Illustration by Lisha Zhong for Varsity

Content note: This article contains discussion of racial trauma, anxiety, depression, mania, and other symptoms of mental illness and recovery.

My life is not on pause. I’ve intermitted, yes, but my life is not on pause. Complicated as it was to get the correct psychiatric diagnoses and apply for the correct university allowances, the choice to intermit was not just a mental health thing – though the diagnosis of bipolar disorder and subsequent ‘she needs time to adjust on medication’ doctor’s note is the official reason for my intermission. Given that intermission required my deportation, it’s also a visa thing, a university administration thing, an access to services thing. Yet, still there are other factors, much more difficult to substantiate, related to my decision to intermit and eventually quit: it being a race thing, a gender thing, a migration thing, a trauma thing, a self-alienation thing. It is to these factors that I turn.

Specifically, I want to describe the personal, social, and psychological consequences of the process by which I, a foreigner who was part of the racial majority in my non-white majority home environment of Hong Kong, became racialised as a ‘woman of colour’ in white-majority environments. For I was not born a woman of colour, I became a woman of colour upon migration from Global South to Global North; and it has been a deeply confusing and troubling process to undergo.

Racialisation happened for me first in California, where I completed an undergraduate degree. I had a hard time relating to other students because I knew virtually nothing about the context in which I was living – about systemic racism, sexual or reproductive politics, incarceration, immigration, or education systems. I had to start learning about slavery and black America, about capitalism, about the model minority myth, and so on. And of course, after you understand the depth of injustice stacked against non-white bodies in America, if like me your politics weren’t progressive to begin with, they certainly were by the time that you graduated.

I am not particularly interested in labouring for a system that is actively invalidating my existence

But it’s not just a set of abstract political beliefs that change. It is change of self-perception, within oneself as self-regard and within society as political actor. In Hong Kong, I was raised self-assured because my racial, economic, and educational background put me in the ruling class. Acknowledging the rampant racism against black and brown bodies in Hong Kong, because the city is 90% ethnically Chinese, I could reliably expect to see people who looked like myself in every rung of society. In contrast, California had a markedly different community of relations, one in which I was in the minority. That required me to dislodge my Hong Kong conception of self and, given my body, learn to position myself as ‘woman of colour’.

Yet, there is no sign warning that in the process of figuring out how to exist as a woman of colour in a white and male privileging society, you have to change – and it is traumatic change. I find Hong Kong-born cultural critic Rey Chow’s description of compulsory self-debasement particularly helpful in providing me with language to articulate this traumatic process. Chow writes in Not a Native Speaker, “With the unleashing of the name comes the obligatory realisation that something... has been addressed and called into existence” – in my case, the label ‘woman of colour’. For me, this “compulsory ‘self’-recognition” as ‘woman of colour’ meant inexorably accepting “the laying-out of a trajectory of self-recognition from which the possibility of self-regard (or self-respect) has, nonetheless, been removed in advance”: one can only be or become oneself by “being/becoming less, by being/becoming diminished.” I do not yet possess the words to describe the cognitive dissonance and existential angst that results from working incredibly hard in secondary school to gain admission into elite overseas universities, only to be forced to accept a self-debasing trajectory – both in terms of self-understanding and as a socio-political agent – in which I have no choice but to view myself and act as inferior, in which I have no choice but to actively unlearn any notion of self-regard or self-respect I previously held.

For learning to become a woman of colour is learning that you and your story don’t exist. It is – on days when primary school children run up to you pulling their eyes taut, bowing profusely while screaming ‘Konichiwa’ – trying to take pride in ‘your history’ as a person of colour, in the legacies of Gandhi, Fanon, Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr., only to realise that history discarded their wives as nobodies. It is similarly trying to locate yourself in the women’s movement, only to find that white women sidelined women of colour. It is someone in college calling you racist because you’re the one who talks about experiencing racism. It is scavenging libraries and finding no books by anyone who looks like you or who shares your background, the library telling you that the postcolonial book you’re requesting ‘does not appear to be on the course list’. It is having white or male editors tell you that they’re not qualified to edit your writing, leaving you alone to articulate things that no one has articulated before. It is being reminded over and over again: you don’t belong here, you’re not good enough – and if you insist you are, we can’t and won’t help you.

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When I tried to be brave and be a woman of colour who sought institutional change in this repository of British elitism, I was struck down before I could even really begin. Around the end of strikes in April 2018 when there was mounting student interest but insufficient institutional direction in doing decolonisation work, my anxiety spiraled out of control. Elected as the inaugural BME Campaign Education Officer, I was responsible for the exorbitant task of centralising decolonisation efforts. But within the first week on the job, a right-wing newspaper reported on a closed document we were working on, publishing my name without my consent. I was terrified and did not leave my room for days. Not long after, I resigned as Education Officer for that and other mental health concerns.

Being a student here, academic work was never the most challenging aspect – existing was. Self-alienation is not a matter of choice, it is a matter of survival. Above even the manic-depressive episodes, it was the continual nagging, every minute of every day, of counting the cost – how much of myself do I need to castrate, how much am I willing to castrate, to align myself with the interests of whiteness and patriarchy that so vehemently go against the interests of my own being, just so I can survive here? – that is the most excruciating and exhausting part of being here. As Patricia Hill Collins wrote in Black Feminist Thought, “Much of my formal academic training has been designed to show me that I must alienate myself from my communities, my family, and even my own self in order to produce credible intellectual work.”

