most days it was more like the dunce. For instance, I got my head around epistemology, but ontology and axiology are still drifting in the mushy grey matter that passes for my brain. Maybe in 2018 the terms will finally make sense.

How do you relax? That was an unexpected challenge in 2017. Too many days thinking, writing and worrying about my studies was not good. Sometimes I got so caught up in the issues and theories that my head felt like an over-ripe watermelon, sitting in the sun and about to explode. This year I will going back to the gym. Exercise calms my head, gets me out of the house, and turning fat into muscles is a pleasant side effect.

I will continue with my birding too in the New Year. The kid begged me not to talk about it over the Christmas holidays. She said it was embarrassing being seen with mom, binoculars and a field guide to birds. A Black nerd among the nerds was too much for my urbane teenager. My ten-year old niece disagreed. We spent two happy afternoons bird-watching in the park. It was she who spotted the cuckoos and parakeets. My five-year old nephew found the great blue heron perched on a branch overhanging the pond. Then he shot off on his scooter, scattering the gulls and pigeons.

As a Black woman who loves the outdoors, it is hard to find others in my community who share the same passion.

I was reminded of this all of last summer when I worked in Rouge National Urban Park. Many weekends were spent leading walks and informing people about the huge wilderness area in the city’s backyard. The park is free and accessible by public transit. I was astonished that about a third of the regular users in the park were newcomers from China (maybe a topic for future research). Black, Latino and South Asians were rare even though their large communities live nearby. The summer job took me straight back to my PhD research question – why are Black people afraid of the woods?

I won’t be the only Black hiker in the woods in 2018. In the last month of the old year I led a hike through the Don Valley ravine. There we were, three Black women in full outdoor gear, trekking among the oak and maple trees in the forest. We followed the river as it meandered and tumbled on its way to Lake Ontario. The two women liked being outdoors, but were tired of being the only Black person in a group. We found each other in a graduate class on Black feminism! We are now the Black girls in the woods.

To my surprise I managed to self-publish a new book in 2017. It was one goal that I had expected to miss. It takes time to write, and with my daydreaming, leading hikes and Black History walks, there was no space for the book. And I can’t write when I am tired. The solution was to make the book part of my school work. That is, as Fridays were my writing days, I spend half of it working on the book. I wrote in bed, standing at the kitchen counter or relaxed in my armchair. I could not quit unit I had written a thousand words.  The strategy worked and so I will be using it again for this year.

My four passions are outdoors, writing, travelling and Black history. Last year I managed to do a little bit of all of them. Thank you 2017, you may rest in peace.

I started the New Year drinking champagne and eating chocolates with my family as we sat around the dining table. We had jerk chicken and rice and peas for dinner. A few hours later my plane landed in Toronto. I gasped as the freezing air tortured by lungs. And still I smiled at the snow-covered streets. My snowshoes and cross-country skis were in the hallway closet, and it seems like they were going to get a lot of use soon. A proper Canadian winter is a perfect start to the New Year. Welcome 2018.

Black Canadian Feminist: It’s Time to Step into the Cold

As a Black Canadian woman, what does feminism mean to me? The initial answer is not very much. In my mind feminism and white women go together like milk and salt. In my lived experience, white feminist spout a universal creed of empowering all women, while ensuring that it is only white women who benefit from diversity policies. The sisterhood falls apart when it comes to my Black neighbourhood. I wanted sugar, nutmeg and chocolate in my milk. All I got was salt.

Womanist is uncomfortable in my gut. It speaks to the history of African American women. While they and I are both member of the African Diaspora, the particularities of our locations has created a very different lived experience. This becomes blindly clear when I am in the USA or among African Americans. I relate to them as Americans, first and foremost. Most of the time the cultural gap between us is as wide as the Grand Canyon. I am a Black Canadian, not a stereotyped softer, gentler more polite version of an African American.

Calling myself an African feminist upsets my belly too. I have lived or visited ten African countries. In each of them I was an outsider. Our shared Black skin was not enough to wallpaper over a cultural divide as long as the Rift Valley. Pain, stereotypes and misunderstandings do not make a good glue to hold a wallpaper in place. It is the pain of those sold, the pain of those left behind, and our mutual recriminations and reluctance to discuss whom did what to whom. The intensity of the pain makes it hard to see that we were both victims, but, in different ways.

On the surface my identity is simple – a Black Canadian woman. Look a little closer and that identity is more complex, even to me. My gravestone will read ‘Canadian: Jamaican born, England grew, Nigerian wed.’

That little epitaph summarises my roots. They straddle all three corners of the Atlantic Ocean, replicating that long ago triangular trade in rum, sugar and slaves. The ‘afterlife of slavery’ shapes my identity and defines my life as a Black Canadian woman.

