“What Am I Supposed to Say to Prospective Black Grad Students?”

The following remarks were made by Austin McCoy during the Regents’ meeting on Thursday, February 20. We are publishing them here with his support.

My name is Austin McCoy. I am a 5th year graduate student and one of the organizers of the United Coalition for Racial Justice’s Speak Out. Thanks for allowing me to address you all.

“This will be the only time you see us, so you will know what it feels like to go to school here.” Two black graduate students in the department of history uttered this statement to me during our recruitment visit five years ago. Five years ago, many of you may have dismissed their sentiment. Unfortunately, their message was prescient. While I have enjoyed much professional success here, I have not escaped the isolation and exploitation that many black students face. Like many black students here, I am often one of a few in classes and university-sponsored social gatherings. I have been asked to speak for my race in class. I have experienced upsetting interactions with non-black professors and students around issues of race. I can count on one hand the amount of black students I have taught while GSI-ing history classes—five to be exact. That means I have taught one black student a year.

As a black graduate student, I’ve had to perform uncompensated, and often emotionally-taxing, hidden labor. I’ve had to serve as the “racial middle-man” in my department at times—a critic of some white graduate students and professors, an explainer of the nuances of race to white, and some non-black, graduate students, and a sounding board for students of color. I do so to protect myself (a black man on campus cannot hide from racism on campus) and because I believe in trying to change my environment. Yet, I consciously perform these tasks at the risk of professional and personal isolation.  And, to be clear, I do not always ask to perform this labor—these experiences and roles have found me. The color of my skin attracts these roles.

My experience is a reflection of the overall decline in black enrollment over the last 17 years. My experience reflects the point that as black enrollment declines, so does the racial climate. I welcome the President’s and Martha Pollack’s admission of the university’s shortcomings. But I share the skepticism of the previous speakers from BAMN. History suggests that the university is not a leader of diversity—black enrollment only reached 9 percent once in the last forty years. Sure, we have more black faces in higher places in the University. UM has placed more black faces in higher places in the world, but isolation and marginalization remains.

This is why over a thousand of us packed the library for the Speak Out on Tuesday night. I am disappointed by an administration that uses limits as a crutch. That’s so uninspiring. The Prop 2 argument is also misleading. Black enrollment began declining in the late 1990s, not just after 2006. This administration also likes to take credit for the student’s, faculty’s, and staff’s political labor. Students, faculty, and staff have been on the frontline of the struggle, in which I am a newcomer. This is why it should be up to students, faculty, and staff to devise solutions to the problem of climate.

So, my question to you would be, “What am I supposed to say to prospective black graduate students when they visit in March?” Questions about climate, enrollment, and the lack of a critical mass of African Americans often arise in our discussions. Am I supposed to lie to them to cover for the administration’s failure? I would love to tell them that I attend a university that wants to create a vision of diversity that does not obscure problems for particular groups. I would love to be able to tell them that we transformed the university into a more inclusive and just place from the bottom-up. But, anyone who knows me knows I cannot defend the university’s lie and its anemic response. I don’t care to be a victor. I care to be a truth-teller. I would be compelled to tell them about how life as a black graduate student could be isolating and emotionally and psychologically taxing. I would have to tell them that they would have few opportunities to engage black students in the classroom as a GSI and a graduate student. I would be compelled to warn them of what’s to come—isolation and marginalization.

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