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On Pain and Alienation: Learning about Racism as a Student of Colour

Updated: Mar 11, 2020

Edited 13th November

For lots of reasons, I experienced studying for my undergraduate degree as a very disconnected and sometimes violent experience. I reflect often on those days because they act as a window into how damaging impersonal spaces can be, when what we’re learning about is deeply personal. This is compounded when, as students of colour, you spend your life feeling, and being treated like you don’t belong – especially if you haven’t yet developed the tools or strategies that you need to be able to work through what is happening around you. I studied Sociology and Social Policy with a focus on Race and Ethnicity as an undergraduate. As a student of colour, my experience of learning about racism through the academy, was that it was just so alienating. It is hard to capture my full experience of higher education here, so I am specifically talking about my experience of engaging academically with ideas of race and racism as a student of colour.

Had it just have been simply painful (can experiencing pain ever be simple?), I think I would have known how to deal with that. It’s not like I was unaware of how cruel our shared histories are. One instance that particularly stands out, possibly because it was the first, was in my first term as an undergraduate. I was in an ‘Introduction to Race’ lecture; in a brightly lit lecture theatre, sitting one seat away from everyone around me, as was everyone else, when suddenly, without warning, the severely beaten head of 14 year old Emmett Till flashed up on a huge screen. I’m not sure whether or not many others in the class felt what I did, but the lecturer seemed cauterized to this experience, whatever her reality, it felt as if she had found a way not to be infected by the emotional weight of his lynching, and the heinousness of the history that fuelled it. This wasn’t simple anger, the lecturer was a woman of colour, which made it more confusing. At the time, I found the matter-of-fact way that she presented the facts versus the highly affective image of 14 year old Emett Till, beaten, mutilated and bloated, highly perverse. The reduction of this tragedy to a simple and lazy shock-tactic left me reeling; I found it irresponsible, disrespectful, even. I processed my intellectual thoughts about being shown the image, but still, I left shaking with emotion.

I would come to think of this situation often, not because the situation itself left me traumatised, but because it represented the start of something that I would experience over and over again. I struggled to conceptualise what ‘it’ even was, but the feeling hung over me. I couldn’t give it form, but felt frustrated with myself, knowing that whatever that feeling was, my inability to name it, and then deal with it was transforming my otherwise happily engaged temperament into an inability to engage with the experiences of those around me, it made me defensive, it made me assume everyone else was stupid and it made me miserable. I was emotionally withdrawing myself from what was happening around me. I had nobody to process my feelings with, and in a way, I blamed a lot of people for my reactions; lecturers for getting it wrong, other students for being unfriendly. It was, I think, a physical and intellectual reaction to an emotional feeling that I just didn’t have the tools to process. We can psychoanalyse what was happening, but I’m leaving that out intentionally. My intention here is just to name the experiences. I’d leave classrooms feeling bodily emotion; my body understanding that there was something important to pay attention to here, but my mind being unable to compute what had to happen to process this, and so the cycle would continue.

I realise that there was no way that I had the tools not to feel completely alienated by the experience of learning in that environment. What I came to understand, was that my reaction to Emett Till’s picture was not only about the erasure of his personhood, but in presenting the picture, some facts and then moving on, the implication was that any emotional relationship to the events was unimportant. This ran in opposition to how I had forged my identity as a learner. The lack of space to engage in the process with anything other than a detached, intellectual sensibility alienated me from everything around me. Partly because through the work, my own experiences of trauma were being mirrored in one way or another. I don't think that this is a reason not to teach these things, but I do think that teaching and thinking about reading practices, and the importance of paying attention to how we process what we learn together is paramount.

In hindsight, if I hadn’t have felt so trapped by my feelings, I might have been able to speak about the experience in a seminar, talking about my reaction to it, and processing the learning that way. Simply naming experiences like this can sometimes be enough. The spaces just felt so unsafe to show myself in that way, or maybe I didn’t feel safe enough to even think of it as an option. Is there a difference? I am not talking here, about a performance of emotion - acting out the anger or disgust that you're feeling. Rather, I am talking about creating space; to learn in our bodies, to attend to the weight of reality, to treat the victims of our violent histories as subjects. Isn't this part of what it means to reject dominant epistemologies?

Connection is imperative for learning; either with those around you, with those teaching you or even with the texts that you’re engaging with. I am definitely more able to access the best, most creative, most intelligent parts of myself when I feel connected to something. I felt that there was little space for any creativity where I was being taught. Without the space to process, I swallowed and harboured the micro traumas, eventually just feeling really unhappy and out of place. I’m currently studying again, and treat lectures, seminars and conference spaces like this very differently, I will write more about this later. However, I often think how different my experience might have been if I’d been prepared, taught to pay attention to my emotions, using them as a source knowledge as Audre Lorde encourages me to. If I'm feeling uncomfortable, why might that be, what might I learn about myself from that? How can I use these experiences to be a better person, writer, and actor in the world.

Often, when we experience trauma of some kind, and haven’t worked through it, we numb ourselves to the effects of it on us. Learning about racism, connecting my own painful experiences to whatever I was being taught, in a really sanitised way was so destabilising. It is important to note, that I’m not only saying this because it’s important for individual student experience, but more importantly, if we are teaching or learning for social change, to create/be responsible leaders and actors in the world, we must bring our own attention to the importance of working through our emotional relationship to the subject.

As I write this, I’m a little worried that I’m stating the obvious. Honestly though, I’m not sure if it is obvious that processing your emotional feelings is a necessary part of honing your reading practices. If an important aspect of any anti-oppressionist work is writing from the particulars of our own experience, in order to do this, it is important for us to understand what our emotional relationship to these issues is, as well as our intellectual relationship to them. It seems obvious to me now, as a 31 year old whose cultural and emotional capital has burgeoned, or maybe it’s obvious because I have spent a lot of time and energy working through my traumas and fears as best I can, and have a much better life, and am a much better thinker, the more I do it. As an undergraduate though, I was just doing my best to survive; I had numbed myself to my feelings towards anything just to get through the day in what felt to me like a very hostile environment.

When I was at school, I had a very different relationship to learning about traumatic experiences. I was networked. My life was designed in such a way that I was able to do the processing without noticing, through friendships with people in my classes, with teachers or through theatre – by building trusting relationships rooted in community and shared experience. The violence of university, for me, was that I didn’t have the tools to process alone, and didn’t even know it was important for me to do so. We can argue over whether it’s the responsibility of university lecturers to help students do that work at all, but my main point in this post, is that for many of us, if we wish to put theory to any use, doing the emotional processing around it is important work. Either that, or encouraging students to notice their own emotionality in relation to the work is an important aspect of becoming a responsible social actor. I was at a conference recently, and we were discussing Birthing Racial Difference, an article by Dr Gail Lewis and the conversation centred around whether or not it was ethical to teach this material at undergraduate level. For me, the question isn’t of whether we teach difficult material, but how we equip learners/ourselves as learners with the tools to work through our/their emotional reactions to this work.

As always, we are trying to create an engaged learning community. If this piece spoke to you, please share - and maybe make space for reflections - so that others may engage with your thoughts, and with ours.

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