When I think about gender, an undefeatable stillness comes over my body. A coming-into-terms with what my body means and what it implicates about the rest of me, though my gender (or gender, at large) is not reducible to anatomy. On my better days, I can make it through without thinking about the g-word (G E N D E R). But, those days are hard to come by at Minerva.
I am a victim of misogyny at Minerva. I have been consumed by it. I have questioned every cell in my body because of it. And, now, I am vengeful, like Medusa, who I had dressed up as for Halloween in Berlin—wronged by Poseidon, turning all those who gaze into her eyes to stone, an ultimate testament to female rage.
My first year at Minerva and subsequent years after have been marked with multiple instances of what I now unequivocally call misogyny: “a dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women” and other marginalized gender identities. In our student communities, misogyny is naturally complicated by intersecting oppressions based on race, class, nationality, passport and skin color. Still, my self-defenses kick in as I write. Why do I not provide a more precise definition? Why, like a good Minerva student, don’t I offer an elaborate, abstract intellectual argument, anticipate disagreements, resolve them? Why? Because I don’t need to, nor do I want to.
As Black revolutionary Assata Shakur once wrote, “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” I don’t want to contend with the men in this community who are perpetrators of misogyny or complicit to misogyny or benefit from misogyny. In my blacklist, I also include men who are not actively involved in the emancipation of women and gender-variant individuals, and ultimately, themselves. I don’t want to convince the oppressors of their wrongdoings. My energies are focused solely on those who have suffered, on those who are trying to heal from suffering, who are trying to survive this community in one piece and one body, like myself.
“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.”– Assata Shakur
If you follow my writings, you will be familiar with the critiques that I have for Minerva staff and administration on topics of racial justice and inclusiveness, cultural competence, and the global rotation. All of those writings are deeply personal, but none as explicitly as what follows. Here, I will focus directly on my experiences and outline in detail the actions of individual students/student groups that have wounded me.
In an international school community such as Minerva, educators who are actively trained in issues of student diversity, cross-cultural communication, and gender and social justice play a crucial role in preventing or remedying the experiences discussed below. They facilitate learning for students, create safe spaces for individual and collective healing, and foster an environment where contentious issues are safely engaged with and resolved across differences. Minerva does not have that. Minerva has not demonstrated through action that this is a priority to them.
During my writing process, and the last three years at large, I have wondered whether my internal monologue was too one-sided, if my arguments were too unfounded, if my use of technical terminologies was ghastly inaccurate. However, I want to invite you to consider, seriously, that what I say is valid and factual because it is personal. Individually, some of the interactions below would be entirely meaningless, or be a result of mere misunderstandings, but the accumulation of these experiences on top of being sexually assaulted reflect how I have suffered at the hands of the culturally ingrained patriarchy in our community, and how many women and gender-nonconforming students continue to suffer silently.
Year 1: Foundation Cracks
[TRIGGER – WARNING: In this section, I will deal with sensitive material that includes sexual violence I experienced at Minerva and that may be difficult for some readers. I thank you for reading thus far, and I respect your decision to not read ahead, and equally, to continue.]
I cannot talk about my experience of sexual coercion in the Minerva community without first talking about Judaism. On a rainy night, two other students and I rode the 49 bus on our way to the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (JCCSF). We were going to watch Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo as part of a new science education film series at the JCCSF. There, a scientist talked to us about the “jellyfish’s unique positioning for success in today’s carbon-rich, polluted, overfished, and overdeveloped ocean.” A figurative deep dive into the ocean was the only place where I could find comfort from my pain: the JCCSF was my salvation.
What did I seek salvation from?
in front of the Civic Center, San Francisco (September, 2017). these photos will serve as reminders so that you don’t forget how I look, especially during the periods of suffering that I describe.
The night before, I was invited to stay over at another student’s place. You could say I had a crush on him, but not one that gave him ownership over my body. We planned to meet from before, and he told me his invitation came from a place of “selflessness,” which led him to make “compassionate decisions.” So, having me over was doing me a favour? Yeah, right.
I responded by saying that I did not feel comfortable in another’s space, that I would have to think about it. Afterward, I became occupied with something, or perhaps I intentionally delayed my response because I was nervous. The next day, I agreed to sleep over. I was told that my late reply had caused feelings of “resignation” but that he would acquiesce.
The plan was set. I was asked to bring food, told that he would need to be fed, “vegan and sustainable, in that order.”
