“We need to be able to imagine ourselves doing these things and in order to be able to imagine that, we need to see people like us who are doing it, who make it possible to imagine other lives.”
Art history professor Subhashini Kaligotla sat calmly in her office in the Loria Center with a quiet kind of confidence. She spoke about the necessity of mentors for young women of color in humanities fields — to grasp onto someone who has traversed a similar path to theirs.
At Yale, women of color are underrepresented in departments such as classics, English and humanities, and as such these fields have historically felt inaccessible to women of color, according to a number of professors interviewed. Because of this, women of color students at Yale hunger for mentorship in these departments.
Professor Inderpal Grewal, the chair of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program at Yale, explained the global roots of the lack of racial and gender diversity we see at Yale.
“Academia in many parts of the western world is dominated by white men,” Grewal explained. “In England, the percentage of the population from the Caribbean and South Asia has no correspondence to the number of faculty from those backgrounds.”
Grewal emphasized that at Yale and in the Ivy League, spaces are more elite, and more white.
“It’s a kind of space that’s very jealously guarded and maintained by particular forms of power; racial and gendered power are just two of those,” Grewal said.
Students encounter this imbalance through the texts they read for class. Janis Jin ’20, who is majoring in English and ethnicity, race and migration, who is taking Leah Mirakhor’s course, “The Displaced: Migrant and Refugee Literature in 20th and 21st Century,” this semester explained that the lens through which a student of color may consider a text differs from the one through which a white student may view it.
“When you’re the only person of color in an all-white English class, the privilege of whiteness is that you don’t notice race in the texts that you read. When I’m in a class with white English majors and I notice some race marker or some racialized interaction, to me that is the first thing that I notice — which reads as no one else really noticed that. The particular burden is the burden of being the one to bring up race when no one else sees it, or when no one else is particularly interested by it,” Jin said.
Questions of curricula and the construction of syllabi in English, humanities and classics courses arise for many students and professors of color. English professor Priyasha Mukhopadhyay teaches a first-year seminar on modern South Asian literature and a junior seminar on British literature in the postcolonial world. In the spring semester, Mukhopadhyay will teach English 128, “Readings in Comparative World English Literatures.” She hopes that students will begin to see a convergence between the genres of American literature and postcolonial literature.
“Milton turns up in Caribbean textbooks, and we can begin to actually see these things as one tradition,” Mukhopadhyay said. “It’s less of being outside the tradition than realizing it’s one tradition.”
Wai Chee Dimock GRD ’82, a professor in the English Department who is currently on sabbatical, echoed Mukhopadhyay’s statement.
“In a globalized world, the boundaries between American literature and world literature are becoming productively blurred. The works of some of our best known authors — Jhumpa Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat, Chimamanda Adichie GRD ’08 — could be classified as either American literature or world literature,” Dimock said.
Jin sees American literature as crucial to writers of color in America.
“This is the genealogy that writers of color in America now have read, engaged with, argued against and aligned themselves with,” Jin said.
For many students and professors of color, bringing the texts studied in class to present-day discussions is essential. Christina Pao ’20, a classics and political science major, explained how she does have many female professors and women of color professors in her department, although the major itself presents itself as exclusionary.
“It’s difficult to call people into the major because of its specific language,” Pao said, “and difficult to talk about diversity without tokenizing.”
In all of the Yale undergraduate classes, there are only 12 current classics majors, and Pao is the only female-presenting person of color of that group.
“I think that the department is really becoming receptive to self-criticizing,” Pao said.
The most worthwhile moments for Pao have been those in which she has found overlap in the way people discuss citizenship in ancient Greece, she said, and the way people think about exclusion and inclusion today.
Grewal finds importance in blurring the boundaries of what one considers valuable literature, and what one doesn’t. She said that professors should be aware that many students are reading Rupi Kaur, for example, but many professors might discount her work. She added it is critical to understand the ways in which the canonic and the contemporary bleed together.
“One could say it’s just popular, it’s not good, but then you have to reckon with the ways in which ideas of what poetry is, what it means. People are coming to read Wordsworth after reading Rupi Kaur, and if you don’t understand what Wordsworth sounds like after Rupi Kaur, you’re missing a lot,” said Grewal.
What has value to be studied and to be parceled for its diction in the classroom? What happens, Grewal explained, is that Yale students go on to occupy high seats of power, but they are taught to value certain voices over others — and there is a price to this.
