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Psychology of Black Activism
A Conversation with Tangier Davis
Tangier Davis is a doctoral candidate in the Personality and Social Context program and an affiliate in the Gender and Feminist Psychology area. She is broadly interested in understanding the barriers that women of color face in different workplace contexts. Most frequently, she thinks about the experiences of women of color who work in academia, but more recently she has also begun to think about their experiences in the political arena.
Interviewed by Petal Grower
PG: How did you become interested in teaching about DEI/DEI-related topics?
TD: My interest started in undergrad. I took intergroup dialogue, a course where you learn to talk about your lived experiences with people who look like you and don’t look like you, and how to identify those lived experiences within academic work and theory. It was there that I learned how my experiences up to that point were not a Tannie problem, but a systemic problem that many other people were experiencing as well. It really brought me some relief because up to that point, I suffered with imposter syndrome daily and struggled with not feeling enough. So—to contextualize those feelings was incredibly meaningful for me.
From there, my work has focused on examining and exposing those structural barriers, that women of color specifically face, as they move throughout different parts of their lives. That includes their careers, which is one area of my research, and also the political domain, which is another area of my work, and where the inspiration for my course came from.
PG: Tell me more about your course.
TD: My class was titled the Psychology of Black Activism. It started as my prelims project and I was not sure whether I would teach it or not, but as I was designing the course, I thought a lot about what it would have meant to me to be in a course like this as an undergrad—to see my experience centered rather than something you talk about briefly during activism week.
So I applied to teach the class as a capstone, and this was pre-COVID—and so pre-George Floyd murder, and the movement that stemmed from that. So, the stakes were lower when I made the course, but raised very quicky. But I think the course was always designed to answer some of the questions that students were asking anyways, so I felt nervous but prepared to teach it.
The class itself was a seminar that focused on exploring the motivations that Black people have to participate or not participate in political activism. We used the lens of Black activism to explore how context, time, power, and oppression affects the experiences of marginalized groups and how identity development is influenced by these factors.
Psychology was not always suited for those discussions, so one of my favorite parts of designing the class was that I made it very interdisciplinary. We had readings from psychology, sociology, political science, and even personal accounts and documentaries. Intersectionality was also a major focus, and I tried to highlight how different identities can inform someone’s context and affect their own political engagement.
PG: What advice would you give to graduate students who were interested in teaching DEI related courses, or integrating DEI more thoughtfully into their existing courses?
TD: DEI cannot be an afterthought in your work. It cannot be something you try to squeeze in somewhere. We are past the point where that is acceptable and it comes off as disingenuous. Being inclusive and diversity-focused is work. It means being adaptable. It means holding on to your own values even when you know you might experience challenge. I taught this course during the 2020 election and during one of the most wide-spread civil rights movement we have seen since the 60s. I knew the types of discussions that might be had, that I was asking each of my students, particularly my students of color, to take a risk by putting themselves out there. I had to make it clear that I had their back—that we can debate some things, like economics, but not all things—like whether Black lives matter or LGBTQ+ rights. We are not debating someone’s right to exist.
And that stance can be difficult because academics can get caught up in freedom of “academic speech” or this idea that all thoughts need to be given space. But to me, a DEI focus means making academia a safer place for students who have not felt safe in a university space before. If you are going to ask students to go there with you, protect them. My favorite Audre Lorde quote is “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing”—and I encourage other DEI minded folks to move through their work in a similar way.
PG: Have there been any transformative moments in your experience as an instructor?
TD: My favorite part of the class was their final project. I asked them to do a case study of a Black political activist. I wanted them to incorporate some of the theories we learned about throughout the semester to help us understand what motivated their subject to participate in their cause. During our intersectionality week, we covered Tarana Burke, the Black woman who created the #MeToo movement and I was shocked and saddened at how many of my students did not know who she was. I am not sure whether they sensed my sadness or not, but one of the groups covered Tarana Burke in their final presentation. They used the theory of intersectional invisibility to critically analyze why Tarana Burke has been obscured as a leader of a prominent social movement and discuss the myriad of other ways that Black women have been obscured as leaders throughout history.
I was so proud and emotional that there are now this group of people who will go out in the world and hopefully take those lessons with them, to be critical and understand why some people are given credit for their work and others are ignored. It made me feel like our work was helping to make the world just a little bit better.
PG: Do you have any essential or favorite readings from your course that you would recommend?
1) The Possessive Investment in Whiteness by George Lipsitz (1998)
2) Transformation of Silence into Action (Lorde, 1977) (Chapter available in “Identity Politics in the Women’s Movement” at Hatcher Library)