My friend at the time told me she didn’t think it was a good idea. I wish I’d listened to her.
The room is a blur to me. He was wearing a red shirt. I was enamored. Here I was, where he lived. An invitation into his space. Was this a sign of the possibility of love? Or at least, close friendship? Previously, we’d spoken about canonical Western texts: he gave me the impression of being well read in philosophy, ethics, linguistics. These days, I want no association with those intellectual artifacts of the west, developed in (and often in support of) the backdrop of imperalism, slavery, and economic pillaging of the past, and environmental genocide, greed and racism of the present day. Then, however, I was enamored.
What happened next? I am lying on his bed. He is seated next to me. We’re talking. The temperature is hot. The conversation may have been heated too. He says, “I haven’t kissed you yet because…” The words escape my memory. I think to myself: it’s happening. I will be liked, maybe even loved. I was under the false belief that affection always preceded physical intimacy, that no one would want to hurt me deliberately, that no one could use me.
If I could go back in time, I would extract myself out of that situation immediately. I would say, this boy is not worth your time, and to make matters more explicit, he is detrimental. But as Dave Mustane sings in one of my favourite songs, “hindsight is always 20/20”.
The rest of the night is a blur for me. We kiss, and there are things I don’t want to do. I make that heard, and he says he would [like to do the things I don’t want to do]. The night wanes. My resolve is weak. He begins to tell me about the things that a woman can do to please a man, the things that he would like me to do. To press his biceps when he tightens them, to affirm his masculinity. I absorb hesitatingly. He tells me about the older women that he’s slept with, his body count, who have trained him in the art of pleasuring a woman. He is satisfied; I am not, I hurt. Despite his half-hearted attempts to reciprocate, he blurts out, “How much longer do I have to continue?” I feel embarrassed. I feel like I am a burden.
He rises. I am lying down, and I see his body. Upright, expanded, taking space, white in the dark of the night. I find his frame unrelatable.
Morning comes. I can never fall asleep next to anyone but my mother, so I don’t get a wink of sleep with him. He is unusually silent. He gets out of bed and negotiates turns to take a shower. As I walk out, he looks at me funny, and I begin to feel cheated. I quickly shower and return to his room.
He continues to look at me funny. I don’t understand. He confronts me. “How frequently do you think this will happen?” What does he mean by “this”? He says, “Kate, I enjoy intellectual conversations with you, but…” My vision starts to blur. He says he wants me not to tell anyone about what happened. He wants me not to tarnish his image. I am infuriated. I am breathing heavily. “You gave me the impression that you liked me. What are you saying now? Why didn’t you tell me last night before you exploited my body? Why did you deceive me?” He recoils. “Don’t you accuse me. I never said anything.” I can’t believe this. I can’t handle this alone. Where is my mother? I need a friend.
Give me back my food. We head out. I don’t want to exchange a word with him. I wish you’d burn in hell. He tries to say, can’t we be friends? I tell him that he’s not worthy of being my friend. He is going to the Minerva HQ. We depart. I am cold. I am so cold.
I can’t believe this. I can’t handle this alone. Where is my mother? I need a friend.
The day passes in a haze. I am nauseated. I don’t know what just happened to me? What happened to me? I am going to a movie tonight. I think to myself. I have to recuperate. I have to take care of myself. I am away from my family, in a new city, in new cultures, in an experimental school that doesn’t know how to take care of me. I have to take care of myself.
I will spare you the details of how one of the friends who accompanied me to the JCCSF, a woman student, told me that she had experienced something similar at the hands of the same white, male student at Minerva. In her, I found strength, non-verbalized solidarity.
The next day, the perpetrator reaches out to me. He wants to talk to me. I have no intention of talking to him in a private space. I meet him in the common rooms. He apologizes. It is not clear to him why, he tells me, but he knows that he needs to apologize. He dares to ask me, “What’s wrong with friends with benefits?” I want to cut the conversation short. “I’m removing you from my life for reasons of self-preservation.” He asks, “How should we behave with one another in public spaces?”. I say, “With civility, and nothing more.” As he leaves, he says, “I can see that this is very difficult for you, but I don’t understand why. I appreciate your courage. I am sorry.”
Was it earnest? Was it repentful? Was it all for the show?
Year 2: Direction Lost
I spent much of my second year ruminating over what happened to me in the first year. The perpetrator’s apology insulated him from a public accusation and an official report but my being was in shambles.
