Am I an Asian Woman or a Woman Who is Asian? A Personal Reflection Being a Woman of Colour in the Academia
11 July 2019
by Shan-Jan Sarah Liu
(This blog is derived from the Women in Social Science Conference at City, University of London on 3 April 2019. Chaired by Professor Sue Scott FAcSS, the conference was organised by the Academy of Social Sciences, its Campaign for Social Science and NatCen, and supported by ESRC and Palgrave Macmillan.)
In 2007, Julia S. Jordan-Zachery, published an article, “Am I a Black Woman or a Woman Who is Black?” in which she writes about her attempt to explain to her daughter how her intersectional identities mean that her experiences would never the same as the white girls and the black boys she saw on the television.” I was a Ph.D. student when I first read this article. It was not until years later when I became a faculty member that I truly understood what Jordan-Zachery meant by women of colour facing different challenges from white women or men of colour.
The Personal and the Political: My Intersectional Identities and Challenges
Throughout my academic career, I have attended numerous workshops organised by universities and professional organisations that aim to help women publish, get promoted, and balance work and family. Inevitably at every workshop, a speaker would encourage women academics to hire help as a way to their advance career and seek a better work-life balance. The idea is that women should not feel guilty for paying for additional assistance around the house. As the speaker recommends domestic help as a solution, most of the audience nods in agreement. As a woman, I understand where this approval comes from. Because of societal constraints on gender roles women are too often criticised for being bad mothers and wives when outsourcing their familial obligations.
Nevertheless, as one of the few, if not the only, women of colour in attendance, such advice makes me uncomfortable. While hiring help alleviates household burdens temporarily, it does not address the structural factors for why women academics get burned out at a higher rate than their male counterparts. More importantly, such advice ignores the fact that such career development is usually at an expense of Women of colour, even if their labour is fairly compensated. It also neglects the structural factors for why women of colour are the ones scrubbing people’s toilets while white women hold professional jobs. It is difficult for me, like many other people of colour, to feel that I belong when my female colleagues volunteer our labour to clean, cook, and repair the house as a solution to there struggles to shine academically.
While white women scholars do not share my struggles in this instance, often, my male colleagues of colour do not share my struggles as a woman either. I once attended a workshop on teaching racism, organised mostly by men of colour, with the goal being to learn to better manage my homogeneous classroom. However, the facilitator quickly discouraged my use of the word “manage” to describe teaching because he believes it embraces hierarchy. While I work to foster a safe environment for my students, as a woman, I do not have the same privilege as men to never have to face confrontations. Being a woman means I am seen as less qualified and less competent than my male colleagues. Therefore, I need to learn to work with students who may not otherwise show respect. I, like many other women in the room, felt that our experiences as lecturers were dismissed in a workshop that focused exclusively on race issues.
Navigating the Institutional Non-Performativity of Diversity
While the academy and the people in it seem to recognise sexism and racism, they treat them as separate issues. When my fellow women colleagues combat sexual discrimination and prejudice, they can afford to do so without paying attention to racism. When my fellow male colleagues of colour fight against racism, they forget that gender also makes my struggles different from theirs. However, my multiple identities are interconnected. As I navigate academia, though, I am often forced to unlock my identities, especially when the university talks diversity.
Diversity emphasises difference but does not translate to commitment and action to justice (Deem and Ozga 1997). Institutions diversify by bringing in people with different identities and backgrounds. Yet, it is still believed that we occupy a space not because of merit but because of we tick the diversity box. As an early career scholar, I learn to navigate the system. I learn to accept that I could be used as a token. I learn to accept that I must prove myself so I am not perceived as a token by my colleagues.
As a woman, sometimes I hesitate to ask questions about gender because I fear that I would be reduced to being the scholar who only knows about gender. As a person of colour, I also do not always want to speak of race because I do not want to be reduced to that scholar who sees everything as racialized. Because of the need to constantly legitimize my existence, I actively decrease rather than increase my visibility. I am not alone in performing in this way. When we try to stop sexism or racism, we are up against the enablers of the isms. The stakes are high for women of colour to speak up because the minute we speak of the problem, we become the problem (Ahmed 2017).
