Survivorship Looks Different in the Asian American Community

Samiksha

 

Samiksha Manjani is a Student Staff member at UMBC’s Women’s Center. She is a Political Science and Sociology double-major and is currently a co-facilitator of the Women’s Center’s discussion group, Women of Color Coalition.  

 

 

As a survivor of sexual violence, I have found myself re-traumatized by the recent events that have happened at UMBC. In the aftermath, I struggled to focus in my classes and could barely complete my work. Despite this, I somehow managed to get by with everyday going by in a blur. I went through the motions day-in and day-out. I was slowly sinking back into depression.

One of the most common emotional and psychological responses to sexual violence is depression (RAINN). Depression is a mood disorder which occurs when feelings of sadness and hopelessness persist for long periods of time and interrupt regular thought patterns. It affects a person’s behavior and can disrupt their relationships. Just like many other survivors, I also struggle with depression.

During this difficult time, I was shocked that no one in my life had asked me how I was doing. None of my friends had asked me how I was handling the news, despite knowing that I’m a survivor and that I also struggle with depression. They knew about the lawsuit against UMBC too. In fact, they knew so much about it that they talked to me about their opinions on the matter. Yet, they never asked me how I was processing the news or if I was doing okay.

At first, I thought, “wow, I have really shitty friends in my life.” But I realized that this was a drastic conclusion to make considering my friends were normally compassionate. Instead, I tried to put myself in their shoes. Why would my normally compassionate friends be so inconsiderate? Had my external behavior reflected my internal suffering?

I realized that, from an outsider’s perspective, I seemed completely okay because I went to my classes and work as usual. My behavior, communication, and demeanor had basically stayed the same so nothing seemed amiss. However, this was completely contrary to how I felt internally. Inside, I felt awful. Every step I took was harder, every assignment I completed took longer, and every smile was faker. I was falling apart on the inside, yet no one around me could see it.

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At first, I thought that this was just how I expressed trauma. But after some reflection, I realized that I knew so many other Asian women dealing with depression that were also still high-functioning. I was not the only person who exhibited depressive symptomology this way, and more importantly, it had seemed that this was especially common for other Asians.

My assumption was not wrong. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (2011) found that Asian-American teenage girls have the highest rate of depression compared to any other racial, ethnic or gender group. Furthermore, the suicide rates for 15-24 year old Asian American females are 30% higher than the rates for white females of the same age (Mental Health America). Yeung and Kam (2006) found that none of the Asian patients in their study considered depressed mood as their main problem. However, more than 90% of them indicated having a depressed mood when asked to rate their symptoms on a depression rating scale.

Despite these alarming statistics, 51% of Asian Americans have at least a Bachelor’s Degree, compared to 29% of all Americans (Mental Health America). Furthermore, 21% of Asians, ages 25 or older, have attained an advanced degree (e.g., Master’s, Ph.D., M.D. or J.D.), which is significantly higher than the national average of 12% (Baum and Steele, 2017; United States Census Bureau, 2016). Lastly, the median annual household income of Asian American households is $73,060, compared to $53,600 among all U.S. households (Pew Research Center, 2017). It is important to note, however, that there is variation in educational attainment and median annual income among the different ethnic groups which makeup “Asian Americans.”

These findings made me wonder, why do Asian women express depressive symptomology so differently than other ethnic groups?

One reason could be because of the immense pressure Asians deal with to live up to the model minority stereotype. The model minority stereotype characterizes Asians by hard work, laudable family values, economic self-sufficiency, non-contentious politics, academic achievement, and entrepreneurial success (Kang, 2010). There is a lot of American cultural pressure on Asians to fit into this “intelligent and self-reliant” stereotype. Such a stereotype has dire consequences; for-example, Asian students are pressured to rise to an academic bar that keeps rising. The mental health cost of reaching an unrealistic standard is demonstrated by the statistics mentioned above.

This pressure is worsened by the fact that many Asian immigrants experience downward economic mobility upon arrival to the U.S. Most Asian immigrants are highly educated and held middle-class status in their country of origin (Lopez, Bialik, & Radford,  2018). Because of this downward shift in class status, Asian immigrants have to work their way up from the bottom of the social and economic ladder in the U.S. This is a very daunting task given that many Asian immigrants not only have to support themselves and their families in the U.S., but also relatives back home (United Nations, 2017). This leads to an immense pressure to climb up the socioeconomic ladder and become financially stable.

