by Karima I. A. Bouchenafa, M.A.
Some years ago, on my favorite social media network, a friend posted a meme that made me both chuckle and cringe. The meme offered a ranking of doctoral degrees in descending order of perceived importance, with a rather specialized degree holding the top position, and with the beloved generalist Ph.D. falling dead last on the list. I chuckled at the meme because I’ve heard the jokes about frustrated Ph.D.s finding themselves “flipping burgers” at McDonald’s and other fast food establishments, rather than fast-tracking on the tenure path. I’ve blinked in amazement at the dizzying number of “doctoral mills” of questionable accreditation that seem to have cropped up everywhere in recent years (Bartlett & Smallwood, 2004). I even put my own doctoral journey on pause a few years ago for a number of reasons—one of which was what I perceived to be a lack of rigor in the program in which I was enrolled and my own “degree snobbery.” Far too often, I found myself questioning the rigor and repetitiveness of the required coursework, and doubting the potential return on the investment of significant student loan debt that I was taking on to finance this degree. While sharing in the virtual laughs this meme elicited on my friend’s “wall,” I was instantly reminded of a classic video clip featured in an iconic gospel compilation album’s (Rough Side of the Mountain ©1989) television commercial from the late 1980s. With gratitude to the late Rev. B.W. Smith and his sermon titled “Watch Them Dogs,” many African-American viewers of this commercial adopted his refrain, “Who in the Hell left the gate open?” as the question of choice whenever questions of decorum and belonging arose in social spaces.
Midway through my last laugh, I found myself cringing because I slowly realized that, by laughing, complicitly, at this meme’s not-so-subtle message about the relative amount of respect afforded to various “types” of doctorates (researcher/scholar versus practitioner) and the disciplines in which they’d been granted (social sciences versus natural sciences, or STEM versus humanities, etc.) , I was tacitly participating in the type of elitism for which many academic institutions have historically been known (Gross & Grambsch, 1968)—and I was enjoying it. So, I asked myself a hard question: Why? Why did I enjoy this bit of in-group ribbing when the in-group, which remains predominantly white and male, still views me as an outsider (Smithson, Sopeña, & Platow, 2015) and, often, holds me to much more stringent standards of performance and applies much more strident penalties if or when my performance falls short of those standards (Evans, 2007)? Why did I enjoy this undercurrent of false power that I felt rippling beneath my skin and escaping on the breath I exhaled while laughing at this meme? Why did I enjoy this “position” I felt my master’s degree and so many doctoral-level credits afforded me? Why did I so eagerly adopt this position as “intellectual gatekeeper” without earnestly interrogating all that it entailed, and asking a not-so-simple question: just whose gates was I keeping, and why? In exploring my own answers to these questions, I saw an opportunity to confront an unfortunate observation about my own experiences with place, power, and politics, both within and outside of academia—that the Black woman’s struggle for, and eventual attainment of, hard-won positions, especially as faculty and administrators in higher education, is often fraught with many emotional burdens that may manifest as hazing, at worst, and heightened scrutiny or “gatekeeping,” at best. Constant pressure to prove our merit may lead us to treat ourselves and our sisters unnecessarily harshly as we strive to be “twice as good” (Drumming, 2013) as our non-Black peers. In some cases, our striving to prove our merit on our respective campuses and to our colleagues may result in “cultural taxation” (Joseph & Hirshfield, 2011), leaving us overburdened and unable to connect with and mentor our sisters, resulting in a benign neglect that can deprive us all of opportunities to forge much-needed connections and develop avenues of camaraderie and advocacy. A much more detrimental result of such “gatekeeping” lies on the other side of the “gate”: our sisters seeking mentors and advocates may develop bitterness and other antipathies toward those sister-academics and sister-administrators from whom they might have expected assistance, guidance, and “safe harbor” in the midst of academia’s epic political and professional storms (Agosto & Karanxha, 2011-2012).
As we continue our journey through academia, seeking to open gates for ourselves and our sisters, we will take some of the wisdom of our African ancestors with us:
Do not forget what it is to be a sailor because of being a captain yourself…
A fight between grasshoppers is a joy to the crow…
If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together…
Have you been stuck on the other side of the gate? Or, have you been a gate keeper? What have you done to help others or what has been to done to help you get through the gate?
Agosto, V., & Karanxha, Z. (2011-2012). Resistance Meets Spirituality in Academia: “I Prayed on it!”. Negro Educational Review, 41-66.
Bartlett, T., & Smallwood, S. (2004, June 25). The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved December 13, 2015, from http://chronicle.com Section: Special Report Volume 50, Issue 42, Page A9.
Drumming, N. (2013, October 4). “Scandal’s” racially charged motto: “You have to be twice as good as them”. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com: http://www.salon.com/2013/10/04/scandals_racially_charged_motto_you_have_to_be_twice_as_good_as_them/
Evans, S. Y. (2007). Women of Color in American Higher Education. Thought & Action: The NEA Higher Education Journal, 131-138.
Gross, E., & Grambsch, P. V. (1968). University Goals and Academic Power. Washington, DC.: American Council on Education.
Joseph, T. D., & Hirshfield, L. E. (2011). ‘Why don’t you get somebody new to do it?’ Race and cultural taxation in the academy. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 121-141.
Smithson, M., Sopeña, A., & Platow, M. J. (2015). When Is Group Membership Zero-Sum? Effects of Ethnicity, Threat, and Social Identity on Dual National Identity. PLoS ONE, 1-18.