This essay deploys a disruptive moment of giving up tenure to rethink silence and voice in the context of institutional whiteness from the standpoint of a racialized Asian/immigrant/woman faculty. I narrate moments during my first tenure-track years weathering the quiet and invisible storms of whiteness at a historically white institution in the Midwestern United States. In (re)writing my story, I (re)orient my identity as an immigrant Other in US academia, reclaiming my family's oral history to inform my ways of speaking in/with comforting silence. I conclude with a discussion of racialized acts of speaking (up) as an interactive rather than singular moment.
At present, the paper reads as if you avoided confrontation rather than embraced courage to stand up for yourself. In what ways were you brave while making the decision to switch institutions?
I originally wrote portions of this essay for a book on narratives by brave women of color academics across disciplines in the United States. Initially, my abstract was selected out of nearly 350 proposals and I was invited to develop my abstract into a full-length chapter. After having accepted my abstract, the co-editors later asked that I “withdraw” my submission for they no longer found my story of weathering the invisible storms of institutional whiteness as a racialized Asian/immigrant/woman “a good fit” for their project. As the opening quote alludes, I was written off as not brave enough for supposedly I had not spoken up for myself. A mixture of emotions filled my body: frustration, sadness, disappointment, surprise, anger, and fear. Why was I surprised? Earlier in the revising process, I already had felt judged and had wondered:
Who gets to decide who is brave and who is not? Whose cultural premises of bravery are privileged and taken for granted as culturally universal standards for bravery here? Is speaking up the only culturally acceptable way of enacting bravery in US academia? What does it mean for Asian (immigrant) women to speak up and be heard?
Despite a deep sense of disappointment at the co-editors’ decision, I was relieved that I no longer had to keep proving myself to others whose ontological and epistemological assumptions about bravery diverged from mine. I was tired of having to prove myself. This encounter motivated me to develop my chapter further to understand better how Asians/immigrants/women experience their voice and silence within US academia.
As a last-ditch effort to explain myself, I wrote the following when I consented to withdraw my essay:
The crux of my story is the courage that it takes to put myself in the vulnerable situation of giving up tenure to move. I think that vulnerability is the starting place of bravery, which is not the kind of bravery that you are looking for.
The co-editors responded with silence. In a way, my experience is not entirely accidental considering that dominant discourses of bravery are rarely—if ever—associated with Asian (immigrant) female bodies in US society. Yes, it would have felt great to call myself a brave woman of color academic, but I just could not bring myself to narrate a straightforward story about bravery in twelve neat pages. Then, I realize that perhaps I am not invested enough in unpacking the concept of bravery. Instead, what I really want to unpack is how institutional, and/or institutionalized, whiteness works and is (re)produced in US academia, particularly through the standpoints of Asians/immigrants/women.
In a way, the chapter rejection feels like the machine of institutional whiteness works mysteriously to discipline me into the silent and complicit model minority that I am supposed to be.1 I keep thinking about Audre Lorde's powerful words that “the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.”2 Yet, I feel different this time. When I first started writing this essay, I was a new, seventh-year assistant professor of color who had given up tenure and promotion to associate professor. Now, I sense a nudging voice inside me, yearning to speak and be heard, while still conscious of certain risks associated with breaking my silence. First, I am acutely aware of an intellectual risk of being assumed even more incompetent than I am already presumed to be as an (immigrant) woman of color.3 Second, I am mindful of potential interpersonal and professional risks of being misunderstood and/or misconstrued by my former, as well as current, colleagues. In particular, my narratives of weathering institutional whiteness at my previous institution might overshadow all the genuine care and concern that I felt/experienced from my former colleagues. They granted me tenure knowing that I had accepted an offer elsewhere. Third, I am conscious of a career risk of complicating, if not jeopardizing, my chance of getting tenured again. Maybe this is as much “a work of self-healing as of scholarship,” as Arthur W. Frank calls it.4 I feel/sense/know that I need to reflect on, make sense of, and (re)remember what happened. Following Hector Amaya's approach to autoethnography as both an exposition and a personal exploration of one's past,5 I (re)write and (re)orient my Asian/immigrant/woman self as I “write as an Other, and for an Other” in me—today, in the past, and in the future.6
Methodologically, I struggled to figure out what my story was “counter” to until I started remembering specific details about my family's history, particularly my paternal grandfather's life and his way of speaking as a Taoist oracle. The moment when I stopped questioning whether or not what I did was brave, I began noticing a shift in how I think/feel about the relationship between speech, voice, and silence in the context of ubiquitous institutional whiteness. Building on Amaya's work, my stories underscore the power of utilizing cultural memories as fuels and resources to expose, explore, and (re)write one's past. In essence, my (counter)stories challenge the dominance of Western-centric notions of silence as negative, oppressive, and powerless. Specifically, I argue that when speaking in/with silence is framed as effective and appropriate communication, the burden then calls on the listener(s) to engage in active listening.
