Learning to Not ‘Unsee’: Racism in Academia

In this guest post, University of Glasgow PhD researcher Mariana Rios Maldonado discusses her experiences with racism in academia and explores how we (staff and students alike) can do better at implementing and fighting for anti-racist policies. You can read more about Mariana’s research in her ‘5 Minutes With’ interview.

Spring of 2013. Sitting in the waiting room of a municipal office in Berlin. Despite having lived in the city for a couple of months already, it was the first time I had to deal with a bureaucratic system in a foreign country and language. The paperwork I needed done was simple and resolved quick enough, between arriving at the building, finding the waiting room, waiting for my number to be called out, and making my way to the designated office. And yet, although I had only been in there for about half an hour, a steady feeling of uneasiness began washing over me as I walked away from the building. I replayed the events in my mind. During my time in the waiting room, I kept my eyes and my words to myself, and yet could feel the slightly awkward, almost puzzled stares in my direction, as if suspicious eyes silently asked “And what are you doing here?”. By then my German was fluent enough, and even though I clearly understood and explained what I needed – having practiced it the day before – almost every person behind a counter insisted on either speaking very s l o w l y to me, as if afraid I would not be able to keep track of their words, or switching constantly to English, regardless of my multiple, emphatic reassurances that “Ich kann auch Deutsch sprechen” [I can also speak German] and answering all of their questions in their language. These small incidents, seemingly innocuous, well-intentioned even, were my first introduction to what it means to be a Person of Colour.

Until that moment the fortunate circumstances of my upbringing had shielded me, partially blinded me, to the plethora of struggles People of Colour face every single day. Although I had spent a great deal of my childhood in the United States, I was too young to realize what it meant when strangers saw the Mexican licence plates of my dad’s car and shouted at us to go back from where we came from. Coming from a small city in Mexico also meant that racism always seemed like a distant rumour, a tale of strange lands and peoples, but not the normalized mocking of darker skin tones or idolisation of telenovela white protagonists. It wasn’t until I started studying in Germany that I realized how different I was, how other.

A German mountain range at night during a storm.
Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash

At first it was the little things, like going to municipal offices, but then I started noticing it everywhere, especially in academia: the way in which the secretary of the faculty where I was doing my Masters emphasized that I must prove my worthiness to study there, my ability to keep up with the pace, for after all I had taken a place in that study programme that naturally belonged to a German student. Or how a year into my Masters and just before giving a presentation in class, a lecturer told me that I should rethink my life choices, because clearly being an international academic was not for me. How could I even think, she said, of ever being up to par with my peers? How could I ever hope to properly write in an academic fashion, disadvantaged as I was? It didn’t matter that I had graduated top of my class, or that I had a full scholarship, that I was a valedictorian, and doing fairly well in my other seminars and lectures. It didn’t even matter that at the time I was twenty-six and could perhaps still learn. For her and for the faculty secretary and for many others around me I was not German, I was not even European nor educated in a European university, and I had an accent. That was enough. Months later, I was forced to run from a group of neo-Nazis assembled at a public square. My education in racism had come full circle.

Four years later, after graduating with a First Class degree from my Masters and a wonderful recommendation letter from my dissertation supervisor, I came to Scotland to being a PhD in Tolkien Studies. Being able to study in Britain was already an uphill battle given the almost non-existent funding opportunities for overseas students in the humanities pre-Brexit. After securing a scholarship from the Mexican government, I felt, perhaps naively, that the hardest part was over, but despite my previous experience in such a competitive environment as German academia, I was nowhere near emotionally prepared for what was about to come. In my almost three years in Scotland, I now know that academia everywhere is riddled with pervasive racism even at its highest levels, and sometimes the racist microaggressions are so small that BIPOC scholars and students become hesitant of their feelings, their responses, their interpretations of events. Surely that did not happen. Surely they did not mean it that way. I must be mistaken. Sometimes I feel like it’s all in my head. But it is not.

Because it does not matter that you can speak at least two or more languages or that, as an international student, you must have successfully completed a Masters programme in order to study a PhD, and that you perhaps have been published in other countries. There are fellow white postgraduate students, supposedly your equals, who will give in to the irresistible urge of explaining to you specifically – and not their fellow white colleagues – how academia works, what you need to do if you want to succeed in this medium, and what your research project is really about. There are white lecturers and professors who are nominally supportive of BIPOC scholars and disapproving of the systematic racism embedded in the HEI they belong to, but fail to actively put into practice that solidarity by expanding the diversity content in their lectures, asking for more academics of colour to be hired, or acknowledging the work of their foreign counterparts as equally important and valuable, especially in terms of project funding. And if you perhaps feel compelled to remind any of them that as a PhD student and/or early career researcher you are (also) fully funded – even more so by the parameters of their neoliberal education system, which demands triple or even quadruple the amount of tuition fees for you based on where you were born and the country stamped on your passport – or that maybe you are presenting a paper in a conference abroad in a language that is not your first and won a bursary to do so, they will receive your words with an incredulous look in their eyes, if not of nuisance. Whiteness might make them forget all of your effort and achievements, but never the colour of your skin, your foreign name, or your accent, as if these reasons would suffice to consistently underestimate you.