Both the pressure of the model minority stereotype and pressure to support family members removes any possibility for Asians Americans to display characteristic forms of depression without severe consequences. There are high costs for Asian American immigrants if they do not complete their education, capitalize on job opportunities, and/or perform at their jobs. If they do not perform, they are risking not only their survival, but the survival of relatives back home. This does not mean that people who display traditional depressive symptomatology are somehow less “able” or “motivated” if they can’t complete these tasks. It is simply that the pressure to economically succeed robs Asian Americans the ability to address mental health concerns.

Another reason could be the large stigma within the Asian community surrounding mental health illnesses and treatment. Asian Americans are 3x less likely to seek mental health services than White Americans (Nishi). Furthermore, it is taboo within the Asian community to speak about having mental health illnesses (Chu & Sue, 2011). One large reason this stigma exists is because of the concept of familial shame within Asian communities.

There is immense pressure in the Asian community to preserve the family’s reputation and status at all costs. This is reflected in popular terms used within various Asian cultures which represent the process of shame or losing face: “Haji” among Japanese, “Hiya” among Filipinos, “Mianzi” among Chinese,”Chaemyun” among Koreans, and “Sharam” among Indians (Sue, 1994). If an Asian person has a mental health illness, it could be interpreted by the community as a result of their family’s failure to raise the person correctly. Therefore, Asian Americans are unlikely to acknowledge and seek mental health treatment in fear of “bringing shame” to their families.

I think in a lot of ways all of these factors have influenced the way that I have processed the trauma of my assault and the resulting depression. Like many other Asian American women, I don’t outwardly exhibit depression through conventional symptoms. However, this doesn’t mean that I experience depression less severely than other people. On the contrary, I struggle with depression so much sometimes that it’s hard to even do basic tasks (even if I end up somehow getting it done). Because of the fact that depression is one of the most common psycho-emotional responses to sexual violence and also that the Asian community presents unique depressive symptomology, it is logical to conclude that survivorship is likely to look different in the Asian community.  

Therefore, it is extremely important for friends, family members, and mental health professionals to recognize that survivorship manifests differently in various ethnic communities. As such, the type of support given must be individualized to meet the needs of survivors of different backgrounds. To best support survivors, the people within the survivor’s inner circle should adopt a lens of cultural humility.  

The Women’s Center uses this lens of cultural humility to best support survivors of different backgrounds. Cultural humility is a humble and respectful attitude towards individuals of other cultures that pushes one to challenge their own cultural biases. This departs from “cultural competency” in that it recognizes that a person cannot possibly know everything about other cultures. Instead, people should approach learning about other cultures as a lifelong goal and process.

I truly believe that if my friends had adopted a lens of cultural humility, they would have easily picked up on my struggles. If they had understood more about Asian culture and what it means to be an Asian immigrant, they probably would have been able to recognize my signals of distress. This is especially important for mental health professionals; they would be able to pick up more details from their clients if they held the mindset that “there’s always more to learn.” Using this lens, we can better support the survivors in our lives.

**Please note that not every Asian person experiences depression this way. The goal of this blog is to highlight a common phenomenon in the Asian community. If an Asian person does not process depression or trauma this way, it is not a reflection of their Asianness, intelligence, reliability, or any other characteristics.**

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So I Hear You Care?

Sheila Suarez

A reflection from student staff member, Sheila, about the work that creates empathy.

As a social work major, I spend a lot of time thinking about empathy. Social work is a profession centered around the idea of empathy when working with individuals in need. Social workers are encouraged to find the strengths of a person and empower them to use them, while being understanding of their life experiences and point of view.

The concept of empathy is often gendered as a feminine trait, and perhaps that’s why the field is dominated by women. According to Wendy Chin-Taner, a writer for Cultural Weekly, “Empathy hinges on emotional labor. To have empathy, we have to be able to practice active listening, be reflexive, self-critical, and be able to act on constructive criticism. In our culture, women are more readily expected to practice these skills and are socialized to do more emotional labor, which is why intersectional feminism is at the forefront of social justice allyship.”

