Spot the Black PhDs in the Class

‘Thank God I am not the only one.’ That was my first thought when I entered the seminars in my PhD programme. In both classes people of colour were the majority. It was not what I was expecting.

Ages ago, and it was not in the time of the dinosaurs, when I did my first degree I was the only Black person in my class. I was not the only person of colour, or ethnic minority as we said in Britain, I recollect that there was a South Asian student there as well. We were the second generation of post-World War II immigrants in the mother country, so it was not surprising.

And I was studying for a degree in chemistry, an ultra-nerdish choice for a working-class Black girl from a small-town.

About a decade later, I came to Canada and did my master’s degree. Things were supposed to be different here. In Toronto, I had met a lot of middle-class Black professionals who did not think it was odd that I had a degree. They did not accuse me of being a sell-out or ‘acting White’. Yet, as I entered the classroom I groaned. Different country, different decade and I was still the only Black person in the class.

Fast forward another two decades. I was shocked when I saw so many faces of different hues in my PhD seminars. And half of them were Black Canadians, not foreign students. I wondered if it was due to being in the education department, and the narrow speciality of social justice education. Then I remembered that Toronto is one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world, where half of the population are people of colour.  Still, it was surprising to see so many of us in an elite setting.

How many Black PhDs are there in Canada? I don’t know.

In Canada we pride ourselves on being a multicultural country. We welcome diversity. Therefore, race-based statistics are rarely collected. It’s a nice way of avoiding discussions on racism. We don’t measure it, therefore it doesn’t exist.

Things are more transparent in the USA. Some seven per cent of African Americans have a PhD, from the US National Centre for Education Statistics, 2012. The number is increasing each year, but needs to double to reflect their 13 per cent share of the population.

Women outnumber male PhD graduates across all racial groups. What was striking was the huge gap in the Black community: some 65% of African American PhD graduates are women. This is amazing news. But why are the Black men falling so far behind?

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

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Choices: Marriage or Academia?

Like mosquito bites the professor’s words stung. The more she talked the more the bites itched. I willed myself to continue listening, ignoring the angry rash spreading in my spirit.

The professor introduced herself in class by summarising her accomplishments and climb up the academic ladder. Her achievements were many. Then she added a few personal details. She was married, this I expected. She had two children, this I did not expect. It was the first mosquito bite.

I did my first degree in England, switching from chemistry to international relations. As expected, there were no female professors in the science faculty. There was only one in my social science department. Three years of school and only one woman to show the possibilities of an academic career. At that point I decided it was not for me.

I did not want to end up at aged thirty, single, childless and old, facing a group of adolescents dissecting me with their pitying looks. Scanning my fingers for a ring, ears pricked for any hint of a life outside of lectures, books and exams.

Male professors aged thirty were fanciable, even in their corduroy pants, sensible shoes and jackets with elbow patches. A whiff of Old Spice enhanced their appeal. Female professors were a different a different chemical combination, smelling more like hydrogen sulphide than Chanel No. 5.

A decade later I did my master’s degree in Canada. Half of the professors were women (White). Hiding behind the gender parity was another reality. Most of the female professors were either single, divorced or childless. The male professors were the ones who were married with children. Once again, I decided that academia was not for me. Female professors were lonely old maids – albeit superbly educated lonely old maids.

And now, some two decades later, in my PhD class orientation, was a woman living the life that I had walked away from. She was my age. She was an academic. She was married with children. It should have been me. The mosquito bites blistered in my spirit.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir or Travel and Love