It all began with an article I posted on my Filipino Student Association’s Facebook page.
Entitled “My ‘Get Out’ Moment as an Overseas Student,” my essay is about how my first landlady in New Zealand, a white woman, gradually unmasked her racism to me while I was living in her house, beginning slowly but surely with a series of microaggressions that turned into racial slurs and, eventually, into blatantly hostile behavior. A leading news network in Australia ran this short piece, giving me the chance to finally call my landlady out for the way she had treated me during my first month as a new PhD student in the country. By doing this, I sought to render her and other people who have behaved similarly toward new immigrants accountable for their actions. Finally, my voice had been recognized for its value, and though I expected backlash, I was sure that I was helping those who had once been in my position to feel seen and heard.
Having lived in America and New Zealand, I have grown used to being disbelieved and dismissed by white people whenever I speak openly about my experiences of racism. You are making a mountain out of a molehill, I’m often told in so many words. Maid, illegal immigrant, terrorist, mail-order bride. Why is your country so poor and your English so good? I am expected to invalidate my feelings of hurt and to remind myself, repeatedly, that I’m wrong to feel disrespected. I learn to tell myself that these people who offend me mean no harm. I am told that I must give the benefit of the doubt to those who flatten my humanity by reducing me to a stereotype. They are human, even when they casually disregard my humanity. Like many people of color, I learn to give all sorts of excuses to white people when their failure to acknowledge my feelings becomes too overwhelming, and too difficult to fight.
But while I have learned to expect my experiences of racism to be dismissed and belittled in white-dominated communities, I normally don’t expect the same from fellow people of color, who normally go through these same experiences—almost as though these are necessary rituals of initiation into a world where our existence is erased. This is why I was in shock when my article, which described instances of racism that I felt were pretty obvious to those who have unavoidably experienced it, was mocked and misunderstood in my university’s Filipino student association.
The first instance of microaggression that I cited in my essay was when my landlady, on my second day at her house, said to me, “I do not know how it is in your country, but here we open the windows to let in fresh air.” One doesn’t have to be a genius to sense the statement’s racist implications: that the Philippines is a dirty place, that our air is filthy, and that I have likely grown used to keeping my windows closed. A member of the group immediately replied to my post by saying that I had misinterpreted my landlady’s statement: that indeed, in New Zealand, people open the windows to let in fresh air. He also went on to say that if I hadn’t read malice into her statement, I would have avoided all the other “misunderstandings” that followed my misinterpretation. Never mind that I hadn’t complained, or called her “racist” to her face, when she told me this: all her other actions that followed, like checking on my cooking to make sure I wasn’t preparing something that “smelled,” locking my bathroom door so that I couldn’t use the toilet, hiding my food containers from me, blaming me for making her stove make “weird” noises, forcing me to hose down, squeegee, and towel dry my shower stall after every wash before scolding me for “spending too much time in the shower,” or telling me that I was “so domestic” before asking me if I could walk her dog, were the results of this initial misunderstanding on my part, which unleashed her abusive behavior. But I had been offended by what she said, and because of this, according to him, I had somehow brought on the abuse I received, even if I had kept my feelings to myself.
In response, I pointed out to him that I hadn’t misunderstood my landlady’s statement at all. I had clearly understood the message it was meant to convey: it was meant to remind me of my inferiority and to put me in my “proper” place in her household. I added that his remark indicating my hurt feelings had set the tone of her future behavior toward me was a clear case of victim blaming.
No one in the group came to my defense.
A few hours later, another member responded to my comment with a laughing emoji before proceeding to call my essay “a so-called article.” He said that none of the behaviors I had described in my essay were racist or demeaning: to him, my landlady was just enforcing house rules, and that if she hadn’t done and said these things I mentioned in my piece, I would have failed to keep her house tidy and bright. I don’t know how walking her dog, staying silent when my bathroom door was locked or when my food containers were hidden in a coat closet, or “smiling more” for her whenever I cleaned her kitchen had anything to do with keeping her house tidy and bright. His comment made absolutely no sense: it was clearly meant to belittle my hurt and to cast me as hysterical and unjust in my anger.