Personally, I agree with Wendy, I believe that the amount of women in social work has to do with the history of women being socialized and encouraged to be the caregivers and show intense emotions, like empathy. There have been countless passionate and driven women throughout the history of civil rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and social justice movements. What sets apart these women, though, is their use of radical empathy, a topic I’ll discuss later.

Empathy & Emotional Labor

According to Suzannah Weiss from Everyday Feminism emotional labor is defined as theexertion of energy for the purpose of addressing people’s feelings, making people comfortable, or living up to social expectations.” While, social workers are not the only ones that have to use emotional labor in their profession, they do understand the drain that comes from emotional labor and it is discussed frequently in classes and professional development.

As someone who works in the food industry, I know the necessity there is for servers or those working in retail need to have extreme control over their emotions when working with guests, in order to make sure the guest feel welcomed and taken care of during their time at the restaurant especially when they have a concern or complaint. Having empathy for another person (especially during a busy night at a restaurant!) can be challenging because you have to connect with someone else’s feelings and experiences, causing yourself  to have deeper understanding of your own feelings. It’s important to note that societal and gendered expectations often place a greater burden on women to do the work of emotional labor. As FEM author, Anya Bayerle states, Women are also frequently expected to appear empathetic and concerned for others while simultaneously suppressing any emotion that could be used to dismiss them as irrational or hormonal.” Often the emotional labor I practice at work is not just an industry survival skill but one that is expected of me because of my gender.

But, I want to move beyond just expectations and that’s what brings me to radical empathy.

Radical Empathy

While emotional labor is something that people often already have experience with, managing emotions in a classroom, workplace, or family setting; a newer concept is radical empathy. The first time I heard about “radical empathy,” I was confused, and oh so curious.

In recent years, I have lived my life following one tweet… yes you read that right. A tweet! I know what you are thinking… “but Sheila you don’t even have a Twitter!” ( it’s a confusing story about tumblr and screenshots, that’s not the point).

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This tweet, by this person I don’t know, changed my life.  “Don’t become who hurt you.” Based on some of my personal experience, I would have liked to become a hardened person, but I decided I wanted to be the person to lift up others. My hurt and pain does not need to become someone else’s trauma. It took a lot of emotional labor out of me to remember that in moments where I feel like I am being attacked or hurt personally, that the person doing whatever is making me feel uncomfortable might not be doing it knowingly harming me.

That they might be a person, just like me, who has dealt with trauma, has things about themselves they do not like, and has never had someone ask them “what is wrong?” instead of “what is wrong with you?”

Radical empathy is tough to define. At Stomping Ground, a summer camp that focuses on radical empathy, they define it as “actively striving to better understand and share the feelings of others. To fundamentally change our perspectives from judgmental to accepting, in an attempt to more authentically connect with ourselves and others.” There are a few Ted Talks (see the links below) about what empathy is and how it impacts our ability to make connections with other human beings.

Radical empathy has had a huge impact on my life, shifted how I view the world, and how I interact with others. In the future, when I am a social worker, I believe it will allow me to better connect with my clients. It is not so much about putting yourself in the shoes of another person because you will never truly understand that person’s life. Radical empathy is more about striving to be with a person while they feel the feels, making sure that we understand our own judgement and challenging them so that we might accept everyone, actually where they are.

The real point is… Do you care?

 


Additional Resources for Learning about Radical Empathy:

Peter Laughter’s – Radical Empathy Ted Talk Video

Paul Parkin’s – Reimaging Empathy Ted Talk Video

Brene Brown’s Empathy Bear – Empathy Video

Bodily boundaries or how the world told me I hated affection

Sydney PhillipsA blog written by student staff member Sydney about her journey with understanding bodily boundaries, consent, and the perpetuation of rape culture in society. Including tips about consent in daily life and resources to stay informed and about how to talk to kids and other adults about the issue.

 

If you would have asked me a month ago how I felt about touch and affection, I would have told you I straight up hate it. For years I’ve thought I was someone who just doesn’t want to be touched at all (I’m talking cuddling, PDA, hugging family…let alone kissing family, sitting a bit too close to someone, or OMG SHARING BEDS)… and in some ways this is still true. For example I will never want to be cuddled while I sleep. This is ME time, don’t touch me!

