In conjunction with our “BME Women, White Uni” conference at the end of the month, last year we photographed and conducted interviews with several students, staff and alumni at KCL to find out about their experiences as BME women in the King’s community. From this, we created a series of posters which will be appearing on campus within the next few weeks. In the run up to conference, we will be posting these images and transcribed interviews onto the blog.
Here’s what happened when this year’s Co-Vice President (and last year’s President) Shruti Iyer went to interview Rena Minegishi (who was at the time a 3rd year English Literature student), Shanice McBean (KCL IFemSoc President 2013/14 & Philosophy graduate) and Rachel Williams (at the time a 3rd year Neuroscience student & now KCLSU’s VP of Welfare and Community):
SI: Hi, I’m Shruti, the president of the Intersectional Feminist Society, and I’m here with Rena, Shanice and Rachel. Also, there is a running joke that we are only doing this campaign so that we can have Shanice’s face all over the Strand.
SM: I have no problem with this.
SI: Great. Rena, tell us something about yourself.
RM: I just graduated with BA English Language & Literature from King’s. I was studying internationally, being from China and Japan. I always knew I wanted to study literature but I chose English Language & Literature because I went to international schools since I was 10, so my primary language became English [instead of Japanese/Chinese], my academic language was all English, and of course you get taught the great Western canon: the series of Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, etc. I remember even feeling that, perhaps in order to study — at that time I had a plan to go to grad school and spend my life researching literature — I had to start with English. I thought that it was the very basis of literary research, for some reason — I mean, internalised racism.
While I did have a great experience at King’s, and I really liked my professors and modules, I have to admit that a lot of people who come into English literature degrees, especially if they are English — which most of my classmates were –they do so with no intention of questioning why the canon is canon. We would have cursory conversation in classes where they would read postcolonial theory or gender theory, but the fact that nobody questions the place of canon, that the questioning of canon is considered cursory, or as elective modules, speaks a lot.
I also remember an instance in my poetry seminar, where there were maybe 15 people. Everyone was white, including the professor, except me, my black friend, and an East Asian study abroad student. We were reading a Frank O’Hara poem, who associated with a lot of beat poets, and he himself is considered one of the greatest American poets. The poem started as a really personal introspection of himself, then went onto a stanza where he listed very brief stereotypical snapshots. The lines went something like: ‘I am a girl coming down the stairs in a red dress / I am a Chinaman climbing the mountains / I am an African prince”. The white girl in front of me went, ‘oh, this is such a beautiful poem! how he moves from self exploration, going onto explore all these identities.’
RM: I said, ‘he’s not exploring any of these identities. He’s just listing stereotypes one by one. He doesn’t know what it’s like to be a girl, he definitely doesn’t know what it’s like to be a Chinese man climbing mountains, or to be an African prince. He’s only briefly using these images as props. He even uses the slur Chinaman.’ I was immediately shot down by my classmates who repeatedly said to me, ‘oh, but Chinaman is a word of its time.’ I had three white people say that slur to my face in a matter of minutes, and I wanted to say, ‘you don’t even understand it’s a slur. I just told you it’s a slur, you shouldn’t even be saying that word out loud to me.’ and then I realised that a lot of people are going to graduate from this degree still idolising Frank O’Hara, still idolising Allen Ginsberg who once wrote that he wished he could be ‘even a poor overworked Jap’ because he wanted to escape white American-ness?
SI: why would you want to escape white American-ness?
RM: right, you have nothing to run from. Because of my identity as a non-white woman, I naturally came to question why I adore these western canons, this alliance of white masculinity. But I also understand that a lot of people won’t.
SM: I just graduated with a Bachelor’s in Philosophy, and my experiences were diametrically opposed to Rena’s, but not in a good way. [Laughs] We never had the actual opportunity to even discuss racism or gender, or sexuality – aside from one module in third year, Gender and Philosophy, which looked at the Western conception of marriage, family, and actually quite sexist conceptions of sexuality.
SI: It looked really liberal though, the syllabus?
SM: It was deeply liberal, but what ended up happening was that people who were already fairly left wing, already had an understanding of feminism, took the course; people who didn’t have any conceptions of gender and how that influences all the other fields didn’t bother taking the course because they didn’t see it as relevant to them. I think that’s actually something that’s massively reflected in philosophy in general – the fact that philosophy’s actually very much influenced by either white or Western way of thinking, or very male, patriarchal way of thinking. They don’t analyse themselves internally. One of the facets of King’s analytics department, that just focuses on the logic of things, and doesn’t look at how things are internally crafted. Also I think it’s the problem with academic fields in general, which is why I want to move to SOAS [laughs], because at SOAS you get to study the way in which gender and politics and philosophy works, not just in the Western context.