I am still trying to understand why these young people were so eager to justify my landlady’s behavior, even going as far as saying that she had behaved fairly toward me. It made me wonder about the kind of abuse they were willing to put up with as new immigrants to New Zealand (since many of the group’s members came to the country as teenagers or young adults), if indeed they found her behavior acceptable.
It didn’t help that a female member expressed sympathy at first in response to my essay, before going on to say, “I know Filipinos who experienced the same with fellow Filipinos too, which just goes to show that this kind of behavior isn’t isolated to any particular group. This doesn’t change that New Zealand is a very welcoming place.” She was condoning my landlady’s racism, implying that because I pointed out how racially charged my landlady’s bullying was, I was singling out white people as abusers while disregarding the nonracist abuse taking place within other ethnic groups. (In other words, if others are doing it toward their own kind, then why call it racist?)
This, of course, ignores the fact that racism isn’t merely a direct attack against another race but a set of institutionalized privileges that are given to one or several ethnic groups to dominate and oppress others. To understand how racism operates in white settler societies such as New Zealand, we must recognize the privileges that white people possess as a consequence of European colonialism and the subjugation of non-Europeans. Though many claim colonialism is a thing of the past, its legacy persists: my landlady possessed immense power in our relationship as a result of her white privilege, and because I was new in the country, and a person of color, she exploited her power over me to belittle me, often with racial slurs, and to bully me. This I tried to explain to the girl, who seemed to have no notion of what white privilege was, and whose understanding of racism was flimsy at best. She did not respond, leaving her boyfriend to defend her honor, and her ignorance, on her behalf.
When I reached out to the association’s president, bringing to his attention the abuse I was beginning to receive, he curtly told me that “he’d deal with it later” before falling silent. This baffled me, considering how he often positioned himself—quite aggressively, too—as an “activist” leader in his posts and in meetings. Due to his claims of being enlightened and woke, I assumed he would see the bullying and tone policing for what it was. But a few weeks later, I received an email from the group’s leadership ordering me to unblock the two young men (which I did to protect myself) so that they could comment on my piece again. If we were to take out the phrase “so-called” from one of their comments, the officers of the group said, the comments of these two men were “well thought-out, reasonable, and objective.” In the interest of allowing a free exchange of ideas, according to them, it was not right for me to block these members from airing contrary opinions to mine. Thus, in the interest of free speech, I had to permit those who had told me that my story was illegitimate, and who had resorted to illogicalities and victim-blaming to justify my landlady’s abuse, to exercise their free speech—even as it delegitimized, and therefore took away, my voice. They ended the email by saying, “None of you are completely at fault,” as though to absolve us of a crime we all shared.
I am still at a loss as to how our leaders came to the conclusion that these comments were “well thought-out, reasonable, and objective.” These two young men had obviously not given much thought to their comments, or to the prejudices inherent in them. Is it thoughtful, reasonable, or objective to call my landlady’s request for me to walk her dog “necessary to keep her house clean and bright”? Is one being objective when one consents to or defends what is clearly abuse? Or does “objectivity” mean a refusal to see the power structures inherent in racial abuse in order to humanize the abuser and “balance out one’s judgment” of the situation?
Perhaps these Filipino student leaders truly believe that allowing racism to persist, even when it is leveled against us, is to take an objective view of the situation by ignoring our feelings of hurt—by becoming “unfeeling,” in other words—even when we experience it first-hand. Perhaps these young Filipino leaders see nothing inherently wrong in these unequal relationships, having accepted them as the natural order of things. The comments our leaders called “well-thought out, reasonable, and objective” were accepting, and even protective, of our inferior place in New Zealand society. If I understood them right, what these commenters hoped to say was that we deserve to be treated poorly by white people. If the leaders of our group had no strong objections to what these two young men told me, it appears to me that they, too, have internalized the kind of racism leveled at me by my landlady, to the point that they have accepted her abuse as a fair and reasonable occurrence, enabling it by consenting to the silencing of my voice.
