On Being Latin@ in Academia (Elaborations on the Coil)

Hello, everyone. This is the extendo version of the post I made on my PINEMAP blog. Its a little more about me and maybe lends the credibility of replication to my experiences as a Latin@ woman in a white-dominated world. The last half of that post is largely what I wrote there.

Let’s start with who I am: I’m the granddaughter of two Mexican immigrants living in the South Side of Tucson, Arizona. My grandpa worked as a heavy machinery mechanics at the copper mines until the industry fell apart during the financial meltdown that followed the popping of the subprime mortgage bubble, and my grandmother had not worked since I was five years old– she had been a teacher’s assistant to the Arizona public schools system. Neither of them went to college. Like a lot of 90’s teens, my mother had me while she was still in high school, and I was largely raised by my grandparents while my mother worked her way through state university and moved on to her career at Walgreens. When my mother married my stepfather when I was 14, she moved out and into a home with my stepfather, but I stayed with my grandparents. I have never actually met my biologic father– like a lot of men on the South Side, he did not quite feel up to the task of fathering any of his children– but he was a tall, Afro-Puerto Rican/Mexican man from who I receive my dark curly hair, tanned skin, and figure.

By and large, I have always been surrounded by white culture. Maybe you’ll find this sad, but my grandparents always told me to respect white people in the utmost: to this day they still cannot call my stepfather’s parents by their names, calling them “Señor” or “Señora”. When I told my grandmother that I was going to the protest at OSU in response to the slaying of Michael Brown, she said “Mija, what can we do? We are just Mexicans.” My mother was equally paranoid about me “ending up like my cousins”, so she made sure that I always went to “good” schools– mostly white majority charter schools. Here, I did not really realize that “micro-aggressions” were happening all the time– despite constant claims that I did well in class because teachers were “surprised someone Hispanic could do well” or that I was promoted to being a teacher’s aide because of my relationship with the (white) professor.  Somehow, to everyone, I wasn’t getting ahead because I took 13 AP exams and got AP National Scholar– it was because I was a brown girl, and I was somehow using my exotic wiles to get ahead. While the white kids were complaining about the grades I was handing them on their exams, my own parents were complaining that I was becoming “too white”– talking too white, thinking too white, behaving and treating my family the way whites treated theirs rather than acting like the Chicana I was.

By senior year of high school, I was real tired of this and I resolved to go to college away from Tucson. I told myself this cultural dissonance was just a Tucson problem– after all, the government of Tucson did sanction off Tucson proper from South Tucson largely on racial and socioeconomic lines. I thought that once I got to the bastion of higher education that was Kenyon College –THE Kenyon College that gave us such intellectual beauty as this speech and let me come to school for the pennies I had scraped together as a cosmetics girl at Walgreens– this kind of racialized talk would be gone. What did it matter that a white teacher I had known and worked for for years told me that he had initially thought I would be a problem student because of my race and how pleasantly surprised he was at my success if soon I could revel in the glory of academia; where no one would be ridiculous enough to act this way?

I was painfully wrong. It was not even my first full day at Kenyon before someone asked me where I was from– you know, the “No, but where are you REALLY from?” that white people ask. The start of the year was not any better; what better culture shock could there be than hearing two white girls completely diss the “commercial culture” of Dubai while swinging around designer backpacks and trotting around in expensive heels on a gravel path? When I  and a few other POC asked the (white) head of a club I was in if I could pay in installments or have a reduced payment to go to a convention with the group after he raised the price of admission without warning, he told us “Why? Don’t you have parents to pay for you?”. When we got snowed in at the same convention, and I thanked this person for buying the whole group dinner on his credit card, he replied “Don’t worry, I know someone like you would never be able to afford this anyways.”