Recently, a new but treasured friend told me, “Strange how people live in our minds, rent-free.” What was I asking myself during this period of brokenness? I had not been raped or was it rape, but consensual, the kind that “asked for it” (Kurt Cobain once sang, “Rape Me”)? At random moments of the day, my mind wandered to the crime scene. I am at a boxing class with a classmate. We are preparing to get on the floor, wrapping our hands. Was it rape? I ask. She listens, doesn’t respond.
in front of the Deoksugung Palace, Seoul (September, 2018)
I found solace in the other woman student who had been victimized by this student. I found comfort in my friend’s unwavering words, “He was in the wrong, and now he is trying his luck with other girls. I have seen it with my eyes.” What would have happened to me without those words? I wonder. How close was oblivion?
“Strange how people live in our minds, rent-free.”– j.b.
I saw the perpetrator in school, in classes, in so-called “community gatherings” and thought, to hell with this “community”. A word forced down my throat that I could not keep down, and so I didn’t. I spent most of my hours inside my room or escaped entirely into the wilderness of the cities in our curriculum, and the cities embraced me whole-heartedly. Did I not write earlier about the JCCSF, one of my homes?
Apart from the obvious incident of sexual assault, I found myself reflecting on various past and current interactions which hurt. I remembered male students repeatedly talking over me in Computational Science classes, asking me to change my clothes when I wore a short dress, a white, European student demanding me to acknowledge the patriarchy of Black and brown men so that he can instrumentalize my pain for his ideological agenda, to assert the supremacy of western civilizations. I felt like I was biting on sand grains when a classmate told me about nights out in Seoul clubs, about how the male Minervans would cluster around the women so they could dance without being bothered by pesky onlookers. Which women? My mind screamed. Not me.
No one protected me, when, for instance, I was called “emotionally damaged” because I, as a young college student, did not want to pursue a serious commitment with another white, male student. I explicitly remember how I broke things off, and then the next day, the same student broke things off with me. At a playground in Seoul, I spoke to a mutual friend of ours about my take on how we separated when he surprisingly exclaimed, “All this while, I thought you were the culprit.” The sting in those words! What is the appeal of [his] popularity that it can diminish the humanity of another, my humanity? Why do I have to speak up and explain myself for others to consider that another’s testimony might be unfair (and inaccurate), that I am in pain? Such feelings also struck me when I saw women students flaunting photos with accused perpetrators in the class in the first-year! Not a hint of solidarity for the victim. No shame.
mural in Pondicherry City (March, 2020)
Year 3: Focus Blurred
Is a friend, a friend?
I am roaming a park in Berlin with my now ex-friend. I am growing increasingly uncomfortable as the conversation advances. He tells me, “I hate it when women say, ‘all men are shit.’” I take this innocently, “Taken literally, it can sound like an unfair generalization, but surely, you understand where it’s coming from? From the oppression that women and non-males experience in a patriarchal mode of culture, a male-dominated world? A complaint to help cope.”
at the Sport Disrupted: Sex_uality Matters conference where I was volunteering, held in Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Berlin (November, 2019)
He insists. He fidgets. He wants to argue. He says, “I am not shit.” I say, “Sure, but that’s beside the point.” His face begins to morph into something I have seen before, something unyielding and greedy. It is a confluence of patriarchal inclinations that will not be satisfied until it has total and complete victory over your experiences. Until it can absolve itself of the blame for the pain that it has caused you, until you are grateful. I cannot believe the direction of this conversation, as this is one of my closest friends. I go into shock mode: has he always been this way? Why does he express himself now? What has caused him to think that it is permissible to speak to me this way now? He cites male suicide rates, as if a professor is right there, ready to hand him an undeserved 4 for the pseudo-intellectualism he presents. (Sometimes, that’s what I suspect our 21st century Minerva education is doing for us, teaching us how to dress up our misogyny, our bigotry, our racism and our colonialism in fancy latin words & other aesthetics of intellectualism.) He asserts that women’s refusal to empathize with men and their needless blaming of men and false accusations resulting from #MeToo cause so much psychological damage to men, that it is one of the driving, if not the driving reason, for men’s suicide rates. He resists my argument when I point out that in the United States, if that’s where he was citing his statistics from, it is widely acknowledged that women report greater suicide attempts than men, but that men’s attempts are often more violent, leading to death before intervention. He is slippery like a snake, and I confront him directly:
“So, you think women should stay quiet when they’re raped?”