Denying one’s experiences of racism, and tone policing one’s compatriots who choose to speak against it, is a habit Filipinos have developed from over three hundred years of colonization. To survive, we have learned to disregard our anger, to accept our lower place in colonial society, and to make ourselves small and unthreatening to our white masters. It’s a habit that we carry with us when we move to Western countries. We deny our own experiences of discrimination and gaslight ourselves into disbelieving the facts of our oppression in our efforts to be respectable, uncomplaining, and grateful in the eyes of white people. We think that this will help us survive, when it only results in our erasure, in our disempowerment.
But I will not allow myself to be silenced by my own countrymen. I choose to give voice to my anger, to resist erasure.
The first time I remember seeing Audre Lorde’s proclamation that caring for herself was an act of political warfare widely circulate on social media was during the Women’s March of 2017.
That January, millions of women lined city streets in protest of the inauguration of Donald Trump. I imagine that their chants were the same I heard standing outside of Trump Towers after the presidential election of 2016, such as the declaration Trump was not my president and the proclamation that love trumps hate.
I say “imagine” because I did not attend that Women’s March (or its sequel in 2018). Instead I watched in awestruck rage as pictures and video clips appeared on social media of white women wearing pink, laden with signs expressing their fury. This is what solidarity looks like, I saw captioned beneath one image, and I resisted the urge to comment with the correction: No. This is what it looks like when white women feel their power threatened.
Many of these women had been silent in the wake of the state-sanctioned murders of Black folks and even critical of Black liberation protests. The centering of vaginas as an indicator of womanhood by march attendees showed a continued lack of interest in the lives of trans people. Nonetheless, solidarity was demanded and expected from those of us with aspects of our identities that were being minimalized, erased, and silenced.
On Twitter, I watched as Lorde’s words reverberated among Black women reminding each other not to feel guilty for not participating in the Women’s March. These were affirmations of the disappointment I felt that while 53 percent of white women voted a white supremacist into the presidency, a decent portion of the other half revealed that they would only show up in defense of their own interests. That day, I learned caring for myself meant embracing my anger.
Since the election of 2016, the market for self-care has grown rapidly. Beneath its hashtag one can find lifestyle brands, witches proposing group hexes on the likes of Trump and Brett Kavanaugh, pictures of matcha lattes, herbal tonics, crystals, tarot cards, and astrology charts (the latter two being my most-used mediums).
As writers Jordan Kisner and Anna North have pointed out, the ideology that investing in one’s wellbeing is political is rooted in Lorde’s A Burst of Light: Living with Cancer. Through diary entries Lorde examines survival within a racist, homophobic, and sexist healthcare system, as well as the importance of finding joy and her commitment to connecting with Black women and people of color around the world.
Much of the growing wellness industry (worth billions) markets products to upper-middle-class white women who stripped Lorde’s quote of its true context and ignored her emphasis on community in favor of prioritizing individual comfort. Following this logic, women are encouraged to focus on what makes them feel good and cut out what and who makes them feel bad—meaning anything that causes discomfort. This offers justification for not confronting the racism, misogyny, and homophobia Lorde was interrogating.
In this binary, emotional experiences can be defined as negative and positive (with anger often falling on the negative end of the spectrum). It is up to the individual person to take accountability for their undesirable feelings, which can be conquered if that person invests enough money in the right tools and practices. However, one does not have to acknowledge the benefits many reap from structural oppressions, because one of the great tricks of capitalism is spotlighting personal responsibility.
