From Pain to Power

by | Feb 7, 2023 | Research | 0 comments

A central writing challenge that many scholars of color face is not merely that our voices, core ideas, and creative contributions are disproportionately scrutinized compared to our white counterparts, but that the gatekeeping is so well established that scholars of color often don’t always recognize how deeply we’ve buried our most meaningful ideas or words in our academic work. 

There is an underlying pressure to accept and adapt to conventional academic practices in higher education. Without such surrenders, would scholars of color be publishing research, receiving promotions, or completing their PhD’s?  Statistically speaking, especially for those whose research challenges the status quo, probably not. The threat against unearthing BIPOC voices is loud and it can etch a profound line of hesitation that shrouds the ways scholars of color write for academic audiences. We need to continue to create strategies for pressing on beyond these surrenders. The cost is too high not to. Without our unedited voices, academic violence persists and undermines the research that so desperately needs to be developed and published. 

Unearthing our Voices

“You have nothing new to say, you are a fraud, why are you in academia in the first place?” says the academically scrutinized mind when writing theories, analytics, methods, and research. I call this the ‘reactive-mode’ voice, the one that creeps up while we sit with our theories and ideas, ready to share our rigorous and unfiltered ideas….but instead we grow hesitant. Rather than remaining grounded in our creative ideas, many of us react emotionally to what we believe the academic gatekeepers of our fields will think. What makes reactive mode especially troubling is that many of us are not even aware it exists and that we are so deeply in it. How do we even begin to unearth our lost voices?

Academic oppression is so well established that the constant self-questioning BIPOC scholars participate in is considered ‘normal’ and something that they “just face” while writing research. The gap that emerges between our gut-level intellectual convictions, heartfelt thoughts, and creative analyses on the one hand, and what we are writing on the other, is an ever-widening chasm. The stories and voices that have been swallowed by that void are a profound loss to the university and to communities across the globe. If you’re curious whether or not you may need to unearth your lost voice, consider the following questions:

Do you feel disconnected from the way you have explained your research—like what you have written isn’t you?

At times, we can sense the lack of harmony between what we are writing and what we want to say.  It’s as if the voice within us moves through a “must-be-watered down” filter before it emerges at the other end of our cursor. What we end up with is often a far cry from the roots of our knowledge and belief. What’s worse is that sometimes we not only feel dissatisfied with what we’ve written, but we also misinterpret the dissatisfaction as further evidence of our lack of expertise, theoretical or analytical sophistication, or command over academic writing. The thoughts of the mind in reactive mode are close cousins with those of imposter syndrome. 

Are you depending more on what other scholars have said than what you might think?

Another way we bury our voices is by uplifting those of other researchers, at the cost of our own. When the conditions of academic oppression already lure us to adopt self-critical and self-doubting thoughts, it feels safer to acknowledge the ideas of reputable scholars rather than to explicitly distinguish our unique voices, creative analyses, and forward-thinking interventions. For some, it can be outright unfathomable to imagine pivoting away from a respected scholar’s theoretical framework and explicitly affirming our own instead. 

Have you been made to feel afraid that if you write what you think, you will sound too radical and will therefore face extra scrutiny?

For many BIPOC scholars whose academic work challenges the status quo (such as activists, interdisciplinary, and/or feminist/queer/trans scholars of color), navigating how and what to write can be debilitating rather than liberating. The fear of successful passage through academic hoops (like the job market, tenure, or promotion) can be so overwhelming that we can potentially grow more and more willing to betray ourselves. Academic oppression strongly implies that scholars of color, especially those with unconventional ideas, tone down their critiques or hold off on putting their full critiques forward until after they are tenured. When this is the case, what are we writing? What ground can we stand on when our writing has been stripped of its central foundation; our genuine voice?

Remaining Grounded In The Power Of Your Inner Knowledge

Existing support for academics navigating writing blocks such as ‘How-To’ books or strategies offered by writing centers, tend to provide a one-size-fits-all approach. They fail to account for the racial-gendered structures of the university and instead explain how the “inner critic” or the struggle to “find one’s voice” stems from insecurity or lack of experience. We are encouraged to recognize that we can overcome systemic oppression through courage, careful reading, or writing more clearly. It’s as if “finding one’s voice” is a simple skill that can be mastered with practice. The current avenues of support all but ignore the structural conditions and long-standing experiences that have given rise to the highly specific “inner critics” amongst scholars of color. 

To move through “reactive mode,” scholars of color are going to need more than courage or the development of “skills.” To remain grounded in the power of our inner knowledge, we are going to need practices that integrate healing from academic violence into the development of our research, ideas, and writing so that we can recognize the difference between writing what we think and believe in vs. writing what we think gatekeepers want to hear. What’s more, is that we are going to need to do that in community with co-strugglers who share similar experiences of racial-gendered discrimination and disproportionate theoretical or methodological scrutiny compared to others. By coming together in spaces with others who have shared experiences around the specific racial-gendered aspects of academic oppression, free from the kinds of interactions that potentially contribute to “reactive mode”, we not only realize the powerful truth that we are not alone, but we also expand the possibilities for thinking and writing unapologetically.  

