This essay is a part of our “Crosstalk” series featuring stories from graduate students of color. Read more in our special issue, “Crosstalk: Graduate Students of Color Reflect on Lessons Lived and Learned in the Academy,” now available in hardcopy and on Project MUSE and JSTOR.
siri gurudev (D.C. Hernández) is a multidisciplinary artist from Bogotá. siri is a trans, nonbinary, writer, performance artist, and wounded-healer. With two degrees in philosophy and literary studies and a master’s in creative writing, siri is working on their doctorate degree in performance studies. Visit the author’s website: https://mivellopublicoblog.wordpress.com/ and Instagram: siri_gurudev
In this text, I draw from my personal experiences of moving to the United States, communicating in English, and teaching as a graduate student from Bogotá, Colombia to reflect on different forms of violence perpetrated by those in academia and to offer some tips for healing toxic environments.
To pursue graduate school and be the first PhD in my family, my mom gave me her life savings: $30,000,000 Colombian pesos, around $9,000 U.S. dollars, for more than forty years of work, to be distributed at her discretion for five years ($1,800 U.S. dollars each year). The rent and deposit came from the money for my first year, not to mention the flight ticket. When I arrived, I had no bed, no sheets, no desk.
It was scary moving to the United States from Bogotá, Colombia. Not just because of the language but mainly because of the money. I chose the cheapest housing that I could find from a distance. As an international graduate student, I needed to pay a month’s rent and a two-month deposit up front. That is $1,815 U.S. dollars or $5,223,472 Colombian pesos, which was equivalent to three times my monthly salary for that time and six times the country’s minimum salary.
Everything about funding was very confusing to me. I did not know if my scholarship was enough or if my salary as a TA would cover my expenses (what is a TA? I kept wondering, as we do not have that in my country). I was notified at my arrival that I had to pay part of my tuition, $1,200 U.S. dollars. How? But I am already here, I thought. I could not say, “Hey, I cannot pay my tuition, so I will go back to my country.” I was so scared of failing. My mom gave me her life savings, and I would need to quit because I had no money, I thought.
One of the questions at that moment was, to whom can I talk about this? Not her, my mom. Not my new cohort, because they are all Americans, and I was afraid not to be understood or comforted. I hoped that when I started to earn money in U.S. currency, everything would be fine. My problem, I thought, was translating into Colombian currency everything I paid because the living cost is lower. My goal was to receive my first salary as a TA and my stipend for the semester to be okay.
There was only one thing I needed to start achieving this goal. My social security number (SSN). I applied for it as soon as the university gave me the right documents. “It takes ten days,” the officer told me. Twelve days passed. My stipend to pay tuition was cut a considerable percentage because I had no SSN yet. After 15 days, I started calling the SSN office. It was a nightmare. It took ages to get an answer. I started dialing two minutes before they opened to have a chance. They told me first that my SSN was in process. 25 days passed. They told me the SSN takes twenty days to be processed in those days because they were doing more research on people with the new administration. One month passed. All my colleagues got paid except for me. I ran out of food. They told me that maybe my social was delivered, but I did not correctly mark my mailbox. If that was the case, they said, it would come back and then take another two weeks to return to me. My mailbox was tagged correctly. One month and a week passed. They told me that my social security number seemed to be blocked because I had the same name as another person, so they were investigating to make sure it was not one person with multiple SSNs. That is hard to believe because my name is kind of unique. “So good you called! I’ll unblock it, and then it will take ten days to process,” they said.
I used to wake up sweating so hard. It is difficult focusing on a book a week in those circumstances. I needed to write in English for the first time, but I was hungry and scared. It is interesting how many of us go to the United States for a better life just to encounter conditions we never faced in our home countries. As a middle-class mestizx with a single mom, I always had a plate of food on my table.
Facing this difficulty, I wrote an email to my faculty. They helped. They connected me with the International Student Services. “You can ask for an emergency loan.” A loan in U.S. dollars was terrifying. And the phone calls. I was so nervous that I could not understand what the person was saying. Your brain cannot translate. I… “No loan,” was my only statement.