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BUT after some self-reflection and some therapy, I’m realizing that the issue is not that I don’t like to be touched or that I’m never okay with physical affection. It’s that I like certain forms of physical affection and I don’t have a problem telling other people what I want.

Unfortunately, other people find my self-awareness and assertiveness weird or wrong. Our society socializes women to think that we SHOULD want to be touched and that men should WANT to touch us (I’m using heteronormative terms here for a few reasons. 1. Because that’s the message I received growing up, and because society still looks at heterosexual couples as the norm, I think a lot of times this is the message many of us get and 2. Because I’m interested in the gendered understanding of this phenomena and how it creates tensions within consent discourse). If we deviate from that norm we feel like something is wrong. For example, here are some responses I’ve gotten when explaining not wanting to be touched to people: “but he’s your boyfriend” , “you’re such a dude”, “you’re cold/ cold- hearted”… the list goes on.

I’m okay with not liking certain forms of touch or affection; however other people have constantly been confused by it which led to me internalizing some of it subconsciously. People either seem to not understand my bodily boundaries, let along respect them, or think I’m weird for having any in the first place. Why is this an issue? Because it teaches us that knowing our boundaries and desires is abnormal and it ultimately reinforces rape culture. Yep, I went there.

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NOT LIKING TOUCH AT CERTAIN TIMES, IN CERTAIN WAYS, OR BY CERTAIN PEOPLE DOES NOT MAKE ME COLD HEARTED, IF ANYTHING IT MEANS I AM IN TOUCH WITH MY BODY AND KNOW WHAT I LIKE AND DO NOT LIKE WHICH IS SOMETHING WE SHOULD BE TEACHING EVERYONE, FROM THE BEGINNING.

This blog came about from a mixture of therapy where I’m learning to be emotionally vulnerable (that’s a whole different blog…more like a book, though) as well as a trip to New Orleans where I had reached my limit in terms of explaining myself. While discussing the fact that I “don’t like to be touched,” someone I was with asked me:

“What happened to you as a child?”
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Here’s the short answer to that: Nothing.

Now here’s the long response.

    1. Don’t ask people this, especially people you may not know well because guess what… ? It’s NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS.
    2. This insinuates that something sexually traumatic (or at the very least physically traumatic) had to happen to me as a child, which is not only completely ignorant in the terms of this conversation but also could be retraumatizing for someone who has experienced sexual or physical harm.
    3. YOU DON’T NEED A REASON  TO PLACE BOUNDARIES ON YOUR BODY.

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This belief that someone has had to go through something traumatic in order for them to place limits on their own body and know what they like and do not like is downright harmful. It seeps into how we raise our children, how we parent our teenagers, and how we perpetuate rape culture in our lives. It is the reason why people struggle with saying or accepting “no”. No before sex, no during sex, and no in terms of things that aren’t related to sex. It is also why some people don’t understand that the lack of a no IS NOT A YES.

I mean look at the images and messages we give to kids and adults about sex and consent. We acknowledge that “no seems to mean yes” in Disney’s Hercules ( a children’s cartoon) we then reinforce this by “playfully” saying no but really meaning yes in Pitch Perfect, a movie targeted at young women and then music touches on this “I know what you really want” (go away “Blurred Lines”) narrative all the time. The Notebook, a “love story for the ages” has the man threatening to jump from a Ferris wheel if the girl doesn’t agree to a date.  And then we reach adulthood, alcohol companies market to people by hinting at roofies and being so drunk you “won’t say no”. But yet we expect people to navigate this media and know what is right and what is wrong? How?

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In order for bodily boundaries and autonomy to be realized by all people we need to consciously and actively teach consent. Consent in sex education, consent in relationships (all of them), and consent for children. In order for adults to look at people taking a stand over their body, wants, and needs, we need to teach our children that they can say no to touch at any time from any one and that they can tell us when they feel uncomfortable (I’m talking kisses, hugs, sitting on laps, and, yes, even high fives). We need to teach adults that this is okay and that affection or gratitude can be shown in other ways, and that that is normal. We need to teach children what age appropriate consensual touching looks like, yes this means SEX ED.

