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.
Erika Nacim is from El Paso, Texas, and a PhD candidate in Mexican American studies. She is dedicated to liberatory educational practices and social justice action.
At the institutional level, I am categorized as ‘Hispanic,” and I attend a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). Although, exactly what does it mean to be “Hispanic” in an institution of higher education? In what ways is identity formation socially just, institutionally bestowed, or individually explored through a critical consciousness? I’ve questioned these aspects now more than ever, and I constantly reflect on my own identity, social location, and intentionality in the academy. I use a lens of social justice in my work and consider identity within this scope: how and why do identities become apolitical when institutions begin to dictate the parameters of an identity?
I use social justice to guide my writing and scholarship and clearly state here that I stand in solidarity against all forms of oppression including homophobia, racism, sexism, ableism, and classism. I view social justice as a constant struggle of personal and social growth informed by critical theory, including critical race theory, intersectional theory, and decoloniality. I aim to create and support community-based systematic change in solidarity with existing community efforts to make our society a more fair, just, and equitable place. I believe social justice is the combination of a goal, process, and action (Bell 2007). The goal is ensuring equal and equitable participation of the collective. This is related to a distribution of resources to ensure all are physically and psychologically safe and secure (Bell 2007). With my interdisciplinary academic work, it became clear there are key disparities and oppressions within all aspects of the academy, which push me to dedicate myself to social justice work. I function with the understanding that social justice is rooted in action and dismantling systems of power and dominance.
Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) are defined as colleges, universities, or systems/districts where total Hispanic enrollment constitutes a minimum of 25 percent of the total enrollment (HACU 2020). Within these institutions, the concept of “servingness” is conceptualized as “the ability of colleges and universities that meet the 25% Latinx and 50% low-income enrollment threshold to become HSIs to enroll and educate Latinx students through a culturally enhancing approach that centers Latinx ways of knowing and being, with the goal of providing transformative experiences that lead to both academic (e.g., graduation, post-baccalaureate degree enrollment, job placement) and nonacademic (e.g., community engagement, critical consciousness, racial identity development) outcomes” (Garcia 2020, 1-2). I do not believe the goal of an HSI is one based in social justice (nor is it meant to be); instead this goal is one steeped in neoliberalism, promoting further assimilation and acculturation of students categorized as “Hispanic.” And who identifies as Hispanic? The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) defines Hispanic or Latino as a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race (U.S. Census Bureau 2020). This last piece “regardless of race” is very important and must be deconstructed in relation to pigmentocracy utilizing an intersectional lens. This HSI status is focusing on only ethnic identity, not focused on being explicitly inclusive nor exploring the complexities and marginalization related to racial identity. If counter hegemonic identities are not specifically named, the dominant culture—white supremacy—is assumed, even within an ethnic identity such as Hispanic.
In this essay, I explore how an institution of higher education and those subsequently put into powerful positions by said institution are now defining what resources “abiding” Hispanic students, like myself, deserve, and they are limiting resources to counter-hegemonic Hispanic students. The “abiding” students are those that adhere to respectability politics, which are steeped in expectations of whiteness—speech, physical appearance, manners, non-confrontational, apolitical, etc. The counter-hegemonic students are those not adhering to those norms centering whiteness—speaking Spanish or their indigenous languages, “non-professional” attire, wearing natural hair, political, outspoken, etc. This is dangerous and violent, something I have experienced throughout my career as a graduate student. I explore identity here and how this relates to toxic hegemonic institutions. What is trying to be named here is that, at the core of being an HSI, institutions of higher education are exploiting an ethnic identity and appealing to the whiteness associated with the Hispanic identity. Thus, those most marginalized and oppressed within the Hispanic identity are not being primarily served, but as white supremacy dictates, those closest to whiteness will be deemed capable and worthy of being “served.” Because if the former were not true, then a promise of centering undocumented, DACA, queer, indigenous, and black students would be the first proclamation of an institution gaining the HSI designation. Instead, it is more American exceptional neoliberalism, which capitalizes on ethnicity while ignoring the most vulnerable and in need of protection and assistance.
Growing up in the borderlands, I have a unique perception of humanity and how systemic oppression can strip one’s dignity. Crossing the border almost daily from El Paso into Juárez was an integral part of my childhood, though as I grew older and border politics grew more insidious, trips crossing the Rio Grande to visit family became less frequent. During high school, I learned of a different and perilous border reality for migrants compounded by the harsh Sonoran Desert. In undergrad, my dedication to social justice became solidified and my critical consciousness awakened by understanding Chicanx and other social movements in Los Angeles. I have shifted from economic instability, being raised by a single mother, to minor privilege and security, being fully funded by a fellowship during my entire academic career in higher education. I have never been racialized as white, but I have lighter skin and am perceived as racially ambiguous. This a privilege in academic spaces because of my light skin’s proximity to whiteness. My ethnic affiliation with my Mexican, Syrian, and Lebanese heritage, compounded by my birth in the United States, has resulted in the erasure of many traditions—specifically a loss of language. My lived experience allows me to reflect on how I interact with the collective and discern how I enter into systems of domination. I know how it feels to be honored in academic spaces when I was performing as a “good Hispanic”—apolitical other than engaging in respectability politics—which honors white fragility and centers individualism. Now I understand how it feels to be scorned by those same spaces if one ever critically questions their proximity to and inscription of white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy.
