For People Of Color, Succeeding In Academia Is A Political Statement

Blog by Melissa Gutierrez Gonzalez

When I began my freshman year of college, I—like any other college freshman—began to get acquainted with new, unfamiliar responsibilities. Go to class at 9:30, dinner with Maya and Kayla tonight, check out these new clubs, all on top of a fifty-page reading for Political Theory and my Calculus I problem set. My agenda was neatly filled with lines detailing responsibilities, followed by checkmarks of what had been completed. There was one responsibility, however, that I never wrote down but loomed over me wherever I went.

You see, before I left for college, my mom told me: Vas a la escuela para demostrar que los mexicanos no solo están aquí para limpiar casas o servir como mano de obra, y también para demostrar que las mujeres no solo sirven para casarse y tener hijos.
[Translation: You go to school to show that Mexicans are not only here to clean houses or serve as labor, and also to show that women not only serve to marry and have children]. I not only went to college to become educated but also carried the weight to act as a catalyst in reshaping racist and sexist stereotypes that permeate both American and Mexican culture.

Ideally, I’d like to say that my ethnicity has never impacted my academic life—that I’ve never felt a taste of isolation in my STEM classes as the only brown-skinned person, that I’ve never felt like I have been used as a brochure token for diversity, that I’ve never felt the pressure to speak in cogent and intelligent dialogue whenever I opened my mouth in my discussion-based seminars (not because I wanted to seem like an intelligent person, but an intelligent Mexican). I couldn’t make a mistake, because if I did, what would others think of Mexicans? As someone who has always been a part of predominantly white institutional environments, ignoring the fact that I am acting as a representative for people of my ethnic background is incredibly difficult, because for many, I am the first Mexican they meet. For most, I am the first Mexican or Latino/a they meet in the mathematics field.

These pressures, along with general disadvantages minority students face in academia, are something called “the minority tax”. Formally, it is defined as “an array of additional duties, expectations, and challenges that accompany being an exception within white male-dominated institutional environments”. This burden is what makes an undergraduate or graduate career for minority students more difficult than it already is, and additionally, what drives women and minority students away from Ph.D. programs and academia. It is a struggle to succeed in academics while enduring covert or overt instances of racism, implicit bias, and isolation—all byproducts of participating in a system that was not designed for women and people of color.

I’ve tried to talk to my peers about these issues, but many times, I’ve been met with lukewarm empathy followed by statements such as “but just work hard from now on and you’ll succeed!”, as if my ethnic background didn’t heavily impact the academic challenges I face. Despite these challenges, I choose to continue pursuing an undergraduate education in a difficult and often uninviting field and have plans to enroll in a Ph.D. program. Why? Because aside from my fervent love of mathematics, succeeding in academia as a woman of color is a political statement. Historically, people like me have had their voices shut and existence erased. Obtaining a Ph.D. and succeeding in academia is more than being recognized for my academic efforts; It is my way of giving myself a name when my ethnic group has been nameless, it is my hopes and dreams turned into tangible change.

 

Melissa Gutierrez Gonzalez

Melissa is a junior mathematics and philosophy student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA and concurrently enrolled at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in pure mathematics

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