"Were You In Prison?": Exposing Assumptions Of Incarceration While In A Doctoral Program

Given what is happening on college campuses across the country I feel compelled to write and share some of my own experiences with racism in college. I should start by saying that I stand with Jonathan Butler and the brave students working for a more racially inclusive and equitable campus environment at the University of Missouri and other institutions of higher learning across the country. I am so moved by your spirit, and encouraged by your continued political participation that I feel a responsibility to share a racist experience (one of many) on my own campus. What follows is the encounter...

It is hard for me to articulate the excitement I felt when I was accepted into my doctoral program. As I read the email, my thoughts immediately went to my childhood and the barrios of Albuquerque, New Mexico. I thought of all the struggles, the gangs, the poverty, and the low expectations. But I also thought of all the support, mentoring, and coaching that got me to that point...to that email. Needless to say, I was beaming. By no means am I trying to say that my happiness was more palpable than any other newly accepted doctoral student. Yet, as a poor Chicano from the "West Side," I knew that my acceptance was uncommon. I felt invincible. Sadly, this euphoria was short lived. I was quickly reminded that I was an outsider, and this alienation began my first day on campus.

I vividly remember my first day. Simply getting ready for class was no easy feat. I remember agonizing over what to wear. Asking myself, do I wear a suit? Business casual? Jacket and tie? Jacket no tie? What kind of impression do I want to make? Do I want to be perceived as professional or real? Nonetheless, I decided on a suit as I recalled some advice that I received from my one professor of color during my undergraduate experience. I remember her warning me, "We [people of color] are not afforded the benefit of casual dress because they [white folks] will make assumptions".

So off I go, suited up and headed to class. I get there early and decide to get a drink from the lobby coffee shop. As I am waiting for class I strike up a casual conversation with a young white man. We make small talk, discussing weather, traffic, and sports scores. He then proceeds to inquire about where I am from and where I am headed "all dressed up". I tell him that I am originally from New Mexico and that I am headed to class. Not unkindly he asks "what program?" I tell him that I am starting my PhD. Without hesitation he responds "were you in prison?" The question stupefied me. I immediately thought, "Dude, I have never even received more than parking ticket. What would make you think I was in prison?" It's not like I have visible tattoos, as if that is some guarantee of previous incarceration. Yet, inherently, I knew he was referring to my pigmentation and perceived cultural background. I responded with a resounding "No!" My anger was visible and he tried to clarify and backtrack by saying "I'm totally kidding. I'm not racist. I just think it's great so many people are continuing their education under those circumstances...seriously some of the smartest people I've met have spent time in prison and were minorities."

In retrospect, and as I type this, I still get irate thinking about the interaction. And I recall that it took everything within myself not to lose it and I simply walked away. Despite my wrath, adrenaline, and skyrocketing heart rate, I remember feeling tired. Tired of lifetime of having to overcome ignorant stereotypes, slurs, micro-aggressions, and subordination. Little did I know was that this lobby conversation was just the beginning of many exhausting racist interactions during my first two years as a doctoral student. This is why the conversations that are being had around race, racism, and white supremacy on campuses across the nation are tantamount for our nation to move beyond color-blind ideologies and fight against the notion that our society is post-racial.