So what are some ways we can incorporate consent into our daily lives, parenting, and relationships? Aside from the things above about teaching consent early, here are a few tips that are helpful for me when I’m feeling frustrated…

  • Ask people before you hug someone. This may seem simple or silly but some people do not like to hug and THAT’S OKAY. Asking allows them to say no to a situation that may make them uncomfortable. They may want a high five instead. Personally, some days I want to hug and other days I don’t, especially with people I may not know very well. You can also ask for touches when you need them as well, but people still reserve the right to say no.
    • Shoutout to Reese for having this exact respectful conversation the other day. She listened, questioned, and then accepted what I had to say. And even though she may be an affectionate person, she always asks others “would you like a hug or high five” when saying hello and goodbye. sometimes people respond with neither, or how about a fist bump, and they go from there. Phrases like Would you like a hug? Is it okay to hug you? Are important and may start off awkward but get easy when we practice them regularly.

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  • Don’t be afraid to express your boundaries. I’m very open about my limits from the get go, no matter the situation. When sharing a hotel room bed (with a romantic partner, friend, classmate, etc.) for the first time, I make sure to tell them I’m not a cuddler, I explain that I may not always want to be touched to people, I explain that I don’t like to be “smothered”. I also continuously reinforce these boundaries.
    • Example: Someone touches me when I don’t want to be?  I say: “Please stop that” They don’t stop? “I’m being serious I don’t like that” Still touching? “If you touch me again I will kick you…. Guess what comes next. If I’m touched again, you got it, I kick em.

→ I realize this doesn’t work for everyone or in every situation but if you have healthy relationships and friendships I would hope you’d be able to discuss your boundaries and have them respected.

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  • Remember that consent is not just about sex, it’s not even just about affection. This is a super complex issue and there are a lot of people that we steal bodily autonomy from regularly based on their varying identities. Think about when someone touches a Black woman’s hair (don’t do that. Just don’t, even if you ask) and how that invades her right to her body and her space. Consent also isn’t always about touching, think here about Trans individuals who are constantly asked if they “got the surgery” (also don’t do this). It’s none of your business, it’s personal, it’s intimate, and a person’s gender identity/expression does not give you the green light to ask such a question.

These conversations aren’t easy because society doesn’t give us space to discuss bodies and sex, but they’re necessary and important. They may be awkward and people may not understand but that’s why we need to start teaching children at younger ages, so that there may come a time when we don’t have to continuously have these talks as adults.

Feeling overwhelmed? Confused? Or just want some more information? Check down below for a list of resources regarding consent at all ages, sexual education, and rape culture/toxic masculinity and the effect it has on both women and men

Resources:

  • Children
    • I Said No! was written by a boy named Zack and his mother to help him cope with a real-life experience and includes discussion on how to deal with bribes and threats.
    • My Body Belongs to Me, is about a child who gets touched inappropriately, so prepare to have a thoughtful conversation after reading together.
    • No Means No! stars an empowered young girl and includes a “Note to the Reader” and “Discussion Questions” to aid crucial dialogue.
  • Teens and Up
    • The Hunting Ground is a companion book to the documentary of the same name that delves into the rape culture prevalent on college campuses.
    • Sexual assault survivors from every kind of college and university and multiple backgrounds share their stories in We Believe You, which Elizabeth Gilbert called “one of the most important books of the year.”
    • Asking for It by Kate Harding explores the idea that our culture supports rapists more effectively than it supports victims.
    • Michael J. Domitrz takes a friendly, collaborative approach to the topic of express consent in Can I Kiss You?
    • Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape
  • On Teaching Consent: Ask. Listen. Respect. In the classroom. By Age, How to instill boundaries, Physical and Emotional Boundaries
  • On What Consent Means: here, here, and here
  • Sex Ed Resources: Sex Ed Rescue (Includes puberty, consent, sex, and ebooks), Lesson Plans and Legislation, For Parents, Planned Parenthood, Ability Based Sex Ed
  • On Fighting Rape Culture: What rape culture is, Steps to take, What rape culture sounds like
  • Other
    • The yes no maybe so checklist is AMAZING. It goes over all different forms of touch and asks you to rate them on if you like it, don’t like it, or could maybe be into it. You can even rank things as hard or soft limits and discuss how they may vary depending on the situation.
    • The Hunting Ground: Documentary on Netflix. This exposé tackles the disturbing epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses and school officials’ efforts to cover up the crimes.
    • The Mask You Live In Documentary on Netflix. The Mask You Live In follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity. Pressured by the media, their peer group, and even the adults in their lives, our protagonists confront messages encouraging them to disconnect from their emotions, devalue authentic friendships, objectify and degrade women, and resolve conflicts through violence.
    • The Women’s Center’s Supporting Survivors of Sexual Violence Workshop (Check MyUMBC for events next semester)