As a freshman at Kenyon, I got very close to a professor–like, close enough that to this day I still call him Papa and his wife Mama. We were not close at all at first–trust me, I honestly thought the man hated me. But, after a few weeks as his student, he read one of my lab papers and said he saw promise in me and that he wanted to be my mentor. He became my advisor, and over the course of the next year at Kenyon I learned over the course of our weekly tea sessions that my mentor was a firm believer in respectability politics. He explained that it was not so much that whiteness was an oppositional identity, but more that white culture had mainstreamed a lot of the values everyone held dear–especially in the scientific community. I knew a lot about respectability politics from my own upbringing, but when my own mentor seemed like such a proponent of it I thought that perhaps this was the ticket to academic success that I needed to advance myself to the next level without the constricting struggle I had in high school. I toned down my makeup, toned down my hair, and I lost a lot of the more “thug” speech and mannerisms that I had brought with me to Kenyon from Tucson. With my friends of course, I still acted like I had in Tucson– rainbow hat to match rainbow makeup and a livid tongue– but with the larger Kenyon community I was quiet, respectful, meek and subservient; the things my mother had always wanted me to be. It was weird, and I didn’t notice that I was being treated any different except by other people of color (“Why are you talking so white?”).

But it made my mentor happy, and we grew close enough that I went to his house instead of my own during breaks. His (white) wife loved me too– she asked me to call her Mama before he said anything about caring for me like a daughter. She even spoke what Spanish she knew with me, even though I usually refrained from speaking Spanish around people I did not know very well. His wife and he had interesting ideas about certain peoples and the urban poor, but the thoughts they voiced  were already familiar talking points to me: the poor spend their money on themselves rather than better themselves, would you really trust a doctor if he spoke in ebonics, etc. But I didn’t really reply to their talking points, even if some of their comments really worried me (“I can’t be a racist– I married a man of color!”).

For once, I felt really accepted and loved; I felt like I trusted my mentor and his wife with my upbringing and past, and that they trusted and loved me enough to help me build a better future than the ones my parents had.  I had told these people everything, and in exchange I thought they were willing to overlook where I came from and trust me to be an upstanding and accountable person. I thought the respectability of these people meant something;and that if I played along it would mean the same thing for me, too.

And then the dream shattered. At one point over spring break with them, I had bought a more-expensive soap from a specialty store for my eczema. I had a little money left over from my three jobs at Kenyon that hadn’t gone into books and tuition, so I decided to buy a soap to calm my skin. I didn’t know at the time, but as soon as I left their house a suspicious charge came in on their credit card from the same soap store I had been to earlier that week. It was billed from their shipping headquarters and was for a very odd amount of money, so clearly it was an online charge. Imagine my shock, my heartbreak, when the next week my Papa took me into his office and asked me if I had taken his credit card information– because his wife was convinced that I had to have done it. He told me all the reasons why his wife thought I did it– which amounted to “well, you bought a soap from that store”– and I don’t think I’ve ever quite lost my cool like I did after that. That kind of disingenuous reasoning from a fellow scientist, a fellow person of color; I could hear the glass mirror that had been my reality shattering into a million pieces.

And that was probably what hurt most. He knew she was being ridiculous and jumping to a conclusion based on where I’d come from and not who I was as a person. He knew as soon as the first tear I shed after reading the fraudulent charge statement that I hadn’t done it. But he didn’t care. All my newfound gentility, my learned eloquence, all the things I had done as he’d told me to do meant nothing. Because in the face of real prejudice and institutionalized racism, respectability means nothing. It is no real measure of your accountability, your work ethic, or worth. It’s a comment on the Emperor’s new robes, “Oh, but what a fine tailor the Emperor has!” as someone giggles in the background. Respectability politics and adherence to it doesn’t save you from the people who could hurt you– it just means you have to be willing to drown someone else to save yourself.

I’m not willing to play the game anymore. I let respectability alienate me from the community that loved me most, and what I had gotten in return was a bitter reminder that no one really thinks minorities can make it in academia or other high-education fields. I’m over the Bill Cosbys  of the world and pretending that the problems that impact minority communities are those purely inflicted by ourselves– extremism doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and it is too late to pretend that centuries of imperialism and colonialism haven’t left a mark American society.

But we can change these things. We don’t have to play the game by rules we never got to make. We can be our genuine selves, and show the mainstream that we can be trustworthy, hardworking, and worthy of respect. I was really lucky that when all this happened, I had enough people who understood this that I was saved from what surely would’ve been certain condemnation. I don’t want it to just be luck though– I want it to be commonplace that when the racists of the world decide to suddenly bite, the whole community rises up to defend those wronged. We are not there yet. But if we keep talking, keep sharing our stories, and educating others, we can get there.

And wouldn’t that make the world so much more beautiful a place.