An "Uppity" Memoir and Some "Cheeky" Tips: On What it is Like For Me to be a Woman of Colour at a University Whose Structure is Still Predominantly White and Eurocentric in its Focus
Michelle La Flamme

"How long have you been in?"
"I was out for seven years and now I am back."
"How is life on the outside?"
"Not bad. A lot of changes. How long have you been in?"
"I don't know anymore but I think my kids are getting bigger."

This is not about the swinging café door à la Fred Wah, this is about the Wall and hitting it hard…The Master's houses are not built with straw and one huff and one puff or several “Whaps” will not allow the ease of entry within and through these walls…there is no disembodied invisible paranormal experience of Otherness that will allow one to permeate this space with ease. I hit the wall time and again.

I feel the SMACK.

It does not recede but the calluses and methods for breaking the fall have allowed my interiority to stay intact.

As a graduate student I was, for the most part, "the brown one" in every seminar. This meant that when I addressed issues of power and privilege that related to representations of race within a given text, I was met with a number of responses ranging from blank stares from the class, hostility from the professor who felt holes were being identified in his (usually a white male) curriculum, theoretical underpinnings or worst yet, his person. I never intended to cause disruption but rather felt it to be my duty to speak to the impulse that welled inside me and seemed blatantly obvious regarding the text's constructions of race. I thought it intellectually astute of me to encourage an examination of the ways in which a text is raced. These days I am of a mind to think that I should be paid for this kind of advice: Race Consultation or Curriculum Development or something. When studying Toni Morrison and William Faulkner in a graduate seminar the class looked somewhat surprised when I addressed issues of "curses" in a number of texts by both authors and the ways in which the notion of the cursed land and the curses of slavery were being played out in the text. My presentation seemed to imply that all of those (i.e., my fellow students) influenced by the mechanisms of a slaveocracy would be somehow cursed or damaged in the exchange. This was a Morrisonian broadening of the limited notions around the singular victimization of the recipient of racism and I declared that even the perpetrators of such violence that is normalized in the slaveocracy would also "get their day." It seemed taboo to mention white culture's blood fetish for Black blood that exists in Faulkner's Light in August. It shocked my fellow students that I understood the thinking behind the need for the vigilante killing in Morrison's Song of Solomon or the rage which compelled Joe Christmas in Light in August to murder Miss Burden. A burden she was indeed with her guilt based Christian sermonizing; yet her desire to mold Joe Christmas into one of her "saved" was replicated, in some ways, inside the very classroom. I had become a traitor and the deceptive "Other" who had somehow been within their midst all the time. I talked white but I spoke Black, someone informed me. Malignant Mulatto or the malignancy of the mulatto which can/will overtake at any given moment. BewareJoe Christmas lives on. We never discussed the word "race" or "racism" yet we were dealing with texts which were set in the Southern States and had slaveocracy and/or its aftermath at their center.

I felt cheated.

SMACK

In another class I had to endure watching the triumphant ride of the KKK in the film Birth of a Nation.

SMACK

Another time I found myself in my First Nations literature class. One day, a Professor was challenged by the tiny core of Native students who felt that her perspective was too Eurocentric in its focus and was missing much of the symbolism. Instead of looking at this as an amazing learning opportunity for herself and the students, she became arrogant and suggested that when and IF a First Nations person appeared with a Ph.D. she would gladly turn over the class to her. We all smoldered at the ways in which this comment was loaded with ramifications of class, power, privilege and the "r" word. She became defensive and this shut down class discussions. It was a start in First Nations literature, and initiated an awareness of the dynamics of race in the classroom. I often wonder what the level of analysis would or could have been developed, given a different instructor, who could have invited the deeper analysis of the title of Thomas King's novel Green Grass, Running Water. What would have happened if the conversations between me and the Native students on water and the colour green and grass, grass dance, sweet grass were allowed to be included in the class discussion without the white professor feeling threatened?

I felt cheated.