Writing a semi-confession as cultural analysis of my six years as a probationary faculty of color at a historically white institution, I seek to unpack institutional whiteness vis-à-vis how I have experienced/felt/lived with my voice, silence, and body. In this essay, I approach whiteness as a strategic rhetoric that normalizes, preserves, and magnifies the dominant status of white body, identity, structure, and ideology, and also as invisible, unmarked, and routinized habits and practices that often go unnoticed to reproduce the absent center.7 Lorde insightfully states, “the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger.”8 I approach silence as in Richie N. Hao's idea of “a cultural performance” intimately tied to different bodies, identities, and positionalities in that silence can stand on its own, has different meanings, and is assigned culturally-informed values.9 Further, I join Aimee Carrillo Rowe and Sheena Malhotra in questioning a binary relationship between silence and voice, and also in challenging the dominance of Western-centric notions of silence as fixed, oppressive, and powerless.10 As a cultural Taoist/Buddhist, I embrace and relish the idea that “silence allows us the space to breathe. It allows us the freedom of not having to exist constantly in reaction to what is said.”11 Just like having tenure would not protect my scholarly voice had I not exercised it already, “my silences had not protected me.”12 Just like giving up tenure, authoring this essay is a personal and political act of (re)writing myself in US academia. In doing so, I hope that my stories will instigate necessary (and currently lacking) conversations about international/immigrant faculty in US academia.13
My decision to give up tenure during a tumultuous time for higher education has both pained and liberated me. Like privilege, tenure probably means more to those who are pre-tenure and/or not holding tenure-track positions than those who are tenured. Rebecca Solnit captures my sentiment when she writes, “To hope is to gamble. It's to bet on… the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety.”14 In juxtaposition to staying as a tenured associate professor, my decision to move as a seventh-year probationary faculty has become a professional and personal “disruption” that allows me to be a more self-reflexive thinker/feeler at this juncture of my career. That is, the act of giving up tenure has created a space and opportunity for me to speak (up) about experiences that would have been too risky to voice had I stayed. Paralleling a metaphorical time reversal of giving up tenure and thus going backward on my tenure clock, I make sense of my decision by traveling back in time to (re)visit and (re)remember the cultural minutiae of my upbringing on the island of Taiwan, especially what it has taught me about voice, speech, and silence.
Much of what I know about speaking (up) in/with silence originates from my Agōng (阿公), my paternal grandfather and my only living grandparent. Culturally, Agōng is the most influential/esteemed person on my father's side as he heads the family hierarchy. Allowing myself to (re)remember constitutes an act of “political reorientation.”15 To (re)orient and (re)write myself as an Asian/immigrant/woman faculty in US academia, the process must begin with reclaiming my family's oral history and its cultural wealth as I make sense of my act of giving up tenure and speaking (up) in/with silence. The longer I have lived in the United States, the more disconnected I feel from cultural particularities in Taiwan that I used to take for granted. Guided by counterstorytelling,16 I first unpack my understanding of bravery and speaking (up) in/with silence through Agōng's stories and then narrate memorable moments about my tenure-track journey at a historically white institution in the Midwest. I approach counterstorytelling as stories told from, by, and with individuals at the margins to shatter complacency, challenge the status quo, and build a sense of community based on shared struggles.17 Specifically, I focus on stories that allow me to unpack the interiors of institutional whiteness from the standpoint of an Asian/immigrant/woman faculty. I organize my stories chronologically to give an ongoing and evolving sense of self, identity, and subjectivity. I end by discussing theoretical considerations for racialized acts of speaking (up) within interlocking systems of whiteness, nativism, and immigration, as well as practical implications for mentoring immigrant women faculty through strategies of “homing.”18
GRANDDAUGHTER OF A TAOIST ORACLE
As my present self in the Southwest reaches out and back to my immediate past self in the Midwest, I find—to my surprise—my past self in Taiwan waiting for us in the corner. I grew up in a working-class, multi-generational, and religiously Taoist/Buddhist home in northwestern Taiwan. Remembering Agōng's way of speaking and his words to me as a young girl has allowed me to gain new insights about why I made my decision. In fact, visiting Agōng with my US-born son as frequently as possible was a key reason that I offered when I announced my departure to my former colleagues. The trip to Taiwan from my current location is at least 12 hours shorter than traveling from the rural, small college town where I was before. Moreover, flashbacks from my childhood reflect my deep yearning as an immigrant mother to nurture my son in the cultural dignities of the strong people who raised me. In particular, writing this essay reflects my desire to remember and reclaim how I used to think/feel about speaking (up) in/with silence.
