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.


Orphans and Tourists are a Bad Trip

Who benefits when tourists spend a day volunteering at an orphanage? A classmate is going on a Caribbean cruise which includes a one-day stop in Haiti. Rather than do the usual tourist shopping and sightseeing she wants to spend the day helping out the local people.

My classmate is Black. On the surface her orphanage trip is a good thing, as it is still rare to see Black people helping other Black people in media images of disaster zones.

When the earthquake smashed up Haiti in 2010, television and newspapers were filled with images of brave white people going through the carnage to rescue poor Black people. The stories were framed around the selflessness of the white angels and the helplessness of the Black victims.

The media reports all pointed out that Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The earthquake was just the latest tragedy in a long list of misfortunes that had struck the nation since its independence. Missing from the reports were any discussions on the fundamental reasons why Haiti is so poor.

There are many orphanages in Haiti and in other poor countries. Visiting them or orphan tourism has become a big business fed by donations from tourists, churches and foundations formed by companies, especially those in the travel industry. The money collected is supposed to help feed, clothe and educate the abandoned orphans. Local partners encourage orphan tourism as it brings in the money.

But is it good for the children?

A report in The Guardian reveals that in many poor countries the children are paper orphans. That is they have parents but are living in the orphanage as they have no choice. Many of the children land in the orphanage through child trafficking. That is they are sold or stolen by brokers to feed the demand from orphan tourism.

Last year, my daughter’s school trip to Belize included volunteering as the social justice component of the visit. The class would spend a day helping out either at an orphanage or an animal sanctuary. My daughter vetoed the orphanage.

“I don’t want to be part of the white savior industry,” she had said.

I accused her of being cynical. Initially. I saw the orphan visit as an opportunity for her to show that Black Canadians exists and that we too want to help poor people. The kid rolled her eyes and told me to think about how a group of highly privileged, mostly white teenagers, with no childcare skills would be of any use to the Belize children.

Would a Canadian daycare allow a bunch of foreign strangers to spend a day hugging their kids?

I think visiting an orphanage is emotional entertainment for tourists. They spend a day ‘doing good’, by taking and posting on social media, all those lovely photographs of themselves feeding and cuddling cute children. At the end of the day tourists return to their cruise ship, hotel or lodge and continue with their pampered lives. Smug and satisfied that their donations and time have helped a child.

When race is added to the picture, orphan tourism becomes dirtier. Most tourists are white, visiting orphanages filled with Black and brown children. The visuals are reminiscent of the days of empire and colonialism.

Surely everyone has a memory of donating to churches collecting money to feed the hungry children in the orphanages in Africa and Asia. I know I did. I questioned why the children were in the orphanages. The usual response was that it was due to war, famine or natural disaster. What I never questioned was who benefitted from keeping the children in the orphanages.

The Haitian Revolution was the only successful slave rebellion in history. The new country declared its independence from France on January 1, 1804. The price of freedom was steep. The Haitians had to pay about 90 million gold francs, today’s equivalent of $21 billion, to France to cover the loss of its slaves and the sugar they produced. It was pay or be re-enslaved. The Haitian payments started in 1825 and ended in 1947. That is over a century of the poorest country paying all its wealth to one of the richest, to cover the costs of its own exploitation.

Like the rest of the Caribbean the Haitians are demanding reparations. The islands’ wealth built the colonial empires of Europe and later the neo-colonial empire of the USA. The poverty of the islands is a direct result of their wealth sailing across the Atlantic.

If my classmate spends the day in the Haitian orphanage it will make her feel and look good. It will do nothing for the children beyond continuing their exploitation.

Image: Black Child 1815-1825, by Phillip Thomas Coke Tilyard– Oil on Canvas. Fenimore Art Museum.

Yoga So White

I am dithering about whether I should go to the annual yoga conference and show. It was brilliant fun the last time, except for the tiny little problem about race. My heart told me to shut up and simply focus on the fact that it was a weekend of free all-day yoga from some of the best studios and teachers in Toronto.