RW: I’m Rachel, I’m still at King’s. I’m in my third year studying neuroscience. It’s a difficult subject to study, not just academically, but it’s difficult to be in a room full of people who are trying to learn about the brain, and have no inclination to learn about the social aspects of how our society can shape the brain, how the brain is not biologically determined in terms of sex and gender, things like that though, just a lot of close minded people on the course. One thing that struck me recently was: we were talking about an infectious disease, which a white scientist discovered. The lecturer simply said, ‘he was in Africa, took some samples from his black participants there, brought them over to England, and the results were quite controversial.’ And the reason that they were controversial is not because he’d taken biological samples from people without their informed consent, but because he had used an electron microscope.
RW: That was something you would question! It’s that kind of complete ignorance, complete lack of being willing to understand how something like that might affect how our science is shaped. There are so many ways in that people’s prejudices are affecting the science that we have. Like now I’m in my third year, and people are taking on experimental projects. And people have gone down the more psychology route of neuroscience. And there’ve been two people recently who have come up to me and said ‘we’re doing a study on how sexuality affects these factors’, I don’t remember exactly what they were, and they said they’re looking for gay men, lesbian women, straight men and women. And I said ‘oh I’m bisexual, do you need any bisexuals?’ They’re like, ‘oh… no, but if you can find me straight or gay people, that would be really helpful.’
SI: So much for the theory ‘everyone’s a little bisexual’, right?
RW: Exactly. There are so many different ways in which people study science and see me as a confounding variable. It’s a very strange environment to be in. In my first year, I had another lecture about oestrogen and its effect on the body. The lecturer said ‘now I’m going to tell you guys a little joke’, and he showed us a newspaper article which claimed that beer was turning men into women, because of the oestrogen in content. It said [men] become more sloppy, have worse moods, more irritable–
SI: Isn’t that just men anyway?
RW: He just basically presented a whole leap of misogynistic stereotypes, as a joke to say ‘haha, look at oestrogen and what it can do to us! Isn’t femininity and womanhood such a joke, something to laugh at?’ And of course nobody questioned it, because we’re not taught to think in that way. I mean the only time we have been encouraged to think in that way is in our philosophy module in second year. Because we don’t get any choice in modules until third year, it’s all strictly molecules and chemicals and ‘don’t think about how people think because that’s not relevant to your work as a neuroscientist, that’s not what science is about’. When we had the philosophy module, people said, ‘it’s the most difficult module in the whole course!’ But that’s actually because you had to think for yourself rather than memorising a list of words. Some of the things that people came out with in that module still make me laugh to this day.
SM: On the question of science — I live with mostly socialists, except for one of my housemates, who’s not a socialist, but is definitely left-wing. He’s really awesome on the question of oppression. But there’s this tendency to try and look at science and use it to offer some explanation for social phenomena like racism and xenophobia. So we were having a discussion about xenophobia and he was saying that there’s some form of biological basis to xenophobia: because when we’re younger, we’re around our families and we recognise the sameness [in appearance]. As a result of that, you end up fearing what doesn’t look like you. And that’s the biological basis for xenophobia. But also he said that because our brain can recognise difference — just the mere fact that we can recognise difference — is a biological basis for xenophobia.
RM: That’s bullshit.
SI: Oh my god.
SM: It got to the point in the conversation where he said ‘no no, I didn’t say that! I didn’t say there
was a biological basis for xenophobia,’ but he did say it. I love him to bits, he’s awesome, but… This is coming from someone as well who has experimented with gender and therefore is not an essentialist in terms of gender, but it still able to use biological arguments to justify [some
RW: Yeah, I think a lot people of just don’t question science because we’re not taught to question science. We’re taught that scientific theory is objective. That’s the number one thing you learn about science. And it’s not true, because scientists aren’t objective.
SI: Yeah absolutely. My dad’s a doctor, and he knows zero to nothing about the fact that sex is socially constructed. And that’s a really common sight as well, because in India you have a lot of tran swomen that beg at streetlights, and they’re also considered to be capable of bewitching. So my dad was like, ‘you’re a feminist! Let’s talk about this.’ So I completely demolished that concept, saying how scientifically there is no actual basis for sex, because obviously there are intersex people, amass of different characteristics that don’t necessarily have to be with one sex or the other. And my dad was just like, ‘well that’s really not what my medical textbook said. Are you sure you’re not just making this up?’ and I had to be like, ‘no, other scientists agree with me!’ My own arguments from the humanities have to come from this root: ‘but science agrees with me’. Science is what’s ‘objective and rational’.