Until my master’s degree, I was benefitting from my proximity to whiteness and thriving. Once the time came for me to start questioning positions of power and pushing for structural change in the academy, everything changed. I was liberated from the individualistic career I was building for myself and gained awareness of how my graduate work can be exploitative of my people and other vulnerable populations. This change did not come without a price. I was pushed out of an academic department for the reason that my work was “too interdisciplinary.” This of course masked the disruption the collective I was part of was making at the structural level. We demanded racist artwork be taken down, insisted hiring and admission practices be equitable related to implicit bias, and were vocal and critical in the move to make our majority white graduate college more “diverse and inclusive.”
After being pushed out of there, I still was able to pursue a PhD in a more “radical” field of study. I am in my third year of doctoral work and have learned that this new department is not so “radical” nor dedicated to social justice work rooted in action. In these three years, I have been reprimanded for making multiple white women in class cry because I called them out and named what they said publicly in class as anti-Black and racist. This has even resulted in a white woman placing a “no contact order” on me through the university’s dean’s office because she felt threatened by me. This was after I publicly argued with her in class as to why what she presented in class was anti-Black: her work perpetuated the “angry Black woman” stereotype and categorized Black women as aggressive. I never spoke directly about her but simply named what she said as racist and violent. I never had contact with her outside of class or after that day, and she never showed up to class again. Six months later, I received notice that she had a “no contact” order placed on me. I met with the dean’s office to discuss this matter, and they said she was able to prove that she was physically intimidated by me and feared for her safety. I repeat: we were in a class discussion, and I was never closer to her than, say, five feet. Despite this, the institution would support this fragile white woman and her fear that her racist rhetoric would be held accountable.
The other disheartening part about this is that not one other person in the room supported my voice, including the professor. This was in a “Latino studies” course, which is another reminder of how anti-Black my own community can be inside and outside the classroom. The only way I’ve been able to persist in my graduate program is through mental health therapy, familial support, and healthy love. I still consider dropping out every week; the academy is a lonely and toxic place. My only motivation is to use my privilege and expertise in these spaces to help other students like me feel supported. I am categorized as “Hispanic” at the institution I study at, but it is not an institution that serves me. Instead, it has constantly terrorized my existence and punished my identity.
The HSI designation is using a form of racial capitalism by exploiting an ethnic identity that is attached to pigmentocracy, and in this form such institutions are attached to white supremacy. Utilizing the interplay between capitalism and systems of healing, Virginia Grise (2017, 67) explores this idea in Your Healing is Killing Me:
If you know your enemy and you know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
So, we must know the enemy: institutions steeped in imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. And we must know ourselves by knowing how institutions of higher education build individuals and subsequently break individuals down if they do not adhere to power structures and dominant culture. The HSI designation could become another way to colonize minds, policing what a token “Hispanic” should be so they can secure funding and secure a position of power in the hegemonic academy.
In Gloria Anzaldúa’s work, she reclaims identity through centering energy on an individual’s agenda, not the stereotypes placed upon minorities/people of color/Latinx from the dominant culture (Anzaldúa & Keating, 2000). This is a decolonial process. HSI could be inciting the opposite for “Hispanic” students. The HSI designation is not a decolonial enterprise, nor a form of social justice; it is just another opportunity for domination and oppression in the American education system.
One way I attempt to challenge systems of racial oppression, as Sandoval employs in her essay “Motherwork Revisited: The Critical Personal Narrative of a Queer Chicana
Choice Mama” (2011, 16), is to state my social location and use that to reflect on the direction my work takes:
My fair skin affords me skin privilege and as a university professor, I have access to venues—such as this one—within which I might make my voice heard. I do not claim to speak for any subordinate group. Rather, I propose that given my social location in several historically oppressed groups, my experience serves to problematize and add complexity to the ways Chicana and Latina motherhood is understood.
This piece of stating that “my experience serves to problematize and add complexity” is of utmost importance, especially related to racial identity. Sandoval does not conflate ethnicity and race together, but nor does she blatantly state the difference here in identity and how one individual performs versus how one is perceived in institutions of power steeped in white supremacy.
The one concept that kept coming to mind while writing this essay was that of racial realism; people of color are seen and treated as inferior and subhuman by institutions, period. This is the reality, but still those of us (myself included) who are welcomed into academic institutions perform for white supremacy and garner individual privileges until we stop performing the ways dictated by the institution. My question here is why do we think the outcome will be any other way in these insidious institutions? Why do we think individually we will be the exception to the rule? Why does an HSI designation conflate race and ethnicity together, ignoring the pigmentocracy and necropolitics of what it means to be non-white? Are we all just hopeless romantics, thinking one day education steeped in white supremacy and capitalism will love us back?
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Interviews/Entrevistas, edited by AnaLouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Bell, Lee Anne. “Theoretical Foundations for Social Justice Education.” In Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, edited by Maurianne Adams and Lee Anne Bell, 1-5. New York: Routledge, 2007.
Grise, Virginia. Your Healing is Killing Me. Pittsburgh: Plays Inverse Press, 2017.
Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) “Hispanic-Serving Institution Definitions.” Accessed July 30, 2020, https://www.hacu.net/hacu/HSI_Definition1.asp
Sandoval, Gabriela. “Motherwork Revisited: A Critical Personal Narrative by a Queer Chicana Choice Mama.” Presentation at the American Studies Association, 2011.
U.S. Census Bureau “About Hispanic Origin.” October 16, 2020 (accessed July 30, 2020), https://www.census.gov/topics/population/hispanic-origin/about.html