SMACK

I took Canadian literature in the 1980s and 1990s and never studied a writer of colour. I feel cheated. I challenged the course title "Canadian Literature" which did not deal with the multiplicity of writers who are indeed Canadian but are also brown. Slowly this is changing on campuses across Canada, and here on the West Coast efforts by Roy Miki and Fred Wah cannot be underestimated. I was on campus at Simon Fraser University when Miki's Canadian Literature class changed to include writers of colour. It was not a fight or a demonstration - just a strategic adjustment. West Coast Line started to publish works by Canadians, but these were people of colour Canadians and the tenor and tone of West Coast Line shifted people's perceptions of Canadian literature in a strategic and forcefully enduring way. But I fear it will still take some time to include First Nations writers as an integral part of Canadian literature and not something tucked on at the end of the course so the Professor and/or department can get their Politically Correct credit.

SMACK

The technique of divide and conquer is still firmly in place in curriculum planning. The wall between what is Canadian literature and what is “Other” literature is still being built. I fought for and planned the First National Writers of Colour Conference (“Writing Thru Race” 1994) with a number of gifted intellectuals and artists. At its base, it was an acknowledgement of the need for writers of colour to be in dialogue in spaces where they/we were the majority and felt safe to discuss issues that concerned them/us. I performed with a spoken word troupe of people of colour in a band called “Lime Tears” for this event and it was satisfying and nourishing, a blessing to look out into a crowd of academics, writers and other artists (like myself) who were predominantly people of colour from across Canada.

I peered through the crevices in the newest part of the wall at others like me.

Post "Writing Thru Race" marks another epoch for Canadian writers and academics alike. It forced the issue of the need for a collective space for people of colour to meet and strategize for the first time ever on a national level. It marked a space that was for, by and about people of colour, and asked allies to attend the evening sessions only. It was working with the principles that I am hoping academia will recognize in its monolithic move towards creating breathing space for people of colour within the Master's House. At this event, for the first time in my academic life, here, I did not feel cheated.

Once a course was offered on films by Women of colour and third world women at UBC. I became the "Native informant" in this situation despite the problematic alliance between women of colour across the "worlds" designated as first and third. Even if I did feel an indignity that would align me to the issues represented, I was not being paid to enlighten the class on the insider scoop of pain and trauma.

I felt cheated as I watched the plaster in the walls filling in the spaces that I had sporadically peered through.

Then there was the Feminism/Postmodernism course where we read an essay about the Black experience, which I reacted to, and then we discovered it was a white woman who had decided to be the expert on the Black experience in this required essay. How had the instructor participated in the recolonization of my body?

I felt cheated.

SMACK

We talk of PostColonialism in literature classes but the word race is never mentioned.

I feel cheated. We also carefully avoid addressing the race configurations on campus, like the women of colour in clerical or janitorial positions for instance. How about in the classroom? How is the class raced and what effect does this have? On the last day the white women claimed that postcolonial theory is too hard for them to access. I ask how whiteness is a barrier to a reading strategy? I am honestly confused. They talk of the oppressed "Others" whose experience they cannot access. I remind them of the 17th century Scottish writers or 19th century Victorian writers whose work "we" seem to have no trouble "entering" into despite the vast differences between our lived experiences and the experiences the writers detail. How and why and where does race become the insurmountable barrier and who has erected it? What is gained from not trying to scale this wall? I think of men saying they cannot understand feminism because they are "just" guys...but I know the answer evades the deeper issue. One brave white woman speaks her truth: "It is our investment in whiteness that allows us to remains silent." She had become the Native informant for my entry into whiteness.

For me, white women stating that they simply feel guilty blocks a deeper analysis of their investment in actively denying and obscuring the dynamics of race that we are all implicated in. Another white woman wants an answer. In this voiced discomfort with postcolonial theory, a deeper level of the ways in which the class is raced surfaces. White students do not want to access the level of postcolonial theory that would compel them to deal with white guilt and psychic discomfort. They pretend they cannot "enter" the theory when in fact they cannot witness what the theory reminds them of. In this moment there is a palpable evasion of the pain and a stark reminder of the privilege of the oppressor. The guilt of their own neo-colonial burden is what they are referencing. In the process, I am placed in a square box of subaltern. How has my own brown skin placed me in their eyes and erased notions of class and other privileges? In this scene, the box is tight. The master's house has become a shanty outbuilding and the air is not good. I remind them all with a defiant grin that we are all immigrants unless we are indigenous to North America.

The gap widens, the chasm is clear; I cannot go and casually have a drink with others when I am in a small box of "The Oppressed Other". There is not enough air or time or energy for me to unpack their avoidance and discomfort with postcolonial theory.

