Education

A Journey Through Predominantly White Institutions

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Courtesy of Forth District

Published 03/31/19

OPINION | by Autumn Brown, BWSTimes contributing writer and Ph.D. candidate 

A few weeks ago my doctoral advisor asked the following, “You’ve attended PWI’s [predominantly white institutions] for all of your higher education experiences. How have you handled that?”

I was a little taken aback at the question. Not because she asked it, but because I couldn’t succinctly respond.

The truth is, I’ve attended predominantly white schools since kindergarten. So when she asked me this question, I shrugged and said, “I’ve just gotten used to it I guess.”

Truthfully, I had gotten used to assimilating. I learned how to smile. I learned how to nod. I learned how to “fit in.” I wore the mask, and I wore it well. 

There were so many multifaceted layers to unpack with that question. I couldn’t sum up what it was like growing up among faces that did not look like mine and within institutions that systematically did not welcome my presence.

When I look back on my K-12 experiences, they are rocked with instances of being talked down upon, forgotten about, and mistreated by teachers, peers, and administrators.

Like in kindergarten when I was told to “play with my kind” by the feather with whom I was known to flock.

I got into the car that day devastated and with tears on the brim of my eyelids. When my mother asked what was wrong — I looked up and asked, “Mama, what’s my kind?”

And like that, as I stood on the precipice of shattered innocence, I was given “the talk” in front of the unfriendly institution that took pleasure in such experiences.

I finished my bachelor’s degree at St. Gregory’s University, a private liberal arts college in Shawnee, Oklahoma. I obtained my master’s from UCO, and I am now attending Oklahoma State University for my Ph.D. in Social Foundations of Education.

Matriculating through over 200 credit hours of higher education, it took being asked that question for me to honestly assess how I have navigated thus far. Frankly, I wouldn’t say that I’ve handled it well.

When I look back, I realize that there were so few spaces for me to revel in my identity as a black woman among peers that looked like I did.

I refused to join a Panhellenic sorority.

I’d imagine that any person of color has a difficult time while attending an institution that forcedly welcomed our presence But in a world that is anti-black and pro-patriarchy, navigating this pipeline as a black woman was problematic.

Now, as I am wrapping up my doctoral studies, I realize that while I am appreciative of my experiences, I am tired.

I am tired of being cognizant at how I enunciate my words.

I am tired of smiling and nodding when things are not funny.

I am tired of overthinking how to phrase my thoughts so that I don’t come off as “angry.”

Akin to Eric Garner breathlessly gasping, “I can’t breathe” (Perlow, 2018), metaphorically speaking I, too, have been suffocating in silence. To which I attribute such feelings to a racially charged environment invented to hate me.

To answer my advisor’s question, I have handled my matriculation through PWI’s poorly. I have continuously held my breath in anticipation of attack. I have allowed parts of myself to suffer in silence so that those around me could be more comfortable with my presence.

I encourage every person of color attending a PWI to embrace your blackness. As a Black woman who is angry (in terms of Audre Lorde’s Uses of Anger), woke, and unafraid I will no longer stay silent or invisible when it comes to speaking my truths.

Drawing from author Mia McKenzie (a.k.a. Black Girl Dangerous), “I decided that, instead of dying, I would live. And that I would be dangerous. Really dangerous. The kind of dangerous that would make a difference in the world” (2014, pp. 3-4). Though I am to become a member within the academy, I am reclaiming my “wild.” And I plan to use my story to direct, protect, and survive as I migrate through the “ivory covered innocence” that we call academe.


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IMG_0949Autumn Brown is a doctoral student in social foundations of education at Oklahoma State University. Social foundations analyzes and explains educational issues, policies, and practices through the lenses of history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies. Its goal is to improve the educational experiences for members belonging to marginalized groups. Her research focus centers around the experiences of black women in STEM and black women within the academy. She also researches racial body politics, sexuality, and intimate justice for black women. She has published a book chapter titled “Breaking the silence: Black women’s experience with abortion,” and has presented her work on the intense policing of the black female body nationally. Autumn plans on continuing her pursuits in bringing awareness to the injustices imposed on members within her community, and advocating for equitable education for black and brown students. She plans on finishing her Ph.D. in May 2020 and hopes to move into a tenure-tracked faculty position at a top tier research university.

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Categories: Education, Opinion