I am delighted to offer another guest post in my series of contributed posts by black women and other women of color.
If you’d like to submit a post or an idea for a post for consideration, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I pay $150 for accepted posts. The posts can be anonymous or not, as you prefer and can be about your experiences of racism/microaggressions in grad school or the career, your post-academic musings, hard-won advice for other students/faculty of color coming up, intersectional practices in teaching or research that you have found valuable, and also of course, makeup and clothes, or even tech gear you’ve found that helps in your work. More information can be found here.
Today’s post’s author is an assistant professor of education at a research-intensive public university on the West Coast. She is Asian-American, a first-generation college student, and a mother of three. Prior to graduate school, she taught in public middle and high schools for 10 years. Her research focuses on improving K-12 teaching and learning through examining how policy changes affect teachers’ classroom practices. Her life outside the university includes hiking, gardening, cooking and baking, spending time with her children, and reading for pleasure.
I am writing this post anonymously because my professional world is very small and the incident I am about to share involves people I will continue to cross paths with in the future. The incident happened a few years ago when I was in graduate school, and although time has passed, my feelings about the situation remain unchanged. In fact, I feel more strongly than before that one of my roles as a woman of color in the academy is to stand up for myself and other People of Color, especially in a field where White scholars continue to build prestige for themselves by seeming to care about and conducting scholarship on “disadvantaged” and “underrepresented” People of Color, including children, while they go home at the end of the day to their White families and suburban lives. I feel that it is unpopular and likely career-ending for me as a junior scholar to even hint at the hypocrisy of these White colleagues, for they are lauded as pillars of our professional community for focusing their scholarship on Black and Brown folks. Never mind that they can talk the talk but don’t walk the walk, as the saying goes. They can write all they want about how the “voices” of these poor people need to be heard, but they will never understand the lived reality of being a Person of Color in a racist, sexist, classist, and homophobic society. I do not claim to represent all People of Color—all I can do is share my own experiences and reflect on why I feel the way I do.
The incident was a turning point for me. I had been a full-time graduate student in a well-regarded doctoral program for a few years, and I admit that I had a little flutter of pride in my chest every time somebody asked me out for a cup of coffee to chat about graduate-school related things. I was somebody! I knew things and could impart my wisdom to less experienced others over a latte served in a cute turquoise mug in a cozy café somewhere in our middle-of-nowhere college town. I admit that I also asked out others for coffee—it seemed like the thing to do. After all, graduate school was challenging enough with its written and unwritten rules, and it seemed better to be helpful and generous than competitive.
Looking back, I think I was proud to serve as a mentor because it made me feel like I was being successful in academia. As a woman of color, I was always aware of the racial makeup of a room of people, whether it was a classroom, research group meeting, or dinner party. White privilege and dominance in academia means that I am constantly evaluating my performance and worth compared to White colleagues. Thus, being asked out for a cup of coffee and some advice, especially by White colleagues, seemed to validate my place in the academy.
So, a few years ago, I was serving as an unofficial mentor to a White woman. Unlike me, she was tall and slender, blonde and blue-eyed. For whatever reason, she had sought me out, and we would meet occasionally for coffee to talk about things like navigating courses and program requirements, working with faculty, and securing summer funding. I initially disliked her, partly because of her too cheery disposition and apparent need to be liked by everybody. Despite my initial dislike, we eventually became friends and would hang out and talk about personal things. We had many mutual friends so it was difficult to not invite her to things without feeling like a complete asshole.
One day, she posted something on social media that made me so upset that I almost vomited. She shared a video made by a popular White, apparently middle- or upper-middle-class family that used Black culture as a source of parody. I was upset because I had become increasingly aware of the White privilege that she and others had in our program and profession. Moreover, these White colleagues were self-proclaimed “social justice warriors” who patted themselves on the back for caring about Black and Brown people, for saving the environment and eating only local and “happy” free-range chicken (never mind that free-range organic chicken costs more and is therefore unaffordable for poor folks), for wearing pink pussyhats and marching for women’s rights (never mind that feminism in this country often means only White feminism), and so on.
I usually scrolled through my social media feed, liking a post here or there but rarely commenting. This time, however, I couldn’t let it slide. I had to say something but even thinking about what to say or how to say it made me sick to my stomach. Literally. I didn’t know how she would react to my calling her out. So instead of commenting on the post, I sent her a private message.
And her response?
She thought that the video was okay to share because it was funny. Later, I could see that others had called her out publicly, but I hadn’t. So, what did it mean that we were friends yet I felt sick to my stomach when I had to call her out on racist shit? Was I being overly sensitive?
Afterwards, she tried to reconcile with me and asked multiple times to meet for coffee. But, a line had been crossed for me—the fact was that she hadn’t listened to me. She had disregarded my concern and instead offered her defense that the video couldn’t be taken seriously as racist because it was funny. It was just a joke! And this reasoning came from a person who claimed to care about People of Color, who used words like equity and diversity in her scholarship.
The hypocrisy was stunning.
And I was kicking myself for not trusting my initial instincts about her.
Our mutual friends urged me to make up with her because she was a nice girl, and she didn’t really mean it, and she had learned her lesson and was trying to be a better person, right? They made me feel like I was being the unreasonable one. Forgive and forget, they had advised, let’s just all be friends and go back to the way things were.
I rejected this reasoning. Why?
Because I realized that she could never know how sick and anxious it made me to even think about confronting her. Because I realized that, as a White woman and scholar doing so-called social justice work in a White supremacist society and academy, she benefited from an association with me in a way that I would never benefit from an association with her. In other words, she could claim to have Black and Brown and Red and Yellow friends as evidence of “being woke” yet admitting that we’re all racist because we’ve all been raised in a racist society is the first step towards a more just society. She could use People of Color to her professional benefit and not even understand that that’s what she’s doing. In her mind, she’s just a nice person who cares about diversity, and who wouldn’t want to be friends with a nice person?
But let’s call it what it is—White woman savior complex, which positions White women as helpers of those less fortunate than themselves. At the end of the day, however, White women are the ones who ultimately benefit from this positioning by affirming to each other how “good” and “nice” they are. They are promoted by other White women (and men), and the existing social hierarchy continues to be reproduced, generation after generation.
So, if you ask me out for a cup of coffee, and I say no, please understand that it’s not you. It’s me. I’ve learned to value myself and my knowledge and experiences, and I get to choose what I want to share and with whom I want to share it with. And if you’re a White woman (or man), and I’m a little guarded, then please understand that we live in a world where you have an advantage over me simply because of your skin color.
I refuse to be used. Not today!