The Key

I say to my professor, “I feel like, as a student of color, I have to do more.”

When she responds, “I certainly hope that I am not adding to that. I know that, as a teacher, I do look for students who are engaged and can explain things to other students. I think that some things are better coming from another student—they’re seen as more valid,” I begin to question why it is that I believe that I do have to do more as a student of color.

Immediately, I think of Elle, that pale, “Irish” American, punk rock hipster I worked and hung out with several years back. I had thought that we were very much alike: both young, both obsessed with being cool, both trying to find ourselves in old music and movies, both coming up short. She was someone I liked very much, and, in many ways, trusted. And, when she crushed the crystalline, spider-web-thin cage of that trust with her words, she did it as swiftly as if she had used her Doc Martins.

“In my high school,” she confided over too-strong iced coffee, “the Asian girls were always the most popular. They stole all the men.”

And, as she said these words, the familiar wrenching in my gut began as my coffee became my trust and I gulped it down, forcing it back in me so that whatever bits were still good would be put back in my body. So that the rest might be excreted.

I think of my first year here. The thin, reedy limb I stretched myself out on to make an offering of my experience in my classes made a profound impression on me—nearly as profound as the quick, dramatic snap that still comes back to haunt me, the feel and the sound of the bottom dropping right out of any silly, superficial feminist sisterhood as my white peers complained about being categorized as white. It felt like they turned on me when I told them that to be a true ally means you suck it up, brave the distrust and hostility, and stick it out until you are a true ally even though no one automatically recognizes you as such.

I felt like they turned on me because it was easy. Because, I am not like them. My skin is sallow, jaundiced, yellow, golden, nonwhite. My eyes are little, slanty, slits, almonds, nonwhite. My lips are full. My nose is what one could call flat. My cheekbones sit high, right under my eyes like strong ship masts. My face is round, like a full moon.

These physical features serve as the gateway to all sorts of humiliations and indignities. What’s worse: I feel the pain that others feel. I feel the absence of a much larger, much more consuming degradation, meted out in generous portions to other people who are more “other.”

So, when I say to my professor, “I feel like, as a student of color, I have to do more,” I mean something other than what I think I’m saying, because, I do feel that as a woman of color, I do have to do more.

I have to reach out past all those other experiences, some scarred over, some so fresh blood hasn’t even come up yet. When I raise my hand in class, I raise it against white supremacy, which creeps into our lives so insidiously that it seems to not be there—I can see it, now, though; can see it in the way I used to hate my “slanted” eyes, my “yellow” skin. When I raise my hand, I raise it against my white, liberal peers who tell me all about the institution of religion without thinking twice about all the other institutions that keep everyone segregated, that they benefit from most.

When I raise my hand in class, it is through the bitter cold of my own experiences, of the things I’ve read, of the things I’ve heard, of the things I’ve been told.

I wonder, what is the demographic make up of the people who can say that?

I believe that in that answer lies at least part of the key to why university students of color still have to do more.

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