Wednesday, August 25, 2010

You mean you don’t want to collaborate

I’m an advanced female Latina graduate student at a respected public university.  I’m a member of a group that is doing some really awesome interdisciplinary work and I feel totally happy working with them.


A couple of years ago we got a grant to invite scholars doing relevant research to our own.  As the only grad student in this group I was put in charge of doing all the organizational work including picking up the Guest speakers from the airport and attending dinners with the other members.


All the people who came to speak were all well respected historians and one of those people is an established scholar at a prestigious university with an impressive resume and work so similar to mine that I was particularly excited to discuss my dissertation with him.  Professor Stickyhands appeared to be your regular middle aged nerd, in addition to being married and with children.  It seemed normal that our first point of conversation in the car involved updates of his children, their ages, and their latest adorable achievements.  In addition, he spoke of his brilliant wife and her new publication.  He then mentioned how great all of his colleagues were and how much he enjoyed working in Latin America, speaking Spanish, dancing and socializing with the communities he worked in (suspicion entered my thoughts).


The symposium was a total success and my group was thankful that everything had worked out.  We were in good spirits to celebrate (I was glad to be done with the extra work).


At the dinner all was normal perhaps even boring...  Then, the carpool reassembled and I along with another Latinagrad student were asked to take him back to his hotel.  Since the grad student was first on the route, I dropped her off, at that point Prof. Stickyhands suggested that we continue the party, mentioning that he did not know our world famous city and that it would be fun to get to know even a little bit of it… to which the gradstudent replied that she was tired and had a paper to finish… he suggested that he could help, and maybe even proofread it.  Not only was I startled at his suggestion, but I thought I was crazy to think that this professor wanted to “hang out” with both of us in the middle of the night?  As we drove off, prof Stickyhands praised me for my work and my most recent talk at our annual conference.  While acknowledging my accomplishments, he mentioned that I was one of the few people who had published work in Spanish as well as English and that as a Latina in academia, I was definitely in a special place. I thanked him kindly and entered the freeway, from which he proceeded to put his hand on my leg, noticeably close to my crotch.  He was careful to mention that a potential future publication could be arranged, with a guaranteed future of collaboration with him.  I put my weight on the gas pedal, I’m sure he felt my anxiety but he continued to praise my work and put his fingers on my ear.


The difficult part about this story is putting into print the millions of things that crossed my mind in a matter of seconds… First I thought of all the times I planned how to stave off a potential attacker, the self defense classes that I took, how I would have liked to drive off the freeway, the karate kick that I wanted to give to his nose and even of the mace that was hanging from my keychain…


At the same time, I realized that it had never occurred to me that a potential attacker would be a fellow colleague or professor.  I thought of the fact that this was someone who my advisor is close with, that this man was a leader in my field of study, that he knows all the people I work with and that in an indirect way, he had a lot of influence over the future of my career…


I want you to know that it NEVER occurred to me to cede to his ‘requests’… all I felt was an intense feeling of helplessness and anger that this was happening, and that in addition to being bound by my responsibilities as a driver, I was cornered by the power that he held over the future of my career.


A few seconds later, that seriously felt like an eternity… I realized that this man was the most disgusting creature I had ever shared my space with.  He was breathing heavily and it was clear that he had an erection.  I managed to speed the 2 miles from the freeway exit to his hotel and when we arrived, in the middle of my silence I skidded into the driveway and said, ‘Good night’ as diplomatically as I possibly could while holding back the tears of anger in my eyes… he opened the door, looked back at me and said, ‘You mean you don’t want to collaborate?’


At hand are many, many many issues… getting this out of my breath has not been easy.  And I should mention that I am fully aware that this sort of thing happens all the time- but WHY!?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

It's Just A Connotation

I'm a graduate student at a small university in New Orleans.  One of the first classes I had to take was an Anthropology course entitled, "Social and Cultural Theory."  The class surveyed all the most notable anthropological theorists, what they contributed to the field, etc.  Very early on, because of my comments on the readings, it became clear that my politics are VERY left-leaning.  As a progressive student of color, the student demographic was probably the worst I had ever experienced in the classroom.  Most of the white students were extremely resistant to anything I had to say, which wasn't entirely surprising.  However, there were two other students of color who decided it would be beneficial for them to agree with our White peers...they felt it might get them in good with our professor (who wasn't always fond of what I had to say).

So, one class we had to read about Edward Tylor, the man who "defined" anthropology.  The professor posed a question to us...was Tylor a racist? 

I immediately said yes.  The exerpts we had to read of him were filled with "savage," "barbarism"...all words he used to describe people of color.  The white students erupted!  They did not want to hear that Tylor was racist and basically tried to claim that "savage" was just a word.  When I tried to discuss the the connotations of the word "savage" and its consequences, every single white student yelled at me AT THE SAME TIME.  What made matters worse, one of the other students of color, an African American male who sat next to me, leans in and says to me, "It's just a connotation."  In other words, he was supporting the idea that those words had no social consequences.  The professor, who had been watching all this with a grin on his face, takes out a book written by his favorite theorist, Marvin Harris, who had written an essay that was titled something like, "Edward Tylor: Racist."  He read the excerpt and Harris, a white male, basically said everything I was trying to say.  Except, when he said it, there was nothing wrong.  The students still didn't like it, but they kept their mouths shut.  

A couple weeks later everyone was now willing to call Tylor a racist as if they had known it all along...and that was just one of many incidents in this class.

By: Abyssinian del Noroeste

Sunday, July 18, 2010

We Have Two


While in graduate school at Columbia, I sat in a classroom with about

40 of my peers during a "discussion section." There were only two

students of color in the classroom--me and one of my closest friends.