According to a number of people interviewed, women of color students and professors may experience dissonance between themselves and the academy. Sarah Farmer currently teaches at Indiana Wesleyan University and used to teach in the Humanities and Religious Studies Departments at Yale. She discussed the relevance of her study of hope in marginalized populations in the way she conceptualizes space within the academy and movement away from the circumstances of one’s life.
“As an African-American woman who is the first in my family to get a Ph.D., and coming into the academy … it has never been my primary identity,” Farmer said.
Farmer explained that she wants to be a person who can inhabit various spaces, outside of the academy, such as church, courtrooms and women’s prisons. While teaching at Yale, Farmer taught a course that moved between the Yale campus and local women’s prisons. Her work in these different spaces has helped her to understand how she teaches and views herself as a woman of color in the academy.
“There are so many spaces with predominantly white men; students hunger for diversity,” said Farmer.
She elaborated, though, that to find a sense of belonging, “people of color have to work extra hard to prove that they belong there,” and that this extends to women of color professors. In Indiana, she said, she is the first black female professor that many of her students have had.
“I’m automatically assigned a label on my body,” Farmer said.
Grewal explained that in humanities fields at Yale, there are some women of color, but very few tenured senior faculty.
“The more senior you get, the whiter it gets,” Grewal said. “And those positions are very much filled with people who want people like themselves, and that starts to shape what counts as excellence, what fields are important.”
In fields that have historically reflected “excellence” as a white concept, women of color in the academy are often aware of how others perceive them differently from their peers. Mirakhor, who teaches both “The Displaced: Migrant and Refugee Literature in 20th and 21st Century” and “Writer as Rioter: Public Writing in the 21st Century” this semester said that her classes are spaces to consider the intersections of aesthetics and politics — and how those expressions are, in part, mediated by the way different people, like migrants and women of color, among others, can reveal their experience.
Examining the differences between the testimonies of Judge Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90 and Christine Blasey Ford, Mirakhor observed, “There is rage and trauma,” and one question the testimonies raise is how different people are allowed to express rage. Mirakhor spoke about how women bear the burden of calibrating their voices, their posture, their gentleness. Her public writing class looks at how writers from different social, racial and gendered locations write about crisis and the self in this political moment.
Often, the academic spaces that women of color encounter at Yale, and other similar institutions, do not reflect the level of diversity for which they hunger. In response to this, some students decide not to take English or humanities classes and instead take classes such as Mirakhor’s where they feel able to explore questions of race and gender in more depth.
Nikita Raheja ’20, who is in Mirakhor’s migrant and refugee literature class, discussed how her experience as an economics major disoriented her, as she felt she saw no one who liked like her in her classes. She wanted to find classes where her experiences as a student would be better represented, in which she could read about people like herself, and so she decided to major in ethnicity, race and migration and mathematics.
Because she has taken only ER&M classes in humanities departments, Raheja said, “My experiences in the humanities have been positive — most of my humanities classes have focused on people of color.”
But she had to seek out these classes, and chose not to take classes within the English Department, for example.
“A lot of English classes have been very Eurocentric,” Raheja said, “and I wanted to take classes that focus on my people.”
Ananya Kumar-Banerjee ’21 voiced concerns about the curriculum within the English Department as a student who gravitates toward writing as well as the intersection between writing and politics. She explained that she came into Yale deeply entrenched in the idea that she wanted to be an English major in the writing concentration. A number of factors contributed to her decision against majoring in English since arriving here.
She explained that she attended a high school where she felt as though she had to fight to be treated with basic respect, and worried that being within the English major would put her in a situation where she would have to do that again.
“It’s reflected in the requirements, who teaches those requirements and when you go to the classes, what you see,” said Kumar-Banerjee.
For her, it is an issue of not seeing anything South Asian depicted on the page in most required English classes, and as a result not knowing how to write about her own experiences in those spaces. At Yale, Kumar-Banerjee has taken “Reading and Writing the Modern Essay” with Mark Oppenheimer ’96 GRD ’03, “Introduction to Creative Writing” with Emily Skillings and “Advanced Poetry” with Claudia Rankine. She expressed that in these classes she could take more risks, generally with professors of color. She said that what has been the most difficult for her is not having professors who understand the content of her work.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be taught by a South Asian writer; the closest person I have who understands my subject matter is my mother,” Kumar-Banerjee said.
