“What’s up with your professor?” His eyes stayed on mine, daring me to blink, to say something, but all I could manage was a shake of the head.
I’d agreed to present with a professor whose work I admired, whose work informed my dissertation research at a large area studies conference. The panel for which our paper was accepted included colleagues who had already completed their Ph.D.’s and were working on post-docs, new teaching gigs, or finalizing book manuscripts that had already garnered attention for their insight and rigorous scholarship on race and nation-building. Each paper was allotted about 15 minutes to give ample time for presentation and questions. Although my name was listed as first presenter, my co-presenter— the only veteran and white scholar on the panel—spoke first… and spoke and spoke and spoke. The plan had been that we’d use slides for our presentation to make it more seamless than a traditional paper and that I’d start halfway through to close the presentation. No matter how many sheets with minutes remaining I held up, waves, and finally, desperate looks at my fellow panelists deterred my ‘colleague,’ who continued until ‘our’ talk was nearly over, leaving me under two minutes to spare. I was so flustered that I said something about the lack of time and struggled to find the strong closing point I’d prepared to make.
Reliving this memory, I find myself once again at a precipice. My cheeks flushing, tears threatening to invade, a primal scream seeking release. I look around, then down, ready to fall into the abyss. Wondering what the fuck was up with my professor and somehow, absorbing the shame of humiliation as if it were mine to hold.
I arrived in anthropology by happenstance. People, women, in my family, didn’t really go to college. We are strong, ‘arrechas’ – a word in Nicaragua that can mean ‘enraged,’ and more colloquially is used to refer to ‘warriors ready for battle.’ Our great-aunts, mothers, and others reminded us that we had to be embody this warrior spirit in order to put up with the womanizing, the drinking all night, the touches that lingered too long on young women’s shoulders or thighs, all while working in factories or whatever they could find in Manhattan, afterward coming home to keep the family together, the children in line. The eldest teen girls, who were not yet old enough “to be out by themselves” in New York City’ were tapped to watch those of us that required adult supervision. Within this world, women held sway, made the rules that we abided by in the house and were often the ones that beat us the hardest when we stepped out of line.
Like many academics, I grew up devouring the books that I could get my hands on. When my parents made enough to rent their own apartment and leave the room we shared in my great-aunt’s house, my dad’s books provided a ready source for my imagination and entry into other worlds. And though my mom taught me to clean and held me responsible for my younger sister (just one year my junior), I found in books a universe where I could inhabit these worlds, beyond the strictures of child-rearing, cooking, and bearing men’s proclivities. Although I avoided learning to cook into adulthood and sought other ways to subvert what seemed like my lot in life, I did internalize the maxim that one keeps one’s mouth shut unless absolutely necessary. While this applied to women doubly —in general, unless you were halfway through your bottle of preference— taking center stage to express your thoughts always seemed a risky proposition. Doing so, opened you up to ridicule, in some cases, worse. In worlds where keeping one’s head down is often key to survival, speaking up was more often a practice that many of us actively avoided.
It seems facile to use this family precept to examine my experiences as a graduate student, particularly one unclear about the vastness of the hidden curriculum. A bit too on the nose, to see this as an example of habitus embodied. Or something. The truth is, unfortunately, that many of us who made it through graduate school probably have an anecdote or seven about a professor that you admired sabotaging you in some way. My anecdote is, perhaps, even run-of-the-mill compared to what others have lived through. And yet, it happened. I’m not imagining things or mis-interpreting events. As a follow up to our presentations, a fellow panelist invited me to work on a future panel and explicitly asked me not to mention it to my co-presenter, the senior professor. Most of my co-panelists also felt it necessary to express their regret for my experience, our experience. The professor? The professor blithely thanked us all and walked off unencumbered.
Looking back a decade and a half later I realize that this instance of public silencing and gaslighting didn’t kill me. It also didn’t necessarily prompt me to seriously consider that such experiences (and worse) are common for so many and that there would be others in years to come. In my case, these experiences prompted me to withdraw from anthropology, slowly but surely. It added to growing doubts about whether I could ever be a professor and made me wonder whether a Ph.D. was even a good idea. Although I had confidence in my ideas, my way of questioning the canon, and my writing ability to some extent, this and other episodes left me wondering whether I had the carácter to find my place in the academy.
Stepping back from the precipice in the present day, a friend’s well-meaning advice echoes in my head: “Everyone has their own trajectory. Be kind to yourself.” While true and applicable and even words I might share with someone else, I can feel my face getting hot, a growl readying from the depths within me. Were my lamentations reflecting my inability to give myself grace in the face of gatekeeping on the part of those “elders” I thought would support me? What about my need to name what happened…even if I hadn’t found the courage to speak out in my own defense at the time?
Wrestling with this memory at the close of January 2021, a tweet by Katherine McKittrick gave me solace: “seeking support-mentorship-advice-ideas-words shouldn’t be tied to extractive practices. there are forms of cooperation and collaboration that generate new ways of being and build up existing infrastructures of liberation that are not colonizing or imbued with the idea-soul grab.” Reflecting on the despair and anxiety most of us struggled with at the time, following months of calculated death and destruction orchestrated at the highest levels of government, the reminder that another world is possible and that there are colleagues lighting the way toward it, reminded me to breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
I’m now an assistant professor, although without tenure, in an interdisciplinary department that I thought would help me close the door on anthropology and those who have peopled it with deeds that contradict their lofty postulations. And yet… my small office with cinderblock walls has served as a place of refuge or information for some graduate students. When they realize that their programs of study don’t really include professors that look like them, understand where they come from, or view their home communities as locations producing little more than diagnoses or pathologies, they stop in and ask for my advice. And these conversations have called me to think back on my training and my own experiences as a student when I first became aware that the land of graduate school, which I’d so idealized, might actually be hostile terrain. My eyes fill, watching the blinking cursor, knowing some paths remain well-worn despite the best efforts of many.