Most importantly, it is not my job!

Smack into the Wall again. The air is drafty because the plywood used to build this box was cheap.

Yes, many of us are "the ones" who will make it through these hallowed halls for our families and communities. The history of racism and the racism which erupts within the classroom is an added pressure on our backs. An unacknowledged degree in survival skills is needed to deal with such raced experiences in the Master's house. People are amazed that the two Native women I know who are Graduate students at UBC have children. One even got pregnant during the course of the term and dared to bring her child into a Graduate seminar. There is no room for children here and many people do not understand the social and cultural encouragement for bearing and raising children that exists in many indigenous communities and communities of colour. For many of us these affiliations greatly affect our work here.

A long narrow tipi is erected just west of the women's center for the Others who choose to mother and obtain degrees...some are brown, but not all...

Cannibalism course and the experience of double consumption... In another seminar, I related the fact that when I was on the bus reading a book on cannibalism for a graduate course on the very same topic, people looked askance at me. When a white woman referred to the same suspicion, I reminded her and the class that the suspicion she was likely to receive was quite different than that which is vented towards a brown Other reading the very same book on the very same bus even at the very same time for the very same course.

I dig my fingers into the side of the wall and hang on...

I have sat silently as white people casually discussed issues such as violence in residential schools and other forms of systemic violence. I found a way to speak to these issues which would not be laden with tears and empathy. I have routinely compartmentalized my feeling self in order to be able to survive in a classroom where other students dissected texts that were about dark Others and our multiple experiences of cultural trauma. It has cost me a lot to be able to simply sit in the classroom and be present. Remember that when I have to play the "Native Informant" or race the curriculum in my spare time, I feel cheated.

My body gets heavier each time it is thrust up against this wall. When I feel zapped by systemic racism in the Master's house or the innocent omissions or objectifying comments that are thrust in my direction I feel the need to escape and, unfortunately, my Rapunzelian hair is just simply too short to get me out of the tower with ease.

Psychic escape and compartmentalization eases the sting of the wounds I endure from being knocked against the Wall.

It is surreal to be reading a novel about cannibalism wherein the South American man is eaten by his white lover, and still I face those white faces in class, when I myself am embodied as Other. Such a racialized scene magnifies the divide when the topic of the course is the racialized subject, and I am positioned as the only one. Where is Razack's book Looking White People in the Eye when I need it? I envision white sheets despite the fact that these are my allies and we are all quite polite and sane and sanitized up here where the towers are ivory. I mute my politicized tongue and bite the insides of my cheeks in order to stay academic, removed and polite.

I can manage to stay in the class on women of colour's trauma in film if I compartmentalize. I rehearse the moves before hand: use upper portion of body, engage brain and let all nervous system excitement/memory revert to numbness, gloss the eyes and feel nothing, become a cyborg, Spocklike hybrid or, simply put, mummified. Sleepwalking also works in these occasions, it is the same strategy of repose that I adopt when a racist white person goes on and on and on. The eyes gloss and I dissociate in clinical terms from the present numbing experience. No, wait...for those who want to know, first there is the electrocution and then the numbing.

Calluses build up in time from the full-bodied encounters with the wall.

Despite the cathartic release in seeing trauma in narrative explained/explored what does coping cost up here in academia? Is there a cost for those whose communities are affected by the very trauma that is being analyzed? When a white South African woman casually asks me at a party to talk about racism, I ask for the cold hard cash. That is my attempt to let her know that delving into the guts of racism and still being able to articulate it to a white South African woman takes skill, ingenuity and energy. You would pay a massage therapist to decrease your anxiety, you would pay a contortionist clown to entertain your children, so what is my psychic, visceral and intellectual contortion worth to you?

What happens in a classroom when we talk about the "Pocahontas Complex" and we are the only ones with braids and Native blood coursing through our veins? What meaning does this theory have when we leave the class to join a circle of other indigenous people?

I don't have answers only more questions. I spray paint them in different colours on the walls. Psychic graffiti is cathartic in the working through of this positionality.

