TW: Sexual Harassment
There has been a recent wave of stories concerning students of color experiencing racism across UK universities. It’s reported almost as if this a new phenomena (‘It’s all Brexit’s fault’), in an attempt to continue suggesting to the wider British and global population that racism in the UK only manifests because of particular situations. It’s not true.
I’m a Puerto Rican-American from Chicago, IL living in the UK for nearly 8 years. I’ve been very outspoken about institutional racism, and in particular within art practice & pedagogy, speaking at various universities about art history and the contemporary practice with mostly students of color. If I speak about my own experience of racism within art/education institutions, it’s from the experience of being a student here in the UK. When I finished my undergraduate degree, I penned “Open Letter to My University” as a way of venting my frustrations, and suddenly met with a wave of support from other students and artists from across the country.
Did I believe that pursuing a PhD would be a different experience? Not, no really. But I admit, I was not prepared for the interview process to be as blatantly racist as it was. After my terrible interview, I spoke with a fellow alumni, a Nigerian-British woman, about what happened. I felt as if I was losing my mind. She then sent an account of her own experience as a student at this university; a long tale of continuous subtle yet clearly targeted sexual harassment by a white professor in her department. Not surprisingly, he works closely with African women in their own households in countries on the continent. And despite being reported to the Dean of Students and photographed continuing his unwanted actions, he remained protected by the university.
Their excuse was that it couldn’t have been harassment if he didn’t physically touch her, but following a student around 4 floors throughout the library is acceptable. Being so close to her she can feel his breath on her skin, yet he’s not speaking or engaging with her in any way is acceptable; directly gazing at her body and clearly making her feel uncomfortable is not harassment. He did this more than once, and after the Dean of Students ‘spoke’ with him. He knows, no one will do anything to stop him. Especially since this friend of mine was told she can not talk to anyone publicly about the situation as it was ‘being investigated’. Lies.
What we have here, is a serious and yet historical issue of what white men can get away with when they are left alone with Black women/femme students. There is a safety net protecting them from facing consequences for their actions and words. At any institution at any given time there is a group of people protecting a known predator and willing to threaten victims with legal consequence if they speak out after having reported the issue to them. They hide behind their bureaucracy and take our tuition money and blackmail us into submission.
Universities can go on Twitter, and release copy and pasted sentiments of how ‘this is unacceptable and not reflecting of our values’ but colonial and racist values are reflected indeed. If action only commences when word gets out that your institution is a petri dish for violent racism and sexual harassment, your 140 character statement on the internet is irrelevant. The protection racket UK universities have with their precious professors is some gangster shit.
I have outlined my story here, written a day after my interview for a PhD in Art History. It was written to the best of my memory. At any given moment, this is happening to another student right now somewhere in this country, and student unions, department heads and school boards would rather we be silent about the emotional and mental torment they put us through.
I have doubt.
Doubt in my intelligence, my understanding and use of the English language, in my ability to add to conversations in general.
I work harder to compensate for my doubts in my ability.
My goal of finishing higher education and attaining the highest degree I can (PhD) arose out of wanting to achieve all these respectable accolades because one parent had passed away seeing me at near my lowest, and the childhood experience of immigrant parents expecting something miraculous from me. So I have wanted to give my mother something special, and for her, a degree and career is that thing.
But time and time again, the world has an amazing way of reminding you it doesn’t want you around.
The PhD interview for the department of Art History was probably one of the most racially charged interviews I have ever been in and I’m in a haze still. I was stumbling through a lot of it, mostly because I plainly had a difficult time in understanding what the Dutch anthropologist was expecting of me. It seemed more that he would deliver a statement, and expect me to answer a question. I can not provide an answer unless I am given a precise question. I often misunderstand, I am a good English speaker, but there were cues I was not receiving, and yes, I began to fall short in my responses. Which could have been seen as not prepared to do the sort of work I needed to in order to complete a PhD. I was not doing myself any favors because I had no real idea what he wanted to know. I did realize that he was posing things to me, expecting a certain kind of answer from me, tests if you will. Yea, ok, I get that. And I didn’t do well. My own failings there.
But then at one point, after I discussed racism and exclusion of AfroLatin women artists in a book written by and about Puerto Rican women artists…he was, dare I say, triggered. He began saying that my experience with exclusion was not enough to begin a PhD project, that he never heard of a PhD based on a biography, and that exclusion is not the evidence of racism.