“If you’re not given literature where people like you are portrayed, you cannot understand the way you’re oriented in the world, and the way the world orients itself around you. The big trick of things like Directed Studies is that they teach you that it’s about having an understanding of the canon, but the canon is about how we orient ourselves in the world, and how the world sees us, but we’re not given the opportunity to see how the world sees us. I think that’s the great trick, and I think that’s really cruel,” she said.
Kaligotla, the professor of South Asian art history, resonated with Kumar-Banerjee’s sentiment.
“We don’t necessarily have the infrastructure for South Asia,” she said, and the difficulty for students is when they can’t find professors working on material to which they can relate.
“You need to be exposed to the material in order to become interested in it. If the choices aren’t there, then how can you develop that interest?” Kaligotla asked.
Kaligotla also empathized with the fact that students writing about South Asian material must constantly provide context for what they are writing and studying in the creative and scholarly domains.
“You are a minority,” she said of such students.
Mirakhor explained that not seeing what they hope for within the classrooms, students might construct their own alternate spaces, outside of the academy. Mirakhor expanded specifically on the implication of this for women of color.
“We have to find ways to create pockets for ourselves,” she said.
Mirakhor has noticed that a key aspect for many women of color inside the academy is the reliance on “modes and structures of kinship, communication and collaboration” in the University, and outside of it, “to sustain us, to nurture us and to help us grow intellectually.” In this way, Mirakhor said, women of color learn not to rely solely on the institution to support them, but also to grow and learn alongside women of color who are “deeply involved in the world, in changing the conditions of people’s lives.”
Several professors underlined the importance for young women of color to have mentors in their lives. Kaligotla explained how she did not have a straightforward trajectory to poetry or art history, but initially obtained two degrees in engineering. While she was at Columbia for her master’s degree in poetry, Kaligotla met her doctoral adviser, which she said was a revelatory moment for her.
“I saw this woman had a South Asian name, and that she was working on Indian and South Asian art history, and you don’t see that often. It was really eye-opening to see that this woman was at the top and did foundational work in the field,” said Kaligotla.
In her field, Kaligotla said that “profound asymmetries” of gender, economics and politics persist. “These fields are still dealing with colonial and orientalist legacy, so it’s important that we change the structure of the discourse,” she said.
Kaligotla is the only South Asianist in her field at Yale, which has caused her to feel as though she has to “represent the vast geographical expanse, when the majority of professors in the department are not asked to represent all of Europe, or all of America, but a slice of time in a particular region.”
In her undergraduate course this semester, in her first semester teaching at Yale, Kaligotla said that her art history course has drawn mostly interest from South Asian-American students, who are curious to learn about their background, as well as interest from students who want to learn more about South Asia who haven’t otherwise had the chance to do so.
Kaligotla said that though it is early, she hopes to be someone to whom her students can reach out, and to act as a mentor to some of her students of color. Mirakhor returned again and again to the necessity of mentorship.
“It’s inimitably important to have mentors who can corroborate your experience, who can recognize something you may not yet be able to name,” she said.
“It’s important to learn that they have to some extent felt or experienced what you have, and to use that to think about approaches towards making work that can intervene into untenable circumstances,” Mirakhor said.
Mirakhor stressed that “one of the most important aspects” of what has sustained her work and teaching has been “the mentorship and support of women of color inside and outside the academy … I don’t think there’s anything more important than mentorship.”
Kumar-Banerjee related the profound sense of excitement she feels when she finds peers who writes about similar subject matter as her, or a professor with whom she can discuss her writing and share her experiences. She mentioned that as soon as she realized that Mukhopadhyay would be at Yale this year, she reached out to her. She explained that the two share similar genealogies of their last names.
Mirakhor herself was influenced by a number of female writers and mentors through her trajectory, such as author Grace Hong and Professor Nellie McKay. For her, mentorship allows one a window into “how writers respond to shape and remake the world.”
She also noted, glancing down at the table in a classroom tucked away on the fourth floor of 81 Wall St., “as writers and teachers we can highlight texts that have been abandoned or ignored and provide a space for those books to have lives.”
And maybe then, students too will feel able to imagine other lives for themselves, beyond what they thought possible.
Meghana Mysore | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Oct. 7: A previous version of this article referred to Nellie McKay as a singer when in fact she was a professor.