What happens when we are the objects of the violence and fetishizations that we study in classrooms with instructors who are not equipped to notice the impact? What happens to the mind-body split that we must perform as a matter of course in academia? What happens when we study and write about autobiography from within our own narratives? What happens when the narrative we study is not just an object on a microscope slide but resonates within our lovers, our sisters, friends, cousins, grandmothers and elders' lives and experiences? Where do we put this excess energy that is the receptacle of the colonial past and has no place in this academic space? What fills up the vacuum that is created in this enormous act of emptying the self of emotional content and triggers because it is not what is done up here? The discourses of personal narrative, artistic expression of self, or emotional outbursts are not part of the Manichean division that privileges words and languages over all else.

At the Critical RACE conference at UBC this year, I spoke with a group of women of colour who were also academics. In sharing our personal experiences of racialization in the classroom, we concluded that yes, even here and even in the Arts and Humanities, we experience racism. It is in the very structure of the university which is filled with halls of mirrors, trap doors, and long hallways with deadbolts that we will never be given the keys to. The walls of this master's house were set as a barriers to our advancement through a variety of mechanisms. Dionne Brand refers to the student of colour in A Map to the Door of No Return as, "Yet another is heading straight to the library to crack her head on Kristeva and Spivak before she sits before a committee that will always be present to her as she makes her way grudgingly and insecurely through academia, through life, never sure always sure that she is not in control" (Brand, 28).

What happens when we study Africa since partition and we come from one of those nations? Do we also divide and place borders around our lived experience so we can "pass"? How does the act of "passing" a course replicate notions of "passing" that we have seen in American slave narratives? What of passing through the "gates," passing out from the encounters with the wall, the strain on the joints and connective tissues? Permanent whiplash is not conducive to learning. And, I recall the many occassions of passing (on) the right to talk, in order to pass the course.

Now as everyone is rushing aboard the bandwagon and wants to deal with postcolonial angst or textual representations of trauma, I ask myself why I am not studying race and hybridity as a fad or a means to carve out a niche for my career? This has been the research that IS my own existence. I have a vested interest in sorting through questions of power and representations of race within texts and films. It is the psychic food from which I can maintain my sense of self and nourishment to all of the people of colour in my family and circle of friends outside of academia. It is not just about the theory of the text, or a set of reading practices but much larger questions of self, agency, community, and knowledge.

Why do you study us?

Even an Asian ally, when asked to compile a list of Canadian visual artists of colour, failed to include any Native or Black artists. Ignorance and self-centered ethnocentrism is not the sole domain of white people. When will people of colour engage in dialogue and research that affects multiple communities? When will looking at the dark "Other" simply be a part of the research rather than the exception to the rule? When will "race" enter the classroom and not be presented as a side bar to the other supposedly "un- raced" issues of "pure" textual analysis? When will white people speak to issues of race within the classroom as a point of analysis when they are being overlooked?

Then I won't feel cheated.

The wall is built on bedrock, has so many layers of plaster, varnish, and paint that even the wallpaper is a deception.

I have the blueprint for a frame of another house, which as a foundation starts with an awareness of how the rooms in the house are framed by race. This frame is fortified with the critical study of different theories of race and theorizations of race. This will allow us to see through the windows and become more aware of what happens to the raced individual in a "minority position" in one of these rooms. Maybe then we can see the tipis we erect for Native mothers on the side of the towers and the shanty outbuildings where we house "specialty" minority literature.

Before I leave this memoir I have a few suggestion to speed up this building process. I have some tips for new students of colour. I do not assume that what I have presented here is typical of all raced experiences in academia, only that they proceed from my experience.

Tips for New Students of Colour

Find organizations on campus that speak to issues like systemic racism in the academy. If they do not exist, meet with people and start a group.

Find allies and mentors who are aware of your raced subjectivity and race politics are evident so you do not have to reinvent the wheel.

Read anything you can about the experiences that First Nations people and people of colour have had in academia. They are mostly written by people of colour and may give you a hint of what is to come.

Theorizing racial oppression does not preclude one's experience of racial oppression within the classroom.

Balance your life, and try your best to engage yourself in research that feeds your soul and/or your community.

Search long and hard for a supervisor who understands and appreciates your position, struggle, and insights as a person of colour, who is also an academic.

Find spaces outside of campus where you can process the racial dynamics that occur in class.

Remember, you are not alone. Try to see the faces of the children, those coming behind you. Remember and honour those who have managed to go before you.

This university should never become your sole universe.

Explore bookstores and source materials that are outside of academia, if you find those inside do not excite or motivate you.