Yoga, and its associated wellness products, is a multi-billion industry. The booths at the show overflowed with people selling candles, spiritual crystals, clothes and yoga accessories. The earnestness of the vendors was endearing and a tad overpowering at the same time. They really believed that their wares enhanced your spiritual life.

Then there were those selling natural or organic supplements and protein powders. I was skeptical about their sales pitch. I mean where in nature does textured vegetable protein come from? To my mind the products were all dreamed up in a chemical lab, with colours that do not exist in nature. I failed to see how they were supposed to be just as good for you as food.

Eat enough dates and spinach and it will cleanse your system without any help from chemicals. When did bowel movements become a topic for meditation?

I walked up and down the aisles doing my usual – trying to find a Black or at least a brown face. They were as rare as answered prayers. I was disappointed. For some strange reason I had expected more brown faces, given that yoga is an ancient practice from India. There are hundreds of thousands of South Asians in Toronto, and so I thought I would bump into lots at the show.

The practice hall was nearly full. I found my preferred spot in the back rows. Most of the yogis were slim white women. There were ten Black and brown faces among the two hundred or so people strutting our warrior poses. There were no people of colour instructors.

Tired from four hours of yoga practice, I went in search of food. Visions of chai tea and samosas danced in my head. There they remained as I faced stall after stall of soups, sandwiches and salads. I left the venue to search for nourishment outside.

The practice space was full after lunch. Not wanting to squish in, I drifted over to the meditation hall, the quietest space in the crowded exhibition.

I was a bit nervous entering as stillness and I are not the best of buddies. But the deep drone of the Tibetan salt bowls drew me in. Once again I told my head to shut up. As instructed I did the breathing and visioning exercises to the music of the drone. It was oddly blissful.

After a pause, another group of musicians took over. This time we were encouraged to repeat the Sanskrit prayers called out by the lead singer. The language has been dead for a few thousand years and yet here were a group of people chanting prayers in it. A group of white people. I, another Black woman and an Indian family were the minorities. The racial disconnect was jarring. I mean I was expecting Indians to be singing in Sanskrit and playing the tablas and sitar, not some white guys from off Yonge Street.

A highlight of the kirtan meditation concert was Kundalini yoga sect. The dressed from toe to head in white, including white turbans on both the men and women. I stared hard at the group as it was the first time I had seen a group of white people in turbans. They chanted and encouraged the audience to join in their Bollywood moves. I am getting my recollections muddled up?  Whichever group did the dances, they were all white.

The grand finale was the concert by the Hari Krishnas. They bubbled with positivity as we followed their songs and dance. It felt more like a rave, not that I have ever been to one, rather than a meditative practice. Still it was fun. The leader was a muscular and handsome Indian man. He knew the value of his sex appeal, as the woman did their best to accidently get as close to him as possible. About a dozen people were in the Hari Krishans and ninety per cent were white.

So where does this leave me for this year’s yoga show? I find it hard to switch off my head when faced with the jarring racial disconnect between the white people proselytising the value of yoga as an ancient Indian meditative practice, while doing their best to ensure that not a single Indian is in the room to teach or follow the practice. When did yoga become a white activity?

I am thinking of joining the Twitter hashtag conversation called #YogaSoWhite. It is time to decolonize yoga and to reclaim it as a practice open to all. Black History Walks Toronto

Image credit: Jessamyn Stanley from Seattle Globalist


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


6 Happy Black Films at TIFF

I kept looking at Danny Glover, trying to recollect where I knew him from. Did we meet at a concert, at an office party, or was he an ex-boyfriend of my friend?

Someone called out his name. Glover turned, smiled and waved. The posse of photographers swarmed and jostled each other for the shots. It felt like I was trapped in the middle of a rugby scum. And I was the only woman in there. And the smallest person too. A photographer pushed me in front of him, and hovered over me so that I too could take a snap. I was playing paparazzi. These guys were professionals.

That was a years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). I learned then that I was not cut out to be an entertainment blogger. After spending hours memorizing the faces of visiting film stars I had not recognized the one right in front of me.

It got worst.

At a special screening I did not get why the slim guy entering the discussion stage, wearing a suit, dark glasses, and get this, gleaming white running shoes, got a standing ovation. It was Taye Diggs.

