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.
christina ong is a queer Asian American Ph.D. student in Sociology with interests in transnationalism, anti-imperialism, and racial justice.
In the beginning of 2017, I sat crying on my bed, grimly resigned to the possibility that my dreams of obtaining a PhD would remain just that. I worked the previous two years in refugee resettlement—work that was fulfilling, but also weighed heavily on my heart. I longed for an opportunity in which I could spend my time and energy not just solving crisis after crisis but thinking about solutions for the long-term. The election of Donald Trump in the previous season reaffirmed this desire. I wanted to know how a man like him could possibly be elected. I needed to know what people outside of the progressive-minded community I worked amongst in California thought. I decided that going to an out-of-state university would be the right path forward. I spent months combing through programs, searching for one whose faculty researched issues relating to racism, sexism, and xenophobia.
After receiving rejection after rejection, I called my best friend. In between sobs, I choked out the words that I would be okay if I never got into a program. She didn’t believe me. I didn’t either. The following week, I was accepted into a doctoral program and was given a social movements research fellowship. Things felt like they were falling into place. I was uplifted by the idea of being in a discipline that would encourage critical engagement with social problems, and in a department that would foster activist-oriented scholarship. Although there were few faculty and graduate students of color in the program, I did not understand the gravity of this reality until I moved to the East Coast in the fall.
My undergraduate university is a Hispanic-serving institution heavily populated by people of color. Asians and Asian Americans are also a dominant fixture on campus. In classes and campus organizations, I worked closely with students of color from a variety of backgrounds. Most of my professors were people of color or white with recent family histories of immigration to the United States. I considered this as the norm and never thought that a lack of diversity would be a problem I faced in my educational career. However, after moving from Southern California to Western Pennsylvania upon joining a graduate program, I could go the entire day without seeing an Asian or Latinx student. On those days, I would think to myself that I may be the only Asian person that a student or faculty member would come across. Being viewed as a rarity is an isolating, unnerving experience. Knowing that you are a rarity does not make you feel special. It makes you feel alone.
Something important I have learned from my graduate school experience is this: there is a difference between having a community of scholars and having a community. And when I moved across the country for my doctoral education, it was clear that I had neither. I naively believed that shared research interests would indicate common goals: a commitment to radical anti-racism. It does not. I spent my first several months in the department trying desperately to befriend colleagues, set up meetings with faculty members, and fight away feelings of deep depression. Nearly every interaction with my white peers and professors felt like a dead end. White graduate students would readily whisper about how a professor said something racist in years past. When I would bring up something that happened recently, fellow graduate students offered sympathetic looks but not much else. We could collectively be angry in retrospect at professors, but never act as a unified front in the current moment or discuss microaggressions committed by fellow graduate students. At an emergency graduate student meeting, a white graduate student recommended we write a collective statement to the faculty to address our concerns about research funding and teaching assignment allocations. While these issues impacted all students, none of the issues raised had any consideration for specialized concerns of non-white graduate students. When I voiced worry about a collective letter that did not speak to non-white students’ needs, the idea of a collective letter was dropped altogether. My agitation was not with the general idea of a collective letter, but with the reality that whose concerns were prioritized and whose were intentionally left out fell along racial lines. These kinds of interactions forced me to reevaluate who I could trust with my opinions. My resulting frustration was not just due to academia’s oppressive, hierarchical structures steeped in racism and sexism, but that I wrongly believed the people working in its confines would help me break free from chains of oppression. Whereas in my undergraduate studies, I was quick-witted and eager to participate in class dialogue, the stresses of being one of few Asian Americans in graduate school coupled with internally grappling with my sexuality made it nearly impossible for me to engage critically with fellow students and professors. When peers or faculty members reiterated racist or misogynistic tropes in and outside of the classroom, it felt as though my tongue was cut from my mouth. In discussing my research on Asian American identity development, a faculty member disclosed they did not realize “oriental” was a derogatory term. It was not just the shock of hearing such remarks that troubled me, but my overall inability to vocalize my discomfort that “intesif[ied] the feeling of victimization” (hooks 1999, 60).
In addition to such microaggressive blind spots, I had no idea how readily academia uproots you. It forces you to think beyond your boundaries, but in doing so, it physically isolates you from the things that once kept you grounded. Being seen as part of a collective—as an Asian American ally to refugee and asylum seekers, and not simply a cultural oddity—kept me grounded. Then, suddenly, without warning, I lost this sense of security. My first week in the program, a colleague alluded to me working well with my white advisor because I was Asian and the only other Asian student in our program at the time was also his advisee. Somehow, the successes of Asian women in predominately white spaces are explained away as being a symptom of assumed feminine Asian complicity and docility. My intellectual contributions and potential as a graduate student colleague were overlooked in favor of an exotifying explanation for why a white supervisor could value me. Still, these kinds of slights felt miniscule in comparison to the blatant racism my Black peers faced at an institutional level. Not wanting to draw attention away from structural anti-Blackness, I turned inwards and felt like it was not worthwhile to bring up such concerns to my colleagues or the administration.
I soon called into question the radical possibilities of graduate school. As bell hooks writes, graduate study is “a process which was usually depoliticizing, which rewarded the abandoning of radical feminist practice” (1999, 99). Realizing this shattered me. I wondered how womxn graduate students of color could reconcile their hopes for liberatory education with the reality of the destructive nature of neoliberal learning institutions. Was there a way forward that did not necessitate the self-deprecation of ourselves or the belittling of our peers? Was there a possibility for graduate studies to be as freeing as I envisioned it could be?