Finally, I got emergency financial aid from them. It was surprising. There is nothing like that in my country. Money for free? I was grateful, and yet I kept asking myself, what just happened to me? Is this how everything is going to be?
Because I am a performance art maker and that is part of how I express myself in the world politically, when I got my SSN, I threw an “SSN party” (a performance art piece based on this experience I just recalled). People were invited to come to my table and tell me what “S-S-N” means. I gave them quarters as a reward. Responses included, “ShiQ#$% Stupid Nonsense,” among others.
Communicating in English
In my first semester, my professors were supportive of my imperfect English. I felt safe, and I improved my proficiency. In the second semester, I was all about my class on feminist theories. My professor was a woman of color, and the first class she said that the golden rule was generosity, in comments and criticism of the texts. No one had told me that before. The midterm came and in advance of the final essay, I was so excited. My paper talked about my transness and non-binarism engaging readings we did so far.
We received feedback from the professor on our papers in the middle of a class. I started to read the comments while pretending I was listening to my classmates.
“Is this your great idea?”
“Can you read the entire book at least?”
“This is offensive, to use ‘it’ to talk about slaves.”
I wanted to tell her that it wasn’t me, it was Hortense Spillers, writing from the oppressor’s point of view. After some more comments, I read the last one: “If you can’t proofread this, why should I? I’m not reading this anymore.”
My vision got blurry. I went to the toilet. My mind went very fast to: “I am not enough. I am not going to make it. I am not smart enough, proficient enough. Wait. I am weak. I am emotionally ill. If I quit the class, I will lose my scholarship. But I cannot edit this paper for the final. I am unable to go back and read those comments again.”
At the end of the class, I vented to another student from El Salvador, who was also feeling bad about the feedback and the class’s power dynamics. My new friend advised me to go back and talk to the professor about the feedback she gave me. With shaky knees, I did. A line of students were there, and one of them, a student from Korea, was crying. She saw me coming and gave me her place in line. We never saw that student again.
I told my professor that I was quitting. She seemed shocked and tried to persuade me not to. She told me, “Don’t let anyone make you feel you don’t belong here,” and, while I was dropping tears, she told me the story of how she was discriminated against as a professor in the university, especially after 9-11.
I went to sleep and recover. The next day, I wrote a post on Facebook saying that grad school challenged me, but I was feeling better after the crisis. The post had also attached an article about high rates of depression in grad school. Some students wrote to my inbox, telling me that they felt the same and that reading my post was a relief.
Author’s artwork commissioned by the Gender Unvound Fest about the theme of “home” during the quarantine. Image courtesy of the author.
I also got another message. The next day, while I was teaching my Spanish class, I got an email from the Office of the Dean of Students that said the following:
“We’ve been notified of a welfare concern for you and would like to hear from you as soon as possible. We care about you and want to make sure you are okay. I attempted to call your phone, but it went straight to voicemail.
If we do not hear from you in the next 3 hours, we may reach out to your emergency contact and the police for a welfare check. Please call the Office of the Dean of Students at [phone number] or respond to this email immediately. Thank you for your immediate attention to this matter.“
In the middle of teaching that morning, after reading this message, I thought there had been a bomb attack in my home city and my mom was injured. Somehow coming from such a violent country, that was where my mind went. I froze. Then I realized. It was the Facebook post. Someone reported me, but I do not know who it was. The Dean’s office wanted to see if I was struggling with mental health issues. There is nothing wrong about that, but there is a tendency to pathologize students instead of looking at structural inequities.
Part of me dealing with this issue was to get help from the writing center. I got an appointment with a humanities grad student there, a white cisman. On the day of my appointment, I did not ask for a separate room, but he took me to one, which is not an appropriate procedure to start with. Being close to me, he asked: “Is your hair shaved a Colombian thing?”
I turned all red and said, “No?”