I’ve had really horrible experiences in lectures as well: in my criminal law lecture last year — I stopped going after one lecture, which I think says something — he [the lecturer] put up a slide of a woman behind a cage, right, and she’s half naked. He’s like, ‘to bring in some of the interesting issues in criminal law, like the issue of consent — some feminists would call this picture exploitative, but I don’t think it’s exploitative, because clearly the woman consented to it, that’s why there’s a picture.’ I was like, ‘you’re operating on a reductive and really horrible understanding of consent, so I’m never coming to your class again, bye.’ I feel like academia doesn’t do what they need to do to stamp out this kind of behaviour as well. Throughout my criminal law class, we had an entire section on sexual offences. Some of the case law that we had to read were horribly triggering, like details of years and years of abuse — and there was no trigger warning, no one to say ‘this material could be potentially triggering’. Academia lets so much of this slide.
SM: Just to go back to the question of lack of biological basis for sex – it’s a really easy thing to think about. There are two key questions you could ask: 1. why don’t we categorise people according to the size of their ears?
SI: Whether they have diabetes or not.
SM: Yeah! Why don’t we categorise it as: half the population has diabetes, and the other half doesn’t, and this is a natural biological taxonomy of categorise people. Also, isn’t it convenient that the way in which we categorise the body matches to how society needs us to work?
RW: People say stuff like ‘it’s just about XX and XY’, but you don’t know what chromosomes you have! I will say that right now. It takes an expensive test to find out. Even if they test one part of your body, you might be a genetic mosaic — that means you have different sets of genes throughout your body. You could be any kind of combination, you don’t know. So people really need to calm down with this XX/XY thing, because they don’t know.
SI: I love having Rachel around, she’s like the resident feminist scientist. To everyone who disagrees with us, Rachel has science!
RW: [Laughs] I do. Remember how people say things like ‘doctors don’t care’. Like, they do care! Because it is helpful — because the patient’s background is crucial to how you treat them. So saying that they don’t care, they just want to know what you’re assigned at birth — that’s not true. because if you give them the additional information as how you identify — I just can’t deal with these people who think it’s not important.
RM: Obviously natural sciences are considered the more rational, unchanging, hard science and social science not, but I think as academics, or baby academics, it’s really important for us to realise that they are absolutely necessary to each other. I mean, in Bodies That Matter Judith Butler writes a lot about social sex, but she also prefaces the book with how she’s not claiming that only gender is construction, that sex is also a construction: historically, sex has been a contested ground, there have been many kinds of third sexes or non-binary sexes to many cultures because of particular body attributes.
We also may think that arts department might be a lot better [at handling question of oppression], but I don’t know if that’s true. For example, Pat Palmer, Senior Lecturer at English department, is incredible — she’s an Irish woman, and she gave me the first ever lecture of my degree, where she asked: ‘why are we studying English? Why is English so dominantly present in this world? I need you all to realise that there is no language that is inherently superior to another: no language is inherently better, or easier, or more beautiful, artistic. It’s not that English has the best conjugations; it is about military history and conquest. The reason why we speak English, why I speak English now to you, is because English speakers have colonised us.’ So that was a very good note to start on. But it is honestly lost on a lot of people who think that the subject they study is apolitical. I even have seen people in my courses who think literature is apolitical. In second year, Pat Palmer asked us, right after the strike for non-STEM funding cuts, ‘if I asked you to write 500 words on why arts and humanities are important, could you do it?’ and a lot of people honestly said they couldn’t. A classmate even claimed that it was masturbatory of us to study literature, because ‘medical students are studying it to help other people, whereas we’re sitting at home reading books we like, not thinking about the world.’
SI: Oh my god.
RW: That speaks more about them than the degree.
RM: Exactly! I would like to point to the fact that books have been burnt for centuries because of their threat, because they are powerful. We really can’t have this awareness stamped out of us while we’re still in academia.
SI: Back to English as a language of conquest, I always find that paradigm really interesting — because I come to England and find how people here, and also bourgeois intellectuals in India, go on about how great English is, how English is a weapon — people like me, people of privilege that can’t speak their mother tongues as fluent as we would like to. So there’s much of this romanticising and nostalgia of, ‘what if we lived in a world where we can all speak our mother tongues properly?’ But it’s interesting because if you look at liberation movements throughout history, they’ve always see English as a language of liberation. So, Ambedkar writes quite powerfully about how English is the only tool for liberation because Sanskrit was denied to them for 2500 years by Brahmin people. My friend was telling me how this is similar with the South African struggle for independence, how they saw English as language of liberation because Afrikaans is only spoken by wealthier, white people. I’m also interested in how race and geographical locations have so much to do with romanticisation of certain languages. I think it’s easier to romanticise England and English when you’re away from it — I grew up in the Commonwealth, reading Enid Blyton all the time.
