By Alexandra Cline
Earlier this year, I received a phone call from my father in. He told me that after a family blood test, we confirmed that we have a great deal of indigenous blood in our veins. While this was already somewhat assumed, the confirmation was one of the most illuminating and positive moments of my life. I knew, for certain, that I came from a people that rose from and lived in harmony with the earth, as well as a people that faced persecution and hardships for the entirety of their history– for this I felt pride.
We are still in search for exactly what tribe or group we originate from, but it is likely to be in relation to Mexico.
Simultaneously, this confirmation made me revisit the common composition of my historical self: a person derived from the conquered and the conqueror. My mother is essentially white, and the rest of my father’s background is rooted in Pais Vasco, España.
To be blunt: sometimes in a crowd of POC, I am the white girl. In other contexts, I’m the ethnic girl. I don’t necessarily grapple with this as much as I try to keep my privilege in check while also remembering my roots.
Where I do struggle a bit with identity, value of myself, and awareness is within the academic community.
Coming from an undergrad that is a progressive private school (one that is noted as having the highest percentage of international students among privates across the country), entering the state school system was a shock for me.
I wasn’t readily accepted anymore. The sensation of “Otherness” was as instantaneous as my feet stepping onto the campus.
Until recently, I’ve always found comfort and a sense of home in the world of academia. I equated my place of learning to that of a safe space, a realm in which I was free to explore myself without fear of persecution.
I have learned that while my exceptionally unique undergraduate experience was something of an oasis for me, not all schools or scholarly zones are like that. In fact, most aren’t.
I’ve discovered that an ugly air of competition plagues the hallways of writers and lit majors, rhetoricians and linguists. Within that sense of competition resides a rather insidious hierarchy that is a staple — obviously existing well outside of the realm of academia as well, but is, perhaps, sometimes heightened in such a context.
What I mean to say is: elitism is alive and well – and, of course, so is racism and sexism. And they exist (and even thrive!) in academia.
This is not to say that my experience as a graduate student has been anything less than magnificent, especially in the sense that I have been challenged more than ever in my field of study as well as in my immediate social groups. I’m very aware of the sheer fortune I have in my general education of the last five years. I still believe, though, that it is important to acknowledge what ails us, and what should be subject to change — even in the most beneficial and positive facets of our lives.
The most dangerous kind of hate is that of subtly. The kind where a friend might crack a joke that rides the line of “not ok” just a little too closely. The kind of racism or sexism that is passed off as nothing more than comedy or maybe banter – you know, the kind that “doesn’t really matter,” the kind that one should “just shrug off.”
As of late, it’s getting harder and harder to shrug that shit off.
Another rude awakening for me in a State system was finding that what “they say” is true: white men really do think they can tell you how to think and feel. And they also have a knack for dismissing your feelings in general, as well as decide when something is part of the “POC/LGBTQA/non-hetero-male agenda” and not actually valuable or appropriate for discussion. The irony of white-cis-males deciding what is and what is not appropriate generally cracks me up, but it is also rather disheartening.
How does one find community in a space where they are regularly silenced? Where they have to worry if they will piss off the wrong peer, or question the wrong professor? Where they often face fear in basic social interactions – fear that they are eventually ashamed of, because we know better than to be afraid of persecution.
I found myself working backwards from all the growth I had experienced in my undergraduate education. I wanted to appear whiter. I didn’t want my education to be put into any further questioning in addition to those already posed about my degree itself (as an MFA candidate, you get a good number of raised eyebrows and “well what’re you gonna do with that?!” in response to your field of choice – which to that I say vete a la mierda).
I also got sick of the frankly mundane and obnoxious question of what are you? And when upon answering, receiving the cliché answer of no way, I never would have guessed, that’s so cool! Or oh I KNEW it, you can totally SEE it!
You can see “it”? What does that even mean?
All of this culminated into a defining point in my first year of graduate school, where I decided to simply stop talking to those that felt the need to question my essential being. If you’re in a small graduate program, you may know how difficult it can be to avoid certain people, and how alienating it can feel. I found myself resting in an uncomfortable, self-imposed silence, and I was, admittedly, ashamed of myself for it. I had decided that it was better to ride under the radar than to challenge the groups in which I circled through. I finished my first year like that, and have struggled since the beginning of summer break to reconcile with myself over it.
I would dare to say that this piece is my first attempt at remedying such an experience.
Recently, I had the incredible experience of sharing space with a hyper-woke, super creative Latinx. Because of this time with him, I’ve been inspired to reclaim my latinidad specifically in relationship to my art and academic output.
It’s not so much the fact that he discussed his latinidad or his background and struggles as much as it was just his way of being that reminded me to embrace my own latinidad. A poet, an intellectual, and a radical Latinx, this man functions on all planes and does so unapologetically. In him, I found community and inspiration to remember those in my immediate circles that do fight the same fight and love with the same heart. He reminded me to be thankful for the few that do identify with similar struggles and retain the belief that equality and equity are key, especially in high stakes contexts like the realm of academia.