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Pushing the Limits and Finding a Center on the Margins

Jyoti Grewal, Associate Professor of History, Luther College

Working towards my Ph.D. in Stony Brook, NY, I never imagined that an Indian academic would be considered an oddity in any North American college or university. Nothing could have prepared me for the shock of realizations to the contrary. When I got my first job at a small, religiously-affiliated liberal arts college in the upper Midwest, I knew there would be adjustments. I knew the upper Midwest was not the East coast, but I had no idea that the culture would be so exclusive.

As soon as I arrived, I began to face the challenges that come with profound culture clashes and with being one of only a few people of color in a small college community. My period of adjustment has been long and, at times, arduous.

As a woman of color in the academy, I face a number of challenges every day. I have room to address only three here. The first challenge has to do with authority, authenticity, and knowledge. My degree is in American history, but I also, on occasion, teach courses on Asian history. When I teach my American history courses, my authenticity is often questioned; students perceive the introduction of critical analysis as "criticism" and, from me, also as un-American "criticism." On the other hand, when I teach anything Asian, then I automatically become the authority, which is ridiculous as I am not an Asianist by training--a fact that many people simply cannot seem to grasp. It seems easier for people to assume I am an authority figure on "Asia" simply because I hail from one nation of that vast and complex continent. I cannot decide which is harder to stomach--some of the students' or some of my colleagues' ascriptive designation of "authority" in matters Asian or the questioning of "authenticity" in matters American.

My second challenge comes from the fact that I am frequently "showcased" as the one woman of color. (That I am a woman of color is an entirely American phenomenon, of course!) I do not deny that my take on many things is different from that of the majority of people in the community--that my filters offer remarkably different perspectives. However, there are times when faculty of color are simply asked to smile for the crowds just once too often. On several occasions, there has been an unspoken understanding that I am being showcased and "they" know that "I' know. To these circumstances, I have responded at times with cries of "hire more people of color!" At other times, I have simply been silent. I sometimes just get tired of trying to unravel liberal guilt as people's motivations. I tire of the self-congratulations for the inclusivity--that there is one of "those people" now in the community. I can scream or I can smile quietly. I have done both.

I can remain here because I am not completely alone on the margins; I share this margin with several colleagues. Seeking them was the difficult part; sharing the margin with them helps re-define the center.

Of course, there is a dire need for more faculty of color on this campus--indeed, for more students and staff members of color. Each time I call for diversifying the population, however, there is a pregnant silence in the room. The silence bears the thought, "of course, what else would she go on about." I sense the exasperation in the atmosphere. My anticipated response is tiresome to both the speaker and the audience. There is an assumption that because I am here, all is well.

My third challenge stems from teaching in a college of the church. No other institution in the world can place an individual on the margins as certainly as religion. Thankfully, there is no proselytizing here. It is, however, quite clear that I am "different." To the college's credit, I did have the opportunity to stand up in chapel and proudly and loudly announce my religious affiliation to Sikhism, about which only a handful have cared to query me. Further to the credit of the college, I have never been invited again to give such a homily! I can only surmise how unpopular was this declaration.

Despite these challenges, I remain here and I do my job, often with great excitement and fulfillment. There are, of course, insufferable days when I am conscious of being only an Indian woman, when life amidst the safe, bucolic surroundings seems unendurable, when cultural isolation is acute, the sense of "non-whiteness" acuminate, and exoticisation unbearable. I can remain here because I am not completely alone on the margins; I share this margin with several colleagues. Seeking them was the difficult part; sharing the margin with them helps re-define the center. I care not a whit for the center which displaces me. I find my center on the margins and push the limits of the institution.


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