This class had been the source of mass discomfort for my friend and I

because our professor--a highly respected and lauded columnist whom

the majority of the class could not stand because he was also an

extremely insecure man--had a habit of making offensive comments to

everyone he possibly could. He once refered to a student as a "white

waste" because he did not answer a question quickly enough, which

shocked the hell out of me until he turned and referred to another

student as a "Pollack" (she was wearing a shirt that said that,

apparently unaware that it was an offensive term for those of Polish

descent.) He had a great time berating her to nearly the point of



We somehow got on the topic of diversity within the school itself

during one of these classes (during which my friend and I exchanged

knowing looks.) The professor said "Well, we've got two in the

classroom right now, and I think that's pretty good."


(Is anyone surprised to read he is a white male?)


Two? As in...eggs? Glasses? PEOPLE? God forbid we have names. Thirty

eight heads looked in the direction of my friend and me. We just

smiled that "Oh it's offense taken to your ridiculously

offensive comment."


Also important to note that there were about 20 students of color in a

class of just under 500. Oh, Ivy League education...

Monday, July 12, 2010

Short, Sweet and Ridiculous

So in preparation for qualifying exams in United States History, I get into a conversation with a fellow grad student from another country - also prepping for the exam. The conversation turns to American Indian History and he/she wanted to clarify exactly when American Indians migrated from India.

I was like "what?!"


Epistemology: fools, nobodies, and more nobodies

There is a bar in this city that every fool who is a somebody and all the nobodies who wanna become a somebody go to. I, a nobody who is much happier being a fool than a wanna-be, frequent the joint. Its about 2 blocks from the place I’m staying and good friends of mine, intellectuals sin pretenciones, go from time to time. About a week ago I had a conversation that has stayed with me since and is worth giving some thought to. A good friend brought some US Latino who is a free-lance writer. After the usual chitchat and the question of why and who we write for emerged the US Latino unapologetically and confidently proclaimed he writes about the African-American and Latino community for white people. When pressed he explained that he wants his work to be published and thus needs to write for white folk. Yet, the more we pushed, the more it seemed that the somebody really viewed himself as some sort of interlocutor between people of color and white folk.


Several of us tried to explain that there are few journalist of color and even fewer that present critical perspectives. We told the US Latino that we write for our primos, our friends from high school who never went to college, our tio/tias who don’t have BA but know as much if not more than many kids with degrees about Los Angles, race, discrimination, migration, etc. He wasn’t convinced. We continued to drink. We eventually left. Days have passed and I’m still thinking about the US Latino writer…and here is why:


While I would one day like to be a fool who is read by nobodies and a somebody or two I think we are all in the position of this US Latino, especially graduate students. We have no say in the language we use. Our language resembles middle-class educated Americans more than the subjects we write about. While most of us are no doubt far from Spivack’s move in “Can the Subaltern Speak,” I fear we are closer than we imagine: writing for professors and academics in language that would put to sleep the nobodies we claim to be inspired by and writing for. How do we shift the way knowledge is acquired and disseminated? Should we all become Carlos Monsivais?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Chale!: Proper Spanish/Nahua

I shared my first graduate class with an older man who specialized in colonial art and insisted on defending the "benefits" of colonialism. To him, the existence of a merit-based system of art workmanship in colonial Mexico proved that all aspects of colonialism weren't "so bad." One day, this student shared his experience taking Nahua language classes in Mexico from a white professor from Washington D.C. who had indigenous teachers as his assistants. The student couldn't believe that the professor had to "correct" the language skills of his indigenous assistants who did not know how to speak "properly." 

As a Chicana, I grew up constantly hearing about the importance of speaking "proper" Spanish and English. And while my first generation parents or language purists might never understand, among my chicano peers pochismos are some times the clearest way of expressing yourself. I couldn't understand how the Nahua learned by a professor in Washington D.C. is more legitimate than that spoken within indigenous communities.

Yet, after class I was the one who was criticized by another student who insisted that I should not have responded to the comment because the first student just "didn't know any better" given his background. Apparently, I am the one that needs to be more open-minded...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Qualifying Exams

A few years ago, I took my first qualifying exam along with 10 other graduate students. 4 of those 10 were other students of color in my department and as the results slowly started to come in we realized that all 4 students of color had failed the exam, while the other 6 had successfully passed on to the next stages of the program. In the days following the results, a couple of things were made clear to us: 1.) in the past 5-10 years the only people who had not passed an exam in the department had been students of color 2.) A professor who believed I should have passed was told by another reader “it wouldn’t hurt her to take it again” as the only explanation for failing me and 3.) a colleague was told by another professor – to her face - that students of color should never answer the race question because we were not capable of answering it correctly and without bias. Apparently, because of our life experiences and all our focus in graduate school is on race and politics, we have the hardest time answering the question appropriately and should try to avoid it. 
Interestingly, the professor who made the last claim only writes a question for the exam when a student studying – lets say “congress” - is also taking the exam. So how is it that a student studying “congress” can effectively answer a congress question because that is their expertise, but a student studying race should never answer a race questions because their interpretations of the readings are flawed? Of course, many more things were said throughout the months that followed, making it even harder for those that did not pass to focus since it had become such a big scandal within the department and everyone else knew who had failed the exam. 
At one point all of the students of color were invited to a dinner so we could discuss what WE could do differently to prepare better for exams. As much as I tried to explain to them that there may also be things the department could do differently, since the passing rates for students of color seemed to be systematically lower, that wasn’t a topic they were ready to tackle with just yet.
By: intellectual gangsta