Paralleling my life as an immigrant Other in the United States, Agōng's life story and oral wisdoms underscore how cultural and linguistic Others’ ways of speaking (up) in/with silence are always already nuanced and complex. Born during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895–1945), my grandfather survived the Second World War as a Japanese soldier, worked as a rice farmer his entire life, and today is a thriving widower over 90 year sold. Agōng is culturally careful not to reveal his actual age as he does not think it is a good idea to constantly remind others how long he has lived. One of my cherished childhood memories is eating dinner with my brothers and listening to Agōng's stories. Usually, after imbibing his special beverage—a mixture of alcohol and some Chinese medicinal ingredients, Agōng would recount and repeat this one story as we gathered around the table. At the age of nineteen, he was drafted to serve in the Japanese military; he was the only one drafted from his family of nine brothers. Agōng is the seventh of his brothers—and the oldest, unmarried one at the time. Agōng said it was his fate. He boarded a battleship along with other soldiers from Taiwan heading toward the Guadalcanal island in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. Most of the soldiers from Taiwan were crowded at the bottom of the battleship and would not see daylight for days. Depending on conditions of the sea, they had to endure long hours of seasickness as they traveled for a month or two to their destination. He got injured—fortunately, minor injuries—soon after getting onto Guadalcanal and was sent back to Taiwan for treatment. The war ended before he had to return. He considered himself a lucky survivor. Like Agōng, I too feel fortunate to move out of a rural, small Midwestern college town after having survived six pre-tenure years.
As a granddaughter of a colonial subject, I have developed a nuanced approach to speaking that mixes being genuine, observant, and strategic if not artful and heart-full. This is akin to Hui-Ching Chang's explanation of the Chinese expression of “妙不可言 (something is too subtle or ingenious to be described),” which suggests that the highest level of spiritual artistry in communication is to achieve “understanding by heart, not words.”19 I remember learning early that children—especially girls—were to be seen and not heard. As much as I really enjoyed listening to Agōng's stories, we were instructed not to interrupt or ask him questions. By nature, Agōng's stories are succinct and to the point. His demeanor says more than his words because we are supposed to listen with our hearts. Unequivocally, he always ended his story with:
I am not competent. Your father is not competent. It is now up to each of you to get better.
I have always thought it peculiar that a rice farmer who has earned enough to help build three houses for his sons and grandchildren would call himself “incompetent.” His words are a true testament to his humility. At the same time, humility is probably key to survival for a colonized subject like Agōng who has managed to live through two colonial regimes—Imperial Japan (1895–1945) and the Chinese regime under Chiang Kai-shek (1949–1975).
I am also a granddaughter of a Taoist oracle, and this has helped to shape my nuanced approach to speaking. Agōng is an oracle (also known as a medium or messenger) for a popular Taoist temple in the town where I grew up. Numerous certificates of gratitude for Agōng's service were and are hung up on the walls of my childhood home. Yet, I do not remember Agōng ever talking about how he was called to become an oracle during his dinner-time storytelling. His silence says that it is not an appropriate and/or necessary topic for discussion. When I was an elementary-school-aged girl, there were countless home visits from strangers bearing gifts and questions for Agōng. Occasionally, my siblings and I were allowed to witness Agōng in a trance (with an interpreter by his side) answering questions with sounds, utterances, and words beyond me. As I do today, my young self watched/listened to Agōng in awe. Oddly, those visits became infrequent as I grew older. Or did I suppress those memories since my middle-school education in science taught me to render such religious practices superstitions? I have never asked Agōng about this, but I always carry in my purse yellow papers of Taoist scriptures that Agōng and/or my parents have given me. One of them is a special yellow paper that Agōng gave me the first time I left Taiwan for the United States. He told me specifically, “When you feel scared, pray holding this paper up on your forehead.” Several years ago, my father told me that the god reappeared in Agōng's dream signaling/communicating to him that it was time for him to retire. Mom said that Agōng was 27 years old when he was chosen, which is the same year that my father's oldest sister was born. Agōng's life has taught me that speech is limited and some things are better left unsaid. More importantly, Agōng's life embodies the power of communicating in/with silence as well as the humility in recognizing the limits of our words.
As much as I want to feature Agōng's vernacular, my Taiwanese has deteriorated over the years since I started elementary school where I learned and spoke Mandarin Chinese. Rather than calling Agōng, I have consulted Mom and Dad multiple times in writing this story because of my fuzzy memories on certain details. One thing I remember clearly is that Agōng has always stressed the following: “筆尾尖尖可以傷人 (The tip of a very, very sharp pen can hurt people).” Even though Agōng received three years of Japanese elementary education, he became “illiterate” under the Chinese regime. Agōng had to drop out of school when his parents died. Although he has rarely talked about how not speaking Chinese has hurt him over the years, his lack of words says it all. That is why he has made every effort to instill in us, his grandchildren, the importance of becoming learned, informed, and educated. As much as I am educated in the Chinese education system in Taiwan and US academia, I have yearned—especially now as a mother and an immigrant—to know more about Agōng's vernacular and also to speak Taiwanese as I once did as a child. Remembering Agōng's life stories and oral wisdoms has allowed me to process and gain new insights about my ways of speaking (up) in/with silence. In doing so, I also feel both profound regret and deep gratitude as a granddaughter of a twice colonial subject and Taoist oracle.
