Two days after successfully defending my dissertation, and therewith officially gaining access to the club of folks with “PhD” after their names, I boarded a plane for Baltimore to attend the bi-annual Society for Research in Adolescent Development conference. I felt dejected and utterly exhausted, and anxious about having to discuss the defense experience both with people I knew and didn’t know. SRCD proved to be precisely the right salve for my wounds, however, as I listened to critical, anti-racist, reflective, and progressive panel discussions, round tables, and symposia on topics relevant to my personal and academic interests.
My defense was not such an experience. I anticipated tough, probing questions, but what I encountered were accusatory queries all framed around the basic question of “Why are you criticizing the status quo?” Instead of asking me about my methods, analysis, or implications, I was asked to defend the existence of microaggressions to a professor who stated that she didn’t believe in them, to lay out an argument for why I didn’t want to use the cultural distance model by a postdoc who firmly believes in static cultural differences, and to explain how my knowledge on identity in Germany could ever really be viewed as valid since I “have an American background.” Basically, I was asked to defend my decision to engage in anti-racist, social justice oriented work, rather than to discuss the work itself. I should have seen this coming, but somehow I thought that if my committee actually read my dissertation they might want to discuss its contents. What became clear was that instead, they wanted me to make them feel better about their choices to not engage in similar work.
The whole experience made me sigh a deep sigh of sadness that this is still the norm, that pushing boundaries always leads to push-back from above, and that white folks sure don’t like to be told that they’re perpetuating racism. It also made me so glad for a break from Germany for a few weeks as I reflect, regroup, and move forward.