By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
On a Friday morning last semester, I made my way to Spencer Hall after my 10 a.m. class. I was due to give a Scholarship Sewanee presentation in approximately 15 minutes and was already a bundle of ragged nerves. I’d spent most of the previous night polishing this presentation on an issue I believe is pertinent to everyone on this campus.
I passed a student on the way. He was on the phone, cursing angrily. Papers were flying every which way. I could have stopped to help. But he didn’t seem safe, so I didn’t engage. I kept walking.
Then I heard him say, “This f*cking b*tch didn’t even help. F*cking chink!”
I didn’t stop to look back until I was far enough away. By then, he was gone.
Despite having been at Sewanee for two years now, I have never been subject to name calling or racial or ethnic slurs. I know others have. I know others contend with them on a day to day basis.
For those of you who don’t know me, I am visibly Asian. I am Burmese. I am an international student.
I am also the president of the Organization for Cross-Cultural Understanding (OCCU) at Sewanee, and I was on my way to give a talk on representation. On how people are often taken as representatives of entire cultures, races, ethnicities, religions, identities, and experiences. On how we should all strive to make Sewanee as welcoming and inclusive as it claims to be.
This incident shocked me. But I didn’t have time to dwell on it. Didn’t have time to process. I made my way to Spencer 262 and stood outside the classroom, my emotions building to boiling point. I told a few friends who were waiting to listen to my presentation, but found it difficult to get the words out.
So I told them the story with a smile on my face. Because if I didn’t smile, I knew I would start crying. And I didn’t have time for that.
I gave my presentation on The Representations Project, OCCU’s year-long initiative. I spoke about how having to constantly represent more than yourself takes a mental toll. I spoke on mediating cultures. I suggested ways to be more understanding, more open, more welcoming.
What’s ironic is that the student I’d passed on the street had taken me as a representative of an entire race. First, by calling me a “b*tch,” he had disrespected me on the basis of my sex. By calling me “chink,” he had dehumanized me on the basis of my race.
I am both a woman and Asian. I don’t get to choose. It turns out that this person didn’t have to choose either. He could – and did – demean me for both my race and my sex. In a few brief moments, he had sent out a clear message that would stay with me for days: you are not welcome here.
Sewanee prides itself on its concept of ecce quam bonum. EQB, you hear students say. Behold how good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.
But how good and pleasant are we really, Sewanee? Everyday there is talk of diversity and inclusion, but oftentimes it’s the same students who are taking the initiative to promote these ideals. The same students who are speaking out against discrimination.
I’m writing this article because this is one of the only ways that I will be heard. The white student who called me the slur will continue to walk around campus, and on a bad day, may resort to this kind of language again. I may not be on the receiving end, but someone who looks like me will most likely be.
This year OCCU will launch its Honor Through Language Project, which will address the ways we honor one another through the words that we say – and the ways we don’t. I hope this project will be a step forward in ensuring that these incidents stop.
But we can’t do it alone. We have plans to involve different departments across campus, but will it be enough? We need help from the administration, from faculty, from staff, from students. We need to come together as a community and do everything in our power to ascertain that we are all being conscious about the ways we wield our language.
I thought I would be strong enough to discard these words, to not let myself be affected. After all, I don’t care for this student. I don’t know him. He doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
For days afterwards, fear clung to me. I didn’t want to leave my bed. I didn’t want to go to McClurg without my friends.
I didn’t feel safe on this campus. Every time I saw someone I didn’t know, I heard the words “b*tch” and “f*cking chink.” I imagined those words coming out of their mouths, and the worst part was that it wouldn’t be a stretch. I believe that everyone here is good, kind, and respectful. I like to give them the benefit of the doubt. But these words – spoken by one person on a bad day – stuck to me. And I couldn’t shake them off.
It terrified me. I knew I would overcome. I knew I would rally. I knew I would eventually be okay. That I wouldn’t be scared to walk around campus again. But this incident burst my carefully curated bubble of a safe Sewanee. I realize that I surround myself with people I know who will never consider using a slur. People who will – and do – get angry on my behalf. People who are safe.
Saying EQB isn’t enough. EQB needs to be practiced. While that day’s events jarred me, one day soon, I hope to say ecce quam bonum and really, truly mean it.