 

I Claim Me

Harley Khaang

Harley Khaang is a UMBC returning women student and an intern at the Women’s Center. She is currently a junior and an INDS student, focusing on earning her degree in Communications Strategy.

 

 

 

My first day of school was Groundhog Day. I hadn’t stepped foot on a campus in decades, but there I was sitting in my remedial math class at 7 am (it was an 8 am class), shaking. Sure, it was February 2nd and brutally cold, as it should be, but as much as the blustery wind was affecting me, I was shaking mostly from fear and the overwhelming feeling that I had possibly gotten myself in over my head. It was a moment … I had a moment.

I got through the day, then I got through the semester. And despite the fear and the doubt, I managed to complete 4 more, graduate with an Associates in Arts and Sciences, and transfer to UMBC. During the 5 semesters at CCBC I noticed something interesting emerge: As education became more important to me and I was getting ready to transfer to UMBC as an undergrad, I began to notice resentment coming from several friends and family members. Just a short time before these people were supportive of my decision to go back to school, yet now they looked at me with contempt. Growing up I was taught that getting an education was the best thing you can do for yourself. So why was I losing support from friends and family? I was hurt, but what’s more, I was confused. Was I supposed to apologize for getting a degree, or stand up for myself and tell them to bug  off?  I didn’t know what to do. Why couldn’t I just earn my degree in peace? Why couldn’t they just understand and give me their support like they had been doing? I felt torn, truly torn.

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As I was nearing graduation in 2017, I was also dealing with big changes in my life: I moved, dealt with health issues, and was accepted to UMBC. As if that wasn’t enough, I was dealing with never ending issues with phone companies, cable companies, my apartment management, to name a few. I had almost always avoided confrontations throughout my life. I let a lot of people walk over me because I didn’t want to face them and “start trouble”. I lost a lot of money because I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of haggling with companies who had over charged me. I let a lot of things slide that I should never have let side, all because I didn’t want to be confrontational. Now, I was forced to take a crash course in Standing Up for Myself 101.

As I began to find my bearings I realized that maybe there was a reason for all the “confronting.” I realized that I wasn’t being confrontational, I was demanding what was wrong be made right. For the first time in my life I was standing up for myself. I was being my own advocate; I was finding my voice. Then I came across a brilliant article, and that tiny impetus to apologize for coming back to school disappeared quicker than I could say “poof”.

I received a newsletter from brainpickings with the tagline “Adrienne Rich on Why an Education Is Something You Claim, Not Something You Get.” My heart skipped a beat. In the piece, written by Maria Popova, I read that Adrienne Rich “delivered a convocation speech to a group of women at Douglass College titled Claiming an Education”. In that speech, Rich states: “One of the dictionary definitions of the verb ‘to claim’ is: to take as the rightful owner; to assert in the face of possible contradiction. ‘To receive’ is to come into possession of: to act as receptacle or container for; to accept as authoritative or true. The difference is between acting and being acted-upon, and for women it can literally mean the difference between life and death.”

I was at CCBC for 5 semesters before graduating. Out of the 5, I worked full time for 4 while attending school full time. It was exhausting to say the least. There were many things I had to “put on the back burner,” there were things I had to learn to live without, there were compromises I had to make, and there was not a single part of my life where a corner or two were not cut. I realize now, women like myself who go back to school later in life, often make our choices based on pacifying everyone around us. That act of keeping everyone happy can often keep us from achieving our education goals. I look back at those times I felt the need to apologize for “neglecting” my duties to my family by going, yet again, for another degree, and know that coming back to school was not an easy choice to make, but one I would make over again. The women I have met at UMBC, and especially at the Women’s Center, know exactly what I am talking about. We have had many passing discussions regarding this issue.  

