Diaspora Dilemmas

26 September 2019

Have you ever walked into the wrong lecture during week 1 of the semester? There’s something about the anxiety and the irreplaceable feeling of everyone’s eyes on
you that nothing else can quite replicate.

Being a Person of Colour at an overwhelmingly white academic institution has a knack for making you feel like a fish out of water. You fall into a routine of second-guessing everything, from your place in a scheduled lecture to your answers in a tutorial discussion.

The existence of PoC in academia was not an idea that existed during its conception. In fact, many early academics were the founder of schools of thought that outlined and provided a framework of justification for our very exclusion from the mainstream.

And if you look around at the grounds that this university was built on, the stolen lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, you realise that our physical academic journey is, too, built on a foundation of genocide and eradication.

I’ve been in rooms where, when race is awkwardly brought up, all eyes subconsciously flick to me, as if to reinforce that I stick out.

I’ve conducted sit down meetings with faculty, spoken to the head of SHAPS, various fellows and professors, for all my concerns and experiences to be ignored, but for the invitation to do honours or speak at conferences to remain front and centre of any interactions.

I’m not sure what’s worse, being the only visible PoC in a history tutorial, where the discussion inevitably leads back to race, or, being the only one answering questions to do with race and positionality, whereby I suddenly become that one person who hogs the mic at group karaoke.

And so, from the offset, with the realisation that academic institutions at their founding core were never meant for us, were never created with the thought of our education and ‘advancement’ in mind, you can begin to see the trickle-down effects of that. Content is not created with cultural sensitivity in mind, classrooms often make us feel like the token chocolate chip in a vanilla cake batter. Professors would rather build on mainstream narratives that, in the history department especially, seek to erase indigenous experiences in favour of complacent, convenient ignorance.

Being a history major and having a somewhat unquenchable thirst for furthering my education in the discipline, honours seemed like the obvious choice. I still get asked today (sorry papa), about why I haven’t pursued it. I smile while remembering the meeting I conducted with problematic staff, including the head of SHAPS, and other academics with more degrees than I have letters in my name, where my voice shook, tears pricked my eyes and my hands trembled under the weight of confrontation.

The faculty seems unwilling to even adopt a facade of change, but still tries to benefit from some kind of pseudo-diversity, with repetitious invitations to do honours or to speak at conferences about our beloved “Melbourne model”.

Without the conscious effort of building support networks ourselves, uni is a very isolating and alienating space to navigate for any jaffy, let alone being a PoC. I have fought tooth and nail in building my own support network, and fought against many along the way (I’m looking at you student media). I’ve fought to have a PoC subeditor and graphie, asserted myself through many awkward sit-downs or Facebook messenger back and forths. The steps that I’ve taken to fight against complacency and convenience matches my own realisation of my worth and value, both as a contributor and a WoC.

Although my academic career at UniMelb has more or less come to an end, I know that my continuing academic journey, and racism, will always be linked, like the worst possible kind of toxic relationship goals. Do your bit to dismantle these racist ideas in your respective academic spheres, where or if possible. After all, fighting fire with fire is not the most peaceful tactic, but at least they’ll feel the heat.

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