It filters my views on feminism too. I am interested in woman-centred theorizing that captures the subtleties and ambiguities of being a middle-class, heterosexual, Jamaican, diluted Christian, Black woman, in Canada.  The theorizing has to be flexible enough to include the lived experiences of other Black women who have different weaves in the cloth of their own identity.

It seems to me that Black Canadian feminism fits the bill in terms of theorizing. So I am issuing a challenge to myself and all Black Canadian feminist – it is time that we embrace the cold. We too are Canadians, now we too must build our own warm feminist homes in the cold.


Who Do You Cite?

What’s citation got to do with politics, race and creating knowledge? I assumed that one simply cited the writers who were important to the essay one was trying to write. When your work is cited it means your knowledge is legitimate and valued. You have joined the academy. The more people who cite your work the higher the value of the work.

Before drafting an essay you do a literature review. That is look up who has written on the topic, what claims they made and how your views are similar or different. The essay’s bibliography shows that you have done the necessary slogging through the books and journals. You have acknowledged and paid your dues to the other thinkers in the field.

Creating knowledge, like every other human activity, is not neutral. Citations reflects who has the power in academia. That power is hidden behind claims that citation is simply showing the experts on the topic. The long list of references in an essay and in the bibliography creates the canon of the field. It encapsulates the writers who are the most influential. It is remarkable that those experts are still mainly white men and white women.

What happens when other experts are left out of the citations? It is a good indication that their knowledge creation is not valued. This leads to some interesting questions.  What do we mean by knowledge, how is it created, and who decides which knowledge is valuable and which is not?

Here, I am more interested in the third question. I am not a philosopher, just prone to philosophizing.

A few decades ago, not many women were cited in academic journals. The feminist movement upset the academic old white boys’ club by insisting that women’s experience, values and ways of knowing were legitimate sources of knowledge. The number of female thinkers cited shot up like a rocket. However, the space was unequally allocated. Black women were left behind or shoved off the rocket. In the world of citing women, it is white women (dead or alive) who dominate the references and bibliographies.

How can knowledge creation be neutral when it mirrors the racial and gender hierarchy in society?

As a PhD student I am being trained to create new knowledge. One day my research may be published in books and journals, and quoted in newspapers. Or, it could be completely ignored, buried in dusty academic journals that few read. Who will cite my work?

Citations are powerful. I am now using them intentionally now to make space for Black academics and their expertise. Nelson Mandela once said ‘if you want to change the world, you must first change yourself.’ I am doing so by challenging the white-bias-but-passing-for-neutral citation status quo. That means finding, reading, quoting and citing the long and rich tradition of Black intellectual thought.

Black History Walks Toronto


Black Thinkers Matter, Too

I have worked at two academic journals as an editorial assistant. This has given me some insider knowledge on how the process works. Journals are written by and for academics. It is rare that their contents hit the newspapers or create a storm of protest on Twitter and Facebook.

Two journals managed to do that in the last decade. And both journals were forced to give a public apology for their ‘oversight.’ In 2017 the Journal of Political Philosophy published a special issue on Black Lives Matter. Without a single article by a Black academic. About decade earlier, in 2006, PMLA, Journal of Modern Language Association also published a special issue. It was on “Feminist criticism today: In memory Nellie McKay.” McKay was African American. There were no Black authors in the issue.

How was the ‘oversight’ possible in both journals, given the long and extensive process of planning ordinary and special issues?

Journals are the foundations of creating, curating and distributing academic knowledge. They are inherently conservative in outlook. A journal’s editorial board functions as its gatekeeper. It decides the theme of each issue. Oftentimes this is publicized in a call for papers, other times a select group of authors are invited to write for the journal. Once an article is submitted, the editorial board does an internal review of it. If the essay is seen to have merit, the editorial team then decides who to ask to do the peer review.

Like the editorial board, the peer review board is made up of fellow academics who are experts in the knowledge field covered by the journal. Typically an essay is critiqued and assessed by four people from the peer review board. They recommend whether to accept or reject the essay for publication.

As you can see from this brief overview, a journal’s editorial process is long. It can take a year or more from submitting an article to hearing back if it will be published or not in the journal. Most times parts of the essay may have to be re-written to reflect the feedback from the editorial and peer review boards. The essay is then reviewed again. Special issues of the journals are planned up to two years in advance.

So how was it possible for the journals to publish special issues on Black lives all of which were written by non-Black writers? To me their ‘oversight’ is a good example of hegemonic whiteness in action.

This mean the journals’ editorial boards equals a group of white men and white women around the table. They send the articles for review to another group of white men and white women on the peer review boards. Both boards function as guardians in two respects. First, they are guardians for whiteness.  Second, they are keepers of the field of knowledge.

The guardians ensure that whiteness is the default for entry through the journals’ gates. It’s as if they wear special glasses that enables them to see only in shades of white. Black authors become invisible at the gate as they cannot meet the basic criteria for entry. What they have to contribute to the journals’ area of knowledge becomes irrelevant if they can’t even be seen.