He won’t answer the question. He won’t answer the question, and I am feeling unsafe. There are other people in this park, we are not alone, but I am not safe in his company. I think about all that he knows about me: how I confided in him during my moments of loneliness, how I talked to him about my childhood aspirations, my upbringing in বাংলাদেশ (Bangladesh), my hopes for the future. I am shocked. He knows so much he could use against me to sabotage my emotional well-being. I am scared.
I go into shock mode.
The conversation drags on for an hour and a half, by the end of which I reassure his pathetic male ego, that I do not think him “shit” but that I am very shocked with the way he has handled this conversation, unloading every refuted #NotAllMen, incel talking point in the book. The conversation has to end.
The treachery of perspective is that, in most of my support groups, the above description alone is enough to communicate everything that’s wrong with the situation, the conversation, him. There will be no: can you explain this further? Are you sure about that? Have you thought about [insert external factor which is used to invalidate my experience]? They will not grill me for statistics or so-called “empirical evidence” (negating that my experience is as empirical as any). They will honor my experience and consider that my testimony has equal, if not greater, validity as hard numbers. They will not make me second guess myself. They will not GASLIGHT me. The detail that I provided above is enough to outline to my well-wishers to understand why the conversation was not worth my time, that it was detrimental to my well-being, as a person, and to the world, at large, due to the barrier it poses in the fight for a just and gender-inclusive future.
I do not have that support in the Minerva community, only isolated pockets of friends and staff members who I can seek refuge in for a few moments of safety before I am again launched back into the community with its culturally ingrained racialized patriarchy.
A different afternoon. Same person. We sit across from each other. Our conversation flows between topics, when suddenly, he stops me in my tracks and says, “Women’s thoughts are so scattered. Just look at how you are switching between conversation topics.” I stopped cold. I thought I was being listened to. Now, I realize that I was being judged. He says, “This is why women are not prepared for leadership, especially under high-risk conditions.”
“Biology determines it,” he continues.
“Men’s minds stay focused on one thing at any one time,” he continues.
He smirks. A self-congratulatory expression on his face. Disgusting. He had not said anything like this when he asked for my help with his probability homework for a Computational Sciences course, but he had not been easy to help, exclaiming at various instances about some other male friend of his who was a “master” of the topic.
I have nowhere to go. I lock myself in my apartment and pace back and forth. Everything feels wrong. What’s going on? How could I have been so blind? Could it be that this hostility, which is the one word that describes his behavior in my mind when I look back, showed in its full glory when I became romantically interested in someone I met in the city? Do I have to apologize for liking someone else, and not reciprocating his feelings, though I had made it clear since day one that I was not interested? Is this the tax for our friendship, to quench his jealousy?
I won’t pay it. I refuse. I retreat.
In a letter to a mentor, I write:
“I feel naive, stupid, and betrayed. Who have I to blame but myself?”
There were warning signs earlier. Signs such as the said male student refusing to invite me to gatherings with his other male friends, because they would objectify women and say demeaning things and “I would get offended.” None of the other women from his cultural background participates in their friend group for this reason. Instead of saying, “I will hold my friends accountable for anything disrespectful they say to you or about women at large,” he said, “You will get angry, and I have to deal with that and apologize to all parties.” How could he speak to me this way? I asked myself. Was there something about me, weak and passive, that allowed people to sabotage my self-worth under the guise of “friendship”?
To be fair, the ex-friend, when he had been a friend, claimed to realize his mistake and invited me to the next gathering. He even apologized for the jealousy, though he removed the message shortly after. Too late.
In Berlin, I was invited to my first ever party at Minerva. A personal invite, and one in which I potentially, as a brown person, had more legitimacy since we were celebrating Diwali.
My maternal family has a long lineage of Hindu followers, though Diwali isn’t a popular festival among the Hindu peoples in বাংলাদেশ. When I was eight years old, I spent a year at a boarding school in Darjeeling, India, and Diwali was among my favorite (and probably most dangerous) experiences. We decorated the school grounds with patterns made from colored rice, lentils, and powder, and in the evening, we lit earthen lamps around the playgrounds. A group of us huddled close to each other in a circle and ignited a type of small firework at the center. I can’t remember if I was a part of the circle, or not, but I remember that there was laughter, and it was so, so bright.
Talk about having high expectations.