He then said, “What are you? You don’t look like my other Colombian friends. Your eyes are like… indigenous or something.” I started to panic. “Are there Black people in Colombia?” he kept asking. After the interrogation, he started to do something quite annoying. He asked me to complete his sentences as if I were a child. “It’s not ‘help’ but…”
“Helped?” I said.
Once again, I wrote a post on Facebook telling what happened (it takes three times to learn). After this second post, a staff member reached out to me, telling me she was unsure about her responsibilities when reading incidents like this on Facebook and that she reported it to the Division of Inclusion and Equity as well as Title IX. She apologized because after talking to her superiors, it seems that she was not obligated to report the situation. Honestly, I was thinking about filing a complaint. I wish I could have done it by myself.
It took me a lot of labor to write my first paper in feminist theories. The director of the writing center offered to help me with my essay. But that same white cisman that made me so uncomfortable the first time kept working there (even now two years later). I asked for a restraining order from the Diversity office so that he would not go to my department to ask me why he was racist (he wanted to know, as I was told). But now the writing center is functionally banned for me. I do not know what I would do if I saw his face again.
I did share what happened at the writing center in the feminist theories class because the appointment was right before our session. I was not in a good place, and so I do not recall much of what happened when I said it. I think there were some comments, and then we continued with the class readings.
That was the end of this series of incidents which are somehow related. I edited and expanded my final essay for the class, and the professor never gave me more feedback. She sent a general message saying that feedback will come late because she was busy, but it never arrived for me. My other friends did receive theirs. I got an A.
After a lot of doubt about my intellect and my ability even to write, I must say that now I have participated in multiple poetry readings and performances all over the city. With the material from sections one and two of this essay, I developed a performance art piece called “Cyborg, Brown, and 32.” It was supported by my department and ran for a week in one of our Blackbox theater spaces.
I connected via social media with different queer communities who were doing arts and performance and inspired me to go out there and share my work. I found them in bars, drag queen shows, queer performance festivals, and gatherings offered by the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies. My most significant personal achievement was that a play I wrote, all in English, was produced by a local theatre company that focuses on queer of color productions with a full cast of trans and non-binary folx. It was beautiful. Where academia had failed me, it was the art circuit and a found family of queers and people of color who helped restore my self-esteem.
“Speak only in Spanish,” my colleagues told me. But it is not that easy. When you need to give instructions or grammar explanations, you will probably need to use English. Because of that, I started combining English and Spanish during my classes when necessary. I remember the day I gave my very first grammar explanation. One particular interaction with a white student kept my attention. She was suspicious about the information I was providing, acting dramatically confused.
That became a constant. Every time I gave a grammar explanation, that student would question my knowledge in front of the class. She was suspicious of my teachings and always pointed out when I changed the order of the lesson in the book. She also asked every time about her grade every time, and when I gave her an assignment, she would take out her computer, avoiding the task. She had two white student friends in class, and they all challenged my authority in the classroom by not staying on task, talking and laughing instead. I told myself, “They are grown-ups, I cannot surveil them when they do not want to do the assignment.” I was also scared of exercising my authority and being publicly humiliated. I let it go most of the time, but other times I would turn the assignment into a pop-up quiz, so they became alert and started working. Then I would say, “Ok, now switch your quiz with a partner and correct each other’s,” not taking that assignment as a real grade for the sake of other students.
I had another similar first-time teaching experience. A white student was also very attentive to his grades all the time. The night before a quiz, he sent me an email saying he was not coming the next day to class. Instead, he was planning to go to my office hours the following Monday to take the test, and he rhetorically asked if his absence would not be counted for the next day.
I knew something was wrong with all of this. I suspected what it was, race and gender certainly crossed my mind, but I was unsure, as a way of self-defense. When I read Dr. Rodriguez’s (2009) article “The Usual Suspect: Negotiating White Student Resistance and Teacher Authority in a Predominantly White Classroom,” I was able to recognize what was going on entirely. It was related to my racialized identity. I also was treated differently because of how students read my “female body” (although I have explained to them several times that I am trans and use “they, them” pronouns).
