“But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” -W.B. Yeats
Before I begin to tell my story, I have one thing I want to ask of you. Like you, I have a story that is filled with joy, pain, hope, and disappointment. Like you, I too have dreams just as any human being who has ever walked the earth has had dreams. By telling my story, I am spreading my dreams under your feet. Please be gentle with my dreams just as you would be gentle with your own.
With that in mind, I’ll begin.
First of all you should know that my parents are white and they didn’t graduate from a college or university. They worked (and still work) in industries that are considered “working class.” There were times when my parents did not have stable jobs and money was more than tight; it was nonexistent. In these times, my family bought food with food stamps and lived in a house that was owned by a more well off family from church. My parents paid what they could (in rent) when they could. The owners were more than gracious and we all tried our best to be grateful. However, when you feel like a charity case (and in our case we were one) there is a sense of being “less than” that lends gratitude a bitter aftertaste.
Unfortunately, I have carried this aftertaste with me through much of my life; very rarely do I feel like I am “good enough.” Rather, I often have the sense that I am stained with a past that, even if I put on a good show, I am certain will break through anything valuable I have to offer. It’s a tough place to be, especially as I have taken on more and more responsibilities throughout the years. Over the past two decades, I married my husband, had two children, and taught secondary students in urban areas. I graduated with a masters degree in English and masters degree in education. Most recently, I earned a Ph.D.; all before I was 40. Knowing this, it might not be a surprise to anyone reading this that I live with depression and anxiety disorders. Much of my life has come at me fast and hard and there have been some times where I have struggled to mentally and emotionally adapt.
To cope, I have become well acquainted with the help of pills and people–SSRIs and talk therapy–and I consistently use these resources to help me deal with the daily challenges of life so I don’t tap out of the game and call it quits. Without them, I would still be me, but I would spend much more of my mental and emotional resources having to deal with my own personal pain rather than having enough space to give to others.
This is how I began my Ph.D. program in education. Aware of my mental and emotional challenges, I had been able to cope fairly effectively with depression and anxiety; although like many, there were times that were more or less challenging than others. As I entered this new place in my life journey, I hoped (like many aspiring academics) that earning a doctorate would be a way for me to do something meaningful with my life while contributing to an academic community.
At first, everything ran smoothly. Eager to begin my studies, I took on a fairly typical workload: a graduate research position and two courses per semester. My kids were young, so anytime that wasn’t spent on school or work was spent on them. Life was busy, to say the least; yet, I kept my weekly appointments with my 25-dollar-an-hour-therapist, went to class, made some friends, and did my homework. Shortly into my first year of studies, I was offered a different graduate research position working on a grant funded project in the education department. I snapped the position up, excited to be seen as a competent partner in the academic community.
A few weeks into my new job, I began to feel like something was off. I came to work, did what my position required, checked in with my supervisor, and tried to make friends with colleagues. Yet, there were moments that made me feel strange–like I was on the outside looking in. For instance, one day, I was talking with my supervisor in her office when several colleagues came in and started bantering back and forth. The jokes, like many things in academia, took a quick turn toward race until I found myself sitting in the middle of a room where my colleagues were joking about how I was the only white person there. I laughed nervously, not knowing how to respond.
Around that same time, I took a required course centered around the very Marxist notion of “power and privilege.” Throughout the class, I felt frustrated and confused by the lack of rigor and diverse thought in much of the material we read. For example, I remember being asked to read an article in class that asked, “Is Your Baby Racist.” Reading it, I pictured my own blue eyed, blonde haired baby and thought it was ludicrous that he might be considered racist even though he could barely talk.
Following this course, I began another course that was supposedly about urban education. Each class often began with the TA leading everyone through a recitation of the tenets of critical race theory (CRT). As a student, I felt like I was back in grade school when we all stood to recite the pledge of allegiance–only, this time, we were pledging our allegiance to a theory that was just that: a theory. This was distasteful to me, so I mouthed the words without really saying them while everyone around me repeated the “tenets” with solemnity.
In class, we read more and more articles and books about the scourge of “whiteness” and the patriarchal dominance of white men. Following this, the professor would set out on a diatribe likening antiracism to the cause of feminism which inextricably linked the two “isms” in many students’ minds. Then came white fragility–a theory that made me feel like I was “damned if I did and damned if I didn’t” because I was white. As a white person (no matter my socioeconomic background) I felt that I was irredeemably “guilty” of being privileged in ways others were not. Thus, if I questioned the arguments of people of color; if I was silent in a conversation about race; or, if (God forbid) I started to get emotional in conversation with people of color, I was guilty of having “privilege” that others did not and could not wield.