SENSING/FEELING/THINKING WHITENESS VIS-À-VIS VOICE AND SILENCE
Carrying on Agōng's grandfather's legacy of crossing the Taiwan Strait moving from Mainland China to Taiwan five generations ago, I crossed the Pacific Ocean to the United States in 2004 to pursue my postgraduate degrees. As much as writing about giving up tenure to move as a probationary junior faculty member feels unsafe, especially given the rising xenophobic and anti-immigrant discourses, I also feel a newfound urgency to speak (up) about struggles that I have not yet voiced as an act of personal and political (re)orientation and (re)writing my cultural self.20 I have chosen specific stories to illuminate institutional whiteness as it interacts with nativism and immigration. In particular, there are moments that I recall experiencing coming up against “the brick wall” of institutional whiteness.21 The accumulation of those moments has left me feeling like a guest at someone's home. As a guest, I was honestly treated warmly and with friendliness and kindness. However, guests are not residents. Through juxtaposing Agōng's and my ways of speaking in/with silence and words, I narrate my journey of weathering the quiet storm of institutional whiteness in/with silence as an uninformed immigrant Other; reclaiming silence vis-à-vis speaking with comfort and ambiguity; and longing to be/feel my whole self again in/with my own silence and voice in US academia.
Weathering the Quiet Storm of Institutional Whiteness in/with Silence
Heeding Agōng's wisdom that “the tip of a very, very sharp pen can hurt people,” early on I weathered the quiet storm of institutional whiteness in/with silence to buy myself time and gain space to breathe, observe, and figure out how to get informed about things I did not understand as an immigrant Other. As an uninformed and non-American Other living in a rural, small, college town in the Midwest, I deployed silence as a strategy to keep private my mixed—if not confused—thoughts/feelings so I could make sense of them on my own terms. My silence became my mask to hide the anxieties running wild inside my body and also my defense mechanism to shelter me from public interrogations should my private feelings be revealed.
Fortunately and unfortunately, my awareness of the presence of institutional whiteness was heightened as I started and underwent my six-year tenure probation with two white female comrades. On a semi-regular basis, the three of us (along with other pre-tenure faculty) organized cohort-like breakfast meetings, home visits, and holiday parties to stay in touch with one another. It so happened that all the pre-tenure faculty throughout my six years on the tenure clock were women. As all cisgender females, it was easier for us to connect, collaborate, and commiserate on certain issues. Implicitly, we also knew that our cohort-like presence gave our voice(s) more weight within the department. As much as we bonded as cisgender females, I was always already conscious of and felt the subtle differences across the unspoken racial line. However, I really wanted to feel close to my pre-tenure peers. Otherwise, it would have been even lonelier and more isolating to live in a rural, small, college town while struggling with the midwestern climate—its brutal and humid summers and frigid and unpredictable winters were foreign to me as I had grown up in a subtropical climate. Similar to H. L. Goodall Jr.'s narratives of disenchantment in theorizing a narrative theory of (academic) community,22 I longed for the cohort comradery to help ease my feelings of loneliness and disconnection deep down. Unlike Goodall, despite my yearning, I struggled to connect with my cohort without being able to discuss how we were differentially racialized—such as the quiet but powerful ways their white bodies could extend while my brown body, whether speaking or in silence, stuck out.
An incident that happened during the winter quarter of 2011 shocked me and sent me back to heeding Agōng's wisdom of becoming informed/educated rather than worrying about connecting with my pre-tenure peers. Mixed emotions (e.g., anxiety, frustration, and sadness) still rise inside me as I recall the day when I found out for a second time that I had been granted one fewer course release than my white pre-tenure colleagues. That day, the department chair offered to meet in my office to discuss teaching assignments for my second year. As a racialized Asian woman, I asked politely for two course releases so that I could have time to write and publish manuscripts from my dissertation. My request was partially denied. I do not recall the specific explanation given, but I did not push the issue. Later, in casual conversations with my cohort members, I discovered that each of them had been granted their two course releases whereas I was denied one. This sent a shockwave down my spine and left me feeling like a terribly unconvincing communicator. I was not prepared for it. I did not know how to react in front of my pre-tenure peers. So, I did not—until I went home to my trailing partner who also felt isolated as a foreigner with no local employment. In the comfort of my home, I let myself feel and cry. That was a sobering moment for me as a first-year assistant professor of color. Because of having an interracial cohort, I witnessed early on and persistently how faculty of color would receive less protection and have to work twice as hard for half of the recognition. As educational as it was, I sometimes wished I did not have to see/know so intimately the walls of institutional whiteness.
