News / Ivory Tower

  • Being the only Womyn of Color in a major Academic Department is Hard

    We continue with our new Cuentos series with a piece from a guest writer. Due to her precarious position in her PhD program, she wishes to be anonymous. But I can tell you, she is awesome! and has made major contributions to the website. 

     

    La Mosca Muerta 

     

    As the only Latina in my political science cohort, I often feel lonely. Thoughts of home, thoughts of mi cultura are sometimes the only things that keep me company when the loneliness strikes. Sometimes I think about some of my mom’s sayings. One of them is calling a surreptitious person a ‘mosca muerta’. Taken literally, mosca muerta means ‘dead fly.’ I often times act like a dead fly when in a new environment, testing out the waters, looking to see who I can trust, who will steal the pain from my experiences and generate intriguing and controversial research ideas, who won’t be on my side;
    I enact this identity mostly for self-protection.
    My mosca muerta first year in graduate school taught me that although I was in a well-respected, reputable doctoral program working under the advisement of a notable scholar - my credentials and my deservingness to exist in this space are perpetually under the microscope.
    I feel as though I have to prove my merit 10 times over the burden that my white, cohort-mates must demonstrate.

     

     

    As much as we are taught to be believe knowledge leads to liberation I have not found academia to be a safe space for me, as a young, first-generation POC. I am the only student of color in my cohort, and the only person of color in my department. What is particularly interesting about my situation is that I am the only person of color in my department studying the political history of mi gente.

     My presence in the department has already shook up some feelings among the faculty.

    I received word, through my advisor, that some of the faculty are concerned that I will be pigeonholed as the Latina who studies Latino issues.
    This is enraging because they often want me to discuss my unique experiences, but mostly to feed off the anecdotes like vultures would to a decaying body. I didn’t take this message too well – it appears to be contradictory. My White labmate is allowed to study Latino issues, Latino political history, without having lived it. They haven’t lived the experience of being a minority, of being a Latina, but somehow, they, as White men and women, are more entitled to examine, discuss, and attempt to rectify the experiences of Latinos / minorities than a minority who is intimately aware of these issues.
    Sometimes, I feel like I’m only here to inspire them to do better, more thought provoking, and controversial work.
    My presence seems to increase my advisor’s credibility to
    conduct research on Latino political issues
    (“he has a Latina graduate student! He must know what she is talking about!) but, by the same token, undermines my objectivity and right to conduct this research.
    This experience has been confusing and enraging.
    One of the first conversations I’ve had with my cohort involved them asking me if I liked Juanes and whether I knew how to make a mean salsa. There was very little conversation about my intellectual interests, of my accomplishments; these questions made me feel as though I was simply an affirmative action admit to graduate school. Let it be clear that had I been an affirmative action admit, I wouldn’t be ashamed – but I was not. I had GRE scores well above the 90th percentile, great grades, and have generated enough accolades to be recruited by my well-respected advisor. But to them, my white cohort mates, I’ll always be Latina first, academic second (if at all).
    I am one of two graduate students in the department interested in studying in Latin America; the other student is White. I, for the most part, get along with him. He seems to sort of ‘get’ the Latino experience – he has studied their governments, after all. In fact, I have come to him to talk about some of the difficulties I have experienced when interacting with my mostly White, mostly middle-class colleagues. Sometimes I feel like a sideshow oddity, a person that they like to speak to about my experiences with prejudice and discrimination.
    Often, I feel tired and sort of degraded after these conversations because I can see their eyes light up with research ideas when I share something particularly painful and / or shameful!
    Even though my mother escaped oppression to provide me with new opportunities,
    it seems more like I’ve been offered a new type of oppression
    – being constantly and consistently ‘othered,’ and undermined.
     
    To thrive in the academy means that we have to spend a lot of time seeking recognition for your work in the form of fellowships and publications. I’ve been awarded with not one, but two fellowships, in my short stay at my doctoral program. I have completed many lines of research.
    For a person of color this all doesn’t seem to matter because people treat you with doubt, that you belong and that I have the intellectual capacity to do the work I believe in.
    In some ways I don’t want them to know how good I am, it feels safer to be la mosquita muerta.
    I let people question me, because as la mosquita muerta,
    I will pretend to be stupid until my time comes to shine.

     

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