As graduation approaches, I find myself reflecting upon my experiences here at the University of Puget Sound. These reflections are not always easy for me or kind to the university. In looking at the time that I have spent in this institution, I look not only to my relationships with my peers and professors; I also look to my relationship with the disciplines I have engaged in and with the institution itself. More importantly, I look at the way that my identity has been formed and shaped by this institution.
I write this as a Latina student of color. This is the identity that I have claimed for myself, but this is not the identity that I have been given by others here. Throughout my time at the university, I have been seen and been related to as a white person. My status as a person of color has often only come into play when I myself draw attention to it. Although this may seem like the ideal situation, the final phase of colorblindness, I would like to make it explicitly clear that this erasure of my identity has created a deep and painful rift between myself and the institution of the University of Puget Sound.
My first two years at this school were characterized by feelings of self-doubt and almost crippling insecurity. I spent a lot of time questioning both my academic abilities and whether or not I belonged in this setting. I did not know how to articulate these feelings, nor could I identify their origins. At the time, I did not have the vocabulary or tools to do so.
As I took classes for my chosen major within the Sociology and Anthropology department, then called Comparative Sociology, I began to realize that much of my discomfort originated from those classes. As I looked at the syllabus for one of my classes, it became abundantly clear that the topics my professor valued were not topics that spoke to my experiences as a minority student of color. The reverse was also true: the topics and areas of study within the course that I thought would create the valuable discussions needed in our classroom were not allocated the same amount of time or attention as the topics my professor preferred. Additionally, class discussions seemed to be centered on a particular way of thinking informed by the socio-economic status of my peers. The narratives produced in my class did not always correlate with the realities that I have lived and experienced. On occasion, I found myself presenting points of views intended to defend or justify ideas that my peers seemed unwilling to engage with, understand, or accept.
The realization that what I was learning in my sociology classes did not match the reality that I have lived came to me the fall semester of my sophomore year. The implications were enormous. How many times had I failed to notice the way that my classes and professors valued and devalued certain perspectives? How many others had felt as though their experiences were being ignored within our“inclusive”campus? I felt as though I had seen into the Matrix of this institution. At that point in my life, I saw only two options: I could take the red pill and face the bitter fact that my experiences and values were not reflected within my chosen major; or I could take the blue pill, forget my values and experiences as a woman of color, and disappear into the idyllic world presented by the CSOC department. At the time, I was keenly aware of the importance of my decision. This decision was about more than my major; it was a decision that would define the kind of person I was, as well as the import I would assign to integrity for the rest of my life. Ultimately, I chose to leave the sociology department.
I returned to the University of Puget Sound in the spring with two goals: find a different major, and take a Spanish class to preserve what I was beginning to consider an integral part of my identity. The first of my goals was easily accomplished by switching my major to Politics and Government, a field of study I was not as passionate about but that nevertheless gave me the freedom to explore the relationship between individuals, political issues, policies, and institutions. I believe that switch in majors is one of the most important conscious decisions of my life. The second of my goals lead to the most important chance occurrence of my life. I found myself auditing Intro to Latino Studies the fall of my junior year. It was in that safe space that I was able to learn about the history of my people in a respectful and nuanced way, as well as begin navigating my identity as a Latina. Most importantly, it was there that I began to learn the vocabulary and tools that have allowed me to identify the things that had bothered me in so many of my other classes.
Recently, there have been many debates on campus regarding diversity and the KNOW requirement. Some of the critiques regarding the so-called “diversity requirement”are that race can be a harmful social construction, and that students should not be taught to view each other as representations of different races. Related critiques of the connected field of ethnic studies are that it indoctrinates and imposes political beliefs on students. With this line of reasoning, calling attention to race and ethnicity creates tensions and inculcated attitudes that would not exist had race not been brought to the foreground.
I am compelled to disagree with these critiques. My experiences as a “white-passing” woman of color have shown me that when individuals of color are not seen as such, the resulting erasure of their identity is not at all beneficial. In fact, it is harmful. I cannot leave behind my experiences, nor are my experiences as a woman of color negated because many see me as white. When others refuse to acknowledge racial differences or inequalities of power, our identities as people of color are not only erased, they are actively prevented from forming.
I understand that race is a difficult topic to discuss. But we must leave behind our personal discomfort on the topic of race and acknowledge that for many students, race is not something that may be left behind. We must acknowledge that while for some students ethnic studies may seem like an indoctrination or imposition of political beliefs, for other students it is every other discipline that not only imposes specific political beliefs, ideas, and values, but also acts violently to erase or devalue identities in ways so subtle and insidious that a student may spend her entire academic career believing that her beliefs, her values, her identity or even she herself does not belong in an academic institution. If established disciplines like sociology appear to be neutral or to lack connotations of militancy and indoctrination it is only because they reproduce the accepted ideas and values of the dominant culture. For those of us who exist outside of that culture, classes that center on knowledge, identity, and power are crucial to challenging the dominant narratives that have been created in academic institutions.
I am pleased that the KNOW proposal has passed, but I am disappointed that such a requirement is necessary to introduce discussions of knowledge, identity, and power into the academics here at the University of Puget Sound. A liberal arts institution should give its students the skills and knowledge necessary to be effective well-rounded citizens. As such, it is my firm belief that if this university does not foster discussions of identity and power then it is not producing effective well-rounded citizens and therefore cannot be a liberal arts institution. While it is possible to obtain a liberal arts education here, the core curriculum itself does not create one.
I would love to recommend the University of Puget Sound to others, but I cannot do that in good conscience. As Mariana Molina has pointed out in her own letter, this institution does not have an adequate support system for students of color, or the diverse faculty needed for students of color to find mentors. I will go further and say that this institution is not the liberal arts college it claims to be. It is simply a small college with a lovely campus. Having said that, I believe change is possible because of the discussions on diversity that have been occurring this past year. I hope that these conversations can continue in future years, and that the implementation of the KNOW requirement moves the University of Puget Sound closer to its chosen identity as a liberal arts college.