A confusion of tongues

Hing Yee Chan on how speaking perpetuates racial hierarchies in the classroom

Artwork by Deepa Alam

When I added Ancient History as my second major last year, I expected to deepen my understanding about white culture circa 2000 years ago. What I didn’t expect was to learn equally as much about white culture circa now. My biggest takeaway? White culture is speaking before you think.

You know the type. You’re sitting in the tutorial, notes open, ready to contribute to the discussion and earn some participation marks. The tutor asks a question. You’re ready to put up your hand.

Then, in butts a mouthy white person who proceeds to regale us with a stream-of-consciousness as bland as their people’s food.

And they just keep doing this every time anyone else opens their mouth.

Roman history is a white-dominated subject, and usually I’m the only person of colour – and definitely the only woman of colour – in those tutorial rooms. It’s a disconcerting experience for someone who lives an otherwise racially-diverse reality. It’s in these moments that I become hyper-aware of the racial power hierarchies embedded in academia.

The tutorial room does not exist in a vacuum. It is located in a society and academic system which foregrounds the white experience, and thus reproduces those racial dynamics by giving white voices precedence over those of students of colour. The discipline of Roman history – like most other academic fields – was founded on white, Western points-of-view and voices. This background is obviously understandable, but it is untenable in an age when certain individuals and collectives co-opt this our field to build their own narratives of white supremacy.

So, why then is it important to have people of colour–and particularly women of colour–speak in the tutorial environment?

By virtue of our uniquely different life experiences, we have a distinct perspective on reality. For instance, students who inherit the legacy of colonialism have different takes on imperialism. Tutorials are spaces for students to share these perspectives and, true to the academic ideal of the tutorial, challenge existing assumptions. We should have access to different viewpoints – not just the one white perspective’s.

Moreover, and particularly for people of colour in a white-dominated subject, there are certain racial assumptions regarding to whom the field “belongs”, or who can more legitimately speak about it. The tutorial is a space where we can challenge paternalistic assumptions about where our voices belong in academia by asserting our active participation in it.

Non-white voices also disrupt white-majority spaces and assumptions. It’s easy for white people to pretend that we don’t exist and speak over us or hold onto blinkered white views. In one of my tutorials, a white boy put up his hand and actually asked, “Why did the [indigenous] North African tribes hate Carthage [a Phoenician colony in North Africa] so much?” When we can speak up, however, we force white people to first consider our existence and experiences before spouting such asinine remarks.

So, I say to white people: rethink how you continue to dominate space and time in the learning environment. Consider stepping back to allow more diverse voices to come through. Listen to people of colour and support them when they speak. This will benefit everyone’s learning.

Tutors, white or not, consider what role you play in perpetuating racial hierarchies in academic environments. Watch out for who speaks more than others. Support and encourage the voices of those who aren’t heard as much in our society.

And to my fellow people of colour, I say this: I understand that we can’t always speak up. It’s taxing and perhaps not always in our ability. But those who can, and those who so desperately want to but have been rebuffed by a white peer who won’t shut up: persist. Your voice is valuable.

If it’s any encouragement at all, know that whenever you speak, a white person has to shut up.

This article appeared in the autonomous ACAR edition, ACAR Honi 2018.