Lukas and I recently did a research paper together for a course called Education and Work. We sat in my living room late one night, trying to decide on a central topic and research question. Considering our shared emphasis on situated knowledge, I sank into a beanbag and reflected on the connotations both education and work hold for me. I’ve wanted to be a professor since I was young; I used to think degrees would confer respectability and access to teaching spaces otherwise withheld from me by whiteness. I proposed to Lukas, then, that we look into the connotations of educational attainment with regard to whiteness; we settled on exploring how students and teaching staff of colour interact with and experience whiteness at university, and what educational and professional attainment meant to them. Due to interview constraints and the highly personal nature of the topic, we decided to write autoethnographies to contribute to the data. Here is mine.
I started working recently. It’s a little Indian takeaway, and I work at the front of the restaurant and process orders. It’s surprisingly done up: the walls are covered in colourful patterns, and cutouts of dancers float slightly away from them — perhaps to create depth and catch the eye. In quieter periods, I retire to my stool to scribble into a tiny notepad; I began the page with “on autoethnography”, but it quickly devolved into an examination of the grinning dancers surrounding me. It’s nothing new: every time I enter a space of learning or attempt to undertake another banal assignment, I feel as though I am gazing into a reality starkly different from my white instructors’ and peers, and that I barely inhabit their reality. Their eyes slide over and through me, even as they allow me to speak endlessly in classrooms, to the point that my words — articulate as they are — die in my throat, and I must sit in muffled silence to maintain what little composure I have. Being Brown in this university is strange. So long as I speak with my American voice, dress drearily, and tame my hair (not too much! then I'll look backward), I am allowed to trespass their sterile imaginary. I am asked, if I'm lucky, to apply the theories of men (who do not look like me, from a time much before me) to suffering bodies of Colour. Neither they nor I am afforded subjectivity, and we are passed hastily between hands like tokens at a fair; nobody wants us, but bits of what we signify.
I can’t say I was shocked when I came here. I had hoped for better, but landed in familiar territory. I am used to my value being measured along the metric of the white man; I grew up racialised differently on different continents, and had to develop a dynamic understanding of whiteness and my location relative to it in order to survive. Although I was bright, my position in classrooms was determined by much more than that: the voice with which I addressed my peers and teachers, the food I brought to school, my body hair, my interests and more affected how I was racialised and thus the extent to which I was palatable. After years of being thrown about the world, I was quick. Quick to pick up accents, learn what to be interested in, dress differently(within my wardrobe of hand-me-downs and Walmart brand clothes), beg my mother for a razor, etc. By the time I was 10, I was an expert doing intensive participant research in whiteness. I liked to talk, and I knew I was right, but I learned I would only be allowed to speak if I followed invisible sets of rules I inscribed in my heart. Education became a lot easier. Teachers loved me; I was like a clever but clean slate. I found I loved learning, and loved being recognised. Academic success and recognition from my teachers and peers was, to be frank, my only success. I was not recognised at home, and I certainly wasn’t recognised on the street. By 15, I figured that was my way in; that I would be taken seriously and recognised by others if I was highly qualified and an academic. On any matter, mind you; I had nothing particularly revolutionary or incendiary to say at 15, but simply wanted my words and presence to be received with something other than scepticism(at best). I put my energy into being smart and good at school; in order to assume, in some way, a rational and measurable identity so that the world could look at me and allow the stain upon its sight. School did not give me the tools and language to understand myself or the way people perceived my Brown body, so I researched in my own time and felt very small and suffocated in my knowledge, in that my surroundings never reflected it. University, then, was exciting; people would know what race was!
This anaemic institution flees race and wouldn’t know culture if we fed it to them on some dry white bread. So I sit, complicit yet resolute in my persistent desire to be as academically accomplished as humanly possible so that my overflow of lived experience is sanctioned, lauded; I sit, knowing the academe is an ugly institution that would rather have a mediocre white peer write about my body than have me write; I sit, dissatisfied with the quality of my education; I sit, feeling bigger and brighter and creative beyond what the academe can hold; but I am tired, and must lay down. Doing the absolute minimum in the white space of this university is an inhuman effort. The physical space feels hostile; I attempt to slink through the insipid bodies that constitute Roeterseiland, and am buffeted from end to end, emerging aching and alone. My teachers are unseeing and for the most part, comfortable within the limits set by our unimaginative and almost inhuman white professors. Their vision of humanity extends to themselves and those like them; listening to and studying under them is so deeply alienating in that they seem paralysed in their rhetoric, unable to take a single step towards the Other, much less engage in the mental gymnastics required of empathy. I hope that read as sarcasm. I hope, every day, that it is just this institution. I know better, but I hope. The academe is white. I want to learn, and I want to teach; I find meaning and purpose in this, but every step I take towards realising it is fraught with uncertainty. I am too tired to be brilliant. Maybe I will be a diversity hire, then. Somewhere, someday, the academe with let me in — if only to satisfy a quota. By then I hope my loved ones and I find a way to rip it to shreds and foster spaces of learning and teaching that are less tainted with whiteness and imperialism.