The racism of being tolerated: The experience of being brown women in “International Relations”

Imagine this: you’ve just been accepted to one of the best International Relations programs in the world. You arrive at Tufts, but it is not what you thought—it’s selectively “international”. Much like how feminist theorist Cynthia Enloe famously asked “Where are the women?” in International Relations, we—“brown,” “foreign,” “women”—ask “Where are the women who look like us?” We also ask, “How are they treated?” While Tufts may be increasingly diverse, it is not inclusive. Those who hold senior positions in the school administration and faculty are largely male and white. Courses about us are seen through the lens of “the other” and deemed less rigorous and too specialized. Tufts needs to do more: implement caste protections, prioritize representative and diverse faculty and course offerings, and create spaces of care and inclusion. 

Simply put, we want to be celebrated, not just tolerated. 

Congratulations, you’re the right kind of brown

When applying to graduate school, we were acutely aware of our positionality as brown women. We felt an inexplicable sense of responsibility to be brilliant. A responsibility driven predominantly by the fear of misrepresenting “our people.” The fear that, if we said the wrong things, it would be held against everyone that looks like us. 

As South Asians, this fear is compounded by the awareness that being the right kind of brown is built on privilege. Privilege in the form of financial support and in the form of support networks that help us take on the emotional labor that applying to a prestigious school entails. These are privileges that help replicate the caste-based social hierarchy wherever we go. However, the right kind of brown is a speaks when spoken to archetype of empowerment. And people aren’t speaking about caste. 

So we live with the responsibility of representing our people and the silent hypocrisy of knowing that we don’t. We’re at different points in our academic journeys now, but the only constant for both of us has been the weight of this responsibility we didn’t ask for but will never turn away from. 

There are several factors that disadvantage brown women trying to study IR. It all starts with picking a school and a program. It should be news to no one that IR as a discipline suffers from westcentrism and was born out of imperialist logic. It is, however, disappointing to see how little is being done to remodel programmes to accurately reflect power and politics as they exist in the international system. Let’s say you overcome the first obstacle and find a reputed school like Tufts that offers diverse fields of study and various specialized programs. What next? 

You evaluate your worth unkindly, of course. So you rule out the programs that don’t interest you. Then you rule yourself out of the programs that you think you’re not qualified for, yet, somehow, you land up here at Tufts. 

Overworked, overprepared, and underappreciated

One of the first things you notice in an IR school is the silent hierarchy of course offerings. You gaslight yourself into thinking it isn’t real. But disciplines like security, business, and law that are thought to require a higher level of skill, technical knowledge, or innate aptitude are treated as more important. They are largely taught by tenured male faculty. Disciplines of culture, race, gender, and several others—the “softer” disciplines—though offered, are not valued the same and are seen as less employable and less rigorous. Obviously, they more often are taught by faculty who are women, gender non-binary, and of color. They’re probably adjunct contract workers who are underpaid, overworked, and, most likely, “disposable.”

So when brown women try to find their place in this hierarchy, the assumption is that we will be more interested in the disciplines that don’t require a high level of skill, technical knowledge, or innate aptitude—things we are seen to not possess. For those of us who choose to study disciplines at the top of the hierarchy, we are often presumed incompetent. We are not taken “seriously.” The standards for brilliance are designed to not include our work. Research by and about us is seen as anecdotal, less rigorous, and not theoretical. Our panels are relegated to the small rooms at conferences, our events are publicized less, and our research is funded less. Our critical commentaries are framed as ranting and raging (just as this one will be). 

And for those of us who choose the softer disciplines (a choice both of us have made), we face the same struggles. But we are also a self-fulfilling prophecy, weaponised against those who look like us and follow similar paths: incompetent people study incompetent disciplines. As a faculty member once described one of our feminist ethnographic projects, we are “only talking about [our] feelings.”

In addition to exceeding the unrealistic standards of brilliance, there is a quiet expectation that we will provide free labor by educating those around us about the very conditions that oppress us. We’ll serve on diversity, equity, and inclusion committees, organize intersectional conferences, and appear in photographs on the university website touting the diversity of the student body. This isn’t new. But we are tired. This free emotional, intellectual, and physical labor we perform causes what Audre Lorde described as a “constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.” 

Despite this, we persevere. We speak. What then? Do our words change systems? No. Because we are either seen to speak for all of us or none of us. We represent what every brown person thinks or just ourselves. Brownness is either homogeneous or hyper-individual. It’s all or nothing. Because these aren’t facts. 

Facts are white. Opinions are brown. 

From fighting for existence to demanding exuberance

The individual and collective exhaustion caused by these microaggressions is anything but small. We’ve created small spaces of care and joy on campus and off, where we “tend to” and “attend to” each other. As Audre Lorde says, care and joy have become forms of resistance. But it is time for more. It is time that the system listened and changed. Changed so that we can stop fighting to exist, and start demanding opportunities for excellence and spaces for exuberance. The structures around us need to be redesigned for more than just our survival; they need to be designed for our pleasure. 

Sunil Kumar was recently appointed as the incoming President of Tufts University, the first person of color to have been appointed to this position. Does this signal progress, or is it a representation of the insidious mechanisms that maintain power asymmetries? We hope that making visible the everyday racist microaggressions helps Kumar make good on his commitment to exploring “how to make the Tufts experience available to more people, and how to make sure the experience is even better.”

Tufts needs to invest its resources in creating visible spaces for us to “celebrate our unbelonging.” There is a need to go beyond numbers. The student body’s diversity doesn’t imply its inclusivity. The fact that regional and racial diversity is increasing doesn’t imply socioeconomic diversity is, too. So where do we go from here?

Building trust is an important part of creating space to celebrate “unbelonging.” We need to trust you when you say we matter. We need to see more people that look like us, being treated how we hope to be treated. We welcome the appointment of the new President, which is a step in the right direction, but only one of many that are yet to be taken. We need to see that the issues we care about are issues that matter to the university. For example, Tufts is yet to identify caste as a protected category, a step taken by several universities across the country, most recently Brown

We need to see that you recognize the heterogeneity of being brown and celebrate it. We need more funding and scholarships. We need to see our research highlighted. We need a break—we’re exhausted.

Last month, one of us (along with a team of 10 wonderful humans) organized Fletcher’s largest student-run conference, The Gender Conference. In the aftermath of an enriching academic opportunity, we were told that the conference “was good but too South Asian.” Too South Asian in this context was defined as seven out of the 27 speakers we invited being of South Asian origin. 

We need to know that we are at a university that deserves our labour. A university that recognises that, however we choose to show up, we are not too little, we are not too much. We are enough.