February 25, 2016

From Gilded to Golden

Students of color in academia still feel like outsiders.

We are meant to be more than our grades, our majors, our careers, and the “life of the mind” we pursue. However, for many students this sort of thinking is a luxury. Many students of color—myself included—come from families that society looks down upon because of our incomes and livelihoods. As we leave home, instructions to pursue our own happiness are not forged into our consciousness by our parents. Rather, there seems to be an imperative to improve not only our own lives, but also the lives of the families we hold dear and the families we hope to someday bring into this world. A chance to study at an elite institution like the University of Chicago is the gilded gate of opportunity to take on a new identity as an intellectual, an academic, a scholar, a member of the social elite.

These aspirations should be attainable through our work to establish ourselves in these academic communities. However, while our contributions to the literature of these fields may be substantial and the regard colleagues have for our names may change, our habitual physical interactions with the system do not change. Students of color continue to be seen as outsiders.

Should submitting myself to the oddly frequent requests for my hospital ID badge, to the suspicious looks from hospital faculty, or to the maintenance requests from scientists in the corridor all be considered slightly “different” initiation rites into the UChicago biomedical science community? Should I tell myself that compromises can be made?

For years, students of color at elite institutions have fought to push into these unwelcoming spaces and make them homes. We have made compromises in the hopes that the fears of these institutions toward the outsiders will subside. However, incidents on this campus, along with my own experience of being searched without an explanation by the hospital where I work, have provided substantial proof that we are not simply seen as outsiders. Outsiders can be brought into communities—they are not inherently dangerous. But criminals are continually pushed out and never accepted.

The recent arrest of Princeton professor Imani Perry during a routine traffic stop has further clarified that no amount of intellectual standing in academia can protect minorities from improper treatment from authorities. It does not matter how actively people of color engage in academia or how “presentable” we make ourselves—our faces will forever be stamped with the insignias of our presumed criminal status. My usual nerdy aesthetic of collared shirts, sweaters, and khakis are insufficient to rid myself of an “urban” aura—there is simply no way of dressing that can counter the way people look at my skin. Although today people would largely denounce the defunct dogma that Blacks or Latin@s are more prone to criminal activity, it appears to be especially difficult to shake these notions within our elite academic institutions. From research laboratories to political houses, there is a constant reminder of cultural norms that speaks beyond problems of quantifiable diversity.

While my work as a student researcher has allowed me to literally enter into spaces with the scientific elite, just as other UChicago students of color have entered into elite realms within their own disciplines, it is clear that I cannot fix the attitudes of an institution as a whole toward me. It is my hope that I can play a role in changing the perception of people of color in science and help to slowly erode preconceived notions of who does not belong in these spaces. These auspicious, golden-gated spaces will eventually open to all students. Slowly but surely, we can make these masquerade-like transitions from criminal to scientist, politician, or lawyer extend from ephemeral experiences into permanent parts of our identities as intellectuals, academics, and scholars.

Gustavo Pacheco is a third-year in the College studying Biology and Romance Languages/Literatures.

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