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Returning women students (undergraduate students 25 years and older) have a full plate and then some. In trying to balance work and family life, most of us have put ourselves last, minimizing our needs. Many of us who are returning women students are constantly on the go, working to find time for everything on our list of things to accomplish, all the while fighting money issues and guilt that we are not accomplishing enough. Many of us feel we are doing this alone, but that isn’t true. There is camaraderie to be shared with the Returning Women Students here at the Women’s Center. There is sisterhood among us who understand and feel the pain so common, and at times, deeply rooted in our psyche.

We have been there. We know; we understand. We got your back.

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Since that cold Groundhog Day in 2015, I have realized, that for many of us returning women students, the recurring theme is self advocacy. We have a duty to ourselves to claim what is rightfully ours, in this case, our education. What I have come to realize in the past 3 years, and with the help of the recent discovery of Adrienne Rich’s amazing speech, is that self care = self advocacy. We have to be our own heroes because, most times, we will not be given what we want or deserve, even if we’ve earned the right to it. No one will give you what’s rightfully yours, you need to claim it. And at times, the process of claiming it means demanding it. I claim my education. I claim myself and my well being above all. I claim me. I hope you will claim yourself.  

 

For more information and further reading: 

Self-Advocacy: A Women’s Catch-22

Adrienne Rich On Why An Education Is Something You Claim, Not Something You Get

Stepping Up to the Plate

Time, money, leisure and guilt – the gendered challenges of higher education for mature-age students

More on the Returning Women Students Program in the Women’s Center to include our scholarship program (deadline is March 30th!!) 

 

 

Stop Wearing My Clothes

 

Harini Narayan Educating yourself and being yourself: the dangers of cultural appropriation by Harini, a student intern. 

I was the only brown kid at my school until ninth grade. Growing up in a town I once described as “never realized the Union won the Civil War,” it was no surprise that all my friends were white. I was careful to conceal any aspects of me that did not mirror their own personalities, effectively whitewashing myself. I laughed along with their mockery of desi culture, its gaudy outfits and pungent foods, all the while ignoring the guilt and defiance that part of me felt at hearing my own culture ripped apart by people who had none of their own.

Once I reached high school and began making friends with people from similar backgrounds to me, I realized the error in my ways and embraced my heritage with a group of people who respected and shared my culture. I packed the foods I liked to school, and posted pictures of me, donned in traditional clothes, to social media for the world to see.

Around that time, American culture began to shift. Suddenly, the ingredients in our foods that were once considered ugly and smelly were now labelled “superfoods,” and they were all the rage. Our jewelry was considered the epitome of fashion, despite being practically taboo not too long ago. This led me to the question: why is something considered acceptable only after Western cultures adopt it? People have been wearing naths and eating turmeric for centuries, so why was it suddenly considered a trend? Moreover, why was it a trend to begin with, when the sole reason the elements of our culture exist with a meaning and value that was being completely disregarded by Western culture?

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Actress Sonam Kapoor wears a nath on the red carpet.

I grew angry each time I would see someone that once made fun of desi culture wearing bindis for Instagram. This was a piece of Hindu culture that was symbolic, and it was being reduced to a costume. For these people, this was an expression of appreciation, because apparently there was no better compliment to a culture than the validation of a westernized person. There was no consideration that disregarding the meaning behind these things (whether they are intended for brides, as a mark of celebration, etc.) was offensive.

However, white people are not the only ones guilty of doing this. Non-desi people of color often see their non-whiteness as a free pass to appropriating cultures outside their own. Desis are guilty of appropriating other cultures as well, so no ethnic group is entirely free of this offense. The entertainment industry is the worst offender, with a history of using blackface to depict villains and demons unscrupulously.

Of course, appreciation of a culture is acceptable. For example, eating ethnic food, consuming media, and learning a new language are all forms of appreciation that are inoffensive.

