Interrogating Allyship in Cross-Race Doctoral Advising Relationships

By: Shana E. Rochester and Nell K. Duke

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Successfully navigating the P-12 school system and becoming a doctoral student comes with its own privilege, but having a degree while Black will not protect you from being harassed in broad daylight by individuals who swore to protect and serve you (cf. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.), nor save you from individuals who use their White privilege as a weapon against you (cf. Christian Cooper). This isn’t anything new, and the collective Black experience does not insulate Black academics from the racism, oppression, and subtle stings of microaggressions that Black people encounter on a regular basis in endless other contexts. Right now, Black doctoral students are experiencing the ongoing racial injustices in society and academia in the midst of experiencing a global pandemic and even more isolation that graduate education typically entails as a result of remote learning.

This story is one of many that gets little attention in higher education: Black doctoral advisees with White progressive advisors in education and the social sciences. We — a Black former doctoral student and her White doctoral advisor — have written this piece to illustrate how we navigated having an open conversation about the niceties of our professional relationship as they relate to racial violence and educational inequity. After briefly providing some context, we present a vignette of a recent conversation and offer recommendations for White advisors and their Black doctoral advisees. It is our hope that our story can serve as a model of how to have difficult conversations to build authentic cross-race advising relationships.

Vignette

Two years following Shana’s graduation and nearing the completion of her post-doctoral position, she and Nell were emailing about negotiations for an academic position. Nell sent the following email:

Hi Shana,I think that was a good call to [negotiation decision Shana had made] and it's so understandable that [something Nell asked about] is not negotiable. It's great you were able to get [two features of Shana’s forthcoming contract]. All so exciting!I'm sorry that the backdrop of all this is COVID-19 and yet more police brutality. Ernest [Morrell, Professor, University of Notre Dame] and I posted this Monday, connecting what happened to George Floyd to our field:[link to commentary]Best,Nell[email signature at the bottom of the chain, following Nell’s name, title, affiliations, address, contact info, and the following:]I acknowledge that land on which I live and work is the ancestral homeland of the Anishinaabeg and Wyandot peoples. I acknowledge that my employer, my family, and I benefit daily from past exploitation of and genocide against these peoples. I acknowledge that I have a responsibility to work toward just treatment of all peoples.

Shana realized after some reflecting that Nell’s email did not sit right with her. Shana also recognized that her negative feelings were rooted in missed opportunities for open communication during her graduate training that were exacerbated by recent events. As a result, Shana (a) processed her feelings by writing an essay on racism in cross-race doctoral advising, (b) scheduled a phone meeting with Nell to discuss how her email made Shana feel, and (c) sent Nell the essay in advance of the meeting. The following vignette includes excerpts from our (much longer) conversation to the best of our memory (we did not record it).

Shana’s Recommendations

For Black Advisees: Address Issues in Ways that Work for You. Throughout the vignette, we share one Black former doctoral student’s approach to addressing feelings of discouragement with her White advisor in this reflection piece, but this approach may not work for everyone. If as a Black advisee you experience something similar and are not at the point where you can write to or talk openly with your White advisor, consider alternative approaches that are available to you (e.g., speaking confidentially with other departmental staff, a graduate school representative, or a trusted colleague). For those that find the courage and want to make the time, having an open conversation with your advisor — prospective, current, or former — in a way that communicates the nuances within your professional relationship can aid you in creating an academically affirming space for yourself. I am hopeful that these conversations will have a positive influence on your experiences, the experiences of your colleagues, and the future Black scholars that your doctoral advisor trains. Until then, just know you are not alone in this struggle.

For White Advisors: Acknowledge your Privilege. Like many of your Black advisees, you may be grappling with your professional identity and the ways in which your scholarship can be used to push back against the racist narratives about students from racially minoritized backgrounds. Unfortunately, the incentive structure of academia often rewards frequent publications and a scholarly reputation, often at the expense of critical scholarship. As Nell mentions in Line 8, it is a privilege to advocate for one over the other. Many of your Black advisees pursued graduate degrees with the sole intent of disrupting this inequity, an interest that is often informed by very personal lived experiences.

As career scholars who are seeking to become a part of a community of scholars with disciplinary knowledge, we rely look to advisors to guide us as we navigate the intersection of (a) our critical research interests, (b) academia, and (c) a broader body of highly specialized scholarship of which our advisors have been deemed expert. I suggest in Lines 7 and 9 that advisors’ reasoning behind certain decisions (e.g., new email signature, not signing on as a co-author) are often unclear and can unintentionally cause advisees to question the advisors’ commitment to equity-oriented work. Reflecting on and being transparent about these decisions, as appropriate, can help us know where you stand on key issues.