In The Arrow, A Journal of Wakeful Society, Culture, and Politics, Kelsey Blackwell shares, 

“As a person of color, and perhaps the only one in the room, it’s exhausting to always be swimming upstream. To survive in this society, we learn to hold our tongue, to “code switch” to fit in. This is about survival and the basic human need to feel that we belong. People of color are often so familiar with navigating white spaces that even when there’s a possibility of bringing more of ourselves into a room, we simply don’t know how…..In these spaces, we can share stories about the discrimination we’ve faced, and find understanding and support. We can define ourselves on our own terms. There can also arise a need to “translate” our experiences into terms that white listeners will be more sympathetic to in order to be heard… Given that space to breathe, there’s a possibility of healing. Being together can offer resiliency for bringing our fullness into integrated spaces where it will inevitably be challenged.”

It can be exhausting to have to constantly contort oneself to simply survive in the face of.higher education. Let’s also keep in mind that we are aiming higher than mere survival. We are scholars and we’re here to thrive.  Of course, BIPOC spaces are not immune from tensions, hierarchies and gatekeeping. Yet scholars of color need downtime from the triggers that wittingly or unwittingly lead some of us to bury our voices in predominantly white spaces.

Dissolving The Roadblocks Through Community

There’s a particular brand of magic that happens when scholars of color come together as a community. The awareness that we are not alone, that the oppression we have buried or questioned is real, and that our voices can be heard, unapologetically and without having to leave academia, is palpable. The atmosphere of the communal group is rich with clarity, nourishment, and a remembering of who we are without the fear-based critic.

When we write in communal workshops, we are not weighed down by the blank page or the heaviness of writing alone, while the silhouette of imposter syndrome lurks in the corner. Facing only ourselves, within a system that reminds us to shrink back, it’s nearly impossible to imagine how to write freely, for every word is a potential doorway to a judgment that could determine our future.

When a more safe, collective container holds up the mirror of interrelationship, and we recognize that it is indeed the conditions in which we work (and not ourselves) that is the problem, we begin to access a pathway that nurtures and extols our liberated voices.

Our most compelling messages are not created in a vacuum, and we will likely not unchain them on our own. Engaging in a supportive, collective, and intentional effort to uplift what we really want to say, despite the gatekeeping shadow, can birth imaginative analyses and methodologies we might not have ever even imagined we had within us. Here are some examples of the transformative power of community workshops where participants practice naming and claiming their genuine perspectives:


 How understanding the complex racial dynamics between communities of color contributes to racial justice in education and policing.


How coalitional activism contributes to liberation from racial capitalism in the mutually related areas of policing and education


How anti-racist and patriarchal policies can help reduce endemic forms of gender violence and the war-like environments marginalized communities endure, even in times of apparent “peace.”


How decolonial feminist approaches can help us understand the ways the structural foundations of the nation-state normalize and sustain femicide as a form of racialized gender violence during times of “war” and “peace.”

Claiming Our Voices: The Power Of Live Workshops 

To liberate our research, we need to remain grounded in the power of inner and collective knowledge systems. One of the most impactful environments for supporting this is live group workshops. When we harness the clarity of our gut-level ideas together, we embark on the pathway toward explicitly naming and claiming our interventions. In doing so, we expand the possibilities around how far-reaching our ideas can be. Claiming our voices has widespread effects in terms of our place in the world, especially since our voice indicates where we are emotionally. Claiming our writing voice reverberates back into our sense of self and the way we show up in the world at large. 

When we write for ourselves, within a workshop of people who share similar struggles, we can reduce the angst surrounding academic writing and access the deeper voice, the ‘underneath-the-surface’ voice that exists within us. The ideas we have been developing all along, consciously or unconsciously, begin to emerge and find their footing. When applied consistently, the workshop practices and tools help us remain grounded in the power of our unapologetic ideas and the collective resources we can make available to one another on our path forward.  Unearthing our BIPOC voices, together, changes the ways we show up to academia for the long haul, and that’s what moving pain to power looks like.

Author: <a href="" target="_self">Nadine Naber</a>

Author: Nadine Naber

Nadine Naber, PhD. is a public scholar, author, and teacher from Al-Salt, Jordan and the Bay Area of California. Nadine has been co-creating connections, research, and activism among scholars of color and social movements for the past 25 years. She is author/co-author of five books, an expert author for the United Nations; co-founder of the organization Mamas Activating Movements for Abolition and Solidarity (MAMAS); co-author of the forthcoming book, *Pedagogies of the Radical Mother* (Haymarket Press); and founder of programs such as the Arab and Muslim American Studies Program at the University of Michigan and the Arab American Cultural Center at the University of Illinois.


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