While I adhere to the problematic non-performativity of diversity to survive, I also want to teach my students how to thrive. Within the first week of starting my last lectureship, several East Asian women students showed up at my office and peeked through my door. It turned out that they were there to confirm the rumour of the presence of an Asian woman lecturer because they had never seen someone who looked like me in the School before. Students’ curiosity and excitement are an irony. A need for more people like me in the institution clearly exists; yet, change is rarely systematically implemented. As these students’ needs are not met by the university, I invest my time and provide my invisible labour. Nonetheless, such labour is rarely recognized and perhaps only so when the institution wants present itself as a place where differences are welcomed and embraced.
Thus, instead of creating change, diversity becomes a form of organisational pride. The fact that university mission statements include diversity, and that universities have Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion committees signal that no longer is it necessary to dwell on “past” racism and sexism. Diversity suggests that all isms are overcome and the world is a better place now. Diversity works in favor of institutions because it obscures the real issues. Therefore, when we, the marginalised, experience racism and sexism, it is our responsibility to educate the privileged. Even when we raise awareness, we are seen as trouble makers for an institution that already strives for diversity. Institutional reputation precedes individual struggles, despite how common they might be (Ahmed 2007).
Opportunities? The Power of Story-Telling
While my minority students make me proud, I also find myself fumbling as I walk the precarious line between being a role model and being one of the othered. It is undeniable that that I am in search of the very things they covet: a space to tell my stories, a friend who believes and advocates, a way to hold the institution accountable, and recognition that people like us still have to fight to belong in academia.
How do we continue the fight, though? It is crucial to remember that our truths matter. Speaking openly about our experiences helps affirm others’ experiences and reminds them that they are not alone. Sharing our stories can dismantle the collective silence. It can make the world aware of the oppressions that are still ongoing. It can shift the focus from the silent suffering to the accountability of the perpetrators. We need to turn the challenges into opportunities. We need to tell our stories. Voice is power. There will be backlash and it will be exhausting, but we can only create our own space for ourselves if we do this collectively.
Story-Telling – Not a One-Way Street
Although people recognise racism and sexism as an institutional issue, it is also easy for them to deny being the perpetrators because of their progressive ideologies. Nonetheless, it takes more than empathy and asymmetrical solidarity to change the power dynamics. It takes intersectional solidarity, which is forming ties and coalition across different groups. It is about caring about the others in a serious way that accounts for the lived experiences of the most marginalised (Emejulu 2018). Even if there are no shared experiences, intersectional solidarity can still be built upon shared knowledge and shared care for one another.
Therefore, people who are in more privileged positions need to remember that just because we are not speaking about intersectional isms does not mean they do not exist. Sometimes silence is also revealing. Silence can be powerful for those who pay attention. So I ask that the privileged listen to our stories, pay attention to our silence, be an ally, and remember that justice can only be possible when it is seen as a due process and proactively pursued.
Ahmed, S., 2007. The language of diversity. Ethnic and racial studies, 30(2), pp.235-256.
Ahmed, S., 2017. Living a feminist life. Duke University Press.
Deem, Rosemary and Ozga, J 1997 ‘Women Managing Diversity in a Postmodern World’ in Carolynn Marshall (ed.), Feminist Critical Policy Analysis, London: Falmer
Emejulu, A., 2018. On the problems and possibilities of feminist solidarity: The Women’s March one year on. IPPR Progressive Review, 24(4), pp.267-273.
Jordan-Zachery, J.S., 2007. Am I a black woman or a woman who is black? A few thoughts on the meaning of intersectionality. Politics & Gender, 3(2), pp.254-263.
Shan-Jan Sarah Liu is Lecturer of Gender and Politics in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on women’s political representation, social movements, and immigration. She tweets @DrSarahLiu.
This article is republished from Discover Society.