Having a pre-tenure cohort as an international assistant professor of color also meant that I became more aware of feeling/living with my foreignness and ignorance of certain US cultural norms. Many immigrant faculty have discussed and documented the parallels between navigating tenure and immigration as nebulous, grueling, and inequitable processes.23 In particular, my foreignness stuck out as I bumped into barriers as I changed my immigration status from an H1B temporary worker to a US permanent resident (aka green card holder). The university had 18 months (from the day I accepted the offer) to file my labor certificate, which was the first step in making me eligible for permanent resident status. At the end of my first year, I learned frustratingly that the university had missed this important deadline, which ended up delaying my application. For two fearful years, I worried about losing my legal standing to work and live in the United States. Anxious about missing the 18-month deadline, I had written multiple emails to various staff at the international office—inquiring, checking on, and rechecking the status of my labor certificate. There were no responses to my emails. I then reached out to my department chair, but he did not think that we should or even could push harder. So, I swallowed my anxieties and watched what I had feared become my reality.
Missing the 18-month deadline meant that my department would have to undergo a full-scale search for my position in order to satisfy the US Department of Labor regulations. This took place during my second year. Even though it was supposed to be a matter of formality, I felt like my job was on the line. Goodall explains my thinking/feeling when he states, “Another ironic truth is that speaking out doesn't necessarily solve the problem, even if what is causing the problem seems to be a lack of speech.”24 Under the spell of institutional whiteness, the problem is more complicated for people of color. I could not help but wonder if the department chair would have responded differently had it been something or someone else of greater importance than me, an Asian/immigrant/woman.
Reflecting on my family's colonial history and religious practice, I realize that I privileged and believed in actions more than words as a cultural Other as I weathered the quiet storm of institutional whiteness. As colonial subjects, there were times when Agōng and my ancestors had to keep their silence to survive. Until I felt more informed and confident in my voice, I opted for silence so that my private thoughts/feelings could breathe. Also, for my sanity, I deployed silence as a distancing strategy to protect myself from knowing things that could disturb or anger me more. Heeding Agōng's lesson about guarding against “the tip of a very, very sharp pen,” I attended three tenure workshops internally and externally during my first year to compensate for my limited understanding of US academia. Since they all stressed the reality of “publishing or perishing,” I channeled my alienation into writing as an alternative avenue for voicing myself. In 2012 alone, I published five articles in top-tier, peer-reviewed journals.
As a non-threatening Asian woman, I was able to speak in/with silence partly because I felt/knew that all my former colleagues wanted me to succeed. Since my first year, all my annual review letters from my senior colleagues indicated that they were “pleased” with or “applauded” my instructional, research, and professional development. Some of my colleagues felt bad about my immigration fiasco. In my third annual review letter, the interim department chair wrote:
I want to take this opportunity to apologize for the inconvenience resulting from the missteps associated with your immigration status. I know that this weighs heavy on your mind, which makes your achievements outline[d] above all the more impressive.
As much as my colleagues’ words were supposed to validate me and my work, I struggled to feel accomplished year after year. I rarely asked, or had to ask, for help. Even if I wanted to ask for help, I found it too difficult to figure out with which colleagues it was safe for me to be vulnerable without worrying about potential consequences.
Who could I trust? Who would stand up or speak up on my behalf?
In weathering the invisible storm of institutional whiteness that often rendered me an insecure racial/immigrant/cultural Other, I have come to experience silence, like voice, as an interactive phenomenon. I knew that to survive US academia I needed to advocate for myself, but often I did not know how. Gradually, I learned—through gaining knowledge as well as through encouragement and informal coaching from US colleagues. I recall an exchange during which a senior colleague taught me one way of speaking (up). In my third year, I was given a Monday/Wednesday/Friday 8:30am and 3pm teaching schedule, which meant that I began teaching at 8:30am on Monday and ended at 4pm on Friday. I was surprised and frustrated, but I kept my silence because I did not know what to say. When a white, female, senior colleague complained to me about our shared 8:30am schedule, I mentioned that I also had a 3pm class. She too was surprised and actually urged me to remind the department chair that this had happened during our future conversations about teaching assignments. In that moment, the senior colleague not only taught me a specific technique for speaking (up), but also showed me support. With more interactions like this, I learned to reclaim silence and voice in/with comfort and ambiguity.
