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Scholars urge graduate programs to do better by women of color

Degrees of Difference: Reflections of Women of Color on Graduate School

Kimberly D. McKee and Denise A. Delgado, eds.
University of Illinois Press
232 pp.
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The rapid expansion of interstate highways in the 1950s led to a marked increase in travel by Americans. While White families traveled with ease, African Americans and other marginalized groups had to plan every detail of their trips to avoid “sundown towns” en route to their destinations (1). Black families relied on an annual publication to navigate the country’s hostile terrain, a manual known as the Green-Book (2). Degrees of Difference is another sort of green book, one that provides advice to women of color in graduate programs about how to survive and thrive while navigating hostile academic environments. In doing so, the book shines a light on the ways that graduate programs are failing these individuals.

Edited by Kimberly D. McKee and Denise A. Delgado, Degrees of Difference is a collection of essays about the North American graduate experience from the intersectional (3) perspective of Chicana, Arab, Latina, Cherokee, Asian, and Black women in programs in the medical sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences. The book’s contributors use a technique known as “counterstorytelling” to center their lived experiences in the academy (4). By challenging traditional narratives, they illuminate the policies that exclude women of color from fully participating in academia and the practices that serve as daily reminders that the ivory tower was not built with them in mind.

In a chapter titled “Evoking My Shadow Beast,” Carrie Sampson cites policies that assume that graduate students are one-dimensional with “no life outside of our programs.” Policies such as strict time-to-degree—which are at odds with parental leave, if such leave is even available—push many women out of the academy. This sentiment is echoed by Regina Emily Idoate in her piece “Stats and Stories,” in which she argues that graduate programs do not “work family time into the academic calendar.” Such policies disproportionality affect women of color. Idoate goes on to say that promotion and tenure policies that do not value “diversity-related service” impose an expensive tax on women of color who do enter the professoriate and are expected to take the lead on making the academy inclusive.

Exclusionary policies are compounded by exclusionary practices. For example, when faculty fail to include the scholarship of women of color in the curriculum or, more broadly, when women of color are not represented in the student body and the professoriate, it perpetuates erasure and implicitly signals that women of color do not belong. As Aeriel A. Ashlee writes, “Not seeing myself represented in the scholars of my academic program…was just one of many racial microaggressions” experienced (5).

In the book’s foreword, numerous studies are cited that empirically show that there is a “hidden curriculum in graduate training” and that this curriculum “maintains the status quo of what knowledge is valid and who is legitimized as a knowledge producer.” In “You’re Going to Need a Team,” Delia Fernández reiterates this point by reminding readers that “the presence of poor and working-class women of color at universities disrupts the very foundation of higher education.”

Degrees of Difference flips the traditional deficit narrative, which purports that minoritized individuals need to be fixed, to one that presents undeniable evidence that graduate program policies and practices are what actually needs to be fixed. By making visible the uncomfortable truths about graduate education, the book incites the disruption needed to make change happen. Each counterstory provides wisdom about how to thrive in hostile graduate terrain. But more importantly, each counterstory is a call to action for graduate programs to do better. Until that happens, works like Degrees of Difference will continue to be essential to the success of women of color, who shoulder the work of moving the proverbial doctoral-attainment needle.

References and Notes:
1. J. W. Loewen, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (The New Press, 2018).
2. V. H. Green, Ed., The Negro Motorist Green-Book (Snowball Publishing, 1940).
3. K. Crenshaw, Stanford Law Rev. 43, 1241 (1991).
4. D. G. Solórzano, T. J. Yosso, Qual. Inq. 8, 23 (2002).
5. D. W. Sue, Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation (Wiley, 2010).

About the author

The reviewer is a program officer at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Chevy Chase, MD, USA, and president of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, Santa Cruz, CA, USA.