Professor Wang Ping: Keynote Poet for Groundbreaking Conference at UC Berkeley

03/08/2013 01:06 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2013

I first encountered the writing of Wang Ping as a kid, sitting on the floor of a bookstore. Her prose was a beautiful thing: an eagle that swept me up into a world I thought impossible to ever occupy. There was such brutal honesty in her verbiage. Every word was a whisper in my ear. Sprawled out on the bookstore floor, I never thought I would ever meet her. I never thought I would join her ranks high up in the clouds of literature. Though I do not know her personally, Wang Ping was one of those people that opened up a door for me: an entryway into the world of literature and academia. She was a trailblazer, because she showed that I belonged -- that my stories counted, that my voice was worthwhile. For a little refugee kid from a war torn country, this was a big deal. For that, I am eternally grateful.

Wang Ping is now a figure in the national news. She never planned it this way. But she is. This is because she is suing Macalester College for employment discrimination. She was repeatedly denied promotion at the school. Like so many women of color, she had done all the necessary work of getting ahead but, instead, has watched colleagues -- white males --far less qualified than her attain the rank of full professor, the crowning glory of the academic ladder. But unlike most women of color -- women who often get by-passed and curl into a ball and die -- Wang Ping has decided to sue Macalaster College for discrimination. And I think she has a pretty strong case.

Few people know this ugly little secret, but hers is not an extraordinary story; this is part and parcel of the academic world. Wang Ping is an everywoman. She is a stand-in for all the women in the academy who have been silenced and erased by the academy -- their careers destroyed, their prospects dashed, their health shattered. The world of academia is a particularly nasty, hostile work environment for minorities in general and women of color in particular. According to sources that have done extensive statistical analysis, at USC alone 92 percent of white males get tenure, as opposed to this dismal statistic: 40 percent of minorities get denied. USC is not atypical, either. Minority women -- those doubly oppressed -- often are the most victimized by the academic system. Asian women are more so; they are especially vulnerable because they are seen as easy pickings -- compliant, docile, uncomplaining.

Wang Ping has now become the emblem of a new age in academia -- a period when women in the university are standing tall, rising up and talking back. She has become the poster child of the Presumed Incompetent Conference -- a conference at UC Berkeley built around the fabulously successful book that seeks to change the way that academia treats (or should I say mistreats) minorities. There, Wang Ping will read a poem that she composed about another woman, Soek-Fang -- a colleague who was so mistreated by her institution that it literally killed her. Macalaster, too, failed to promote this professor, a woman from Singapore, who did not even get beyond her first promotion review. Shortly thereafter, she would die of breast cancer. And everyone would forget her, until Wang Ping resuscitated her name and gave her new life, allowing her spirit to soar on the eagle wings of art.

"Dumb teacher, dumb scholar, dumb woman" -- this is one of the sad lines in the poem, a moment that demonstrates the psychological torment, the self-laceration and pain of living in a world that can blame you for your inadequacy because of your breasts. It is both the voice of the white male academy and the voice that wheedles into your head -- a voice that suddenly is your own voice -- and whispers its poison into your ear. Women like Soek-Fang are all too often forgotten, consigned to the dust bin of history. They are collateral damage. It takes a real hero like Wang Ping to make sure they are not forgotten.