One key term in Rodriguez’s essay is “suspicion,” which explains the fact that our students and white colleagues question our intellectual capacities based on racial prejudices. As the author puts it: “Stereotypical beliefs are still present, regardless of consciously rejecting these beliefs. Holding these unconscious beliefs allows White people to hold folks of color as suspect—suspect for not being ‘qualified’ and suspect of one’s knowledge” (Rodriguez 2009, 487). One of the ways one deals with this suspicion is overworking, trying to demonstrate that one belongs, or being extremely kind and permissive (out of tiredness, I guess), among other strategies. All of those tactics take energy and emotional labor from us as teachers of color.
Finally, Dr. Rodriguez offers advice to keep navigating this already unequal system, in which the classroom as a safe space is never a reality for us. She concludes her essay saying that “We have to remind ourselves as well as our students that hope is essential to the learning process. Seeking transformative spaces requires pain, struggle, and an ‘uncomfortable space’” (Rodriguez 2009, 503). My main goal as a teacher is to keep being supportive, open, and warm with my students. I can see they need that from us. I saw a couple of them were tormented by the perfectionism and the burden they carry from this system, and I was able to reaffirm their experiences and make them feel comfortable and confident. Even when feeling triggered and unsafe after the experiences I already mentioned, I hope that more horizontal learning processes are possible. I also expect that students can be provided with compassion, support, and care. This way, they will be able to learn without experiencing terror, insecurity, or rigidity. Instead of safe spaces, we might need this uncomfortable space or “brave space” (Arao and Clemens 2013, 135) in which we can challenge students’ assumptions about their professors of color while still being able to facilitate their learning processes.
Conclusion: Three Tips from an In-process Antiracist Transfeminist
After all the experiences I have mentioned here, I have gathered a list of tips that I found could help to foster antiracist and transfeminist practices in academia. These ideas not only come from the multiple wounds I’ve faced since I moved to the United States from Bogotá, but also from the moments when I have failed and my indigenous and Black friends and colleagues taught me the lesson. I am profoundly grateful to all of them. They have made me a better human.
- 1. Use pronouns and carry on
Starting a class asking people for their pronouns has been a good strategy for me as a student and then as a professor. It is important to give room for folx who don’t want to share them, and there will always be a cis person who will say that they do not care, that they use any pronoun or that they do not see people’s gender (I wish). However, I have noticed that starting with pronouns is not enough. It has been frustrating when I say my pronouns, but in the next class and the entire semester, folx misgender me, starting with the professor that I TA for. That is not okay. The reminder of people’s pronouns should keep happening constantly.
- 2. Positionality activities
Doing this kind of activity takes much effort and emotional labor, and we are not always up for this. But if the conditions are right, I have found that positionality activities where I invite my students to reflect on their race, gender, sexual orientation, income, religion, etc., have been productive, especially for students who have not reflected on their markers and/or on their privilege in different areas. Racial justice organizations have templates for these activities, and the article by Arao and Clemens (2013) offer critical remarks about whom these activities are for.
- 3. Syllabi and community agreements
I have had professors who say they are feminists, but most of the readings are from men when I see their syllabi. I have also seen feminist syllabi with mostly white women authors. More challenging to perceive, I have also read in my feminist classes colonialist theorists who perpetuate academic extractivism, epistemic violence, and diminishing stereotyped representations of the “underdeveloped countries.” No matter the discipline, who is the scholarly authority, and what that authority is saying definitely matters. Additionally, I have experienced classrooms where white cismen “sit in their words” and talk for several minutes, non-stop, entitled. Community agreements, established at the beginning of the class, and on the syllabi are essential for students and professors to be self-reflective about how much space we take and why.
 Administrative email message to D.C. Hernández, March 30, 2018.
Arao, Brian, and Kristi Clemens. “A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice.” In The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections From Social Justice Educators, edited by Lisa M. Landreman, 135-50. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2013.
Rodriguez, Dalia. “The Usual Suspect: Negotiating White Student Resistance and Teacher Authority in a Predominantly White Classroom.” Cultural Studies/Critical Methodologies 9, no. 4 (2009): 483-508.