A Ph.D. candidate describes the costs of doing service as a graduate student of color.
I was at a brunch hosted by graduate students of color when I decided to pursue my Ph.D. at a historically white university in the Midwest. The students shared refreshingly real stories and praised the department’s racial climate committee. This brunch, an act of service by students of color, was the highlight of my visit.
But for students of color, doing service has a dark side. Service can make us hypervisible as problems and invisible as scholars. Unfortunately, it took me four years to learn that lesson.
As a black woman, I believe we should “lift as we climb.” So once in graduate school, I became a service superstar. I sat on panels, sent welcome emails, organized food orders, located paper plates and sent Doodle polls. I called out faculty members when I thought it would help.
I served on the racial climate committee for three years. I helped to revitalize recruitment of underrepresented graduate students, respond to microaggressions committed by white graduate students and support efforts to increase the proportion of faculty of color in our department. I did this while doing typical graduate student work like taking and teaching classes, submitting institutional review board proposals, doing fieldwork and publishing articles.
Being Both Hypervisible and Invisible
My service experience had fantastic highs and concrete results. Our gatherings made us feel better, and we convinced a few prospective students of color that our campus could be a place for them, too. Faculty members said nice things in meetings that made it sound like they “got it.” It felt like my efforts were making a change.
Service also helped my departmental comfort level. As a first-generation college graduate, I often felt insecure as I tried to master ways and skills of interacting that were foreign to me before college. Participating in meetings with faculty members made me feel like I belonged.
But the lows of service outweighed the highs. I already felt hypervisible in my department’s hallways, which were dominated by white faces and by people who routinely confused me with other black women. Doing service made me visible in another way: as the outspoken black woman in meetings and the author of countless emails.
Worse, my hypervisibility as a brown body and as a symbol of “those activist grad students” came with the twist of feeling invisible as a whole person, or even as a scholar. Around my fourth year, I realized that, for all the appreciative nods that faculty blessed me with in meetings, I still could not fill my dissertation committee. When I met with professors who seemed to be an intellectual fit, I encountered indifference. When I met with professors who did support my research, our conversations dissolved into rehashing campus climate controversies. My service was haunting me, even when I wasn’t working on it.
Feeling drained, I stopped doing service. I realized that I was contributing to a disturbing pattern where students of color give of ourselves until we are running on empty. Fortunately for the department, another student of color is usually waiting to serve. The department benefits from our labor while we pay the costs.
How White Departments Avoid Substantial Change
In fact, historically white departments can rely on the physical and emotional labor of students of color to mask larger racial problems. Graduate students of color are often tasked with recruiting other students of color. We are expected to support undergraduate students of color who are harmed by racially insensitive curricula. We are tasked with explaining to faculty members (ad nauseam), that yes, a student of color on campus faces challenges. Undergraduate students of color flock to us for care and emotional support. Those of us who study race are called on to help instructors with no expertise in the subject improve their teaching. This unseen labor is particularly high stakes as more universities turn to mandatory diversity courses to ease racial tensions on campus.
As graduate students, we do this service from a precarious position. Faculty members hold direct power over graduate students. They approve our teaching, stamp our dissertations and write recommendation letters. In a very real sense, they control our academic fate. Asking those in power to change their practices is a big risk.
Our service may create the illusion that change is happening. Our service adds some brown faces for webpages and keeps some undergraduates happy. But ultimately, our service exempts faculty members from making substantial changes to the structure of the department. Departments need to be changed by faculty: tenured faculty members who have power and a long-term relationship with the university and, ideally, white faculty members who are allies and not already disproportionately burdened by service requests.
Deciding What Works for You
So if you are a graduate student of color, what should you do? I would not advise you to refuse all service. Service has benefits, like making small improvements for your community, generating hope and fostering ties to colleagues and staff. But as you consider service, first refer to some of the great advice for tenure-track faculty of color.
Then continuously ask yourself these questions: Are your contributions making things better for the people you care about? Are your contributions impacting faculty practices and resulting in substantial change? Do you have as many faculty members supporting your research and teaching as you do cheering on your service?
In short, do the benefits of your service outweigh the costs?
The author is a Ph.D. candidate at a large public university.