[Footnotes is excited to present a guest post by Bailey Duhé. Bailey J. Duhé is a Ph.D. student in cultural anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder. She studies racial fluidity, generational trauma, and Blackness(es) with Creoles of color in New Orleans, Louisiana (which is also where she is from). Her writing has appeared in Museum Anthropology and she is also self-published on Amazon. On Twitter: @bailey_duhe. Please cite accordingly.]
I’m Bailey. August ushered in the start of my 5th year as a graduate student and my 3rd year as a PhD student. Let’s talk about my first semester as a graduate student…
In November 2015, I attended my first AAA conference as a graduate student. I was a brand new, 4-month old Master’s student in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder. A few months beforehand, at 22 years old, I moved across the country to a new city with no family, no friends, and no financial support to pursue a degree in a department that deemed me not fundable – Hello $50,000 in out-of-state student loans! In those four short months as a graduate student, I quickly learned that while I thought folks would be primarily concerned with their research projects, theory, and courses, they were instead concerned with how to racialize me. From day one in my department my ethnoracial background and identity were the top priority/hobby/weird obsession for many of my White peers.
After months of being interrogated about my ethnoracial identity day in and day out by my department, this was the backdrop for my first-time attending the AAA as a graduate student in November 2015. Three months of weird mixed-race affirmative action jokes, rude and invasive comments about Blackness, and offensive questions about how I could possibly do anthropology being both part-anthropologist (read: White) and part-informant (read: non-White). And yes, to the individual that just read that in disbelief, a fellow colleague really asked that question and then laughed. These were just a handful of the painful experiences I endured prior to attending my first AAA conference as a professional anthropologist.
I arrived and went to a session I was very excited about as a young anthropologist looking to learn more about my sub-field. I honestly couldn’t tell you what the panel was about looking back now. All I remember is that there were a lot of Q&A’s and it functioned more like a roundtable. I remember all the panelists introducing themselves at the start and making sure to clearly state that they were White. They also all noted the lack of racial diversity on their panel labeling their concerns as “problematic.” Regardless, they started discussing BIPOC informants and scholars in the sub-field and some of the “problems” anthropologists (read: White people) faced while trying to diversify their work. Panelists bemoaned the lack of resources, the absent training, the theoretical barriers, the lack of community, the lack of belonging, etc. While there was truth to their comments, it was precisely that truth that sparked my premature exit 45 minutes into the panel.
I found a bench in the back corner of a fishbowl hallway and cried. Honestly, I sobbed. It was one of those ugly, soul wrenching cries where snot funnels out of your nose and your head pounds harder with every gasping inhale to the point that you grab on to anything or anyone near you because you fear if your head pounds one more time that you might fall over and not get back up. I cried because I was in pain. I was drained. I was done.
Done with sitting in lectures and panels with White professors or more advanced White graduate students and being told what BIPOC were experiencing while our voices remained silenced or pushed down (or just not assigned). Done with being told that departments lack resources which is “why academia is hard” as I take out $20,000 in loans for one semester while simultaneously watching my White counterparts get “surprise” grants for simply existing in the department. Done with learning that every single student of color in my department dealt with the same disgusting thing before me. Done with being told theory is hard and challenging for BIPOC just because this White discipline didn’t like the theory BIPOC were creating and using. Done being told to “go find those BIPOC theoretical voices” for myself only to have them deemed “not theoretical enough” when I tried to deploy them in my writing. Done with being told I have to foster community and hang out with my White aggressors who push and pull and prod without end, who act insulted when I speak up, and who talk shit about us “aggressive students” (read: BIPOC students) to their White advisors. Done being told to go to happy hour and “make more of an effort” with them. Done with being told to just move outside of the city and commute in or work remotely if I “hate this place so much.” Done fighting with myself every single day just to simply walk into my department and willingly subject myself to abuse and dehumanizing myself to believe that this is a prerequisite for anthropological success, but also, that this treatment at the hands of my White aggressors is normal. Done with leaving campus actively talking to my depression and bargaining with myself to “please just hold on until you get home.” NAH. Done. Just. Fucking. Done.
As I sat there sobbing, an older student, Dawa, saw me and came over to me. I was warned about Dawa from some older White female students a few weeks before. They were “doing me a favor” by telling me about her as she was known as an “unfriendly bitch.” I was told if I wanted to “make it” in the department that I shouldn’t align myself with a troublemaker like her; they claimed she did too much activism work, spent her time talking online with her community and her blog as opposed to publishing in academic spaces. These whistleblowers told me Dawa was too concerned with injustice in her Tibetan refugee community to be a “serious” anthropologist. She was one of a handful of students of color in the department at the time.
When she sat down next to me, my now dear friend Dawa, held me. She was the first person to hug me in weeks – even as I type this now, I tear up just remembering how much that embrace meant to me. She held me as I sobbed and said, “I know. I’m here.” She then finished with a mantra that has stuck with me the past four years: “Fuck them and live.”