Dr. Chris Lebron is an assistant professor of African-American Studies and Philosophy at Yale University. In an open letter to the Journal of Political Philosophy, he pointed out it had published an article on race or by a Black writer in the past five years. Race is at the heart of politics in the USA, yet a political journal systematically failed/refused to cover it. The journal can only have its head stuck way up in its own arse.

Protests forced both journals to plan special issues that include Black thinkers. In my view, this sop is defensive and rather tokenistic. One time entry into the journal means the white blinkers will be put back on, once the fuss fades. It does not challenge the centrality of whiteness embedded in the core of the journals.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London


Pictures and the Stories They Tell

The pictures on the walls tells a story. In my department portraits lined the long hallway leading to the busy student lounge. All were large, about half the size of a poster. Most were black and white photographs, with a few in colour, and a couple of oil paintings.

The pictures were of the deans of the department. It commemorated and celebrated their hard work in starting and maintaining such a prestigious department. No doubt it massaged their egos as well.

The people usually smiled in their portraits. Yet, I never felt the warmth implicit in their expressions. You see all the pictures were of white men. And of one white woman. Walking the gauntlet of their faces I always felt cold.pictures and the stories they tell 2

The students in my faculty reflect the multicultural reality of Toronto. So half of them are Indigenous, Black or other people of colour. None of us were reflected in the large pictures on the wall.

The pictures were a cultural dissonance in the department. In all our classes we address the core foundations of critical studies. That is we read, talk and write about how gender, race, and class, shape our worlds. Yet, each time we trekked to the popular lounge it was along a wall lined with mostly dead white men. The art collection clearly illustrated who had the power, and who mattered.

The picture were changed over the summer. On my first trek up to the lounge this term colour bubbled from the staid walls. They were filled with landscape paintings by Indigenous artists. I liked the colours, the nature scenes and the play of mythical characters.

Students paused to look at the pictures. They commented on which was their favourite and what was the meaning of the characters. People noticed.

The previous art collection memorialized and celebrated the dominance of white people in Canada. The new collection is a reminder that the country is an ancient land. It had a long past before European colonization. The new pictures show that it has a new future – one based on acknowledging the true owners of the country.pictures and the stories they tell 3

Sailing on a Half Moon


Where You Sit and What it Says About You

Where do you sit in the classroom? In school I always sat in the first row, right in front of the teacher. The first time I entered a PhD classroom I chose my seat well – the one in the side row at the back, where I was least likely to catch the professor’s eyes.

I preferred it when someone was on either side of me. It was a chance to get to know new faces, and more importantly, they were a good buffer between me and the professor. If I sank low enough in the chair my sidekicks hid me from her view.

I tried to get the same seat each week. It was a familiar and safe spot.

In another class I switched seats each week, partly to see if it made a difference and partly just to meet new people. Well, some students were rather annoyed by this. It seemed as if particular chairs were reserved in their name, in ink that only they could see, and that I had pinched it. It got me thinking why they were so upset and why I was more comfortable sitting in the same spot in class each week.

The answer lies in status quo bias. According to psychologists it is the human tendency to prefer things, ideas, people or positions that are familiar versus trying something new. Change carries risks and takes mental energy. Adhering to the status quo is so much easier. In my grandmother’s words it is better to stick to the devil you know than the one you don’t know.

The status quo bias seems to be our default position in a whole range of situations. It certainly is so when it comes to choosing an Internet provider. The current one is expensive. A month ago the condo sent out a flyer encouraging all to sign up with a cheaper company. The front desk staff said half of the residents had done so, and were pleased with the result. I had thrown away the flyer. With so many things on my plate and the stress of the PhD, I did not have the energy to make the switch even though it was considerably cheaper. This morning I promised the front desk guy I will switch before the month is out. I don’t want to disappoint him.

Black people don’t do outdoors. This seems to be another status quo bias. For a whole ton of reasons we see the outdoors as a white space where we are out of place. I canvassed my Black meet up group to see who would like to try camping for next year. Most of them giggled, shook their head and said why on earth would they want to do that? A few were interested. It is camping for one night only. On a site with flush toilets and showers. It is moot how many will actually come.

Status quo bias is inherently conservative, but it can be challenged, and hence changed. If there was more advertising showing Black people in the outdoors it would change the perception that we don’t belong.

The keeners in my PhD class were spread all around the room. I expected them to bunch up at the front. Where one sits does not does not seems to stereotype the chatterers, at least for graduate students. Back in high school the front rows were reserved for the nerds, keeners and talkers. The middle rows were for the masses. The slackers, the clowns and the daydreamers preferred the back rows.

Sitting up front has no effects on grades according to research. It is just as well. I like my seat on the far side in the back of the classroom. And yes I do get annoyed if someone snags it before I get to class.