The Emancipation of the Minority Academic

Walking the campus of my alma mater this past graduation week reminded me of how the elation of that special weekend felt for me. I was, however, also sobered as I looked around at the faces that I saw represented by the young graduates streaming around me along the busy sidewalks — with a striking lack of change in diversity.

I completed my undergraduate and medical school degrees in the heart of the Midwest. Returning to the US for college, after nearly a decade in Africa with my family, I was wide-eyed at the glaring homogeneity of my classmates when I first walked into class. It was a stark contrast from the high school class that I had left in Kenya, with a group of students that in large part all looked like me, to a class where I was one of the only ones that looked like me. I still remember eagerly scurrying into Psychology 101. Typically a front-seat student, I slinked into a seat at the back of the room thrown off by this overwhelming sea of unfamiliarity. But then one class became two, and two classes became a graduation class. When I was only one of six students of color in a medical school class of 120, I barely flinched. This had become my norm. Returning from the East Coast, where I’ve spent the remainder of my career, to visit the Midwest this past weekend, however, I was stunned back into a contemplative silence. Reflecting back on those first days shuffling around campus as a freshman, trying to figure out where I fit in.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, whites make up around 73 percent of all college graduates in the US, 10 percent are Black, 9 percent are Latino, 7 percent are Asian/Pacific Islander and less than 1 percent are American Indian/Alaska Native, with only miniscule increases in the proportion of minorities graduating over the last decade. There are even more marked disparities in graduates pursuing secondary and tertiary degrees, with Black students only constituting 7 percent of doctoral graduates in 2010. My experiences as a Black student then were not dissimilar from counterparts across the country. Along with this new “minority” veneer that was placed upon me immediately, I walked onto that campus, which was unfamiliar to me, having grown up myself in a “majority” society, I quickly learned that there were also certain expectations that came with that from different groups of people about why I was there and what I was going to accomplish with my life. Some were good. And some were, as you can expect, fraught with stereotypes. Some of these stereotypes had positive inclinations (“oh you must be really smart…”; “how do you speak English so well?”) and others were short-sighted and restrictive (affirmative action comments and pursed lip responses when I said that I wanted to be a doctor … amongst other lofty goals).

Along with nearly 2 million other viewers this year, I watched the Ted Talk by television writer and producer titan, Shonda Rhimes, the mind behind “Scandal,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and so many other television success stories. And beyond the wonderful story about finding balance in one’s career and being totally awed by all of her amazing accomplishments and drive and smarts, there was an undercurrent in the message that really got me. It was her unwavering voice of just being. There was a Black woman on my computer screen, not slinking into the back of a college classroom, but with her shoulders squared, scanning the crowd without a wavering in her delivery, and doing so in front of millions of viewers. Being. And it struck me that as we continue to see faces that are more heterogeneous, just being — in the entertainment arena, in the academic arena, in places of power, then maybe, just maybe, that could actually become our norm.

So I am thankful for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I thank Lupita Nyong’o, I thank Serena Williams and Misty Copeland and yes, even Beyoncé, not because of any other accomplishment that they have had, but because they are fiercely challenging the norm, leading in their respective fields, and forcing the rest of us in society whether we like it or not to reckon with them having done so, and they are doing it without question or waver or slink. Thankfully, I am one of few women of color in the US that was fortunate to complete several degrees and join an academic institution pursuing my passions. Not so many are able to do the same. And I am cognizant of the ability to contribute to altering that pathway for others taking the path less traveled behind me. So I am thankful for these voices to emulate. They are forever changing the norm. I hope that we all change with them.