She saved my life that day. She gave me a lifeline. She showed me a way out of this White academic nonsense and led me, by my hand, into a space where I could temporarily breathe without scrutiny and exist without explanation or defense. She saved me because she pushed me to cut through the politeness and respectability politics and call it out for what it was. She showed me that one way to survive in this space was to theorize and embody “I’m going to live.”
One of my interpretations of “I’m going to live” is this booklet: “Dear White Anthropology Graduate Students: A “How To” Guide for Successfully Interacting with Students of Color in Graduate School”
I developed this booklet last semester in a course I took on biological and cultural notions of race in anthropology. It was my last course as a graduate student and the final assignment in the course was to create some content that takes the literature discussed in class and makes it accessible to a larger audience. So, I wrote a handbook (comical in nature to cushion the hard truth for my White readers) in my intentionally whitest voice to try and articulate just how microaggressions and racism operate in my department for a White audience. If I’m honest, while I wrote this for a grade and as a subtle middle finger to my White aggressors (both faculty and students), I continued this project because I want us, students of color, to get a break from all this toxic, crushing nonsense. Because often we read about the experiences of our BIPOC kin who don’t get a break – like the experiences of Jerusha Sanjeevi – and it is apparent that without some kind of cathartic release and actual support, we can’t survive this.
I realized that while this small booklet can’t fix the systemic issues that operate in anthropology departments, other disciplines, and academia in general, it might be enough to push forward some conversations, serve as an outlet for frustrated BIPOC students, and hopefully prevent these painful interactions from happening so that brilliant students of color can focus on being … wait for it … students.
While I’m sure there are other ways to deal with these issues like years of:
- Meetings with students, professors, and administrators
- Seeking training for myself and my department
- Putting together reading lists
- Presenting at meetings (both graduate student and faculty)
- Holding informal “courses” on these topics
- Petitioning; and
- Exposing these issues through conversations with department members
…Dear White Anthropology Graduate Student has done far more in addressing racial microaggressions and structural discrimination in my department than any of my other efforts thus far. In sum, this booklet is a middle finger to the politics of niceness and respectability around racial aggressions that keep this cycle going. My hope is that others can use this as a tool to make their departments more tolerable as well.
So, anthropology, some closing remarks:
White anthropology graduate students: Do better. Read this booklet. Then, read it again. Read the footnotes – I included them for a reason. If you find yourself in one of these situations, read this booklet again before responding. Gift this to a White friend. Educate yourself because if you aren’t part of the solution, if you aren’t fighting with us and for us and using that whiteness to help us, then you are using that whiteness against us.
White professors and advisors: Pencil me in for a chat later this year. Your handbooks are in progress and we’ve got some work to do.
Graduate Students of Color: I see you. I feel you. I get it. If this booklet and letter can help you even subtly-not-so-subtly deal with an aggressor by sending them a link to the Amazon page for this booklet, then I know I’ve accomplished one goal.
Dear White Anthropology Graduate Students: A “How To” Guide for Successfully Interacting with Students of Color in Graduate School is available on Amazon as an e-book and in paperback. For now, here’s a preview:
Dear White Anthropology Grad Students,
#8: Challenge theories, not experiences.
—- Imagine the following scenario —-
You’re in class talking about decolonizing the discipline and discussing what has been done to date to uplift marginalized voices.11
Student A, the only student of color in the class, mentions that the whole decolonizing narrative is mostly lip service as they have been in multiple grad seminars where that is the stated goal and where the syllabus is overwhelmingly white and male. And, that they’ve heard jokes about not including scholars of color on syllabi because their names sometimes are harder to pronounce.
Student A gives a few more examples like this and you start to get mad. You do try to decolonize your work and cite other people. So, you chime in and say:
“Well I think we’re further along than that. I’ve never heard anyone talk about decolonizing in a joking way. In fact, all of the classes I’ve been in have had readings from scholars of color and women. I don’t believe scholars would do that. We know decolonizing is what we need to be doing.”
the problem: You might read this scenario and think “well this student is just sharing their perspective and their experiences – what’s wrong with that?” which in most situations would be fine. However, a few things provide pause: Student A is speaking about both the reading and their experience; the other student is speaking back strictly to their experience and attempting to refute or lessen it.
the solution: You don’t get to challenge someone on their experience. You can challenge citations and theory and pedagogy all day, but you don’t get to challenge someone’s experience. And, while it might be useful to discuss current efforts to uplift marginalized voices as productive, scholars of color are still being marginalized. That doesn’t go away because “decolonizing is the norm.” And, for students of color, who face this kind of silencing daily, this can feel like you are calling them a liar. Which, white anthropology grad student, I know you are not. Here, we need to view this interaction from the student of color’s perspective. If this is happening to them and their mentors and their friends, who are you to say that it isn’t or that it isn’t worth discussing?
a note for professors: This is especially important for professors. Telling a student that their experience is not appropriate or invalid is potentially soul and career crushing. First, acknowledge the experience: you hear them – you do. Then, find ways to refocus on the theory, scholarly work in question, or framing as a way to push students. Never push with experience.