Not having been born or raised in the US means that there are cultural aspects that I don’t understand as viscerally as someone who grew up here, went to school here, and had their formative experiences here. I am white, and I understand that it confers considerable privileges to me in this society; being foreign-born means I also lose some. I am not going to claim that I have no biases, but I probably don’t hold the exact same ones or don’t hold them in the exact same way as someone who looks exactly like me, but who grew up right here. I am also sure that I do not have a very good grasp of all the challenges that people of color face in the US; I am reading and learning, and I do understand that the issue of race in the US is still very, very painful.
An undergraduate researcher who just started a summer project in my group is among our top undergrads, extremely smart and talented for the type of work that my group does, as well as a really great person. She is a young black woman from Africa. Today, she came to ask for advice regarding where to go to graduate school, because she doesn’t want to stay in the US. I asked what she didn’t like about the US, and she said she wanted to go somewhere where her skin would not a big deal; she felt race was all that she was hearing about in the news these days, and she wanted to go someplace where it’s not going to be an issue.
My first though was, “Dang… I don’t think there’s a place like that in the West.” My second thought was, “I think I am totally unqualified to give advice on this topic…”
We talked for a little while. I think I understand some of what she is feeling — she is facing the racial tensions in the US, and even though much of it seems like it should apply to her because of her skin, she does not really feel like it does. She is new to this country, she is black but not African American, the complex and painful history of racial conflict in the US is really not part of her heritage. She is black, but she has not grown up black in America.
I told her that I thought she was very smart and talented and that she really could do great in her chosen field. I also told her that she was female and black and that it’s probably going to be a double minority whammy going forward, with role models few and far between.
As a woman, I told her that people sometimes commented that I had gotten something based on my gender. I told her she was likely to experience such comments herself, both on account of race and gender, especially as she progressed through her career. These comments would make her question her worth, and I said that, to be successful, she would need to find a way to not let those comments have her doubt herself for very long. I said people sucked, but luckily not all of them , and that there were great people everywhere who would support her and she needed to surround herself with them.
We went on the web and I pulled up the pages of several black professors we have in the college, and some who came to mind at other schools, whose proposals I remember reviewing and who I thought did really great work.
I also told her that, strictly as an immigrant, she might never be as comfortable anywhere as in her home country, regardless of skin color. I am as white as they come, and I still live with perpetual low-level discomfort of being other. If I were a person of color, I am sure it would suck much more to live where I do now.
I wish I could have told her more, but I am not sure what. I hope I at least clearly conveyed that I thought that she’s really awesome, that she belonged in this field, that successful people who looked like her existed even if they weren’t numerous.
She said I’d given her a lot to think about. I wish I could have given her more or better advice, that there is this utopia where she can just be her awesome self and kick butt while getting her advanced degree.
Is there a country in the developed world where it sucks less to be black than it does in the US? My experience with Europe is that it’s more closed off and xenophobic than the US; every European country seems to have its own dark-skinned ethnicity to hate.
Is there something important that I missed? Should I make sure she talks to some of the faculty of color in the college? I would like to help but I honestly don’t know that I am even qualified to give advice on how to navigate her future career as a woman of color in the physical sciences. Maybe she is right to look outside of the US, maybe there are countries where she’d be more comfortable. Should I have recommended looking at cities where young black professionals seem to be doing well, like here or here?
I feel like I should have said something more, but I am not even sure what that would be.
Maybe it’s one of those issues where I should just follow her lead and talk when she needs to talk, otherwise leave it alone.
I just hope she knows she is really awesome.
What say you, blogosphere? Any advice?
It would be really great to hear from readers of color about what they think might help my student.