Get insight from artists, who have often dealt with contemporary issues around race, years before these same issues surfaced in academia.

Make the program requirements work for you.

Find ways to NOT feel cheated if you choose to stay in the Master's House. Get kneepads and appropriate head gear to deal with the wall and, better yet, find tools to scale the Master's house and a secure place to hide the brick as you dismantle it.

Join a women of colour or students of colour support group on campus. Isolation is a curse.

Spend time with family and friends who are outside of your university life as much as possible.

Compartmentalization and being the Native informer can exhaust you and can bring on severe mental health issues. If you need to do it to cope with classroom suffocation, remember to decompress later.

Share your edicts and strategies with other people in similar struggles as a practical way of valuing and expressing your experiences.

My edict for 2000: "That which was important to me before I enter university should still be important to me once I am inside."

My edict for 2001: "The work needs to fill the spirit in order to keep from draining it."

My edict for 2002: "Never forget, undermine, or obscure the fact that you are in a space that has traditionally denied, silenced, or obscured the written and oral voices of people of colour."

My edict for 2003: "That which does not feed my soul can destroy me."

Here are some other tips for my fellow graduate students and Professors, who are not women of colour, who might become allies.

Tips for the Possibility of Better Relations with A Colleague of Colour

Do not use conversations with me as a site to release some of your white Christian guilt. I cannot absolve you from your own sense of historical guilt nor do I believe that this guilt-laden place is constructive. Talk with other guilt-laden white folks if you need to. Do not tell me another story of how bad you felt when reading "tragic mulatto" stories or any number of works in which the dark-skinned person was tortured, humiliated, lynched, or otherwise hurt or killed.

Do not ask me to read your thesis and then tell you everything I think and feel about representations of gender in rap or some such subject. That is called consultation and it has a price tag. On a similar note, asking me for information about how a text is raced costs me energy and demands emotional compartmentalization. This should be compensated for monetarily or in another fashion that is suitable to the "informer."

Do share resources with me that you think may be of assistance to me in my own area of research as I would do with you.

Do not assume my experience of the text is the same as yours. If you would give space to someone who mysteriously walked out of the 19th Century and wanted to voice her perspective on gender in Victorian England as represented in Jane Eyre, also remember that my experience of race may provide me with a whole other set of tools with which to decode the racial semiotics of the text. There is rarely a right or wrong reading of a text but rather different depths of analysis that may be based on the skins we live in.

Do not use my words or analysis as representative of all people of colour. Respect the infinite variety of opinions we have and approaches of how we are raced.

Contextualize your interest in the dark "Other" and ask yourself some deep questions about what motivates your research into the dark "Other" (e.g., boredom, exoticisation of the "Other", pity, guilt, etc.)

Do not expect me to acknowledge you in places that are predominantly for people of colour. I may have to be your colleague in the context of the white space of the university setting but do not assume I am bound by this tenuous association outside of that space.

It has cost me a lot to be able to simply sit in the classroom and be present. Remember that.

Share these tips with other women of colour who are also in Eurocentric campus settings and remember it may be something they do not wish to discuss with you.

Do not apologize to me after class when you have been racist, I am likely exhausted enough from the initial comment, deal with your guilt in your own house.

Don't continually say "Oh ya, I get that, it is like when I go to Richmond" or other spaces where you may be the racial minority for a few hours. Everything does not revolve around your experience of reality. In fact, your lived experience may disable you from seeing issues of race in the way that I do. Try to listen rather than "be" in my shoes.

Leave my tongue intact. If you want to use me as the poster girl for your own career-enhancing project do not expect me to be apolitical or uncritical. It is in my blood, history, and nature to speak to these issues.

Do not look at me every time you talk of the "Oppressed Others" in the classroom. Get in touch with your own oppression and speak from that place.

Don't tell me that white women and white people are not oppressed and therefore you cannot understand or enter discussions of racial oppression. Your investment in whiteness is likely disabling you from developing clarity as to your own oppression. Look deeper. The epistemological benefits of unpacking your own oppression in a room with other white people is something you should seek out.

Works Cited

Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return. Toronto: Anchor Press, 2002.

Razack, Sharene. Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, race, and culture in courtrooms and classrooms. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

King, Thomas. Green Grass, Running Water. Vancouver: Bantam Press, 1993.




© thirdspace 2001-2011