An image of two characters from Lord of the Rings, Beren and Lúthien, drawn with brown skin instead of white.
“Beren and Lúthien” Image by Caleb Hosalla

It is more than likely that by now any reader coming across this text has read similar accounts before, for I am hardly the first or the worst case of covert and even overt racism within academia, but until events such as these disappear from the daily interactions that involve BIPOC academics, these experiences must continue to be registered and retold. What prompted me in this occasion to write about my own academic career was the latest instalment of the Tolkien Society Seminar, which revolved around the theme of diversity. Although the subject of diversity – racial, sexual, ideological, and so on – is not new to Tolkien Studies, the announcement of this year’s theme was met with a shocking amount of backlash from the most conservative, right-wing, and reactionary factions of Tolkien fandom. This is also, unfortunately, not new in relation to Tolkien’s admirers, as his popularity amongst neo-Nazi circles stretches as far back as the publication of the first volume of The Lord of the Rings in 1954. I first read LOTR at age thirteen, have loved it ever since, but it wasn’t until I began interacting with other BIPOC scholars and fans much later in life that I understood the weight of many of the descriptions and words used in the text. And with the weight came the questions: what do orcs really look like (in the books, not the films)? What does the word “swarthy” actually mean? Who would I be with this body, this hair colour, this skin tone in Middle-earth? Even though I had never felt compelled to ask these questions before, I have now come to terms with the fact that my personal experience of reading Tolkien could never dispute the validity of other readers’ feelings, of those who, despite their love of Tolkien’s works, have felt left out or shunned by his fictional world. I cannot unsee them now.

An image of Gandalf the Grey from Lord of the Rings, drawn in a Chinese style.
“Gandalf the Grey” Image by MyCKs

But beyond retelling fragments of my academic and life story and reconnecting them with the thread of race, my purpose is to ask the readers of this blog to not unsee: if you see racism, don’t pretend it is not there or that it does not happen. Don’t pretend you did not see it. At this point in time, year 2021, after witnessing how climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected BIPOC communities around the world, the vital importance of movements such as Black Lives Matter, and more recently the racial abuse to which football players Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka, and Jadon Sancho have been subjected to, it is clear that it is no longer enough to be theoretically anti-racist.

It is not enough to be performatively woke on social media outlets if you are unwilling to actively and vocally question the curriculum that you teach as an academic, the hiring and funding policies of the institution you work at, or how your BIPOC colleagues and students are treated by your workmates and employers. Being anti-racist means to exercise a type of self-awareness that at times will be painful and disconcerting because it demands acknowledging that racism, as an endemic, structural problem goes further than individual intentions. Even if the people you love and admire personally and professionally do not intend to, that does not justify racist words or actions, nor should these remain unaddressed. Even if your favourite author, the one whose works have brought you joy and hope and constitute the axis of your scholarly endeavours, did not consciously seek out to discriminate people of other races and cultures in his texts; even if during his lifetime the terms he used were considered the norm, and he was inspired by the European Middle-Ages – of which, it must be said, People of Colour were very much a part of –, and he wanted to dedicate a mythology to England – an England in constant change that must also reckon with its legacy of colonialism and imperialism – that does not mean that his or anybody else’s words and fictional worlds are incapable of affecting or harming people, especially those different to you and me. We cannot speak for them. Instead, our job is to make sure they are heard and their claims for justice are seen. I hope that once you see this, you also choose to not unsee.

Mariana Rios Maldonado completed her undergraduate studies in Literature and Spanish Linguistics at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas, Mexico and her master’s degree in Comparative Literature at the Peter Szondi Institute in Berlin’s Freie Universität. Her research focuses on the influence of Germanic mythology and culture in contemporary literature, Germanophonic fantastic literature between the 18th and 20th centuries, as well as J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary production. Mariana is currently a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures of the University of Glasgow with the research project “Ethics, Femininity and the Encounter with the Other in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth Narratives”, funded by the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT) as well as Mexico’s National Foundation for Fine Arts and Literature (Fundación INBA). She is the Equality and Diversity Officer for the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic.

Feature Photo by Andrew McElroy on Unsplash

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