The Whisper Campaign of Academic Trauma

If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it — Zora Neale Hurston

“I read your article. I loved it, but you can’t say things like that.”

“If you talk about your pain and challenge academic structures, your professors won’t write you letters of recommendations.”

“I am in pain too, but I just could never do what you did. I’m trying to get a PhD and I need to play politics to receive my degree.”

These are just some of the many things said to me after my article Gradschool is Trash for Student of Color and We Should Talk about That, went viral. From this, I learned that the number one rule for people of color in the academy is to never publicly acknowledge your pain.

What those who said this did not know is that I already felt fear concerning the virality of my piece, and as a result, their commentary served to compound and authenticate my anxious thoughts. The days after my article went viral, I found myself hiding under the covers of my bed, panicked about the ways in which my very private pain was suddenly visible, and terrified both of the public response and institutional backlash.

Though I felt pride that my words provided solace, I also felt deep shame. Black and Brown students are consistently taught to be grateful for a chance to receive a seat at the table — even if that table is wobbly and built on unsteady ground. And so I felt, in a deep, insidious, and colonial way, that I forgot my place, I forgot to be thankful. The guilt of this transgression proved to be overwhelming.

This shame deepened everytime I ran across a student of color who commented on the “reckless” nature of my work. Over and over again I was told that to properly leverage my degree I could not under any circumstance acknowledge my pain. For every three students of color that told me to keep writing and sharing my truth, there was one who would say, “I am scared for you.”

And so, I became scared for myself. I wanted to be a good student, and good students do not question the status quo.

One day, after listening to a lot of Brené Brown, I began to meditate on the problematic and disheartening conversations I had with certain students of color. During an appearance on the “On Being” podcast, Brown talks about the difficulty of true belonging. She defines true belonging as a “practice that requires us to be vulnerable and learn how to be present with people — without sacrificing who we are.” Brown constantly reminds her readers and listeners that true belonging requires a sacrifice of comfort, not of the self.

When we lean into our own authenticity, many of the spaces that we frequent begin to come up short; once we recognize the vast beauty of ourselves, so many spaces are no longer enough because they fail to care for us in our fullness. For many, the academy is often one of these insufficient spaces, and for Black and Brown students, this truth is incredibly painful.

This is due to fact that receiving entrance into the academy validates our exceptionalism and grant us privilege and access to opportunities that we would otherwise be barred from. If we are not intentional about cultivating self-love, academic institutions can shift from a conduit to reach our goals into the place where we derive self-meaning, and this, the fallacy that the academy is our identity, constitutes a very dangerous chain of thought.

Because if the academy is not enough, and we have made the academy our identity, our source of self, and our well of worthiness, then who are we when these institutions fall short of loving us? If my degree is meant to be a sign of my self-worth and exceptionalism, but I must dim the parts of me that make me exceptional in order to receive it, does it have meaning?

Brown’s words catalyzed an epiphany: the fear, anxiety, and guilt that I felt was not mine.

The fear and anxiety I carried was projected onto me by other students of color and is ultimately representative of the larger lies that academic institutions tell students of color, and the untruths that we tell ourselves.

The “Whisper Campaign of Academic Trauma” refers to the ways in which students of color are taught to internalize their own pain not as a sign of dehumanizing systems, but as a sign of personal deficiency. In lieu of looking for the external causes of their anxiety and depression, students of color are gaslighted into believing that institutions are acting correctly and that it is the students of color who are too combative, too hard to please, too resistant, and ultimately not cut out for academia. The Whisper Campaign normalizes trauma and relegates criticism, critique, and emotional well-being to the corners.

And so, as a protective mechanism we hide our pain, we shelter our truth, and we demonize, ostracize, and “other” our own trauma. We do this because it is better than having our feelings continuously invalidated. However, pain can never truly be withheld, it can be repressed, shifted, rerouted, but it is always there, it is always present, and it begs for us to acknowledge it, to nurture it, to heal from it.

As we repress our own pain, we begin to inadvertently project our repression onto others. We tell other students of color that they should not speak out, partly to protect them from our similar rejection and partly to save ourselves from having to excavate our own trauma. Watching someone live their truth can be incredibly uncomfortable if we are refusing to recognize our own.

This internalization, repression, and “othering” is a result of a single a lie, a lie that says feeling our pain and engaging with our academic trauma undermines our scholastic prowess and viability.

By choosing to sit in the tension of my truths, I rejected the internalization of my trauma. Internalizing says its either/or, acceptance says it is both/and. For me, my master’s program constitutes some of my highest highs and my lowest lows. There are days when attending school is violent and harmful. Instead of turning inward and blaming myself when this occurs, I intentionally remind myself that challenging my program does not make me ungrateful, on the contrary, it elucidates just how deeply I care for my colleagues and for my institution.

Conversely there are days and even weeks when I deeply, deeply enjoy my education, when I am inspired by my colleagues and professors, and when my path is illuminated before me. And I know, without a doubt, that those joys will only deepen as I continue to discern where within my institution I am best cared for and as a result, can provide reciprocal care for others.

To those who suggested that I cease telling my truth in order to preserve a false sense of belonging, I say that your logic is flawed. The academy fails daily to be my place of true-belonging, it fails to be the place where I can bring my full self into the door and feel validated. Stratifying our identities in order to be received should not be normalized. I am not wrong for calling out systems that dehumanize and devalue my humanity, even if I lose opportunity as a result. That opportunity is already dead if it requires that I prune myself for entry.

Never feel ashamed for pushing the arms of your program outward to ensure they are wide enough to envelope the wholeness of your humanity — you deserve nothing less.

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