Beyond the dominating images of carefree people of privilege associated with #selfcare, I was able to discover communities of people of who, like me, hold an interest in magic and wellness practices yet also recognize the reality of the world we inhabit. Within these circles there is the acceptance that an exclusively positive perspective is unrealistic when honoring the full range of emotions one’s body endures, especially when challenging outdated frameworks. There is discussion around accessibility to self-care products for low-income people. There is no secret to success for marginalized people whose existences are inherently in opposition to systems built on whiteness and cishet normativity.
Yet even in the most progressive spaces, where anger is perceived to be natural and inescapable, it is also understood as a sentiment that one must ultimately move past in healing in order to achieve the ever-elusive inner peace. But what if anger were thought of not as a challenge to care, or even as a byproduct of unfortunate circumstances, but as necessary for growth and change? And what if the tools we purchased to foster feeling good could also hold space for our anger, highlighting the ways in which we could aim it constructively?
Accepting the aggravation I felt over the Women’s March was critical to the welfare of my being, because it allowed me to look more critically at the relationship of power between white women and Black and Brown women. Unpacking the whitewashing of Audre Lorde’s work assisted with diminishing the final remnants still seeded in my mind that I just needed to think more positively to dispel the negative energy that was blocking me from success.
I do not want to evolve past anger. I want to keep it close, as it reminds me of the work that needs to be done. I step into it fully, because anger is not born just out of fear and sadness. It is aligned with joy and love.
I am angry in defense of what I care for, and that includes myself.
The big fat lies we tell ourselves. Think, then vote…
It may seem easy to live in denial, to push away the truth, to tell ourselves the same big fat lies. Women have been doing so for ages. But denial can in the end lead to self sacrifice, to self-annulment, and the realization can be unforgiving for the Self.
Fortunately, after years of silence, women are finally vocalizing their pain and suffering at the hands of men in positions of power, and it is cathartic just to listen to all those voices, let alone open up oneself about me-too.
The now viral me-too movement has not only revealed the pent-up anger that was hiding inside women across the United States, in so doing it has gloriously released the seeds of a new woman — the kind we don’t know well enough yet.
By providing a conduit for many women to express their anger at the injustices served them, the movement has also made women come together, creating a powerful solidarity front that has the potential to change the world.
This brave group of women are shining the light ahead, showing the way for other women. Teenage women are taking note, in particular, and take pride in their older sisters for standing up, vocalizing their pain and telling the truth — a hard and, at times, humiliating thing to do when it involves a violation of intimacy.
Women across the world, too, however, in developing and underdeveloped countries, have been riveted by the me-too movement, many marveling at the unmasking of powerful men who abused their power and employees, and others who still toe the paternalistic line of labeling the movement “political correctness gone mad.” The debate rages, but debate there is at last. Imagine how energizing the debate is, how empowering it is for women who live in areas where men are never questioned about such conduct.
This new generation of women (and some men who have kept an eye on the allegations arising from the cases against Kevin Spacey), who will one day join the workforce, try out in acting auditions, and navigate the snake pit of relationships with those in power, will now come equipped with an arsenal of both precedent and inspiration drawn from those who spoke up, and for the ramifications and vindication that mostly followed.
This new type of woman, mostly found in the United States and the West, is (a) powerful in her solidarity with other sisters, (b) angry, and (c) exhausted, of course. (What woman isn’t from juggling all those roles?) All that pent-up anger she has struggled with is now out in the open, and it has become encoded in the genes of young and old women alike. Yes, women are finally openly angry — they are not afraid to voice their anger. And now those in power have to tread carefully, for the me-too movement is fresh in their memory banks. As a result, it is hoped that women can finally look forward to a more women-friendly workplace that finds sexual harassment intolerable, providing inspiration for the rest of the world to follow suit.
The facts speak for themselves, as this new angry woman is powerful. By all accounts, she will lead the vote in the U.S. midterms in a few days and prove her power. She will have an impact.
It is not just the me-too movement, however, galvanizing women to vote and to run for seats in record numbers. It is also the polarizing case surrounding the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh following allegations of sexual misconduct by Dr. Ford and others.