Reclaiming Silence vis-à-vis Speaking in/with Comfort and Ambiguity
(Re)remembering Agōng's particular way of communicating as a Taoist oracle underscores that silence is not inherently negative—speech has its limits; and silence and speech always already inform each other. Witnessing Agōng communicating in a state of trance is a powerful illustration of that. It also reminds me how much I have missed feeling comfortable sitting in silence but understood and/or feeling included speaking in silence. Agōng has reminded me that silence can be more communicative and powerful than words and also that words can be more limiting and restrictive than silence. Hence, to (re)claim silence is to (re)write how I feel in/with/about silence as an act of (re)orientation to regain my comfort in it.
While many women (of color) experience being presumed incompetent, I argue that racialized Asian women like me experience our perceived (in)competence in ways that are ameliorated by racial stereotypes about Asians as the hardworking and silent model minority.25 As a non-threatening and overachieving Asian woman, my speaking in/with silence had served more functions than I realized. First, there were times when my silence served as a resistive façade that released me from being further interpellated by the logics of institutional whiteness. I had grown tired of conforming to a white standard of speaking with conviction without being heard—or as Sachi Sekimoto and Christopher Brown put it, “the act of speaking as habituated embodiment” loaded with social, cultural, and ideological accomplishments to (re)produce white supremacy.26 Rather than forcing myself to keep imitating my white colleagues’ speech patterns and (re)racializing my tongue, learning to extend my body in silence in public forums can itself be an act of (re)orientation if not resistance. I have realized that I did not have to feel uncomfortable about my speaking in/with silence when I had nothing to say during faculty meetings. Becoming comfortable with my body and silence in spaces where brown bodies like mine were rarely seen could have said more than my words, which paradoxically might have allowed me to speak (up) more freely.
Second, functioning similarly to silence, cultural performance of ambiguity—when associated with non-threatening bodies like mine—can be used for leveraging alternatives, establishing rapport and/or defensiveness, and obscuring (in)competence.27 Thanks to my ambiguous positionality in the department, I went on a three-day job interview as an eight-month pregnant woman without anyone knowing about it. I managed to excuse myself from a major university event as a member of the planning committee in the name of having been “invited to give a talk out of town.” Though I received an offer, I kept it to myself as I had to turn it down because of its lower salary. Since this happened one year prior to my application of tenure and promotion, I did not negotiate a counteroffer. Up to that point, I had consistently received positive and assuring annual reviews from my senior colleagues and department chairs about my research, teaching, and service. I did not want to jeopardize anything as another part of me longed to be tenured and settle down. I was glad about not having to worry about any ramifications, or retaliations, of making known my desire to leave the institution.
Third, when silence is understood as an interactive moment, speaking in/with silence becomes a choice that all communicators involved—whites and people of color—have to make. One function of silence that is seldom considered is that it can urge dominant group members to speak (up) in the face of injustice and discrimination. I recall one particular faculty meeting when I made a report as the chair of the awards committee for selecting winners of various departmental-level awards, including those for graduate students. Immediately following my brief report, a (white) senior faculty spoke (up) expressing her frustration. Basically, she seemed to be questioning the legitimacy of the award selections because she could not understand why her advisee (who was outstanding in her view) was not among those recognized. I was stunned by her remarks. I have forgotten whether she framed it as a challenge to me as the chair (and an Asian woman) or the entire awards committee as the collective decision-making body. After a brief moment of silence, a (white) male senior faculty spoke (up) in his gentle voice and said, “I am sure that the committee this year has led the process with integrity as in the previous years.” Then, the meeting moved on to the next item on the agenda. To this day, I am grateful to my colleague for speaking (up) that day. When analyzing this exchange through the lens of what Patricia Covarrubias calls “discriminatory race-laden communication,”28 how those in positions of power (in terms of race, gender, and academic rank in this case) act and respond determines the meaning of the silence that follows a race-laden communication such as a discriminatory remark. It also suggests that race always plays a role, even when the conversation is not about race itself. That day, I left the faculty meeting feeling bruised that I was not publicly thanked (yet again) for my service, among other things.
Over time, I got used to the uncomfortable ways that my Asian/immigrant/female body stuck out as I walked in, out, and across different spaces. I got used to people not knowing how to pronounce or mispronouncing my name. I got used to my name being misspelled from time to time on papers as well as people not noticing having misspelled my name. I got used to not being thanked publicly or warmly—sometimes at all—for services that I provided. I got used to having to prove myself as a competent and approachable teacher and earning students’ respect in every class each semester. I got used to feeling nervous and anxious at each faculty meeting, particularly ones when I had to speak (up). I got used to offering my intercultural communication graduate seminar as a special topic (rather than core) course—as long as I got to teach it. I got used to not anticipating notice, acknowledgement, or announcement of my accomplishments. As soon as I got used to sticking out, I got comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Still, I continued to feel the presence of a voice inside me wondering if there would be more hospitable and welcoming places in US academia for people like me—people who prefer to speak (up) in/with both voice and silence.