RM: Jacqueline Wilson for me.
SI: Yeah! Jacqueline Wilson, Enid Blyton — all I would read was about crumpets and scones, and I was like ‘oh, England must be so beautiful! Where are all the thistles and the meadows?’ And then I came to Britain and it was so dreary and grey!
RM: The food sucks!
RW: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of romanticisation of science as well. Especially the life sciences — those considered biomedical science rather than natural science — there’s a huge erasure of how much medical science is dependent on the use and exploitation of black people. We wouldn’t have gynaecology if it weren’t for scientists deciding that they could use black women’s bodies in horrible ways. So many drug trials have been tested on people who didn’t know that they were being used as trials. The famous Tuskegee syphilis trial, where they injected syphilis into black American men in the South and just observed what happened to them. Then there’s Henrietta Lacks: they used her cells to produce a cell line that would never die. They still use her cells, they never asked for permission — they just took them from a tumour. There are so many cases of exploitation of black people in science, and people never discuss it. And these things are relevant. I’ve had someone on my neuroscience course say some of the most vile things to me. We were watching Blood Diamond, and he said to me during the film, ‘you know how black people are genetically less evolved then everyone else?’
All: [Collective groan]
RM: Oh my god.
RW: And let me tell you his theory. Life started in Africa, yeah? And black people come from Africa! So while everyone else moved around and evolved, black people just stayed the same. In Africa. He’s a neuroscientist! He’s supposed to know about genetics. These are the kinds of people who come out of university that doesn’t challenge them to think as to how race affects the science that we do. And there will be papers backing this stuff up. Only a few years ago at LSE, someone published a paper that said black women weren’t as scientifically beautiful.
SM: And do you know what, I just wanted to comment on that, because those studies are so hilarious and it’s a similar thing with Simon Baron-Cohen. They’re based on self report! They get people in a room, who are filled with society’s prejudices, ask them a question, and expect the answers to reflect some objective reality. Like, Simon Baron-Cohen did a study which, he claims, showed that women are more empathetic. Do you know what he did to get the results? He asked women how empathetic they think they are. [Laughs]
SM: I’m not being funny, there’s a social expectation that women are more empathetic, of course they’re going to self-report being more empathetic than men. And I was reading Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine–
All: [Collective approval] Yesssssss
SM: –fantastic book; there are studies that when you don’t prime for gender by asking ‘are you empathetic’, which primes gender, makes gender salient — if you motivate both men and women with money in a study, both men and women are equally likely to be as empathetic as each other. It just goes to show that behavioural patterns are determined by social pressures that are applied to us.
RW: Putting that back in university — some of Simon Baron-Cohen’s works are core readings for the gender differences module run by the School of Biomedical Sciences. I don’t take this module, but someone I know does, and he said that it wasn’t just men nodding along and agreeing with these notions that women were less skilled at spacial tasks–
SM: –which is also not true–
RW: –No. But there were also women nodding along, and adding more on top.
SI: Also, when we talk about things like consent and medical trials, some of these conversations were sparked by the Ebola outbreak. A lot of the justification for why Zenmap wasn’t given to people in West Africa was: they can’t consent. So you’re saying ‘oh, we don’t want to do that any more, we want to get consent.’ But you’re also not asking for that consent?
SM: Also, that’s hypocritical because Depo-Provera, the drug that was used on black women for years, and is used by Israel against Jewish Ethiopian women, to sterilise them — it just goes to show how much black women’s bodies are devalued across the pond. Take Jewish Ethiopian women, you’ve got an Israeli state saying that they’re the state for Jewish people, ‘we value Jewish people, but we’re gonna sterilise black Jewish women’. [Laughs]
RW: But I don’t even know if it’s to say that our bodies are devalued, because they’re obviously valuable in the way that people will fight to continue to exploit them. They have a value, but it’s more dehumanisation and being able to profit off of black women’s bodies, rather than devaluing them completely, if that makes sense.
SM: I agree.
SI: It also applies a specific gaze to black women, how their bodies are presented.
SI: What got you interested in race and gender? And what advice would you give to people who are interested in these questions, starting out as young feminists?
