“I’m not sure you’re capable of taking that class,” said my high school English teacher. She was a middle-aged white woman. I had approached her after class to sign a form allowing me to take the more advanced AP English class the following year. My first year of high school, I was placed in the advanced courses in science and math but not in English.
Placement in advanced courses was based on previous grades and PSSAs scores, a Pennsylvania standardized test. As a straight-A student, I spent my first year wondering why I hadn’t been placed in a more advanced course. As Latino immigrants, my parents couldn’t help me navigate the U.S. education system. We all just assumed the teacher knew best. At the end of the year, however, I was determined to get into AP English as a sophomore.
While I don’t recall exactly what my teacher said to me, I do know how I felt. It’s the same way I always feel when I defend myself — my throat closes up, my tongue gets dry, and my body feels inflamed. The discussion consisted of me saying over and over, “I know I am capable of taking AP English and I will get straight A’s.” As a child, you often believe that teachers are always right and have the best intentions for their students. Only a few inches taller than me, my teacher seemed like a giant as I pleaded with her to sign my form.
Throughout my time in high school in rural western Pennsylvania, I was the darkest person in my classes. Sure, there were a handful of students of color, but we were very much a minority among a wide array of white students. Of the five students of color, I was the only Latina and one of two women of color.
My family is originally from Peru and my ancestors were the Inca. Growing up, my parents raised my brother and me as if we were transplanted Peruvians, feeding us only cuisine from our motherland and speaking only Spanish at home. I lived two lives during high school, one with English-speaking classmates, the other with my Peruvian roots.
Every day, I would walk through the halls of my high school and feel visibly different. Sometimes, the difference was articulated when people would try to use the word “Mexican” as an insult or when every teacher pronounced my last name wrong.
Sometimes, the microaggressions I endured were people grabbing at my thick, coarse black hair or asking if my parents were “illegals.” High school is often traumatic for most people, but, for people of color, the racism we experience at that moment in our lives is just the beginning.
On to college
College is where I learned to express the pigment in my skin. I joined a Latinx affinity group, a club where students of Latinx ancestry learned and grew together. It felt liberating to finally express myself fully, using both my English and Spanish vocabulary, with a group of Latinx peers. We shared similar experiences and stories; we could relate to each other. When we exchanged stories of racism in the classroom, I realized that race was the reason I didn’t get into AP English my freshman year of high school.
The thing about racism is that every day, good people can be racist. Racism isn’t just reserved for people who proudly wave a Confederate flag. Racism is blindly believing in a negative stereotype based on someone’s race. My high school English teacher probably thought she was just doing her job by questioning my motives and ability to do well in an advanced class. In reality, she was holding me back.
A study of accelerated math students in North Carolina by the Harvard Kennedy School found that “accelerated students are substantially more likely to be white or Asian and less likely to be black or Hispanic.” The study even questions whether “implicit or explicit discrimination on the part of teachers and schools play a role.”
The thing about being a person of color is that your intelligence and your citizenship are constantly being questioned. When people see my golden-brown skin, they ask, “Where are you from?” Despite speaking perfect American English, my skin is like a passport of my ancestry proving that I am, somehow, a foreigner on my native soil.
In college, I experienced just as much racism, if not more than in high school.
On the first day of class, after we had all introduced ourselves, my journalism professor said, “International students surprisingly write and speak English well.” From there, each day brought a new assault on a different ethnicity or minority. One day it would be a jab about black people, the next about queer people, the following about how sensitive everyone was.
The best way to explain the trauma of being in a class with a racist professor is that it tears you apart like an onion. Having to go into a class where racism, misogyny, and homophobia were constant wore me down. But as a person of color, I have certain defense mechanisms in place so that when something racist happens, I can protect my core.
It was traumatic to be in a room with a white man who holds your grade and yourself captive. By the end of the semester, I gave up. My body would physically ache when his class approached as I prepared for the worst. After each class, I was emotionally drained, tired, and depressed. I just wanted the torture to end.
Taking a new approach
After the ordeal of that journalism class, I decided to try a new approach — to go out of my way to take courses taught by professors of color. I ended up majoring in comparative literature, studying the intersection of English and Spanish. Whenever I told people I was studying Spanish, I would always get, “If you already know how to speak Spanish, why are you studying it? It’s like cheating.” My response was always, “Why would a native English speaker ever major in English?”
The thing about my major I loved the most was the flexibility to take different courses. I was able to study East Asian studies, colonialism, film, translation, Victorian literature, and any other courses that fit within the discipline.
I gravitated toward women professors and saw my grades skyrocket. Not only was I thinking critically and analyzing literature, I also loved my classes. The professors I bonded with could all relate to being undermined and discriminated in predominantly white institutions. These professors of color became my mentors. But they were few.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, “On average, 75 out of every 100 full-time faculty members at four-year colleges are white. Five are black, and even fewer are Hispanic.”
Professors of color face more challenges than their white counterparts in gaining tenure. Insider Ed reported “underrepresented minority groups held approximately 13 percent of faculty jobs in 2013, up from 9 percent in 1993. Yet they still only hold 10 percent of tenured jobs.”
Students of color face invisibility in predominantly white educational institutions. We are not represented by teachers who look or experience the world like us. And, even if we’re privileged enough to gain entry into these institutions, we often lack the support to actually complete our education. The Institute of Labor Economics found that “exposure to a black teacher during elementary school raises long-run educational attainment for black male students, especially among those from low-income households.”
The support and mentorship students of color gain from professors of color does end up making a huge impact in our lives.
I often thought about quitting college; as it turns out, I wasn’t alone. The Latino Education and Economic Progress study by Georgetown University found that “while Latinos with high SAT/ACT test scores have similar rates of enrollment as whites, 63 percent of these Latinos complete a degree or credential compared to 78 percent of whites with similar test scores.”
As students of color, we supported each other in the Latinx affinity group. Being able to talk through the shock and confusion of racism with peers is healing. We often don’t get that same support from our institutions.
I was lucky to go to a small private school that was making a change to be more diverse, changing its criteria to hire more tenured faculty of color and accepting more underrepresented, low-income students. But it wasn’t nearly enough.
What we need is very clear: sensitivity training for faculty and staff; coursework and planning based on cultural competency; community and parental outreach; financial aid resources; and more tenured professors of color. While implementing these strategies will take a long time, ongoing efforts are making a difference.
Kristal Sotomayor attended a storytelling workshop sponsored by WHYY with a grant from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism.