THE BLOG

For Colored Girls in Academia

06/01/2015 06:24 pm ET | Updated May 31, 2016

In the opening pages of her memoir, Janet Mock writes, "Being exceptional isn't revolutionary, it's lonely." Although she is describing a completely different life experience from mine, those prophetic words perfectly capture my first year of graduate school. As a first-generation Latina at a PWI Ivy League, feelings of isolation, uprootedness, and not belonging have become all too familiar. Janet Mock is right; it is lonely to be exceptional, to have access to a world-class education, to speak the colonizers language better than they do and better than your own mother tongue, to be "set apart" from your community because of a title, a degree. As I write this, I'm sure I'm not the only woman who has felt this way or who is undergoing these interior struggles. I hope what I've learned can be helpful for you, my fellow colored girl, in your academic journey, a journey that is personal and self-revelatory in so many ways.

I arrived to campus eager and enthusiastic to learn and grow into the scholar I knew I could be. Within a few short weeks, however, the excitement wore off and was replaced by a whirlwind of other emotions: self-doubt, inadequacy, culture shock, and separation - from my family, my community, and my roots. During my first semester, while enjoying a break from schoolwork and watching The Prince of Egypt, I couldn't help but identify with young Moses, watching the city of Ramses II being built on the sweat and blood of the Israelites, his own people, as he watched adorned in lavish garb and jewels, protected by his royal status but so disconnected from his people. I wondered, and still do, am I Moses? Sheltered in a literal Ivory Tower, as a young woman of color in such a privileged position, I question my purpose and usefulness in a field where I am so separated, so far removed from the realities of my community. Of whats going on in my barrio.

At home, I am celebrated as an example of someone who made it. I am a role model and a hero: an immigrant kid who defied the odds, who went from ESL to Yale. Neighbors and church members encourage their children to follow in my footsteps and remind me how proud they are of how far I've come. At Yale, it's a different story. From being tokenized to constant micro aggressions and racialized incidents in the classroom, its very apparent that this program was not designed with people like me in mind. Academia is not meant for colored girls like us to succeed.
There are very few students of color who can relate to my experiences, and even fewer professors whose perspectives and voices come from the margins, to borrow Dr. Miguel de la Torre's words. This means most of my courses approach scholarship from a white, male, Eurocentric perspective that ignores the realities of the community I come from and represent. Every day, I have to fight against the tide and wage a war against the Ivory Tower to survive, to make my voice heard in an institution that wants to institutionalize a certain way of thinking, of theorizing.

Graduate school wants to break us, to mold us in its own image. So how do we maintain our sanity and remain true to ourselves, how do we resist? First, we have to learn the how of the academy before we are truly creatively free to break the mold, to dismantle its oppressive structures. As my colleague and POC PhD student, James Padilioni Jr., has counseled me, we are "in" the academy but only so we can redirect its resources. Isn't that the mentality of the Global South within modernity: not as backwards to it but as living simultaneously in it and outside of it. Our people have survived for centuries by using the colonizer's tools to fit our logic. Only then can we use the academy for our own subversive purposes, like Gloria Anzaldua's forcing in Spanglish in Borderlands or Patrick Stewart's recent dissertation, titled Indigenous Architecture through Indigenous Knowledge, which avoids punctuation in protest of intellectual colonialism.

Marcella Althaus-Reid says that to do theology is to do autobiography. We can extend this to say; to do scholarship is to do autobiography. This is why the academy needs us. Because it needs our stories, our experiences and knowledge, our life narratives. When your writing is activist and autobiographical in its method and approach, then your work becomes an act, not just ideas or theory, but a liberatory practice. Only in this way can we escape the confines of the palace, like Moses once did, and join our people in their struggle, in building their own city, in constructing their own epistemology.

Janet Mock writes, "Being exceptional isn't revolutionary, it's lonely. It separates you from your community. Who are you, really, without community?" Once again, she's right. I have found that without community, it is nearly impossible to be successful in graduate school. My interior struggles eased when I became involved in local service organizations, when I joined a Latinx Church, when I found a community of support outside of the classroom and campus. I learned that I'm only isolated from my community when I choose to be. This year, I've learned that academia needs me, it needs women like us. Women who were not trained for this or groomed for a graduate education. It needs women who are going to tell stories for our fathers who didn't finish high school. Mothers who carried us on their backs across borders. Peers who were robbed of an education by the prison industrial complex, by lack of legal documentation, and the harsh realities of life as a person of color in the United States. We write in spite of academia's invisibilization and erasure of people like us. We write because of this. We write because no one else can -- or will.