Hi R Answers,
Wow, this is exciting. It reminds me of Yahoo Answers back in 2010 or something. The power of the internet, truly.
Anyways, I guess my question/query/exploration to you is about being a woman, and a woman of colour, in academia.
As university students at a reputable higher education institution, it’s very easy to feel rather isolated and invisibilized in the classroom and in the bigger community in general.
Rather it be the whitewash of the curriculum, the fact that majority of our lecturers male and white and the fact that in many ways higher education is a pursuit of the privileged.
I will often find myself defending my identity on a daily basis, I will encounter a majority of the classroom disagreeing with me when I talk about postcoloniality and feminism and more often than not, university is the stark realisation that education does not always correlate with open mindedness, the willingness to learn about social justice issues and allyship in general.
I guess my question is, how do we manoeuvre university life as intersectionals? How do we maintain our mental health and still exist in daily resistance? How do we balance the responsibility of standing up for those who are not as fortunate us and the desire to relax, “be a normal student” and avoid the weight of oppression?
In many ways, university is a mirror image of the real world. As such, how do we maintain faith and strength if we can’t even express ourselves in a classroom?
Wow, these are a lot of questions. Sorry, not sorry?
Keep up the work BGTC!
Hello, my darling anonymous first question-giver!
Wow, welcome! This is a big theme on which to launch the column!
You say you’ve asked a lot of questions, but I think it’s really just one very big one: “How do I go about being a woman of colour at university?”. I suppose there are two sides to this: how do I take care of myself, and how do I make sure that I am taking care of others?
Let’s start with taking care of others. For a lot of us, this is no doubt easier. It’s about making the communities we find ourselves in aware of our experiences, and those of others. Going about making these changes is, at best, demanding of our energy. At worst it places us in opposition to our peers and institutions. From what you’ve said about discussions in the classroom and standing up for others, you’re aware of it means to take care of others in this way, and good at enacting it.
For that reason, what I am going to focus on here is “how do I take care of myself?”. As far as I’m concerned, this is the most important of the two. Knowing how to take care of yourself as a woman of colour in academia could not be more a necessary foundation for being an effective advocate for change, as well as a happy person. Here are my three pieces of advice for you:
- Don’t fall into a sense of victimhood.
- Be tactical
- Find support
Don’t fall into a sense of victimhood
It’s true that everything can be political. That doesn’t mean that it has to be so for you, all the time, with your identity and oppressions framing all of your experiences. You are clearly someone who is very aware of the disadvantages of being a woman of colour in the environment that you are in. That’s good, and it will help you to understand and process a lot of the crap you are going to get in a healthy way, and to be able to create a safer environment for others.
However, it can be exhausting to process everything with its political implications. Whatsmore, it’s not particularly good for you. You need to be able to ignore the odd stupid comment, not because it doesn’t matter, but because your energy isn’t limitless. You need times and spaces when you get to be your full rounded self, rather than watching yourself as “the woman of colour”. Too much politicising takes away your energy to act, and to do other things you care about. I have known people to become almost paralysed in their states of being victims of oppression. Awareness is useful, but being overwhelmed by it is not. This is where being tactical and finding support come in.
I think there is an image that’s as much damaging as it is empowering. The perfect WoC: she achieves highly in white and male-dominated spheres, she is perfectly politically informed, she goes to every rally and still makes time for her family and friends. If she gets overwhelmed and cries about it, it becomes an inspiring blog post for others; her clouds are all silver lining.
This image, of the person who is always fighting, always smiling, and never tired, is not a real person. This will never be you, because it this will never be anyone.
Have a think about everything you spend your time on. Work out what gives you energy, and what demands it. (You may well love things which are totally exhausting for you, by the way, or vice versa). The situations you described that challenge you are adversarial, and there are probably very few people who take energy from being an adversary to their environment. It’s ok not to fight every battle, not to take up the political elements of your identity in every interaction. You need a break sometimes, and it will be so much easier if you can have that without feeling guilty that you are not being the perfect feminist.
Take time in non-adversarial spaces, and find support.
Your email reads as much like venting as it does like a question. While I’m sure you would love a step-by-step guide to being someone who, it often seems, no one expected to see turn up at their institution, (wouldn’t we all?) it sounds like you are also looking for support. The best that I can do is to affirm that you’re right, it can be an exhausting challenge having to live in seeming opposition to the institutions of which are a member.
I can offer support and advice, but not on the daily basis that you are faced with these problems. Find support. If you haven’t already, find groups of people who offer escape from and support in face of situations where you have to be on-guard. I promise you that they do exist, and the best ones are likely to be unlikely.
This blog and its community, as wonderful as they are, may not provide that. A space like this, with its admirable intensity of focus on adversity, can be energy consuming, as well as framing your identity through victimhood (which as discussed, is sometimes but not always helpful). Having people in spaces which are not for these problems, but are sympathetic to them, where you can relax rather than fight, is going to be important. I have known people who have found these kinds of spaces through sports teams, volunteering, book groups. Find a space that lets you be your whole self.
These spaces allow you to be a person. When you are made to feel like crap because of one part of your identity, having faith and confidence in your complete self can let you stand a little less shaken.
So, in short? Take time out, don’t let your political life become your entire life. Not because it’s not important, but because if it is important to you then it has to be sustainable. Give yourself time to relax and grow away from this. Take care over how you use your energy. Then use all of that to to give you strength for the times when you can choose to try to be the perfect feminist.
I hope you have a wonderful time at uni.
Fucking smash it,
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