When a person uses an element of a culture they do not belong to as a costume while ignoring the ethnic, national, or religious significance of said element, they are appropriating a culture. Appropriation is not just about material items. It can take different forms, like stealing opportunities that should belong to people of an ethnic group or religion. This is seen too often in Hollywood, with white actors playing roles that represent people of color, with (see Matt Damon playing a Chinese general in The Great Wall). White actors find themselves under fire for accepting roles depicting Asian characters that are heroic and central to the story, while actual Asian actors are too often offered minor roles that exist for comedic effect or to create a backdrop for the important white characters. The way in which the West regards Eastern culture is dubbed “Orientalism,” a concept that has come to possess a negative connotation only because it reflects said perception.

Furthermore, brown actors are used interchangeably, regardless of their ethnicity. A recent example of this is the casting for the live-action Aladdin movie, in which Naomi Scott, a biracial actress of Indian descent, is playing Jasmine, the princess of the fictional Agrabah, which is canonically located in the Middle East. So, why are brown people seen as transposable? Why is our culture regarded as easy?

Bridging the gap between Western ideals and pride in one’s heritage is in the hands of brown peoples’ white peers and the media. Looking back on my journey as a brown girl growing up in small-town Pennsylvania, I can see my growth from someone who tried too hard to imitate her white friends, to someone who is unashamed of who she is. Much of that personal development came from being receptive and open to criticism. Often, people don’t realize their actions are offensive because of how common appropriation is. Ignorance is a slippery slope, so being informed is vital, as is holding others accountable for their actions. Learning the difference between appreciation and appropriation is the first step to respecting all cultures and regarding them as equal.

 

Below are some articles about recent instances of brown culture appropriation and orientalism:

American Orientalism

What is Orientalism, and how is it also racism?

Gucci accused of culturally appropriating Sikh turban

People Are Seriously Pissed That “Vogue India” Got Kendall Jenner For Their 10-Year Anniversary Shoot

Coachella Queen Vanessa Hudgens Loves Cultural Appropriation

Zara comes under fire for cultural appropriation

In ‘The Problem With Apu,’ Hari Kondabolu Discusses South Asian Representation

Stories from Survivors – Kayla Smith

We see you. We believe you. You matter.

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“What would it mean to survivors for  the entire campus community to be behind them in their healing? What would it mean for survivors that the care we give to them is not limited to the few on campus either whose job it is to do this work, or who have taken a special, personal interest in it?”*

The Women’s Center has meant a lot to many alumni and we have their continued support for this season’s fundraising campaign. For Black and Gold Rush, we were lucky to chat with former (and current) community members about all of the ways the Women’s Center has been a useful and meaningful resources. Take some time to hear from Kayla Smith, a recent graduate, and ambassador for our Grit Starter Campaign for Survivors of Sexual Violence, and get some insight into why the Women’s Center was a big part of her UMBC experience! 

 

kaylstaffshotName – Kayla Smith

UMBC Major/ Minor – Interdisciplinary Studies – Public Health Advocacy

Hometown – Laurel, Maryland

Current Job Title/ Employer – J.D. Candidate (Law school student)

How did your time at the UMBC Women’s Center support your current work or career path? Working at the Women’s Center gave me a framework to explain and further understand the importance of intersectional activism and feminism when I approach a particular issue in the law.

How would you describe your UMBC experience? I loved being at UMBC. I made my best friends and had some of my most personally rewarding experiences while I was there.

DSC_3426 - Kayla Smith

Share a special moment from your time in the Women’s Center. How did it shape your experience as a survivor? After I led my second Take Back the Night march, I was approached by multiple women who told me that they were able to share their stories and process what happened to them because of my bravery and courage in sharing my own experiences with trauma and recovery. To me, that was the most rewarding experience because it reminded me why my work with the Women’s center was so important.

 

Kayla! Thank you for your bravery, for sharing your story, and for being a lifelong supporter of our mission!

UMBC Giving Day Black and Gold Rush is an inspiring example of what the UMBC community can accomplish together. If you would like to support survivors of sexual violence at UMBC, and build a coalition of supportive allies, consider giving to the Women’s Center’s GritStarter campaign during UMBC’s Giving Day this February 28th.