As the midterms near, both sides are fired up, with polls showing that in particular women — Democrats and Republicans — will be voting in large numbers. The outcome will show who is angriest, for if there is one thing about this midterm that stands out, it’s the anger polarizing left versus right. Women are also at odds with each other over these politics, but let’s not lie to one another.
Who is the bully in the room who does not respect family and allows children to be separated from their families at the border? Who is the man caught paying off a call girl? Who has admitted on tape that he likes to touch women, to abuse his power? That they just let him because it’s him? Forget the politics. Look at the decency of a party that still supports an amoral president.
Women are also well aware that there is no silver lining if you lose yourself in the other. The other being the non-you. The polar opposite of you. A man who has no regard for family, for children taken from their parents at the border? Is he not the other? When society — or a powerful man — expects you to bend out of shape to mold yourself to its expectations, whether through marriage or work, or motherhood, or the vote, or whatever, the loss of identity will only deepen.
Your identity cannot be fished out at a later time and still hold its shape. It will have changed. It will be unrecognizable. And though you can fight to shape it back, it will often be at a high cost, an uphill battle, and towing a weight (the present) to boot.
Almost every time I see a new justice initiative, I repeat the same cycle: I scan the list of what justice means to the organizers.
Time and time again, I see justice declared for people of color, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, sexual assault survivors, and more. Justice is declared as a need for women, but not often for women with disabilities like me. A fire rises in me. I tweet something snarky. I delete it. I try again. I’m disappointed, but I feel let down so often that I can’t bear the weight of that discouragement. Anger is far more comfortable.
Disabled people are so marginalized that when marginalized groups gather, we’re still on the margins. Even in the Christian Bible, when disabled people enter the scene, they’re on the edges. Sure, those men lowered their disabled friend through a roof to see Jesus, but most sermons I’ve heard preached about that passage focus on the friends, not the man on the mat. I took notice. Either hide your disabilities, I learned implicitly, or stay in your place on the edges.
I’ve lived with scars, internal and external, and injuries to my knees and spine since I was a child. Unlike my daughter with cerebral palsy and son with autism, I wasn’t born that way. Childhood abuse made me disabled. Because no one told me that I had been innocent, I thought my disabilities were my fault. I made him mad, but I wasn’t ever allowed to be mad about it. I didn’t say no when he came to my bed in the middle of the night. I should have been tougher, so I didn’t break at their will.
I believed all of those lies. I believed I deserved my limp. I believed I was still bound by the family rules that whispered, Don’t say or do anything to make the family look bad. The shame I never should have carried and my societal observations about where disabled people belonged taught me to play small, to blend in, to pretend nothing was different about my body.
That’s not an option for every disabled person, but it was for me. I’m privileged not only in that way but also by being in majority culture as a white, straight, cisgender, U.S.-born, college-educated woman. Now my surgical scars and intermittent use of canes, rollators, and wheelchairs all give me away as being disabled, but I still live with privilege even in the disability community.
In the past few years, I’ve learned to wield that privilege to break the rules. I can be angry when society says disabled people don’t even get accessibility to that emotion. No, I won’t stay where I’m put. No, I won’t apologize when I request reasonable accommodations. No, I won’t applaud someone for finally treating disabled people like we’re fully human, because that’s simply what we deserve.
And no, I won’t hold my tongue or check my anger when your movement declares justice for all but only advocates for abled people. Your justice is unjust if disabled people aren’t included. We know our place, and it isn’t on the margins of your movement. No, we belong, and we’ll fight to be seen.
And? Our deaths wouldn’t be noticed by many of you. How do I know that? Because historically they haven’t been. We’re conspicuous when we show up, but few fellow social justice warriors notice when we’re absent. I’m not even mad about that anymore, just profoundly sad. My anger at being ignored has faded into grief.
ADAPT – a disability rights organization formed in the 1980s – is why we have wheelchair lifts on buses. They refused to stay in their societally-assigned places. They were angry. Protests involved physically blocking buses with their wheelchairs or crawling up the stairs of those buses as bodily demonstrations of how transportation access didn’t yet include us. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990, largely due to the efforts and advocacy and anger of ADAPT members.
