Once a year, America acknowledges the egregious pay gap in which Latinas earn just 67 cents for every dollar a non-Latinx white man makes. It’s time we interrogate this fact year-round. The L-Suite examines the diverse ways in which Latinx professionals have built their careers, how they’ve navigated notoriously disruptive roadblocks, and how they’re attempting to dismantle these obstacles for the rest of their communities. This month, we're talking with Spanish lecturer and language coach Dr. Aisha Cort about navigating spaces as a Black Latina, being the first Afro-Latina PhD graduate from her program, and the importance of learning new languages.
While the enrollment numbers of Black American college students are increasing, there's still a low number of those who go on to obtain a master's degree or PhD. Between 2002 to 2017, Black students earning PhDs only increased from 5.1 to 5.4 percent out of the 50,000 who earned a doctorate during this period, according to data from the National Science Foundation. Across various fields — primarily in STEM — not one doctoral degree was awarded to a Black person in the U.S in 2017.
These numbers are the response to the fewer resources available to Black students, who are also dissuaded from these higher education programs given the horror stories that are attached to navigating these spaces they've been historically excluded from. Black students still face more inequalities that make it difficult to not only to get into these programs but also to succeed once they're in them. These students work against the systemic racism embedded in the curriculum and face the discrimination — and sometimes even physical harassment — experienced on campuses.
Dr. Aisha Cort is far too familiar with this experience that has led to a lack of Black doctoral students as the first Afro-Latina to graduate with a PhD in her program, an accomplishment she didn't realize she had obtained until a year after graduating. In 2010, Dr. Cort had acquired her master's and a doctorate from Emory University in Spanish Literature after graduating from Yale University as an undergraduate. Now, Dr. Cort — who is of Cuban-Guyanese descent — is a Spanish lecturer at Howard University and UCLA, hoping to inspire students of color to pursue higher education while also running a Spanish tutoring business to encourage them to learn new languages.
We asked the professor about the biggest challenges she overcame as a Black Latinx student and the lessons she hopes to instill with her work. From navigating predominately white spaces to unapologetically name-dropping titles, Dr. Cort shares her best advice, ahead.
While obtaining her doctorate, Dr. Cort faced the obstacles of having to prove that the literature she wanted to study — the work of Black and brown authors — was appropriate literature for a PhD program. During that experience, she was told she had to step away from her original dissertation on a Latinx author’s books. This is an experience known to many Black and brown students and professionals whose insight is only validated once it's “mainstream.” That’s why Dr. Cort suggests finding professionals within your network to help support your work and vision.
“I'm very thankful that I found great mentors, a good advisor, as well as faculty outside of my department who supported the work that I wanted to do, because I knew when I got in there, that I wanted to write and learn more about Black Latinos and their literature, expression, [and] narrative,” Dr. Cort tells Refinery29. “I originally was going to do my dissertation on one author’s books, and I was told that it wasn't literature. Two years later, they won the Pulitzer Prize.”
But even when Black experiences are looking to be represented, it’s done on the terms of non-Black voices: inauthentic and monolithic. That’s why Dr. Cort urges people of color to become experts in the fields they’re interested in by pursuing higher education — to then occupy these spaces across different fields and have fewer people speaking on their behalf. “Many times there is space for somebody else to come in and be the authority on our experiences, but when we try to tell our own stories, it gets closed out. It is not recognized as valid or authentic even though it is our lived experience, and that's really hard,” says Dr. Cort, also sharing how her experience as an Afro-Latina has often been generalized. “People need to understand that even though I share my experience, my experience is different from somebody else's, which is different from the next one. So, just because you're talking about Afro-Latinidad doesn't mean that there's only one narrative of Afro-Latinidad. There are multiple and everybody's gonna have a different experience.”
Use your title
Aside from the humble flex that comes with saying you have a master's or doctorate, using that title brings about a different tone to what you bring to a conversation or workplace. But Dr. Cort shares that she actually hesitated to use her title when starting off in her career, because she felt a certain pressure to “be humble.” It would take her two years to get comfortable adding doctor to her name. “I wouldn't insist on my title being used and now I do because I earned that shit,” she says.
Black women hiding their titles is due, in part, to the alienation that comes with finding themselves in underrepresented spaces. This reality, the same reality that perpetuates the falsehood that Black achievement is anomalous, leads to imposter syndrome felt by Black professionals where instead of celebrating their accomplishments, they sometimes focus on the self-doubt overriding any feelings of success. But Dr. Cort wants Black women to own their successes. “Slam that shit on the table,” she says, especially given the work that it probably took to get there in comparison to their white counterparts. “You have to get three or four [titles] to even be in the same room. Make sure that they start with respect."
Language is power
In addition to being a lecturer, Dr. Cort is also a language coach, teaching thousands of students to speak Spanish throughout her 15-year career and hosting international trips pre-pandemic. For Dr. Cort, this business has allowed her to build a myriad of connections with different people around the world, breaking down any language barriers and expanding her reach. She currently speaks Spanish, English, French, and Portuguese — and is working on Dutch and Italian. “Language allows you to connect to other people,” Dr. Cort tells R29. “I want to be able to drop down in France, just walk out, and not feel weird in a new place. Language isn't gonna be that barrier. It just amplifies the amount of people that you can connect to and the amount of spaces that you're comfortable in.”
It’s never too late to learn a new language, as long as you dedicate the time and patience, says Dr. Cort. The lecturer didn't learn to read or write Spanish until she was a teenager, and even then, it'd take time to master the language. It’s about knowing that language is power, especially if your power is often threatened. “Wanting to learn Spanish can only enhance your job opportunity, your potential for working in other spaces outside of the U.S.,” she adds of the social and economic benefits. “There is a quote that says: with languages, you're at home anywhere. You're talking to people in the language they know, and it just brings you that much closer regardless of whatever other differences they may have.”