I invited two of my local friends, hailing from Belgium, to the Diwali party. They were beautiful white women. The men in the room clamored around them. Some that had never spoken to me before acknowledged my existence for the very first time, it seemed, as though I was finally valid by association. White men who never let me finish my sentences at earlier instances, who painfully asked me to repeat myself instead of listening more carefully in previous interactions, wanted to elongate the conversation. My friends were not interested.
A few more greetings. A familiar face, and then a hug (we are talking pre-pandemic times), and suddenly, my classmate groped my chest. Where did that come from? I looked at the classmate I was embracing. His face looks unaware. A so-called “one of my own.” A South Asian student. Was that intentional? Do I let it slide? I have never been invited to a party before.
with Eva Perón at La Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires (March, 2020)
Fast forward a few evenings. My head is leaning on the shoulders of another friend. I tell him, tearfully. “What’s my problem?”
“Please, tell me.”
“Why can’t I speak up?”
“How am I supposed to face him again? The tacit knowledge of my physical violation?”
“Why don’t I defend myself?”
“What’s wrong with me?”
Year 4: Synthesis
Feminism is a controversial topic in the Minerva community. I don’t understand why. Why do the men in our community lack accountability and awareness, and why do the non-males let it slide? As a fellow student recently articulated to me, it is imperative that we ask ourselves, “How can we create long-term routes to address the culturally-ingrained patriarchy in our community?“
We have to reckon with the culture of silence, our tolerance for anti-feminist behavior, and our institutional failures to create gender-inclusive spaces that go beyond performative feminism. Further, a lot of violence in our community happens in secret in interpersonal relationships, a topic that I cannot do justice to, but I will let it stand here to prompt reflection or future writings.
The lack of sufficient cultural dexterity training is an example of the kind of institutional abandon that enables misogyny to go unchecked in our community. Consider that San Francisco, our first-year rotation city, can be a difficult adjustment for a student who grew up in a homogeneous society, in terms of religious and political demographics or otherwise. Even students from the United States have described their first-year to me as a “cultural shock”. When Foundation Year students arrived in San Francisco, many experienced the Folsom Street Fair, “a yearly BDSM and leather subculture street fair,” which is held in September. Naturally, for a student just uprooted from their home communities, possibly for the first time, this experience is supposed to be a shock. Minerva is supposed to prepare students and walk beside them as they step into such new worlds that sometimes include public displays of kink. However, cultural dexterity programming, in my year, was sorely lacking, with little to no preparation for the most vulnerable students on what they signed up for. The absence of preparation for this shift and shock is an example of the neglect that contributes to misogyny among the students, because cultural stereotyping, ethnicity and race are inseparable from gendered prejudice, and because our programming around sexual assault awareness and prevention is marked by grave omissions and limited exploration about the nuances of consent.
Further, a lot of violence in our community happens in secret in interpersonal relationships, a topic that I cannot do justice to, but I will let it stand here to prompt reflection or future writings.
Regarding such matters and others, I did not speak up as frequently as I should have in the past. I often berate myself about this. A voice is a great ethical responsibility, and perspective even greater, but both are existentially nauseating to me. Someone recently told me, “A voice does not rise if there are wounds in your heart. You first have to heal.”
So, are my wounds healing? I don’t know. I do know, however, that I don’t care if I begin Year 4 without a single person to call a friend. I will speak my mind and heart, so watch out and let’s continue.
at Ocean Beach, San Francisco (July, 2020)
In Buenos Aires, the Student Experience (SXP) Team organized a conversation with local feminist activists. A full house event in the common rooms of Le Petit Suites. I sat there, not understanding anything about what was going on. Were there any readings? What does it matter: where would I get time to read them given the academic and metaphysical stress I was under?
A student conducts the interviews with the activists, but I have no context to understand what’s going on — a Q&A session. There might as well not have been one. A single white male student in the room is acknowledged for being there. I feel estranged. Is this not one of the white male students who thinks I am not worth talking to or even acknowledging unless I am with my white female friend or her white boyfriend? Does he respect women? Women of color? What does he gain from being a part of this conversation? An impression of egalitarianism? That sells in this community as in the rest of the world. Feminism sells.