In the past couple of years, ADAPT protestors are the ones you’ve probably seen in the news, their wrists often cuffed behind the backs of their wheelchairs and their bodies assaulted as they’re forcibly removed from government buildings. They’ve been fighting for healthcare, not just for disabled people, but for everyone.
If you have access to healthcare, thank ADAPT for what they did with their anger on your behalf. (Also, follow ADAPT on Twitter and elsewhere. Maybe you didn’t know anything about them until 2017. It’s time to remedy that.)
Black Lives Matter, Including Disabled Ones
My three must-follow recommendations of disabled black women are Vilissa Thompson (creator of #DisabilityTooWhite), Keah Brown (creator of #DisabledandCute), and Imani Barbarin (creator of #DisTheOscars). On October 21, 2018, Barbarin tweeted, “Imma get in trouble for this, but IDGAF: Black people, your advocacy MUST include disabled black people. While you may think that we convey weakness and that disabled is the one thing we can’t afford to be, because of medical racism, disabled is the BLACKEST thing you can be.”
As I read her thread, I ventured over to the “what we believe” page of Black Lives Matter, remembering some subgroups of black lives were specifically highlighted there. Queer lives and trans lives are, as are women. Disability only appears in a list declaring that all black lives matter, but no specific action steps or commitments are named to demonstrate being for the lives of black disabled women like Thompson, Brown, and Barbarin. (For additional reading on this topic, Thompson wrote this excellent piece about disability solidary and black lives for the Huffington Post two years ago.)
I’m not here to dismiss #BlackLivesMatter. I’m all in. I want to champion ways in which the intersection of disability and race is done well, like this website of resources for students who are young, disabled, black, and proud, created by the HBCU Disability Consortium. Yet Luticha Doucette’s words are true, published last year in the New York Times: “Black Lives Matter has come under much deserved criticism by black and Latinx disability rights activists for lack of inclusion in their ‘woke’ spaces. We cannot be fully woke if we refuse to acknowledge our disabled brothers and sisters.”
To close out her Twitter thread, Barbarin declared, “We are a huge part of the black community because lack of access to healthcare in addition to local factors and the presence of discrimination while in doctors’ care means that we often aren’t believed about our symptoms or bodies until they become more serious diagnoses. So, get it together, we aren’t going anywhere. We need to be included. Period.”
For more of Barbarin’s insights on this issue, including a link at the end to donate to her Patreon, see this must-read piece: Black People Don’t Have to Inherit Their Ableism. It’s well-written but she also provides the source of where this ableism among the black community in the U.S. originated: white supremacy. It’s all connected when we strive for justice. And I can write this, as a white disabled woman, without being dismissed as an angry black woman, once again because of white supremacy.
Including Disabled Narratives in the #MeToo Movement
The National Council on Disability released a report in January 2018 titled “Not on the Radar: Sexual Assault of College Students with Disabilities.” In it, they cite research showing that 31.6% of disabled female college students were victims of sexual assault, compared to 18.4% of their non-disabled peers. Federal studies on campus sexual assault from the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women and the National Institute of Justice don’t even include disability as a demographic, while they do include race and sexuality. Furthermore, many college-based sexual violence education and prevention programs are not accessible to disabled students and are staffed by individuals with little to no training about disability.
This should make you angry. It makes me furious.
As Anna Wafula Strike, a British Paralympic wheelchair racer born in Kenya, wrote earlier this year, “As disabled women, we are constantly having to validate our existence, which is frustrating and exhausting. It often feels as though every box is ticked while we, disabled women, are left blank.”
