The Ivory Tower Doesn’t Yet Have a Room for Brown Girls

By Larissa Pham

“We just don’t do too much work on non-western art,” a classmate of mine was saying in seminar, speaking of her preference for European art. “It’s harder to speak about thematically—maybe it’s too specific, or maybe they’re just not there yet?”

No, I wanted to say. It has nothing to do with specificity or sophistication. We don’t talk about non-western art because you don’t know how. Because no one has taught you how. Because you haven’t looked at it. Because that’s not the story our academics want to tell.

For all talk of a diversity of interests there might be in academia, there is still so often just one narrative being related; one story that reads as truth, as normal. But it’s never a story I can relate to.

I’m a young woman of color majoring in art history at Yale. I know I’m fortunate to be here, and I don’t ever take it for granted. But sometimes, even with the bounty of its myriad resources and brilliant minds all at my disposal, I realize how isolated I am—not physically or emotionally, but in academia. I don’t really fit in. The authors we read, the works we discuss: most or all of them come from a discourse that neglects my existence. The ivory tower doesn’t yet have a room for brown girls.

I made a conscious decision, early on, to work with pieces that avoid the Eurocentric bias that permeates my entire department. This has meant using Japanese decorative arts to discuss formalism, and contextualizing connoisseurship in Chinese painting rather than that of the Renaissance. But I have to make the effort. I have to think to myself, all right. I’m taking this class that’s dominated by western art: how can I bring my own story to the table? I realized: I shouldn’t have to work for this. I shouldn’t have to be taking every opportunity to turn the conversation towards my own interests, my own story, because we should already be talking about it. But we aren’t—not yet.

What does it mean to be a young woman of color studying the lives and work of dead white men? What does it mean to watch your best friend start shouting in a crowded bar on the lower east side because she can’t take one fucking class on Latin American art history and you both know, you know you’re supposed to be studying at the best university in the world? What does it mean to tokenize the work of people of color—Frida reduced to sensuality, Basquiat just a savage made noble by New York City? What does it mean to sit in seminar and realize with a strange and sinking feeling that you are only one of two women of color in the room?

It means that it’s hard. It’s hard to do what you want and it means you have to work hard to get it. It means that you very quickly become aware that academia—and most other things in this world—are an old boy’s cult of people who don’t necessarily understand that you have important things to say, too. It means making a conscious effort, always, to ignore the dominant discourse, to overturn it.

Sometimes I think about throwing my hands up in disgust or breaking a window or dropping out because it seems so useless. I go to college, study what I’m taught, continue to live in a society where I am either invisible or stereotyped; the profiles of women of color nonexistent or tokenized. A tiny fish swimming the wrong way in the school, caught up in the mess of the kyriarchy—it’s a self-fulfilling cycle of these dominant narratives informing the future mark-makers, storytellers and academics of our generation. You learn what you are taught. You teach what you have learned. The people in power perpetuate the ideas that keep them there, and it’s incredibly hard to gain a place to speak from if you don’t fall into that old-boy elite model of academia. Sometimes it feels like I’m standing at the bottom of a well, and my head hurts to think about how to begin to climb out.

But then I look up, and realize: It doesn’t have to be this way. I can work to make it not so. By continuing to write, by continuing to read, by continuing to fight to bring up the ideas and people that matter to me, I can build a room. A room for myself and for other brown girls—for everyone. It’s not impossible. I can work to build this room.

Fiction and academia are the two ways that ensure that narratives continue to be told. These narratives influence the way we think about our own realities, our lives outside of media and the classroom. One of these mediums is more pervasive and one is more persuasive and both of them are dominated by constant narratives of the kyriarchy in play, but it doesn’t have to be this way. I do not have to be a passive part of this system; I can break it down from the inside. By continuing to engage in conversation—even if it is slow going, even if I have to shout—I too can carve that new space in the world. Remind the world that I exist. The only way to have a story is to tell it.

Let me end this triumphantly: Make work. Do work. Read lots. Write more. Don’t stop talking. Don’t leave. You can’t change something without staying, even if it’s hard, even if it hurts. This is how I am going to build a room for brown girls; this is a way we can.

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Larissa Pham is a contributing writer to the Ellipses Project. She makes art, thinks about making art, and thinks about thinking about making art. She believes emotions and bodies are inherently valid. As a junior at Yale College, she is involved in the studio art, history of art, and psychology departments.