Assaf Mira
Oct 4, 2019 · 4 min read
Mira Assaf Kafantaris in academic regalia, holding her PhD Diploma and grinning widely.
Mira Assaf Kafantaris in academic regalia, holding her PhD Diploma and grinning widely.
Mira Assaf Kafantaris in academic regalia, holding her PhD Diploma and grinning widely.

Writing a Diversity Statement as a Woman of Color

@MiraAssafK

As a woman of color in the white-dominated field of Early Modern Literature, I have been grappling with questions about the colonizing and conditioning effects of traditional English literary studies. Teaching major English poets, including Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare, means coming face-to-face with narrative violence and the hegemony of whiteness. Elsewhere, I have written on curricular theories that guide my antiracist and decolonial agenda, including Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, Ayanna Thompson’s and Laura Turchi’s call for “difference…as analytical repertoire,” and Molefi Asante’s “Afrocentric Method.” Instead of describing the growing toolset of ideas that influence my inclusive contribution to teaching, scholarship, and my community, I wish to retell episodes that faithfully highlight my commitment to reparative practices.

I- On the Importance of Content Warnings

One semester, an unexpected fire alarm went off mid-lecture. I experienced a panic attack — palpitations, sweating, shivering — while my students watched in shock. Vulnerable and exposed, I excused myself and when I finally came back, I explained to my students that they had just witnessed the physical symptoms of my PTSD caused by living through the Lebanese Civil War as a child. I clarified the importance of content warnings; had I been forewarned, I would have had the time to mentally prepare for a possible trigger. To my surprise, almost every student heeded my call and provided warnings as they presented their work at the end of the semester. Also, many students left the room. I’d like to think they felt that the classroom was a space of “mutually-conferred grace,” to borrow from the Black feminist scholar Valerie B. Lee, where the option of leaving was rooted in the inclusive and empathetic atmosphere we had fostered. I never thought my trauma could be redirected into a teachable moment; however, it proved to be one of the sincerest lessons I teach every semester, where I tell the story of the fire alarm and I tremble every single time. Content warnings are crucial. They facilitate learning and ensure all our students’ — refugees, veterans, and victims of abuse — wellbeing.

II- On English as a Dominant Language

At Ohio State, I often teach a developmental writing class, which is geared towards minorities, immigrants, and students from underprivileged backgrounds. One semester, I switched between three languages — English, Arabic, and French — to accommodate the Syrian and Senegalese students who were having difficulties thriving in a foreign system and language. I sympathized with the visceral humiliation of feeling infantilized, recalling the first three months of living in Portugal, where I remained frustratingly silent because I could not speak the language. I identified with the alienation of being an international student in the vast, sprawling Midwest, unable to tell if the kindness of Ohioans was genuine or contrived. Most importantly, by speaking their language, I ensured they were understood, heard, and seen, because dominant languages, like whiteness, are oppressive, always presenting as default settings.

III- On Land Acknowledgments

Outside the classroom, I center the perspectives, experiences, and voices of students and faculty of color in my service to the university, scholarly organizations, and the community I live in. For instance, I urge conferences and events organizers to include a Land Acknowledgment at the beginning of their events, a formal recognition of Native peoples as historical and traditional stewards of the land, like I have done at the 2019 Race Before Race symposium in Tempe, Arizona. To avoid the danger of Land Acknowledgements becoming meaningless exercises, I follow Dr. Debbie Reese suggestions in “Are You Planning to Do a Land Acknowledgment,” who encourages us to incorporate different histories or recognize a native writer at each event.

IV- On gatekeeping:

To return to dead white men, I wish to end with a gatekeeping story that has marked my trajectory. When I was looking to specialize in a sub-field at the beginning of my graduate career, I was told, when I mentioned postcolonialism, “you do not want to be another Arab woman writing about her oppression.” This moment was utterly decisive and divisive for me, and I was only able to shed the internalized racism of this statement three continents and ten years later. My wish is to thrive in an academy where no woman of color feels as dismissed and as trivialized as I felt at the beginning of my graduate career — that no woman of color feels that to be considered a “serious” scholar, she needs to erase her difference. At every step of the way, therefore, I will ask two simple questions: who is present at the table and who is excluded from it? And I will continue to accommodate people who have been told historically and institutionally that they exist in a space that does not belong to them.

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