The Women’s March Wasn’t Designed to Be Inclusive
I haven’t been able to attend a Women’s March event because of my disabilities, but I would have shown up if I could have… even though their platform has consistently excluded or insulted women with disabilities. Mia Ives-Rublee is a disabled woman and an Asian adoptee who reached out to the Women’s March organizers to make sure the 2017 event would be accessible. That question led to her becoming the leader of the Disability Caucus for the march.
This is common. When disability hasn’t been considered and a disabled person asks about inclusion, the answer is far too often an acknowledgment that nothing is in place and an invitation for the question-asker to take the lead. I’m grateful Ives-Rublee had the skills and desire for the role (and continues to lead the way), but I’m still angry that neither their platform or plans included us until we pointed that out.
My anger threatened to boil over when the logistics leader for the Women’s March boasted that the event would be “the largest assembly of people with disabilities in U.S. history.” I don’t love how he spun a movement that didn’t include us with their platform to be a disability-focused event, but I don’t even know if he was right about his facts. The annals of U.S. history include very little about disability, after all. Even when they do, the focus is usually on disabled men – with language like “the fathers of the ADA” – as pointed out by disabled women leaders Rebecca Cokley and Rebecca Vallas in this interview.
We don’t know because we aren’t taught. We’re not included even in lessons about diversity, as the diversity of ability and disability is usually absent from that education. I learned about the art of Frida Kahlo in a grade school lesson about diversity, but I didn’t learn about her physical disability and wheelchair use until I dug into disability studies.
I also remember learning about Helen Keller in school. The last detail taught, though, was when she learned to say water. I can still picture the movie we watched in class, with a cute white actress saying “wa-wa” over and over.
I don’t remember learning anything about her life after that. I haven’t forgotten; it simply wasn’t taught. History rewrote Keller’s story as one in which she, a disabled woman, stayed in her place on the margins. In reality, though, she grew up to be a socialist activist, included on a list of communists by the FBI in 1949. I wasn’t taught that because it didn’t fit with the narrative in which people with disabilities stayed in the shadows.
News flash: We aren’t in the shadows anymore. We’re here. We’re angry. We’re not going away.
And when you say you stand for justice, we’ll be there, holding you accountable to include us or admit that your brand of justice isn’t just at all.
I am a Black woman from a mixed-heritage background who has spent most of my life within an educational system, from nursery school to my current role as a postdoctoral researcher in the field of Respiratory Immunology.
My education and career have taken place across three countries and two continents. During this time, I have evolved into a critical thinker, independent researcher, teacher, peer mentor, and collaborator. I have had the privilege of seeing many students who were nervous first-years, when I was their laboratory demonstrator, themselves grow into independent researchers who now have postgraduate degrees. It has been a blessing to be able to present my work in conferences, peer-reviewed articles, essays, research group meetings, and informally. Over the past few months it has also been startling to discover a deep interest in remaining in academia, provided I can secure the necessary funding to carry out research that doubles up as a passion project. My years in the academy have equipped me with knowledge and skills that are transferrable in many sectors. From my perspective the future looks bright, and my dedication is paying off.
This testimony of mine is the cherry-picked truth. It is the stripped-back version of the journey that has made me the academic I am today: fully aware of my privileges, grateful for my experiences, unwilling to close my eyes to the problems within academia, and unapologetic about using routes of the least palatability to tackle these problems.
Most academics of colour I have encountered have similar stories to mine. However, depending on the generation they are part of and other factors, their outspokenness differs. Certain themes among all our experiences are overlapping and recurrent regardless of the country we currently work in, academic system, and age.
Many of us have first-hand experiences of misogynoir (racialised sexism), racism (from the subtle to the outright), tone policing, elitism, and classism—all within academia, a global body that is meant to further the development of mankind. Indeed, many of these encounters I and others have had, whether online or in person, have been with people who have also had the privilege of education and the added responsibility from exposure to know and do better. Students, researchers, and professors! The young and the old.
During my undergraduate career, trying to stay functional while suffering silently for years with debilitating anxiety meant that I was constantly shying away from any extra emotional work. Unfortunately, this also meant that issues of justice and equity were things that I did not feel bold enough to speak about all the time. Being within a system designed to make People of Colour feel like second-class citizens in itself is already hard.