A white, male student in one of my Social Science classes once questioned whether women in Saudi Arabia even want rights. I don’t care how he described himself, whether he was speaking for himself and the western supremacist misogynist that he is, or for some third-party bystander who could even hold this view for a minute. I don’t care what state of mental hallucination causes him to think that he, as a white, male European citizen, is a minority voice that is marginalized due to the so-called “progressive bias” of Minerva students (yes, he said THAT). I don’t care. The professor entertained the question under some insincere and colorblind name of intellectual freedom, and no one in the class was equipped to respond with the detail such an occasion calls for, owing to the frenetic, shallow and west-centered, liberal nature of our curriculums. How can statements displaying such blatant ignorance, lack of critical wisdom and absence of compassion for marginalized groups be present in a community that claims to be a community, that too an inclusive one?
I am not surprised to hear that there are incels posting anonymously in the MiConfidant group. Entitled and violent men in our community can only be expected to express themselves anonymously, though I have a few guesses about who they are. Eliot Rodger, a misogynist killer, murdered two women and stabbed three men of color before he killed himself, to seek retribution from women and society for refusing him his god-given right to get laid. Are you going to kill me too?
I don’t care what state of mental hallucination causes him to think that he, as a white, male European citizen, is a minority voice that is marginalized due to the so-called “progressive bias” of Minerva students.
I opted out of MiConfidant as soon as I realized the toxic platform it had the potential to become, which was quite early. So, I missed a lot of it. However, I did spot a discussion among the women and gender non-conforming students in our community on Facebook expressing various levels of discomfort. Hear this, our budding incels, it’s the discomfort that you have caused. Hear this, allies and protectors and bystanders of incels, you are complicit, too.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended a game night at the current Minerva residence in San Francisco (originally land of the Ramaytush and other Indigenous peoples). The game we played was “Secret Hitler” — a game that did not sit easily with me. I was not consulted before the game was decided on. My fears came from not knowing the best way to touch on the topic of the Second World War, and genuine concerns that contemporary references, unless done well, could perpetuate fascist beliefs or diminish the seriousness of the subject. Once, I took an online course which claimed that we remember the national socialist german workers’ party exactly how they wanted to be remembered, and it’s dangerous, and the ethical weight even more pressing with the ongoing presence of anti-Semitism and rightwing terror around the world. In fact, I was in Germany for my Fall semester last year when there was a synagogue shooting in the city of Halle. An armed perpetrator attempted to shoot down worshipers at a Yom Kippur service, and when failing to do so, murdered two people on the streets. Alas, there is no room for me to spark this conversation, the game has already begun, so I let it go.
at the Jüdisches Museum Berlin (December, 2019)
As the game goes on, people get very involved. The loudest are in a sour mood. They are screaming like it’s a family drama show, and then I hear someone say, “b*t*#.” My skin crawls. People are excited, did no one else notice? Then, a woman says it too, followed by a man. He said it with a slither, and it makes me shiver. What should I do? If I correct them, they would hate me.
I later confronted the male student that used the word to tell him, individually, how unwelcome I had felt as a result. Though he took my feedback politely, he didn’t seem to understand why it mattered to me, why it had made the environment unwelcoming for me. Somehow, that this is a word that has been historically used to silence women is not enough rationale for him. That I, as a female-presenting person of color, am affected by it does not seem sufficient, further explanation is required. Why?
The same student had told me earlier that his life was “unencumbered by matters of ethnicity and racial privilege”. What does a statement like this signal but a complete lack of self-criticism on how he is complicit to, and benefits from, the systems of oppression that he may, or may not be, deliberately participating in? This student calls himself a “leftist”.
When I talked about my acceptance into my current research program at the Santa Fe Institute, a devastatingly close male friend of mine, a person of color who also applied, said I got in because of a diversity quota. I was totally dumbfounded. According to him, my strengths in the Social Sciences, along with Computational Sciences, and my female-presenting body meant that I was accepted to make the program administrators feel better about their diversity initiatives, that intrinsically I was unworthy, the opportunity undeserved (perhaps compared to him). With the academic, professional, psychological and logistical challenges of the Minerva curriculum already eating away at my self-esteem and hijacking any sense of existential certainty, hearing such words was damaging beyond measure, that is, if I’d let myself dwell on them. I stopped talking to him for months, and when I finally broke the silence, he apologized and said that he didn’t realize the effect such a statement would have on me (an apology that still refused to own up to the full misogyny inflicted). He, an international student from a minoritized background to the United States of America, added, “I still take issue with affirmative action”. What causes such distorted views, and why do I have to bear the brunt?
