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'We need to start normalizing standing up for each other': Women of color at MSU share experiences of racism

August 3, 2020

A recent MSU graduate, Zaria Phillips said she used to straighten her hair all the time. She would make sure to stay out of the sun so she could preserve some lightness in her skin and didn't indulge in Black culture. It wasn't until she was older that she realized she will always be Black and people are never going to see her as anything but that.

As national protests calling for the end of police brutality following the death of George Floyd continue, women of color from Michigan State shared examples of racism they experienced. 

“I remember being a young girl, and I did not want to be Black at all,” Phillips said. “I was not happy about it. I was very much trying to suppress everything Black in my life trying to assimilate to whiteness as close as I could because I can see already — even at eight years old — that there was nothing great about being a Black person. You don't get anything in this world.”

For Phillips, there were times she couldn’t tell if she was being treated in a certain way because she was a woman or because she was Black. She reflects back to the instances when she would pitch story ideas to her journalism professors, and they were unable to see the importance of it, so she had to over-explain it to them.

“Especially most of the time being the only Black woman in my classes, I felt like I would take on that burden,” Phillips said. “I had to make sure that we're going to do justice to my community as we choose what stories to cover. But a lot of times it was a large burden because ... I had to do all the persuasive work to ensure that they understood that this is important. ... It was stressful.”

Phillips points out that the phrase Black Lives Matter must include all Black lives, including members of the LGBTQ community and Black women, both of which she feels are left out of their conversation when it comes to police brutality and racism.

She was 12 years old when Phillips was called the n-word to her face. That was when she began standing up for Black people and through the process started to appreciate her Black culture more.

“There's a lot of work that went into trying to figure out what it means to be a Black person,” Phillips said. “Because my dad was from the Caribbean, we weren't like the Black that people expect to be from Detroit.”

As an African American coming to study at a predominantly white institution, the recent journalism graduate said she felt her confidence drop when she started at MSU.

“It wasn't the work being challenging, as much as I felt like a lot of times I was not being heard and listened to in the way that I was accustomed to going to mostly Black schools,” Phillips said. “So, a lot of times I would feel invisible in the classes I was in, not just by the students but also by the instructors.”

While everyone's experiences are unique, almost all women of color experience some form of racism. 

Coming from a diverse background, human biology senior Jessica Zhang grew up with many Asian Americans and American Indians in her community.  

However, in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zhang felt extremely self-conscious stepping outside her home to go exercising. The Asian American student had seen online videos of how people were treating Asian Americans in the nation, and was worried for herself.

“There was a lot of blame being put on the Asians for spreading of the coronavirus worldwide,” Zhang said. “It's a time where I felt if I wasn't an Asian, I wouldn't be so self-conscious at the way that people look at me.”

Growing up, she experienced microaggressions but didn’t realize what they were until she was older. 

“I remember as a kid, there was some other kid that used to ... tease me about our different eye shapes,” Zhang said. “I didn't realize how offensive it was, but it definitely irritated me more the (more) I grew up.”

In elementary school, Zhang would buy lunch every single day from the school cafeteria as she was not comfortable bringing her Chinese homemade food because her classmates stared at her and commented on the smell.

“Throughout the years I definitely feel like I've embraced my Chinese culture more and more as I grew up. I learned more about China,” she said.

Growing up, American Indian education senior Neha Chellury was always aware she was different and people would like to point that out. However, both Chellury and Zhang recall similar racial instances.

Kids at Chellury’s school would also make fun of her homemade food. They would tease her for wearing her hair differently, calling it “greasy” and comment on her choice of clothing which was mostly Indian-style.

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Chellury said, “of course this is all back when (we) were kids — kids say stuff, that's just how they are. But I feel like that was just a lack of education on the teachers' part.”

Being an American Indian who grew up in America, Chellury also faced the struggle of fitting in her own Indian community as she was conscious of how cultured she may or may not be compared to students who come from India.

“Ever since I've been in MSU, I don't think that I've experienced anything really bad,” Chellury said. “I really loved the college environment. (It) is so much more mature than high school.”

While working at a department store, Chellury also noticed she was treated differently than her white co-workers by the customers. Being a woman of color, she felt there was a lot of microaggressions aimed at her as well.

From her experience, Middle Eastern Muslim alumna Fatima Alsaif tried to purposely find work at places that she knew had an inclusive and welcoming staff to people of color. However, Alsaif realizes she might work with clients who are sexist or racist, and therefore, she tries to create boundaries.

Alsaif said she felt lucky to meet welcoming, open-minded and well-educated individuals who made her transition very easy. Working as a video production intern at Message Makers in Lansing, Michigan, her experience outside of campus is somewhat different.

“There were occasions where I was walking in some neighborhoods in Lansing, and I did not feel safe,” Alsaif said. “Considering me wearing a hijab or being a woman of color, I was afraid that people will see me as a threat.”  

Being the only person of color or only female student in small class groups, Alsaif used to feel self-conscious about her background, but her overall experience at MSU was very positive.

Growing up in a diverse community, Latin American communication junior Alondra Alvarez was prepared for a culture shock coming to MSU. She didn't experience it in her first year but more during her second year when she became a residential assistant (RA) in a dorm with predominantly white residents.

“(There were) a lot of difficult conversations through RA training,” Alvarez said. “It was the fact that a lot of people who are in the process to become an RA have never actually spoken a word to people right outside of their same ethnic or racial group. ... It was devastating.”

Alvarez feels she is able to blend in more easily because her mother is also a Mexican American. There have been times where some would not even recognize her as a Mexican American. Because of this, her friends in high school weren’t very supportive of her Mexican heritage.

“That (was) irritating,” Alvarez said. “Just because I'm Mexican American doesn't mean like I'm more American than a Mexican or more Mexican than American.”

According to Alvarez, women experience stereotypes, and when put into multiple categories, such as being both Mexican and a woman, they can be sexualized or fetishized, which makes it harder for them.

“We need to start normalizing standing up for each other,” Alvarez said. “I feel like the word ‘ally’ is used a lot but an ally ... is someone who stands up for each other no matter who's in the room. ... I'm not only going to stand up for you and your community when you're around. I'm going to stand up even when you're never around. And that's something that I feel like we all need to start doing.”

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our Summer Mail Home issue. View the full digital issue here.


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