It took me years of honest self-reflection to admit my own complicity, then throw off the shroud of palatability I had worn for years. I own my past mistakes and can readily admit that well-being has been a major confounding factor in my ability to challenge injustice. It is now my commitment to fully inhabit the responsibility of promoting equity within any academic system I find myself in.
However, over the years, there has also been an anger that I live with. Some of it is directed at my past self, but most of it is directed at the system that seeks to uphold injustice or at the very least wilfully ignore it.
Ijeoma Oluo recently asked a pertinent question: “What are we going to do with our rage?” I have asked myself this same question time and again over the years, with many different words, particularly: “How do I stop being afraid of my anger and harness that powerful energy and drive into something useful?” Immediately, I always remember Joyce Meyer’s advice for when your fears try to stop you from doing anything: just “Do it afraid!” There will never be a perfect time or a perfect plan or implementation strategy. So once I was able to identify what I wanted to achieve, I made an action plan that wasn’t too stringent but if done properly could hopefully have a positive impact within my academic community—particularly on Black people and People of Colour, and other women who don’t fall into these identification groups.
There are different levels in academia which I aim for.
The first is my immediate surroundings: from everyday conversations about equality, equity, diversity, and inclusion, to being open and honest about my mental illness, appropriately signposting colleagues who come to me with a range of confidential issues (and being vocal about being accessible as a point of help), planning and organising workshops that seek to explain the benefit of inclusion in academia, and being respectful and inclusive to all levels of staff I work with.
Students I work with: reminding students that as paying customers in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), they have the right to just treatment, vocalising that they deserve my respect as much as I deserve theirs, encouraging them to question the system and question me—not just take my word as the final say—telling them there is absolutely nothing wrong with being an “average” student—because society wrongfully conflates intelligence with competence—and still encouraging them to do their best and reach out for help when needed. In spaces with Black students discussing issues that affect them specifically, I am always open about my experiences and remind them they have every right to an equal say in academia.
Black colleagues: a major part of the remit of my activism in academia involves amplifying voices and standing beside those who have something to say and need encouragement. This has been a beneficial two-way street, as in the process I have found Black women academics who have supported, encouraged, and rooted for me, as well as given me career opportunities that otherwise I would not have come across on my own.
The system itself: I proactively sought out equality fora within my surroundings where I could voice concerns, challenge problems, and, arguably most important, suggest reparative action points that should hopefully contribute to top-to-bottom change. I cannot overemphasize the need for more marginalised voices and allies/accomplices to be proactively recruited onto HEI action groups. Even the most well-intentioned systems that lack equal or proportional representation will have certain issues slip through the cracks.
The anger I have still simmers under the surface, and for the time being I am content with this. As long as I have life, I will continue to use my anger as fuel to call out injustices and call on those who are perfectly positioned to dismantle these systemic inequities. Since it is my intention to remain in academia for a while, this is where I will continue my quest.
“We are constantly being told not to be angry. As a black woman especially, I hear it from all corners. To be angry is to give in to stereotypes of the shrill feminist, the mad black woman. To be angry is to trade intellect for emotion. To be angry is to be irrational and violent. To be angry is to be like them. To be angry is to lose. But none of that is true. I am angry because I love. I am angry because what I love is being harmed. I know why my people matter, why the environment matters, why human rights matter, why justice matters. And I know that this all deserves love. I know that it deserves protection. And I know who is fighting to deny it what it deserves. I know that when that which we love is being harmed — to not be angry would be unconscionable. […]
What if we took that anger beyond the internet? What if we took it into the streets more than once every two years? Into our boycotts? Into our strikes? Into the voting booth? What if we took that anger to our city council meetings? What if we took it to their campaign events and press conferences? What if we took it to our school boards and our workplaces? What if we took all this anger born of righteous love and aimed it?”
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