I was shocked the first time I heard that there was an all-male students’ group on Facebook. The entire premise of such a space baffles me. How can this exist? I don’t understand. A male space because there is a safe space for women and gender non-conforming people? As if we are suspended outside of the societal context of patriarchy and women and gender non-conformers’s physical, economic, social, and political domination, and this is a balancing act. What is the premise of this group?
A male-exclusive space could make sense if it was a space for men to discuss their misogyny with other male students and hold each other accountable, but as of now, I have NO IDEA what’s happening in the men’s group. I am downright scared, given the tone and contents of the MiConfidant posts. Are men holding each other accountable? Do they have our, that is, women’s and gender-non-conforming students’, best interests at heart? Is the Minerva community safe?
Experiences of systemic sexism and racism are intersectional, covert and under the radar (especially in a community that prides itself on its progressive values, at least on the surface). As my experiences demonstrate, the overlap of racism and misogyny is rarely a clear cut story in the moment, but the addition of a lot of small things that cumulatively creates a space that caused me in particular, and us women and gender non-conforming students of color, in general, to feel unwelcome, disrespected and dehumanized.
Without institutional support and unambiguous programming on Minerva’s part, our multi-gendered and cross-cultural community simply will not flourish. At the same time, however, most students, especially in their third or fourth years, whether they have been hurt by the community or caused hurt or both, become engrossed in planning for life after Minerva, about jobs, visas, graduate schools and Capstone — as a result, the possibility of personal efforts towards change or for institutional teaching (and learning) becomes grim. It is truly unfortunate, because college, specifically ours, is for many the last chance to transform our views and how we act before we are consumed by the throes of adult life.
at the Love and Ethnology exhibit of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin (October, 2019)
In my final thoughts, I will directly address how the white women in our student community practice yoga. This phenomena strongly emphasizes the combined effects of discrimination based on race and gender in Minerva; how being a woman does not exclude you from being an oppressor in other dimensions and how “without intersectionality, feminism largely focuses on white women’s experiences with sexism”. This is apparent from the diverse incentives, rhetoric and recruiting strategies of xenophobic women of the alt right, but to zoom into subtler dynamics closer to home: white women students in the Minerva student community hold considerable privilege that they exercise without restraint over Black and brown bodies.
In a Buzzfeed commentary, Aisha Mirza, a brown woman from East London, wrote about accidentally stepping on a white woman’s yoga mat and receiving a glare in return, a glare that she explains as follows: “this look is the reason I have always felt dirty — or at least never quite clean.” Mirza further adds, “White women, especially the monied ones, are so dangerous because they are allowed to be so soft. Stroke by stroke, they construct a type of womanhood that viciously negates the fact their bodies still function as agents of white supremacy. They are so gentle with themselves that they simply cannot comprehend that they could be oppressed and yet still oppressive.“
The yoga-practicing white women of our community, and the white women students at large contribute significantly to the oppressive environment of Minerva. When they announce yoga classes in the sun, are they mindful of what they are taking from? Have they considered their participation in yoga through a critical lens? When they flaunt how ethically vegan or vegetarian they are, do they even consider the agricultural exploitation in global trade networks which manufacture poverty in the global South: robbing our mothers, our sisters, and our daughters of food, of breath? Have they held other white people accountable for the ways they silence us, when they make fun of our accents, our head nods, the smells of our food, when they thumbs down our comments urging the decolonization of academia, like they know better, showing no willingness to engage? Do they hold themselves accountable when they use their social clout to silence us, dismiss us, exoticize us, when they take up space and make us small?
The pain that Black and brown bodies, as well as other minoritized bodies, endure in this community, rife with racism, colonialism, misogyny and denialism, hits us hardest. Have you [white women] been comrades to us women and gender-non-conformers of color? Is it enough to congratulate yourself if you have friends of color and if you can speak a host country’s language or devour its cuisine? When will you start the necessary process of acknowledging the social, cultural, and economic privilege of whiteness which colors each and every hour at Minerva for the rest of us?
Without institutional support and unambiguous programming on Minerva’s part, our multi-gendered and cross-cultural community simply will not flourish.
Honestly, though, I have even heard students, including women from minoritized backgrounds, say, “She’s using her female privilege.”
Waiting around for anyone else to free you is like waiting for Godot, who never arrives.
A heartfelt thanks to all who gave me valuable feedback in my writing process and helped me tell my stories.