TIFF – the world’s biggest film festival – starts this week in Toronto. Black film stars are regulars at TIFF. I can still remember the champagne style buzz when Chiwetel Ejiofor walked the red carpet. Lupita Nyong’o was then a beautiful but unknown starlet. Their film 12 Years A Slave went on to make box office and Oscar history.

There are plenty of films with Black actors for viewing at this year’s TIFF and some of the stars will be in town. Look out for Halle Berry, Idris Elba, Kevin Hart and Octavia Spencer.

TIFF films are categorized by region, and not by race or ethnicity. I scrolled through several regions to find what I was looking for. I wanted films with Black actors, shot by Black directors, with happy endings.

So here is my list of six happy Black films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival:

  1. The Royal Hibiscus Hotel. Will the cook open her restaurant or will the rich playboy burn her dreams? Got to find out in this Nigerian romantic comedy.
  2. Felicité. A Senegalese film about a plucky Kinshasa nightclub owner learning how to ask for help, before her club goes under.
  3. Looking for Oum Kulthum. An Egyptian-Persian film about a legendary singing diva.
  4. Sergio and Sergei. How a Cuban radio operator connects with a Russian astronaut stuck in space as both wait out time.
  5. Sheikh Jackson. A comedy on how the death of Michael Jackson shakes a huge fan – an Egyptian imam.
  6. Grace Jones. A documentary on the Jamaican-American model, singer and out and out diva.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love


Depression and the PhD

Are PhD students depressed or do depressed people tend to study for PhDs? The issue came up in a roundtable discussion on what we needed to be fully present in the classroom. Four out of the thirty graduate students mentioned anxiety or depression.

Praise to the first person that revealed his anxiety. His words had a domino effect. It gave the rest of us permission to talk about our own struggles with mental health. Depression has no respect for appearance. It gnawed away at the manly forty-something guy with the patrician face. It nibbled the petite woman with a voice like a bear.

They did mention mental health services at the PhD orientation. At the time I paid little attention to it, as it was just another speaker among the many. I was already overwhelmed, feeling like I was in over my head.

Generally, about ten per cent of the population suffers from depression. So us graduate students were just slightly just above the average. But this is based on the ones who spoke up. My feeling was that the rate was probably a bit higher.

The rates of depression vary by gender, age and ethnicity. Twice as many women suffer from depression compared to men. The rate is higher among people of colour compared to whites.

Depression seems to follow the general rule in society – the closer you are to the top of power pyramid, the better your health, including mental health.

Treating depression is relatively easy. Lots of talk therapy usually does the trick. Sometimes it has to be combined with medication. The illness might be easy to manage, but the hard part is getting to the help.

Access to mental health services is also stratified. The lower you are on the totem pole the less likely you are to receive help. Black men are the least likely to seek or receive any kind of help for mental health issues.

I could see, and feel the many triggers for depression among PhD students. First, is the loneliness. The work that is fascinating to me is tedious to most people. It’s easy to lose friends and family and get buried in theorizing. Isolation is never good for the soul. Even the hermits took a break from their religious-imposed loneliness. Either that or they went mad or died.

Then there is the money. A full scholarship does not cover all the expenses of living in a big city. The first term I bought all the books for my courses. I treated myself each day to a fresh mug of tea. I did not repeat that mistake. Books were read at the library, tea was made from home. Economise became my new mantra.

Trying to figure out the unwritten rules of academia can lead to depression. There is the competition among students, and competition among academics. Navigating one’s way through the politics, without exploding any mines, is stressful.

Next is the self-doubt. Original thinking is hard work. It is tough to be enthusiastic when my bright idea seems so dull compared to the vast literature on the topic. There is no guarantee that I will produce anything significant at the end of four or more years of thinking. That is a depressing thought.

The depression rate does tend to be higher among graduate students. The best way of avoiding it is self-care. It is doing all the stuff that our mothers nagged us to do: eat well, go to bed early, go out with friends. And the best advice for me is get outdoors. A hike, a bike ride a canoe trip all bring me back to nature. She refreshes and sustains me.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London