Through the Looking Glass: Screaming (Woman of) Color

by Pei-Yun Chu | 5/19/16 8:43pm

dart-hall-by-Seamore-Zhu
dart hall by Seamore Zhu

Here’s the thing: being a woman of color was never something I thought about really being until I came to Dartmouth. Politically I identified with it, but it wasn’t until I arrived in this frankly toxic white, male, heteronormative space that I absorbed the full extent of how much being a woman of color would dictate my experience here. Although Dartmouth has many more people of color than the incredibly white town in which I grew up, its rhetoric of diversity and inclusivity only masks an apathetic at best, though often actively hostile, attitude towards those who by their mere existence challenge the rigid norms of this place.

Before I really get into it, I’d like to take a moment for a bit of a reminder. I think oftentimes we spend too much time considering identities as isolated experiences. Here’s a panel on gender, here’s a discussion on race, here’s an event on queerness. Existing as a woman of color I can’t fathom how we try to dissect these different segments of ourselves, like my being Asian-American has nothing to do with how I experience my gender. It has everything to do with it. Last year when my dear friend Moulshri Mohan ‘15 published her amazing photo project, “What Dartmouth Doesn’t Teach Me,” the backlash against Asian women on various anonymous internet spaces was my first slap in the face here. Violent sexual remarks made against specific Asian women — me and my friends — by people who I walk amongst on this campus, dunked me headlong into the real fear that hovers over women of color like a constant nagging cloud. It’s because of this that I cannot and will not separate these aspects of my identity. I have to live daily with the knowledge that because of the way my identities intersect, much of this campus sees me as a silent, submissive object, and my words and space are constantly compressed, threatened and erased.

This is only part of a larger trend of the devaluation of our bodies, our experiences and our work here. Women students of color are silenced in the classroom, women staff of color are “let go” after hours spent supporting the community and women professors of color do brilliant scholarship, inspire countless students and then are denied tenure by the very administration that claims to bring them in to increase “diversity.” The day Dartmouth told English professor Aimee Bahng that despite her outstanding excellence as a teacher, mentor and scholar they no longer wanted her here was the day I genuinely realized that this institution doesn’t give a damn about women of color and our struggles. I know it’s maybe a little pathetic that it took me almost two years to arrive here. I was so optimistic! But this place has crushed so much out of me. I wanted to believe that people like me could be valued in academia, that Dartmouth might at least not actively oppose change. I wanted to believe that this administration cared about what I go through as an Asian-American woman. But in the days following the decision, College President Phil Hanlon and much of the rest of the administration wasted no effort in dumping the last straws on our already weighted backs.

There is nothing to conclude from the denial of Bahng’s tenure other than this institution cannot stand to let a professor like her remain on campus and continue to threaten their carefully preserved status quo. I don’t need to list her accomplishments here — if you don’t already know them they’re easily found — but one of the reasons she is so beloved by students, faculty and staff is because of how powerfully she supports the causes of women of color at this school. Bahng uplifts us even as the administration tries to keep us suppressed. Now they’ve taken away our only professor who teaches Asian American studies, one of the few faculty who puts so much of her energy and love into making this school a better place. Perhaps they’re thinking, this is the way to prevent rebellion. This is the way to really silence those students of color, those students who are not white, straight or male, those students who they put on the brochures but not on their priority lists. And if they are thinking that, then they aren’t wrong. I do feel silenced. And I feel exhausted, drained, terrified, grief-stricken, enraged, because of this place that has told me in actions far louder than any words that they do not value women of color.

But women of color have been stepped on and pushed down for centuries, both here and elsewhere, and we’ve always kept fighting. We fight and fight, and we almost never get the credit, but we keep on fighting. Even now, we refuse to stay silenced, refuse to be complacent, refuse to assimilate. The women of color whom I love and admire are the strongest people I know. Their strength comes in their resistance, whether it be quiet or loud, in their kindness, in their brilliance, in their love. Though it is bittersweet, much of my initial optimism in this place was due to the collective of women of color who welcomed me when I first stepped on campus as an accepted student. Throughout my time here it has been women of color who have encouraged me, reassured me and bettered me. It is for these women, and for all women of color who have been touched by this school, that I continue to demand that Dartmouth take a good hard look at itself and mend at least some of its many wrongs. This place will never be made for us. But despite all that, we have carved out our own spaces with labor and love, and I will not let them take that away.