Prior to graduate school, I was not aware of how powerful it was to be amongst those who empathized with my struggles as a queer Asian American womxn due to shared experiences that one can only have with those who share cultural values, racial meanings, and gendered realities. Instead, I was met frequently with sympathy or confusion lent by white and non-Asian students of color. Such responses made it increasingly difficult to navigate the delicacies of being an Asian womxn in a space that continuously Orientalizes Asian bodies while simultaneously rendering our minds as espousing intellect more readily than our non-Asian peers of color. It is an extension of what political scientist Claire Jean Kim calls “racial triangulation” (1999). The reality remains that Asians in the United States serve as a wedge between white and Black populations, which does nothing other than to reify white supremacist visions of racial hierarchies. The academy is not immune to such ploys. In essence, my being one of few Asian American graduate students necessitated that I make a critical decision at the outset of entering academia. Should I inch closer to whiteness and bely my desires to critically question and dismantle racist practices in an attempt to feel more welcomed into a community that already viewed my presence as an anomaly? Or would it be wiser to seek out academics whose critical consciousness marginalized them further?
These questions plagued me. After my first semester, I sought out a therapist. I wanted to talk to someone about a past sexual assault and because the university provided substantial medical care, I felt financially stable enough to see someone regularly. After the first year with my therapist, I made no mention of the assault. Instead, I talked about my department. The isolation. The fear. The strange social interactions with peers that made me see myself as the Other. But this is not a unique experience. Graduate students are six times more likely than the general population to experience anxiety and depression (Evans et al. 2018). That many of my graduate student colleagues of color across campuses seek out therapy for the primary purpose of coming to terms with their realities as people of color in graduate school is indicative of how deeply rooted this problem is.
When family or friends not in graduate school ask me how I am, I generally remark that I feel stressed or anxious. Their assumption is that graduate school is and should be challenging—that my resulting stress is just a part of the process. And while I do think that graduate students should be challenged, those challenges should not be rooted in everyday experiences of racism and sexism that so many of us face. Moreover, the high standards set for graduate students must be met with consideration by faculty and administrators. In my undergraduate institution, the professors who challenged me were the ones who put the idea of graduate school in my head in the first place. Their challenges were always coupled with careful mentorship that they did not have to put in but did. As an Asian American student in a school with predominantly Asian Americans, I took their energy for granted. Now, as an Asian American graduate student in a region with few Asian Americans both in the university and in the city overall, it is clear to me that such high standards for graduate students have to be supplemented by certain forms of support that are not always available or easy to access for people of color.
To cultivate a community of scholars, graduate students of color need to feel supported by people they can confide in. Yet as a fiercely competitive environment, academia easily sows distrust. While this may be the norm, it cannot continue to be. Not if we want graduate students of color to succeed and to stop cycles of depression. In my third year of graduate school, my advisor and his advisees formed a working group through a small educational grant so that we could regularly discuss our research, but also how we see our work as fitting into transformative visions of liberation. Although the group is predominately white, the space feels secure enough for me to voice my concerns because these are people who have taken the time and energy to cultivate a relationship that is not purely transactional as so many relationships in the academy often feel. On a broader scale, however, faculty and students alike seem to bury their heads in work and hope that the problems of racism and sexism in our interpersonal lives will go away. Our discipline is fraught with inequality. This is not a mystery. Faculty and advanced graduate students know that these are the realities. If these are the problems, if power structures that force graduate students of color to make ourselves small continue to exist without question, what is the way out?
After my first year of graduate school, I attended a sociological association’s annual meeting. On the first day, in the living room of my shared Airbnb, I called my mother crying. I was ready to quit. I was sure that nothing I could contribute to academia would be worth what I felt in that moment. Faculty members I saw from across the convention hall turned away from students they recognized. I did not want to be surrounded by people who pretended their research could solve social problems while they themselves denied their complicity in making graduate students feel powerless. There is not one particular thing that dug me out of that. My family and friends from back home listened intently as I expressed my grief. But what encouraged me the most were faculty and graduate students of color who recognized what I did. This extended network came from digital spaces like Twitter, where I readily shared snippets of my experience using the hashtag #AcademicChatter. Those I connected with online saw the same things and knew what I knew to be true. These peers came from other disciplines and other institutions. They existed. They were there. I decided then that the way out was not leaving the academy but staying and working daily to reassure myself that I belonged.
I want to make clear that my writing is not an indictment of specific faculty, students, or my program as a whole. Rather, I hope that this is a wake-up call for prospective and current graduate students of color. Some of us are so intent on persevering, we forget that perseverance does not have to mean suffering in silence. We may believe that the way forward is through. But what happens when making it through means we are consistently broken down, removed from the very things that may have motivated us to pursue a graduate degree in the first place?
I still believe graduate school was the right decision for me. It did not give me the critical, activist-oriented community I longed for, but it gave me the tools to see the world for what it really is. I learned how to seek out fruitful and joyful relationships with other graduate students of color. I learned how to not rely on a sort of proximity to whiteness as a mechanism for acceptance. I learned that to survive this process, graduate students of color, and womxn and queer people in particular, will be consistently undermined and put to the test. I learned that many times we have to build the support we deserve. And, if we are able to, we can make it out together.
Evans, Teresa M., Lindsay Bira, Jazmin Beltran Gastelum, L. Todd Weiss, and Nathan L. Vanderford. “Evidence for a Mental Health Crisis in Graduate Education.” Nature Biotechnology 36 (2018): 282-284.
hooks, bell. Killing Rage: Ending Racism. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1999.
Kim, Claire Jean. “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans.” Politics & Society 27, no.1 (1999): 105–38.