“I am specialized in African art history. AND I have been told that I should not teach African Art because I am white-“ Now, I raised my eyebrows, not because I couldn’t believe someone said that to him, but because he was doing the woe is me reverse racism card and I was in shock it was happening (probably should not have been but that is neither here nor there) He said something to effect about where are the Black people teaching in his field.
“Do you think there is a Black (British?) person that can teach as good as me? I don’t think so.” He was not matter of factly, he was being arrogant and singing to himself in his confidence.
“You know there are probably students who are interested in these fields but are punished for doing so.”
“Well, not here.”
I did tell him there are students across this country and at the very university where we were doing this interview, where women of color and in particular BLACK women, are threatened with failing their courses if they continue to produce work that is informed by their race and/or ethnicity. I have spoken to them. There are countless more. There’s articles asking ‘why aren’t there more women of color in academia?’
The other professor was constantly looking like he wanted to get out of the most awkward situation he has ever been in. His brows were stretching to the heavens they were raised so high and his lips were twisted. I don’t know if he was embarrassed that this lady he has been thinking was so smart and is crashing and burning this interview or if he couldn’t believe what an ass his colleague was being or fucking both, who knows.
The Dutch man proceeded to tell me the synopsis of a film, where a Black man wants to be an actor and joins a theater group. Through giggles, he explains the man is learning a lot about acting and plays, but at the very end, he can only be in the play if he plays a racist trope; a bus driver. He only has one line. This film was somehow meant to teach white audiences about racism. The Dutch man wanted to know how I would be able to make a film like this..you know, with such subtly and nuance on race for white audiences… I was silent the entire time he explained this film and gave me his opinion. I was in shock.
I did say that racism and sexism is racism and sexism where ever you go. He disagreed. “Well, I don’t believe that.” I wasn’t surprised. He followed with an exclamation that he would like to think there is less racism and in a raised voice said “I hope that this interview is not racist!” And I was in so much shock that I remained quiet.
It was like I was in a room alone with a clown. IT.
I thought it would be best to keep quiet, not because I was worried about a scene, but he wanted something out of me. And I refused to give it to him. I stayed quiet, and in clear judgement. I would like to think the other professor did too. The anthropologist looked awkward, because neither myself or the other man said ‘No, of course it’s not.”
Then it fully sunk in.
The professor projected his insecurities onto me. This Dutch man has been told by a few Black Brits (and rightfully so) academia is too white, and we want to be in charge of our own histories from now on, after years of being the top of his game. And here comes this American, adding to the chorus of Black people wanting agency in their histories and futures, that there aren’t enough Black women telling their own stories. The pedagogy needs to be re-shapened.
When I was in my second year of art school, I began looking art university as the most racist and culpable institution there was, and my tutor said that if I was criticizing the institution then I was criticizing her. She almost failed me that year. Over a lack of documenting biscuits at a talk I gave. Good times.
I left that interview feeling as if I wasn’t able to do the PhD because I don’t talk the talk, have the funds easy peasy, and understand science. I was in clear doubt of my own ability to come up with a research question and subject matter that was important to the Diasporic conversation, especially concerning art. Where are the AfroLatina’s in art history and art practice? I am not meant to be that great historian and archivist.
Then I thought about the sheer fact that frankly, that interview was racist, and it’s racist undertones undermined my own belief in myself, and couldn’t articulate myself well enough. I haven’t been this terrible at an interview in a very long time.
I have a thing or two to add to art discourse, and I know that Dutch anthropologist has the power to simply, with his subjectivity masked as the not real academic objectivity, of saying that I do not know my own research idea well enough, or have a well thought out plan and methodology, to do a PhD. When really, it’s partly because I will be looking at how men like him swing their power around, as white men do, to dominate and silence the existence of Women of Color in artistic fields…and deny students their academic rewards. Like the other professor did to a Black women in Media Studies at that university. At that same school…where the Dutch man tried saying there weren’t Black students being denied agency and freedom.
After writing this, I received a letter saying the university could not offer me a place at this time. I asked the silent professor for some feedback and this is the response I got. I was right.
All I can say is that the proposal impressed more at the level of a valuable and ambitious creative arts project, than as an academic PhD level research project.
Whilst I appreciate that the interview itself was a little disjointed, there was scope for you to have made a clearer case about your focus areas, whether these be considered in conceptual, professional (practice-based or academia-based), or historical terms.
A day after I received my letter of no admission, an article was published about the lack of data on Women of Color in the art industry. Written....by a white woman. Art is trolling me.