RW: What got me interested in race and gender — I don’t know. I remember the first time I realised I was different, in a way that wasn’t ‘I like tomato ketchup and you don’t’. It was when I was in primary school. I had moved from Birmingham to London, and within the first two weeks of school a white boy said to me, ‘go back to Africa’. At this point I didn’t know the significance of it, and just said ‘I’m not from Africa’. [Laughs] I went home and told my parents, and they told me what racism was, which wasn’t a fun conversation. I think I really started to think about race and gender together when I learned what intersectionality meant, that was the first time where I’d seen them discussed together in the context of feminism, which had always felt really exclusive, white women in boardrooms, to me. That’s what sparked it, and it got intensified when I first heard about that paper that tried to prove that black women were the least attractive. I was in sixth form at the time, and I remember discussing it in a class — people around me were saying ‘oh but you know, it’s science, it must be true,’ and I had to argue against people for my humanity. And I was like, ‘maybe this is important in the context of science as well.’ That’s when everything came together for me.
SM: I have no idea what got me interested in race and gender. I have a really weird political history and I don’t know what got me involved. But what I know that motivates me, continuing to be interested in it, is observing this really weird, perverse disunity between struggles should naturally be united. I was reading Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, the collection of essays she wrote that had been put together in the early parts of the 2000s, and she has this really cool analogy of vertical and horizontal struggles, and vertical and horizontal power. The way in which people who have similar interests — black lesbians, black women, black men, white working class women, trans people — end up hating each other because either there’s racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia — rather than realising that actually: all these things we hate each other for, and all these oppressions that we offload onto each other, is to the benefit of the people who are oppressing us from above that we don’t look up and realise is there. I think that disunity between black communities and LGBTQ communities, trans communities, is what motivates me to try to find a connection between them.
RM: One thing I thought was very scary, thinking back to when I was growing up — of course when you ask a very reductive question like, ‘do you care about humanity?’ and you answer ‘yes’, what’s most often pushed to us is this notion of ‘everyone is equal. Let’s have peace, let’s not fight, we can work everything out with hugs’. When reading feminist literature and critical race theory, which are the very things that have formed my opinions to this day, there was the little ten year-old me being like, ‘but isn’t this biased? Shouldn’t we read a non-biased source?’ But there is no non-biased source. If you don’t take an active stance against oppression you are already complicit in it, because that is the dominant, all-absorbing nature of oppression. In order to keep conscientious of the world around you, you really have to come from a place of resistance, against the inequities already in place. Not the middle ground, because there is no middle ground where neither the oppressor or the oppressed doesn’t interfere with you. I think that’s what was difficult for me to grasp at the beginning.
Especially even now, as I see people around me who say ‘well, of course I’m appalled by how women get raped on campus, but it’s a bit extreme to be reading feminist literature’. No, it’s quite extreme to not be reading it. I often think there is almost a sociopathic tendency of having to relate everything back to you, otherwise you cannot empathise — which I think is very scary, and a result of historical oppression. That we are so disintegrated as people that we cannot empathise with minorities who are being abused, unless we are told ‘what if it was your sister?’ Why should we have to link somebody to ourselves directly in order to humanise them? That’s a question I keep in mind when thinking about liberation.
SM: I think that’s amazing advice. I was just thinking the other day — you know what’s happening in ISIS, and the beheadings — which, of course you know, beheading is a horrible thing to happen — but the reactions of people are, I think, sociopathic. 2000 people in Palestine can die, and there’s a debate at King’s: ‘is this justified?’ And one journalist gets beheaded, and it’s like, ‘oh my god, the world is over, these inhumane people.’ And yes, they are inhumane… but so was the war in Iraq! So was slavery!
SI: Exactly. Whose interests are they serving?
SM: You’re absolutely right. How is it that we’re about to disassociate ourselves from the beheadings of thousands of innocent kids, who have bombs dropped on them? How is it that we can have a debate about whether that’s justified, and at the same time, react with such rejection of other instances of violence? I think that is called oppression. When you look at a Muslim and look at the killings that Muslims do and say, ‘that’s disgusting. That’s barbaric, inhumane,’ but over here your parliament has just dropped bombs on innocent Iraqis. ‘That’s because of the war, that had to happen, we have to get rid of ISIS, we have to protect our interests’. That is sociopathic.
RW: My piece of advice is to never stop questioning things, because sometimes people get complacent, when they go ‘oh yeah, this is bad. So this is the way to fight the struggle,’ and then they stop questioning themselves and stop looking at what they’re doing. And in that, they’re complicit in other types of oppression — or the way they think they’re fighting is still an oppressive strategy —
RM: How many sexist leftists have you met?
RW: Exactly. So I think, ‘never stop questioning’ is a simple but important piece of advice.
SI: Great note to end on! Thank you all for being here.
SM/RM/RW: Thank you for having us.
Don’t forget to book tickets to the conference on 31st October here.