This became frightfully clear to me in one particular instance when our class was required to read a series of articles about the racist tendencies of white educators. Trying to take a critical stance (Isn’t that what doctoral students are supposed to do?), I read the articles carefully and generated very specific questions. At one point in class, I questioned the verbiage of an article and intimated there was hyperbole in another. At another point I asked, “What if white people could have “safe spaces” to work out their privilege in places of higher education before they became urban teachers?” That’s when the room stopped. The TA looked shocked. The professor looked right at me and said (loudly), “There are NO safe spaces!” The yelling continued for a few minutes before it was handed over to a person of color who continued yelling at me from the other side of the room. I was motionless. Eventually, another student spoke up on my behalf and said, “Um, I don’t think that’s what she meant…” The room murmured at this–debating my meaning, privilege, and right to ask about safe spaces while the world of education, as I knew it, came crashing down. I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t. Leaving would be indicative of my white privilege. Tears burned behind my eyes, but I couldn’t cry. Tears would be indicative of my white fragility. Stuck to my chair, I dissociated–my mind leaving the place that had no longer become safe.
Minutes later (I think), I remember coming to myself and muttering, “I shouldn’t have said that. I shouldn’t have said that.” I don’t know exactly why I was saying that, except that I found myself in no man’s land–a wide open target with nowhere to hide. For better or worse, that was the last thing I said in that class for the following 12 weeks. My silence was partly due to my own self-preservation and partly due to the professor asking me (explicitly and implicitly) not to speak in class anymore. This silence was encouraged by weeks of the professor’s passive aggressive references to the “whiteness in the room a few weeks ago”–which I assumed meant me and my questions.
Feelings of shame were my constant companions every time I attended class.
To make things worse, fellow Ph.D. students began to distance themselves from me. I would be chatting with someone before class and say, “Hey! We should meet and get coffee sometime.” To which the response would be, “Sure! I’ll email you.” But, the emails never came. Neither did the article collaborations, or the conference presentations, or the connections to other peer scholars. My anxiety boiled up, rising until I was afraid to speak. Afraid to write. Afraid to go to class. I had stomach aches and became hyper aware of my surroundings. Could I say what I wanted here? Was someone lurking in the shadows waiting to catch my “privileged” self and condemn me? Was this room “safe” from people who wanted to tell me my thoughts, ideas, and words were wrong?
All of these questions and more plagued me not only that semester, but subsequent semesters, as well. In particular, during my final semester of coursework I was required to take one more course about Critical Theory. Similar to other courses of its ilk, this class became a venting session for student grievances against those with “power and privilege.” Taking a cue from previous experiences, I stayed mostly silent, until one of my friends was caught in the crossfire of a class “discussion.” Bravely, my friend had shared some personal questions about being white and growing up poor. Understanding the dilemma and the courage it took to bring up such questions, I silently cheered on my friend until other members of the class began, from my perspective, uncharitably criticizing my friend’s honest thoughts. So, cautiously, I raised my hand and thanked my friend for having the courage to speak. Then, I shared a quote I had been thinking about and sat down. The room went completely silent. It seemed like ages until the professor spoke and said, “Well, I changed my mind about where we are going in class today. We’re going to take a break in a minute but, I don’t want a white person to have the last word.” My hands started shaking and old feelings of not enough-ness began to rock my body as I fumed for the rest of class. Like before, I had been roundly dismissed and discouraged from speaking anything–even words to help bolster a friend.
This, however, is not the end of the story. Ultimately, I did finish my Ph.D. with the encouragement of family, true friends, and a few courageous professors. Yet, some scars remain, even though they are invisible to many–even to the trained eyes of therapists. You see, although I have brought up my Ph.D. experiences with more than one therapist, the therapists I have seen (both during and after my Ph.D. program) have been unwilling, or unable, to give more than a cursory nod to the psychological damage done by a program steeped in Critical Theory.
And, it is here that this part of my story ends and the next one begins. Part two of this piece will explore the experiences I had (both during and after my Ph.D) when I brought these experiences to therapy.
A.W. (Anonymous Writer)