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Put Some Respect on My Name

After I earned my Ph.D., some people have questioned my credentials. But, as a Black female academic, I stand by my ‘Dr.’ title for this key reason.

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At the start of 2013, I was an exhausted and unsure Black woman who would have never thought I had a chance at an academic career. I had just come out of a master’s program during which I was habitually reminded by one of my academic supervisors that my work was not good enough and that I was a substandard student — despite having come into the program as the top student. My self-esteem was a mess, and I felt like an impostor. But the guidance and love shown by family and friends in response to my low morale reignited my motivation.

In October 2013, I began a fully funded doctoral program in infection, immunity and cardiovascular disease at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. I believed this would provide a solid foundation for a future research career. As a child, I’d told my father I wanted to be an immunologist. I hardly knew what it meant at the time, but I’d heard my father mention that word quite a lot.

My father had fled what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1968, as a student activist, to save his life. He went into self-imposed exile in the Soviet Union and studied in Moscow, earning a medical degree and a doctorate in epidemiology. My Armenian-Ukrainian mother had been raised in a single-parent, working-class household in Georgia, which at the time was part of the Soviet Union. Her older siblings invested their money into her upkeep during her higher education, insisting that she go to Moscow to study. Within four months of meeting my father at university, she wanted to marry him. Their court wedding was held in 1979, and in 1983 they moved to Nigeria to pursue careers in the medical and dental fields, respectively.

Because of my parents, my educational starting point has been privileged. But I’ve also faced hardships. I’ve lived my whole life with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but was only diagnosed in early 2017. My mental illness affected every aspect of my doctoral process and was compounded by grief due to several deaths from 2014 to 2016, including those of my primary supervisor and my father. These experiences culminated in a breakdown at the end of 2016, which finally forced me to seek help. The completion of my doctoral program in January 2018 coincided with me finally feeling comfortable to inhabit myself and my womanhood. At this point, I also accepted that I had fallen out of love with laboratory-based research.

I began a postdoctoral position as a research associate in respiratory immunology in February 2018 but decided that I was going to transition into something more teaching-based, which is what I’m passionate about. By June 2019, I was on course to start a new academic job. However, my dreams were brought to a halt that August, when my visa to stay in the U.K. was denied, and I was threatened with deportation. I lost the job I’d not even started, and my mental health spiraled. More than a year later, I am still awaiting a court appeal once lockdown in the U.K. lifts and facing an uncertain fate.

Still, I have no doubt that my academic credentials have been one of the reasons my case received media interest and an outpouring of support. I have mixed feelings about this.

I'm not naive enough to believe that being called “Dr.” will automatically open all doors to me, neither am I unaware that academics can sometimes be elitist pricks. So no, I do not expect family, friends, students, colleagues or even Twitter acquaintances to call me “Dr. Asani.”

That said, in my opinion, we do not yet live in times where academia is universally welcoming to Black people, and women in particular. The recent #BlackintheIvory hashtag, which highlights experiences of discrimination and alienation for Black scholars, provides accounts about the discrimination we still face. There have been individuals both inside and outside of academia, and on and offline, who have gone out of their way to undermine me and my work or question my credentials. My personal feeling is that these questions have always been rooted in racialized sexism (misogynoir). I know that this is quite a common experience for many Black academics because we seek comfort in one another.

So, I’m also working not to replicate the very systems of exclusion that I myself have faced, if even on micro levels. This means that I am intentional about my introspection, mannerisms (even online) and messages. The mere acknowledgment of my privilege — being a second-generation holder of a doctoral degree, having received a doctoral scholarship, having light skin and having access to resources that I need or knowing where to go for help, among many others, is not enough. I constantly assess how, when and where to sit up or sit down, speak or shut up or pass the mic, help and take action, among other things. I also use my social media and writing platforms, and speaking engagements, to advocate for migrants in the U.K. with less privilege than I have and to reject the notion of “the good immigrant.”

My fight continues even today. I and many other women still have had incidences when someone audibly asking for a title will automatically present only two options: “Mrs. or Miss.” This happened to me days after I’d received confirmation of my doctorate in the mail, having decided to skip my graduation altogether. I responded, “Dr.,” with no hesitation, and it felt good to at least have this one thing after years of so much pain.

So, if titles are being used, then I will insist on going with the one that I fought for when everything in my life was falling apart. And I urge Black women to use their titles unapologetically.