Back in community college, back long ago in a life that feels nearly extinguished, I had wanted to major in “ethnic studies.” When I walked into that first ethnic studies classroom, it felt a bit like returning home. Can you see that although I always sensed a deep unrootedness within, it never registered as a lack of a home—not until I was confronted by what felt so familiar and knowing. If there were white students in that classroom, they registered as tokens. It filled me with a far-reaching sense of lightness and ease to view all of those students of color from all different seats in that room.
That teacher was so passionate. His shock of graying hair stood in vivid contrast to the deep, straight black I knew so well. The distinguished bags under his eye looked like merits announcing hard work. A year, two years later, I subconsciously attempted to revive him in my mind, searching thrift store clothing racks of men’s dress trousers for the same styles and colors he wore. It really frightened me—his intensity, his knowledge—because I knew even then it was just the beginning of a long path. He had only shown us the sky that didn’t even seem to touch the tip of the iceberg. But that frigid air was magic.
My dreams died a bit when we came here. There is no “ethnic studies” program here. Rather, it was consolidated with the other, the critical, the decidedly worthless, departments that don’t bring in the money like chemistry or geology supposedly do. This at least, was my assessment. All of the programs that fought hegemony and spread awareness were squeezed into a tiny office manager-less space so that they would know their ghettoized status, making whitewashing all the easier.
Still, things weren’t so much better at the other schools I had applied to, and there were other reasons why I should want to move here.
I settled for women’s studies (which it is still called here), and that first year really wasn’t so bad. I knew the head of the department and still like and respect her very much. Moreover, I trusted my advisor absolutely and to this day never doubt how much she cared about every one of us. But things change, and soon the racism here that poisons the air, the earth, and the water began to wear on me. I settled and I settled and I settled even more until I felt so degraded I could hardly lift my head.
To this day, I do not understand why I never just stay down. After that first year, things began slipping. Each semester I would believe my teachers when they would say critical, open thought was welcome. I admit that I was not the most cautious, am not the most genteel, but I now know the vast majority were not asking for any but the fruit of thought born of seeds they purposefully sowed. Despite my grades and looks, I am not a “good student.”
Every altercation I had with students and teachers alike undermined my assessments of myself. I wanted to believe that it was just me, and I turned my anguish inward with such ferocity as to stand up along side those more youthful years I lived in my bedroom mirror criticizing my bone structure, my eyes, my hair, my nose, my skin.
My point in all of this is not to ask for sympathy or demonize people bound in systems that always attempt to keep us unaware. Rather, my point is that this university, so starved of thought and culture, does not offer an ethnic studies program. This is not to say we don’t have “diversity requirements” and classes that meet those requirements. This is not to say there aren’t professors here who fight for social justice. What I want to emphasize are restrictions and the way they corral and tame thought and weave paths of least resistance that devastate experience, understanding, and life chances.
Women’s studies and sociology gave me such a limited vocabulary, such a limited understanding of how and why. By the time I had finished my general education requirements, I had forgotten “ethnic studies.” I spent a year here forgetting, and two and half subsequent years trying to cobble together a starved, phantom education, a shadow puppet, that could explain what I knew I needed all along.
And now? Now that I am gaining back some of that ground lost, the memories flood back into my consciousness and I can begin to see who I was and who I want to be.
Now, I am remembering.