Confronting Racial Injustice during the Doctoral Process: Responding to Our National Crisis

Patterns of racial injustice continue to overwhelm the nation and like many of us, doctoral students are feeling the brunt of the crisis.  For administrators, faculty members, and supporters of the doctoral student experience, we consider the ways this crisis impacts the academic environment and the doctoral process.  We think about how to make our environments more supportive and responsive to the needs of our intellectual communities.  We find it important to think about what our students are experiencing, feeling, and how they may be responding to racial injustice personally and through their work in order to understand how we can be meaningful advocates.  Doctoral students who are committed to addressing racial injustice related to their identities and research may find themselves struggling to discuss issues they care about deeply.  In some academic environments, they may be the only people who care about standing up against racial injustice and inequity.

To support these students, confrontation of racial inequity can begin with creating spaces for open dialogue during these difficult times.  Graduate school administrators should provide formal opportunities to discuss these issues within their academic communities.  Providing these opportunities should be a year-long commitment to include the summer months in addition to the fall and spring semesters as these incidents occur throughout the year.  Formal discussions could involve large or small group meetings led by collaborative groups of faculty, administrators, and students with support from tailored social media efforts focused on topics discussed.   For example, there are several online resources that support these kinds of conversations should members of these collaborative groups be interested in further addressing these issues in their academic work/assignments.

When discussing racial issues with doctoral students oftentimes questions are raised about whether there is difference between the experiences White students and historically marginalized students. Historical context provides a framework for understanding how exclusionary practices within predominately White institutions shapes this difference. i  This context should be introduced during discussions about race related to the doctoral process.  The validity of difference is sometimes based on the premise that all doctoral students experience the process in similar ways. That is to say, doctoral students participate in a doctoral process, they have faculty advisers, they conduct research, they write dissertations and defend them, and so forth.  Activities within the doctoral process should be addressed when racially charged events are the focal point of discussion, raising awareness about these issues should emphasize students’ perspectives and the support they need to manage their scholarly activities.  Some of these issues may include:

  • Managing stereotypes related to one’s identity and work
  • Managing the experience of being the only historically marginalized doctoral student in one’s program
  • Addressing the absence of discussions related to racial injustice on the seeing racially charged events as a national crisis
  • Understanding and managing the awkward experience of double consciousness
  • Relating the social/emotional understanding of issues to one’s intellectual endeavors
  • Developing one’s voice within the academic community to support the awareness of these issues in one’s work
  • Finding faculty, administrators, and peers as allies in confronting racial injustice

Doctoral students from all backgrounds may bear an emotional weight related to the national crisis of racial injustice in the shootings of people of color and law enforcement officials.  For those doctoral students committed to social justice issues in their research, they may carry the emotional burden as well as the responsibility for addressing historical legacies of racial injustice, discrimination, and inequity related to these incidents.  For them confronting racism is more than creating policies and improving practices for people of color; it’s about saving lives, communities and generations that have been historically oppressed. They understand that different forms of racism invariably create lethal circumstances for historically marginalized communities.  Therefore, it’s important for graduate education communities to understand that establishing institutional support that values the research and identity of their doctoral students can serve to inform intellectual communities about how to confront racial injustice.