Chow describes how compulsory self-alienation and further self-debasement is a social phenomenon inflicted upon coloured bodies in white-majority societies, drawing upon Fanon’s experience as a black man encountering white civilisation: “The black man is not named as nothing. Rather, he is given a place in the community of relations as performed by the name; he is hailed as some thing – dirt, negro, [the n-word].” Yet for a woman of colour, the situation is arguably more existentially dire, for we are named as something less than nothing: we are shadow, non-existent, written out of history, faced with the abyss. I do not wish to appropriate the experience of black women, as I recognise the relative privilege I hold as someone of East Asian heritage, but I have found that what Audre Lorde famously wrote in A Litany for Survival still resonates: “We were never meant to survive.”

In case I have not been explicit enough, let me be clear now: Cambridge is invariably a white supremacist, misogynist place. No matter how progressive or leftist its individual members may be, no matter how progressive or leftist the institution may turn, its interests remain allied with a tradition of whiteness and patriarchy. A place does not have to elect an alt-right leader to be ‘certified’ as white supremacist and misogynist. Racism and sexism are not to be understood in terms of individual or corporate acts or attitudes – they are structural, historic, embedded. To succeed as a student at Cambridge requires one to ally with the interests of whiteness and patriarchy. For women of colour, the cost of this alliance is nothing short of complete destruction of any meaningful, positive conception of self. And it is in large part because I will no longer bare this cost of compulsorily self-alienation and self-debasement that I have chosen to intermit and subsequently quit. I’ve quit, yes, but it’s not a life on pause thing – it’s a choosing life thing.

I leave you with the confusion and anguish of the ongoing, unwritten script of my story

When I say I ‘choose life’, I mean that I choose to prioritise my and others’ wellbeing and to do the personal and political work necessary to make such a state of being well within myself and for others around me possible. This is hard work. It demands patience, persistence, confusion, and failure to carefully disentangle each need, to identify and trial possible solutions, to evaluate the success and sustainability of each solution. I’ve learned that some wellbeing needs are more urgent than others. My mania, anxiety attacks, depression, and psychosis required immediate psychiatric attention that I could only access in Cambridge. But as those psychiatric symptoms fade and my needs as a woman of colour resurface, I find my interactions with mental health professionals – all of whom were white middle class except for the BME counselor at UCS whom I explicitly requested – unknowingly exacerbating my needs as a woman of colour. To meet those needs, I need to go somewhere that encourages feminist, decolonial knowledge production – in other words, I must leave Cambridge.

Yet even as I have chosen to leave, I know it will get asked: what could be done to make things better? Part of the trouble with Cambridge is that there are virtually no institutional structures or paid positions to support minority students. There are few internal pockets of resistance, such as a physical and staffed BME, Queer, or Women’s Resource Centre similar to the Disability Resource Centre, that would both help decolonise the broader university and provide a space-within-a-space where minority students can take a break from allying themselves with a self-objectifying gaze. These spaces existed where I studied in California, a school of only 1,600 students. In contrast, the incredibly few BME staff in Cambridge are assigned the extra burden of being ‘race champions’; teaching remains horrifically Eurocentric because the discourse on (post-)colonialism, decolonisation, and reparations in this country is itself woefully underdeveloped. Insofar as Cambridge continues to pride itself on tradition – 800 years of excluding women and people of colour – it will need much, much more than a Legacy of Slavery Inquiry or the appointment of a black female Master of Jesus College to become a place that does not perpetuate white and male privilege.

But to be honest, instigating institutional change is not why I write – I am not particularly interested in labouring for a system that is actively invalidating my existence. As Kenyan ’ex-’academic Keguro Macharia wrote about his process of racialisation as a black man in America, “I [am] tired of performing a psychic labor that [leaves] me too exhausted to do anything except go home, crawl into bed, try to recover, and prepare for the next series of assaults.”


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Perhaps selfishly, I write because I need to find words for my story, if even just for myself. I write because I need to know that my story has value. I write because I need the depression, anxiety, daily existential crises of disassociation, of disorientation to be seen, validated, understood. But as Hannah Gadsby said in her one-woman Netflix show Nanette, “I just don’t have the strength to take care of my story anymore.” I am tired, incredibly tired, of occupying this body in this society. I have little energy to do more than write these words for myself. I do not have concrete solutions to the various problems posed in this essay. All I can do is leave you with the confusion and anguish that is the ongoing, unwritten script of my story. As Hannah Gadsby concluded, “All I can ask is just please help me take care of my story.”

Help me tell my story by demanding to learn and be taught about British colonial history and its legacies, about specific histories with regards to race and gender. Help me tell my story by learning how to identify potentially unconscious alliances to whiteness and patriarchy, unlearning those alliances, and learning how to dismantle them instead. Help me tell my story by reading stories and articles written by women and people of color. Help me tell my story by making space for all the other women of colour, especially British-born women of colour, for their brilliance and their struggle.

I am done with being a woman of colour and have chosen to leave Britain - but that is not an option for many of my sisters who have no choice but to brace this oppression. Help me tell my story by prioritising listening to theirs.

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