The “radical” thing I did in higher education

I cultivate and guard my affirmation as radical self-care.

One of the most radical things I have done as a Black woman in higher education from the time I was a graduate student and with increasing, steadfast commitment as a faculty member is to show up affirmed and function from this space of affirmation.

I cultivate and guard my affirmation as radical self-care.

I’ve written before about the importance of showing up to my work in academia from a place of affirmation rather than in a search for affirmation. This is indeed one of the “secrets” to my success.

So why is this radical in the context of higher education? Because one part of the unspoken curriculum of higher education is the way in which the academy wields an individual’s need for “affirmation” as a powerful tool for compliance, conformity, and acculturation. The latter is particularly true as it relates to individuals from marginalized and minoritized groups.

So what’s the violence of demanding acculturation? Isn’t learning the culture and “fitting in” a good thing, you may ask? Well no, not by default, especially when “fitting in” is a required process of shedding parts of yourself to take on characteristics deemed “professional” and “civil”. Indeed many of these “demanded” characteristics have little to do with the “contracted” work, but are wielded as appropriate evidence that one “belongs” or “fits in”⁠—or at least is committed to doing so.

As Dr. Django Paris describes, the engagement of formal ‘diversity and inclusion’ initiatives “has always been understood in a one-way assimilate or fail model filtered through the White gaze” (Paris, 2019, p. 219).

Very early on, I recognized that many colleagues, supervisors, and leaders were attempting to offer me “affirmation” as currency. That is, offering me “affirmation” if⁠—and only if⁠—I were to “perform” success through recognized words, paths, production modes, and full-sale buy-in to their conceptualizations of how success and collegiality looked, felt, and presented as to the “majority” in the academy.

I learned that I couldn’t show up needing their affirmation, because the cost of gaining it⁠—and especially realizing that the extension is generally a “short-term loan” and new requests for compliance to “retain” it were just around the corner⁠—is higher than any cost I ever intend to pay. I’m just not built that way.

As I’ve explained before in “How I Work and Thrive in Academia – From Affirmation, Not for Affirmation”, the academy tries to “train” all of us to depend upon, crave, and require their affirmation as one of the key gates along the entryway to and progress along the path of success. Admittedly the course or curriculum has more “lessons” for those of us from marginalized and minoritized communities.

Quote from Montgomery, B.L. 2019. How I Work and Thrive in Academia.

So the most radical thing I’ve ever done in the academy is to completely and irrevocably hold on to my power of defining who holds sway to affirm me, and more importantly who does not.

This is not to say that a need for affirmation is not a core human need; yet, it’s a danger to walk through the world or the halls of the academy in desperate need for it. There are those⁠—including in leadership positions and other positions of power or influence⁠—who are like a lion on a hunt for prey in the ways that they stand ready to offer affirmation to fulfill your need for it that requires you to cosign your own undervaluing, if not your oppression.

This stance I’ve taken is radical because those who understand what has been taken from them will often feel unmoored. They will feel unsettled⁠—if not completely disarmed⁠—when they must engage with you not through offering you the reward of their “affirmation” but through authentically recognizing your already affirmed self and a need to reward your intellect and contributions, rather than demanding your gratitude for the promise of temporary affirmation.

So I’m perceived as radical because my “affirmation bank” is ever full, and I require deposits into my banks of authentic “respect” and genuine “scholarly recognition”, which too frequently run at a deficit in the academy.


Montgomery, BL (2019). How I Work and Thrive in Academia – From Affirmation, Not for Affirmation. Being Lazy and Slowing Down,

Paris, D. (2019). Naming beyond the white settler colonial gaze in educational research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 32(3), 217-224.

If you have comments on this post, as always find me on Twitter—@BerondaM.