Nell’s Recommendations

For White Advisors #1: Be Intentional, Not Casual. Like many academics, I write dozens if not hundreds of emails a day. For a lot of these, it is not only understandable but acceptable to work quickly, not taking time to reflect, labor over wording choices, or re-read. But when you are emailing about race, that should not be your way of working. Being casual about race is in itself an exercise of White privilege. Had I re-read the email before sending it, I hope that I would have noticed and revised my problematic wording, been clearer about the intent of sharing the commentary, or perhaps rethought sharing it all together. I suspect that for White women who consider themselves allies — for example who lean in to rather than avoid conversations about race — there may be a particular danger in becoming overly casual about race.

For White Advisors #2: Focus on the Effect of the Action, Rather than the Intent. It’s often said that White women want to focus on their intent — that their heart was ‘in the right place’ — rather than on their impact, which may in fact be the opposite of their intent. Yes, my email and my land acknowledgement were well intended, but their effect was to cause multiple harms to a Black woman at an especially bad time to cause those harms. The impact of my actions needs to be where my focus lies in responding to students and in reflecting on my actions past and future.

For White Advisors #3: Err on the Side of Explanation. Shana’s use of the term “swiftly” in 9 is so important. I should have taken the time to explicitly explain to Shana that my response that I should not be listed as a co-proposer/presenter was not a judgment on the value of the work or its potential effect on my scholarly record. Rather my response reflected my confidence in her abilities and independence and my sense of whether I’d contributed above-and-beyond what would normally be expected as an advisor. I should have shown with examples that I rarely sign on as a co-author of pieces lead authored by my doctoral students — of any racial background — and explained the rare circumstances in which I do. Norms about advisors as co-presenters or co-authors on student-led work seem to differ even within the two fields I am centered in — Psychology and Education — and from advisor to advisor, so I should have been transparent about my position no matter what the background of my student, but particularly with a Black student who is vulnerable both as a Black scholar and as a scholar writing about racial equity. I should have invited a conversation and negotiation, using my privilege to open up a space in which I might have learned that, for example, Shana would feel safer if I was included as a co-proposer/presenter of the piece.

For White Advisors #4: Recognize that Allyship does not Equate to Good Advising. In reflecting on this conversation with Shana, I realized that I never once asked her how it was going for her to have a White advisor in general, and having me as an advisor in particular. I never asked her for general feedback (beyond something like, ‘Did my suggestion in your outline help?’) or created a space in which she felt safe to raise concerns about that co-proposer/presenter situation or others that arose. I do remember being comforted that she had two outstanding Black women scholars on her dissertation committee, but I never reached out to them either to ask for feedback on my advising of Shana. I made a lot of assumptions, for example that Shana’s success as a student (e.g., awards she won, progress on her dissertation, publications) meant that all was well. I lacked awareness of the cost at which such successes can come for Black women doctoral students or my complicity and even amplification of those costs. I urge White advisors not to assume that your general allyship means that you are a good advisor for Black students and to make learning to be a better advisor part of your work.

Joint Recommendation: Recognize Conversations Are Ongoing and Require Vulnerability

We acknowledge that conversations like these are not easy to broach. Shana, who was two years removed from graduating from her doctoral program at the time of this incident, was so fearful of sharing the essay and meeting with Nell that it took her over a month to build up the courage to do so. As Shana illustrates in Line 11, the inherent power dynamic of the relationship and the risk of advisees speaking out can have major negative implications for their professional careers. The example highlighted here represents just one of many possible outcomes of having racially-motivated conversations within cross-race advising relationships. Nell asserts in Line 12 that it’s difficult to hear that Shana would expect alienation as a result of bringing up her feelings, but the harsh reality is that not all advisors are ready to have an honest dialogue with their advisees.

It’s okay if White advisors become uncomfortable when their advisee pushes them to have explicit conversations about racial inequity, both in the context of our global society and within your professional relationship. Being a true ally, which includes providing support through listening, speaking honestly, acknowledging your mistakes, and advocating on behalf of your Black advisees, can go a long way toward improving their mental health and graduate success.

Final Thoughts

A hard reality is that many Black-White doctoral advising pairs may never have an open and honest dialogue about the perceived injustices they experience in their professional relationship. This is not an indicator, however, of the pervasiveness of negative experiences many Black doctoral students face from White faculty as evidenced by the #BlackInTheIvory hashtag, a social media label showcasing current and former Black students’ experiences of discrimination and alienation in academia. We hope that by sharing our story and offering recommendations we can provide advisors and advisees with tools for interrogating allyship and becoming true allies in the fight for racial justice.

Shana E. Rochester, Ph.D., is a research associate in the Sherman Center for Early Learning in Urban Communities at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She can be reached at shana1@umbc.edu and her Twitter handle is @shanaerochester.

Nell K. Duke, Ed.D., is a professor in literacy, language, and culture in the School of Education and also in the combined program in education and psychology at the University of Michigan. She can be reached at nkduke@umich.edu and her Twitter handle is @nellkduke.

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