[We continue to welcome #BLM and BIPOC guest posts. We pay $150 for accepted posts. 1000 words ballpark; profanity welcome. Art/poetry also welcome. Please send a draft or query/pitch to Karen at email@example.com].
This guest post was contributed some time ago; the delay in posting was due to my (Karen’s) disorganization during the pandemic.
Bio from the author: Deep South WOC teaches at a Research 1 institution
A few years ago, I wrote about my challenges as a woman of color in academia working to earn tenure amidst racial micro-aggressions that were eating at my soul a little bit each day. As recently as January 2020, I was contemplating exit strategies from my university despite having gained tenure at a research 1 institution. I was starting to ask myself if any of this was worth it and if I had duped myself into believing that I could be an agent of change in a racial economy that always reverts to its default setting of whiteness and privilege. There have been victories, of course: the university is hiring more Black, Latinx and POC faculty; we are organizing to demand more racial bias training; we are fighting for more equitable representation. However, it has also been exhausting – pushing me to the verge of burnout.
Then the coronavirus happened. Because of my research focus on Asia, I saw it coming well before those around me. I did not sound an alarm, but calmly joked about how the world thought national borders could somehow contain a virus. My students laughed, my colleagues smiled, and then six weeks later, we were all at home working from our computers. As unfortunate and deadly as this situation has turned out to be, I have breathed a deep sigh of relief. The last year has been challenging. I am juggling many responsibilities with a spouse and children also vying for our limited internet bandwidth. Teaching courses online is sometimes very difficult. My days are long, but the stress I used to carry in every muscle of my body is gone, even as I come to terms with a virus that has struck so many of my family and friends all over the world. I am sad at this state of affairs and angry at the mismanagement of our governments.
I am also relieved because I no longer have to face the barrage of daily aggressions that were my everyday life as an academic WOC. Still, there is something refreshing about this moment that I wanted to capture right now, for fear that it will disappear too quickly. Suddenly, I feel free to work, to write, to teach. Departmental meetings on Zoom are short with scant complaining, jabbing or attacking. Everyone is either too tired, or too sour, or too sad, to turn against one another. What can be done by email is handled that way. College-wide meetings are focused on students, on how to help them, and on how to navigate this political moment and our responsibilities after Ahmaud Arbury, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and most recently the Atlanta spa massacre. Emergency mode is stripping away the usual onerous ramblings caught up in academic self-importance. I shudder to believe that the impossible happened, even to the extent that I wonder if I somehow willed this catastrophic situation into being.
A year ago, in February 2020, in a moment of extreme distress, I wished for a job where I would not have to be around my white privileged colleagues each day in order to do the things I love best: teach courses, mentor students and young scholars in my field, research, write, attend conferences with thinkers who inspire me, give public lectures and seminars. The university, as currently configured, stifles the intellectual acumen of so many among us who expend energy on survival rather than creativity. Now that those who have never had to face such challenges are also thinking about how to live life on the brink, there is a leveling of the playing field, of sorts.
Covid-19 imposes a return to the human and the humane; we are all sheltering indoors to possibly save the most vulnerable among us, and in the process doing our ailing planet a favor. We are coming to terms with our global interconnectedness because this virus cares little about our differences. I am convinced now more than ever that this virus is what it will take to make us reimagine the university for the age of the pandemic and beyond. COVID-19 eats all our academic rhetoric of diversity for lunch. It lays bare the true meaning of what it means to be human. No two of us are alike and the greater the differences among us, the better our chances of weathering this virological storm – or any other inclement conditions that come our way. True diversity brings a multiplicity of experiences and perspectives together, shocking us even, because they are inherently so divergent.
I for one, have no desire to return to the old university with its straight walls, painted over and over again in the able-bodied whiteness of its past glories. I am ready for something else. Something new. At least that is the only reason I am still here.