I Am A Woman Of Color Studying English Literature. Why Aren’t There More Of Us?

by Simi Kaur


I am currently a university student studying English Literature. I sit in a lecture hall filled with 400 students, approximately ten of whom are people of color. Glancing around the lecture hall, the lack of diversity stuns me. As a British Indian, this makes me feel alone and secluded, like there is no one else out there like me. And it’s not only in the lecture hall: I take a look at my life and realize that within my friendship group, there is no racial diversity, because I have made friends with people in my course. And then it strikes me: Perhaps the course is the problem. It is not diverse enough, and this is really having an effect on me. I know plenty of people of color who have the talent and the enthusiasm to study the arts — so where are they?

There are plenty of us out there. However, are enough of us encouraged to study what we want? The answer is no, and society does nothing to help this. The root of the problem is both the universities and the lack of familial encouragement.

First, the universities. Most people in a position of power at my university appear to be white. Not once have I seen nor heard a person of color lecturer. Why is this? Why are we continuously under-represented and underappreciated? Because I know there are enough of us out there. Our lectures are like a packet of pencils in just one shade. I want to see different shades, different stories. I want our women to be seen and heard. We come in ALL shades.

The English Literature curriculum also lacks racial diversity. I would like to ask my university why we do not study enough texts written by people of color. I find myself at a loss — I can never seem to fit in or sympathize with the characters, because the characters are all white, and the stories are told from a white point of view. Even the novels that deal with racism are told from a white perspective. I am the only person of color in my seminar. In fact, in all of the seminars I have been in, I have been the only non-white person. When our discussion topic was on racism, all of a sudden I had so much to say, yet I couldn’t help but stay reserved. I was afraid of being judged. I was petrified of receiving backlash for how I felt. I was anxious to see all twelve pale faces turn their heads towards me with their bright blue, piercing eyes. This is how I feel most days at university.

Is this right? Because to me, it feels as though I have been passively racially belittled. How can we go on like this? No person of color should ever feel subjected this kind of racism. We should never feel isolated or alone, or ever have to feel obligated to represent our own race in a room full of white people. It is overwhelming. During that seminar, a little voice in my head screamed, “Insecure.” I had never felt more singled out and neglected than when every pale head turned to face me in the room, waiting for my take on racism. Because apparently their take is enough. Why has it never been questioned that we do not have diverse people giving lectures on the troubles of racism? Or that we do not have diverse lecturers at all in some cases? This troubles me deeply.

Racism is embedded within our society. I never want to be referred to as “that Indian friend.” Yes, I am British Indian, however, I am more than that, I am a person. I would never introduce anyone as “my white friend” because I would feel as small as the freckles on my skin. And the freckles on my face are small, however, they matter to me. They are both my insecurity and my strength.

I know plenty of people of color who have the talent and the enthusiasm to study the arts — so where are they? 

I do not want to be that “Sikh friend,” introduced by my ethnicity or my religion because of my appearance. I would never introduce someone as “my Christian friend” or ” my white friend.” It is morally wrong and unacceptable. Religion and ethnicity are part of who we are, but they do not define us as people. We are so much more than this. We have a personality just like everyone else. Why are we still “othered” in society?

Second, our communities. Many young women of color want to study the arts, however, their reputation at home is holding them back. Many Indian students have asked me, “How did your parents let you study English Literature?” I simply say to them, “My parents wanted me to choose my future.” When it comes to your future, it is YOU who decides, not your parents or society.

Of all the women of color I know at my university, all of them are studying either a science or business. None of them are studying the arts. A while ago, I met a student who was from India. When I introduced myself and my area of study, she said that it was amazing that my parents let me do what I wanted to do. She also stated that she would have done something similar if she could. I asked her what she studied and sure enough, it was a science. I asked if her if she was passionate about this, and she said, “No.” She continued to tell me that she was just “making her parents happy,” and that it was too late to study what she would have if she had “the choice.”

Parents, answer this, at what point will it be worth it? When your daughter breaks down? When she no longer has any time to spend with her family? When she becomes ill or depressed? When she is no longer happy because she cannot share her passion with the world? Because this is how a lot of women of color feel today. Parents, you have a responsibility, too. Please do not discourage your children from doing what they love.

I know I am not alone in feeling othered at my university. A few years ago, the Guardian reported on a project called “I, too, am Oxford.” In the project, Oxford students of color posed for photos holding up signs either describing or responding to the attitudes white students and professors displayed. This project shows how far away we still are from achieving equality. Why do we still live in a society where everyone is judged primarily by their skin color or their race? We should embrace our differences and welcome diversity.

I want to encourage all women of color to be what you want to be, not what someone else wants you to be. The longest relationship you will ever have is with yourself, so make sure that that relationship is the strongest. There is no point in trying to make other people happy if you are not.

Do whatever makes you happy, girls.

top photo via Pexels

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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