Beginner's Heart

via google

via google

This is a story about what happens (far too often) when you have a PhD, or at least when folks find out you have a PhD (and I rarely confess to this!). It’s the sad story of a culture where folks either react w/ insecurity, or hostility. In about equal measures, depending on the conversation.

And here’s the deal: I don’t think you need a ‘scholar’ to lead a talk about a book you read. Even though I’ve done that, many times.  What’s wrong with your own opinion? Can a scholar help you identify subtleties, possibly give you background? Sure. But it breaks my heart to hear my sister, or a very bright woman at a presentation, tell me ‘I don’t read books the way you do, I’m sure.’ HELLO! I read junk mysteries, for cryin’ out loud! Just how ‘deep’ do you think those are??

That wasn’t really a digression, just FYI… 🙂 It’s more by way of contrasting the overwhelming respect explicit in the warm handshakes and embarrassing gratitude for my presence at a recent event, with the dismissal of any useful elements of a Ph.D. in another venue.

the author's

the author’s

I’m not naming the 2nd event — only a small minority was straddling the us/them divide. And interesting to note?  The dismissive rhetoric stemmed most heavily from the bona fide academics — the Ph.Ds. — as ‘regular’ folks (re: non-pointy heads). The doctoral crowd was insisting they were ‘just folks.’ Well, if you have to insist on it? You probably aren’t. And doesn’t that seem… well, a little condescending?? “Yes, I have this degree, but you know what? It’s nothing.”

I’d like to believe that the issue is that these tactless folks were trying to let the many intelligent folks at the event know that knowledge doesn’t live only in doctoral robes. My Aunt Bonnie — 8th grade education — was as savvy a person as I know. She read omniverously, and knew more about plants, cooking, and other home skills than Martha Stewart’s entire empire. Still, just saying ‘I’m folks!‘ is… well, not enough.

It would be like me insisting that I ‘get’ racial discrimination . I’m a WHITE person, and one of privilege, at that. I can study racism all my life, and the closest I come to ‘getting it’ is thinking how it felt to have brown kids in Algeria throw rocks at me because I have blonde hair (prostitutes used to advertise — at least in Algiers, where I was living — by bleaching their hair blonde…sigh). Still, I could leave. In other words, not the same. I’m not clueless, but I can never (really) ‘get it.’

So here’s my question: what’s up w/ this schism? I know that having a doctorate puts me in about 1/2 of 1% of Americans, as a female. That’s privilege, folks. No way around it. But I also know I try HARD not to use my privilege as a ‘weapon.’ That said, somebody must be, because of the overwhelmingly insecure reactions I receive when it ‘comes out.’

via flickr

via flickr

Again, like racism: just because I’m not a racist, and try very hard not to take advantage of white privilege, doesn’t mean there’s no racism. And it also doesn’t mean that despite my rejection of this system, I don’t continue to benefit from it.

It’s only when I compare my doctorate to white privilege that I begin to understand why I felt so uncomfortable with the PhDs insisting they weren’t pointy-heads. I happen to know they’re very nice people, and they really don’t take their educations the wrong kind of seriously. But again — just saying something doesn’t make it so.  It took a different lens for me to understand all that was wrong w/ their insistence.

Until most American women — most Americans, period — have doctorates, I am NOT ‘just folks.’ No matter how modest my birth, no matter what I want to think. And until the rate of incarceration, poverty, and violent death for brown people is the same as for white people, racism exists. Just saying it doesn’t (I’m looking at you, Supreme Court) isn’t enough to make it go away…


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