Yearning to Be/Feel/Speak as My Whole Self in US Academia
(Re)remembering Agōng's life story and oral wisdoms conjures up a deep yearning for my whole self with my own voice, silence, and idiosyncrasies that I used to experience at home in Taiwan. I have gradually forgotten about that self. I did not grow up as a racialized Other in Taiwan, though I have always been gendered female. I remember being told these words when debating my decision to accept or decline the offer: “We have other qualified candidates. This is the best I can do. It is time to accept it with a leap of faith or…” Had I stayed as a tenured associate professor, would I become too expensive to move later? If I stayed, could I remake a more comfortable home or would I become okay with always feeling like a guest at someone else's home? I will never know. When accepting the offer, my partner and I vowed to make it the best decision of our lives. Sara Ahmed et al. remind us that migration is not just about who moves/travels, but also about who stays.29 At the beginning of my third year, the one colleague I grew close to in the department announced her departure. She wrote, “it is time for me to pursue other life goals that have been primarily unfulfilled for me here.” I was both saddened by her news and happy for her courage. Two other colleagues I met during new faculty orientation and became close friends with also left the following year. A part of me, too, yearned to be somewhere else, especially after these three friends left.
While I could get accustomed to the various ways that my Asian/immigrant/female body stuck out in various ways and across contexts, I found it physically and emotionally draining to navigate the geographical isolation, particularly the 7,800+ miles between my house in the Midwest and my parents’ apartment in Taipei, Taiwan. It took me at least 24 hours of flying, transiting, and transferring combined to get to/from Taiwan, including 1.5 hours of driving each way to/from the nearest airport. Each time I made the trip, my heart grew a little wearier. Being 1.5 hours away from an international airport meant that I might have to drive back to my house in darkness after being terribly jetlagged, which could be especially unforgiving in the winter. How fast could I get back to Taiwan in case of emergencies? When my parents traveled the long distance to help with my son's birth, I instructed them to fly in to a further-away international airport to avoid transferring in the United States. I was worried that they might get lost because they do not speak English. I then drove 5 hours on a snowy day in December, at 38 weeks pregnant, to pick them up. On their return journey, Mom and Dad insisted on taking a taxi because they did not want me to make the drive with a newborn. I knew that it would take a lot of persuading for them to ever come back and visit again, which greatly saddened me with a profound sense of alienation that I had never felt before.
After three years of searching/longing for a nonprofit collaborator preferably working with (Asian) immigrants, I finally found one—located 160 miles away. Working on a grant-funded project with this pan-Asian nonprofit organization located three hours away was both exhilarating and challenging. As fun as it was, the timing of this grant created extra tensions for me as a new and immigrant mother. I longed to spend more time with the nonprofit staff in the evenings and on weekends. Because of my son, I could only be with them during the day in the summers between 11am and 2pm, as I hurried back home to pick up my newborn from daycare in time. I felt humility and guilt on my drives to/from the nonprofit site. Often, I wondered whether I would have an easier time negotiating work and life if I lived where my research collaborators, partners, and participants resided. The push and pull between staying and leaving persisted.
I eventually decided to go on the job market again the year I went up for tenure and promotion. On one hand, the tenure dossier materials could be easily repackaged as job applications; on the other hand, it would be a less political move to time job-hunting with going up for tenure. So, I told myself that this would be my one last push to move out of the rural, small, Midwestern college town and closer to Asia. If I did not succeed, I promised myself to do what I could to get rooted, to home-build, and to claim my rightful sense of belonging in the place I had lived for more than five years.
Institutional whiteness is ubiquitous and omnipresent in higher education. That said, I believe whiteness manifests differently across institutions. My PhD alma mater is a Hispanic-serving institution, and I was more comfortable in my body, voice, and silence there. So, when I was presented with the opportunity to join a Hispanic-serving institution in the Southwest without tenure and with a higher teaching load, I was torn. Eventually, I accepted the offer, hoping that sacrificing a pawn (aka my first tenure) will earn me and my family more turns in the long run. More importantly, my decision to move without tenure has become a promise, a (re)orientation, and a reminder to become conscious of ways I participate in silencing myself while recognizing that silence can be a way of resisting. I want to (re)remember the comfort that I used to feel speaking in/with silence. As I (re)write my self and my tenure-track life in the Midwest, I must thank Agōng for his embodied wisdoms—whether spoken or in silence—for helping me to (re)orient how I think/feel about silence and voice.
