The views and opinions shared in this article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Vocally.
I was the only Latina in my graduate school class. I wasn’t aware then of the profound impact that realization would have on me. That was 13 years ago, when I was getting my master’s degree in media arts. There were about 13 students in the entire class.
There was a lot of overanalyzing television shows, films, and documentaries. We also had to create our own shorts and other video projects that required us to reveal a bit more of ourselves through our work.
My professors were pretty evenly split when it came to age. Some were over 65 years old and had tenure, while others were young, fresh-faced, and more eager to pass on what they knew than the former group.
There was a ton of critical thinking. As a matter of fact, one of our finals was to write a three-page analytical essay over the course of a weekend on a range of issues that included cultural identity and social politics.
Looking back now, I know that I was still very lost when it came to self-identity, self-love and self-acceptance because I remember looking at a girl in my class who was tall and super thin, and thinking how cool it would be to look like her because I’d be able to wear all the fashionable clothes I liked without worrying about whether it fit my shorter, more curvaceous, Mexican body. I recall commenting that with one of two very good friends I made during those two years in school and clearly remember her saying, “Girl. Why?” Ha! Today, I love her response. She was so right.
I became the greatest of friends with those two girls from my graduate class who both happened to be Black. I still love them today. From the beginning, we gravitated toward each other and bonded immediately. I even took them home to Nogales, the border town I grew up in, for a weekend so they could experience a tiny bit of what Mexico was like. My family loved them and we had a blast.
All of the other students in our class also hung out, just not with us. It wasn’t necessarily on purpose either. I recall they invited us casually to a few get-togethers in the beginning. Later we just drifted apart into two very separate cliques. I was okay with it. At the time, I was still unaware of the obvious separation based on cultural identities. I don’t think anyone from “their” group ever made a real effort to make us feel included or wanted in their circle of friends and, I admit, I never went out of my way to form part of their group either. I liked my old-school friends, the ones I’d had from childhood through high school and beyond. I was never an easy person to get along with initially, but once people broke through, I freakin’ loved them forever and let them know it, too.
So there it was, an obvious separation in our graduate class, but it never affected us in the classroom…until it did.
I’ve thought about this incident for a long time. Mostly because I often wonder if I gave the situation more time, attention and energy than it deserved, but the farther out I am from it, the more I think, Hell no.
We were inside the classroom discussing representation in the media. We were watching television show clips and then discussing what we thought was being said about race and culture, either consciously or subconsciously. I recognized one of the actresses in the show as someone my friends and I had met at a conference the previous summer. Another student was speaking when I casually looked to my friend behind me and pointed to the TV set, motioning towards the girl we both knew and I mouthed, “Remember her?” That’s when I heard my professor, an older white lady, shush me in front of the entire class. And it wasn’t a playful, silent shush. It was an angry, resentful shush that took some of my classmates aback as well. Her face was scrunched angrily and she was flapping her hand at me as if telling me to sit down. To say that moment was embarrassing is a huge understatement. I felt like I was in kindergarten again and had been caught passing a note to my friend.
Everyone in the class was caught off guard, too and the tempo suddenly changed. It was awkward and I was livid. I can still conjure up the feeling of being perhaps more angry than embarrassed after the initial shock. How dare she? Who the hell did she think she was? Would she have done that to any other student in that class?
I didn’t know how to react so I did probably the worst thing possible, what I normally did when I was a super defensive kid. I got visibly angry and purposely crossed my arms in front of me and looked towards the wall. Like a child. I was not going to give her my attention. If she was going to disrespect me like that in front of the entire class, including my two good friends, I was also going to disrespect her by pretending she was no longer there. I patiently waited for class to end so I could get the hell out of there, cry, and promptly call my sister for moral support.
My reaction inevitably caused a scene all on its own. My classmates seemed in awe at how visibly angry I was. I now wonder if they ever felt the same way before. I felt singled out and humiliated because I caught that woman on a bad day, in the absolutely worst moment.
When class was over, the kindergarten-like experience continued to play out as she asked me to stay after class. Yep, while my classmates made their way out the door, I wondered what else was in store for me. Was the woman now twisting the knife? Couldn’t she read my face and know that the only thing I wanted to do was get the hell out of her class?
It kills me to admit that I cried as soon as I began talking to her. You see, I tend to cry when I’m angry.
She pretended not to know what she had done to offend me in such a way. She was baffled at my behavior toward the end of the class. She made it all about my reaction and not her initial action.When I explained how her rude-ass shushing in front of my classmates had made me feel, she pretended to understand. I asked her how she expected them to respect me and my work when she treated me that way in front of them. That’s when she offered to let me sit out during our upcoming oral presentations. Oh, so as a form of atonement for your rudeness, I now get to sit down and shut up? How was that supposed to make me feel any better? I get a pass on one of the biggest assignments because my professor can’t handle her shit and has some sort of axe to grind? I said thanks, but no thanks. I did my oral presentation. It was on Karen Walker and Rosario’s relationship in Will and Grace. I pointed out how I loved that their characters were so close, but the difference in their social status was always written into every single exchange they had. She gave me a B+.
Months later the dean of our college caught me in the halls and asked me to go into her office. She told me she had heard about that incident and wanted to talk to me about it. This woman was also an older white lady. She went on to tell me that she knew what my professor’s “strengths and weaknesses” were. Huh? Was she fabricating an apology out of thin air to rationalize her colleague’s bad judgment and behavior? During that office visit, she also accused me and my two friends of “pulling back” from the rest of the group. She said we isolated ourselves, as if we purposely had a group meeting and decided to fall back and not hang out with the rest of the students. I was polite throughout the meeting but walked out feeling worse than when I walked in.
I finished my graduate studies strong and opted to get my degree in the mail. I didn’t attend any of the in-person ceremonies. I had no desire to shake any of their hands. I didn’t feel their encouragement, just like I never felt their support. I made it through one way or another.
It’s been over a decade and I still feel some way about it, mostly because I want to tell that girl I was back then not to be scared. I want to tell her she’s going to be okay and that she’s not going to need validation from those kinds of people to succeed anyway. I want to tell her to continue holding her head up high because not everyone in life is like that. Most people will see and value her for who she is and what she brings to the table, regardless of what other people’s strengths and weakness are or how good or bad they are at showing people from all walks of life a little respect and common courtesy.