As an undergrad I didn’t often meet many people of color in my English classes. That’s what I had decided to major in—English. I didn’t quite understand what that meant—an English major. But my high school counselor said I excelled in my English classes and so it made sense to major in it. ¿Pero que iba a saber yo? I wanted to go to college. I was told that college could be my way out. And I needed a way out. A way out of the violence I witnessed at home. I needed out of that school. That town. I needed to not be me. And so English major sounded good to me. While once in college I wanted to change my major several times but found that studying literature is what I wanted to do. However, I didn’t necessarily find it a welcoming space.
In the classroom I was designated as an expert on race and all things culture. The more activate I became on campus the stronger my voice got and the more I was known as the girl that always talked about race. The constant advice I got from academic counselors was to switch my major to Spanish. Because they were sure someone like me would excel there. Someone like me. On campus I quickly learned to deal with the constant barrage of whiteness targeting and marginalizing native students and students of color. That shit was real. Everyday there were constant reminders that that campus was not built for someone like me. But the memories that stand out the most right now are those that took place in the classroom.
I always felt the most vulnerable in class. Classrooms are rarely safe spaces for students of color. From not seeing ourselves represented in the textbooks used to educate to the policing of our language and our bodies. Teachers need to be knowledgeable of the ways educational institutions have failed students of color if they wish to create safe classrooms. That’s a tough responsibility and when it’s not met the students are the ones that get hurt. But it can be life changing when a student feels safe to learn and safe to be.
In most of my English classes (especially those that weren’t cross listed with Latina/o Studies) my immigrant, first generation, Mexican experiences weren’t always understood or even accepted as valid. The marginalization was subtle but painful.
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Frank Kafta. The Metamorphosis.
The professor asked, why would Gregor hide behind the couch?
She paced alongside the chalkboard looking for a student to call on.
“Because he doesn’t want to scare his sister,” said one.
“Because he’s embarrassed,” said another.
“Because he doesn’t want anyone to look at him,” said someone else.
The professor turned to me and said, “Sonia,” except she pronounced my name “Sah-knee-ah,” “What do you think?”
I hadn’t read Kafta before that class. The entire experience was new for me. I didn’t tell my parents that I had applied for college.
It’s not that I was hiding it.
It just didn’t seem like a relevant topic. Especially when you don’t know how you’re going to pay rent.
When I got accepted to UIUC. I wasn’t really sure how to tell my parents I’d be moving 141 miles away on my own. Without them. At 17.
“I think she’s talking to you,” said the only other Latina in the class.
We sat next to each other because…well…strength in numbers.
Sah.Knee.Ah. I guess that was me. Earlier in the semester I had been So-nigh-uh. Before that I was Son-ya. And I was always Ms. Rod-dree-quest.
I was too afraid to correct the professor and that her tongue was too heavy to say my name the way it was meant to be said.
Sah.Knee.Ah, What do you think? She repeated the question, Why did Gregor hide behind the couch?
Other students looked at me. Annoyed. Confused. Relieved they hadn’t been called upon.
I spoke softly at first, “Because maybe he wanted to survive? He wants to live and he has to hide because if he comes out into the open people will want to kill him. Being a giant cockroach and all.” The professor nodded her head.
I kept talking
“Yeah, it’s like, you know, when you turn the lights on in your apartment in the morning and you can see the roaches scatter. Roaches hide because they want to survive. Because it’s our instinct to want to kill them.”
I was so damn proud of my analysis. But when I was done talking I could hear others snicker, others groan, and others express confusion by my explanation.
At that moment I wanted to the be one under the couch, not to be seen.
I knew better than anyone there why Gregor would hide.
He didn’t look like everyone else. He was unimaginable. He was othered.
I sunk into my seat.
The professor laughed. “That’s interesting, Sah, Knee.Uh.”
I felt so embarrassed.
But how could I have known that cockroaches in apartments was not a universal experience.
I was too ashamed to talk in class after that. I wanted to hide behind a couch too.
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In the classes about more canonical literature I always felt like I was missing something.
I didn’t quite get all of the references.
My bank of knowledge wasn’t like the rest of the students.
I didn’t read old English and discuss Beowulf in high school. I couldn’t read French. I was no expert in Nordic tales. Or whatever.
I was at a disadvantage and it was sometimes hard to catch up. Honestly, if I didn’t see it on TV then I probably didn’t have a reference.
That made for a lot of awkward moments in class.
One of those awkward moments took place in one of my senior level classes. I don’t remember what we were discussing or even what the class was on but I remember not fitting in.
During a class discussion the professor asked “What color are unicorns?”
He asked and he expected us to answer in unison. He was trying to prove a point about something in a poem or story we had read.
I was confident in my answer.
I knew this. I didn’t even have to think about it.
In unison the other students answered “white.”
But I answered “pink.”
I got weird looks from the students and the professor. He shook his head and kept it moving.
I felt embarrassed. How the fuck did everyone else know that unicorns are represented as white? I’d only seen pink ones on TV. I didn’t know that was their fake color.
The color of the unicorns and the color I thought they seem like minor details or even a simple mistake. But I still think about that moment. I always remember it as another moment when I didn’t fit in and my experiences were silenced.
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As an English professor now I’m aware that not all of my students have the same knowledge bank. They don’t all share the same cultural experiences. When I choose readings I know I need to pick carefully and I am aware that I cannot assume my students understand all of the references. I try to create a space where students feel comfortable asking questions even about what might seem common knowledge.
I found solace in the English classes that focused on literature by people of color and native people. Even in those spaces when my experiences weren’t always understood I felt like I was at least given a space where those experiences weren’t denied. And that was empowering. I have led my life that way. Knowing my experiences can’t be denied. Believing that my story is valid. I’ve had to fight for this stance but I believe taking this position has made me a better teacher.
My revolution also includes the classroom. It has to. Again, the classroom can be a space to remind students of their position in this country or it can be a space to empower them. I hope to empower them. Unicorns will forever be pink to me because of that one seemingly insignificant moment in a class where I had to learn my experiences and my knowledge is valid. I want to give my students an opportunity to say that unicorns come in any color they’d like.