I (re)remember, I hurt, I (re)write, and I hope. “The voices that speak to us… during transitions or crises, imprint themselves with a force that later voices never quite displace” writes Frank.30 Since making the transition from a historically white institution to a Hispanic-serving institution as a then seventh-year and now eighth-year assistant professor, the “disruption” of restarting my tenure clock has nudged and encouraged me to notice a voice inside me yearning to be heard. At one level, my voice talks back to my experiences of having weathered/survived the invisible storms of institutional whiteness throughout my first tenure-track years. At another level, my voice speaks in/with/about silence by (re)connecting me with my family's oral history and cultural wisdoms. I was raised to communicate better with my listening, my silence, and my heart than with my words.31 As I (re)write the story of why I gave up tenure to move, I am reminded of how much I have missed breathing/speaking/feeling peacefully and comfortingly in silence. Unfortunately, the Trump administration gives me additional reasons to be grateful for having made the cross-country move to the Southwest. If remembering is an act of political (re)orientation, I long to speak my mother tongue, Taiwanese, again with Agōng, just as I long to be at home at my current institution as an Asian/immigrant/woman faculty.
Drawing from the counterstorytelling tradition of speaking from the margin as a way to challenge the status quo and build a community, I have narrated selective stories from my six years of weathering institutional whiteness at a historically white institution.32 Just like giving up tenure, authoring this essay is a personal and political act of (re)writing my self and (re)orienting my identity in US academia. The way my Asian/immigrant/female body sticks out has affected how I think/feel about my speaking (up) in/with silence at my previous institution. My cultural heritage as a granddaughter of a colonial subject and Taoist oracle has taught me to appreciate the nuances as well as the limits and possibilities of both speech and silence. Over time, I learned to speak with ambiguity in ways that could decrease my sense of vulnerability while allowing me to accomplish my goal—or so I thought. My nuanced ways of speaking (up) in/with silence earned me tenure and promotion at a historically white institution, but I eventually gave it up—partly because I struggled to speak, be heard, and find comfort in my voice on my own terms. If you ask me now why I did not speak up (more), I would respond:
Have you heard my silence speaking to you? Why couldn't you hear what I was really trying to say?
The act of speaking (up) is not a singular—or isolated—activity. Rather, it is a fundamentally interactive moment. Speaking (up) requires an audience—hopefully one that listens with compassion and empathy rather than judgment and self-interest. Methodologically, my approach extends Amaya's autoethnography33 to underscore the use of family oral history (particularly with colonization) as a sensitizing and sense-making tool that presents the potentiality to challenge Western-centric ways of knowing/communicating.
Racialized Acts of Speaking in/with Silence and Institutional Whiteness
In teasing out racialized acts of speaking (up) from the embodied standpoints of Asian/immigrant/woman faculty, I argue that the interiors of institutional whiteness present differently across institutions. At a historically white, rural, small, Midwestern college town, institutional whiteness was reinforced and reinscribed by patriarchy, Midwestern modesty, and family-oriented, tight-knit small-town culture. I struggled to speak (up) and be heard when I spoke in/with my silence and in my culturally reserved and other-oriented ways. Over time, I learned to speak with strategic ambiguity and/or preserve my silence as an informed/uninformed immigrant Other. This is consistent with the idea of the act of speaking as “habituated embodiment” within a particular and situated system of cultural and ideological practice.34 Future research should consider how the habituated and embodied act of speaking in/with silence is formed, shaped, and (re)produced in interactions.
In a Southwestern metropolitan city with large numbers of Asians and Asian Americans, my Asian/immigrant/female body no longer sticks out as much. Still, my body does not and could not sink into spaces that are designed for (invisible) white bodies to naturally extend their shape. As a racialized Asian woman, my voice carries more weight here as the institution has an overt commitment to diversity and social justice. I no longer have to justify and defend diversity—the legitimacy, presence, and existence of people of color in higher education—constantly, which makes it easier for me to speak (up) and be heard. For the first time, a current colleague and mentor asked to read and review my work. I gave her an earlier draft of this essay. She responded,
When it is published, I want you to send it to our president, our provost, and our vice president of academic affairs. We must be informed!!!! And if you won't send it, I will!!!!!
At the same time, I am conscious and wary of the reality that that the power of institutionalized whiteness might be at its finest when I am least critical and mindful of it.
Disagreeing with the two co-editors who rejected my chapter, I call for more nuanced understandings of silence and bravery that allow silenced voices to speak (up) and be heard on their own terms. Additionally, I call for a more interactive understanding of silence in which all communicators involved have a choice to make. Forcing marginalized voices to speak (up) when they are not ready risks fortifying the master's house, rather than dismantling it, while further victimizing those who are already marginalized. Victimhood and agency are separated by a thin line of how we approach and tackle challenging situations. The position of being uninformed can be agentic, such as when ambiguity is used purposefully to challenge marginality. More than ever before, we need to reimagine alternative tools that stand a chance of disrupting, rather than strengthening, the master's house.