002: Shama (she/her)
Shama shares her story of growing up between Guyana and New York/New Jersey and navigating familial and societal expectations about education, marriage, and children. She talks about her journey to obtaining her PhD, balancing her family responsibilities while in graduate school, and working towards deconstructing gender norms as a mother.
Participants: Shama [S] & Interviewer [I]
Location: Bhuvaneshwar Mandir, Queens, NY
Date: February 10, 2019
(0:00) I: I’m at Bhuvaneshwar Mandir, and today is Sunday, February 10th. Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
(00:11) S: I’m Indo-Caribbean. My family's Guyanese, and I lived in Guyana for a little bit before coming to America. I kinda grew up everywhere. As an immigrant, my family moved around a lot. When I first came, we lived in New Jersey, we lived in Jersey City for a little bit. Then, my parents split up and we had a fire in our home, so then I moved to the Bronx for a little and I lived with family. And then my mom, she remarried and then we moved to Brooklyn. Then I moved to Queens a little bit after that, when I was in college. I went to a college in Queens and then I went to Maryland for a bit for graduate school and then I came back to Queens. So most of my time I think I’ve spent in Queens, but I've sort of been all over the place.
(01:20) I: Think of your life as a movie. Is there any story in your life that you would like to tell Indo-Caribbean women that’s exciting?
(01:30) S: I think that one of the moments in my life that I would share with Indo-Caribbean women is my education. I have a PhD. That means I've gotten my Bachelor's, my Master's, and then I got my PhD, my doctorate in English. And for me, that was a really big accomplishment because I felt like I had to do a lot on my own. I had a very supportive family, but because I'm first generation, so no one in my family, in terms of the adults, had gone to college, and because I'm an immigrant, I had to figure out a lot by myself. People also expected me to go into one of one of these traditional occupations that would make a lot of money. So they wanted me to be a doctor or a nurse or a lawyer and I think I had to fight even though I was very quiet about fighting. I just sort of kept doing what I wanted to do even though I felt like people expected me to do something else, and I just kept going with wanting to be a teacher.
I first wanted to be a high school teacher and I loved English. I loved history. I went to college for English and people would say things to me like, “You're so smart, why are you becoming a teacher? Why are you wasting your life? Why don't you do something that's going to make money?” I understand why people think that way. These are traditional careers that people who are immigrant, people who are poor, working class, right? We need money. Our families are investing in us so that we can get jobs and opportunities and money that they couldn't get, right? For generations, people have been sort of investing in me through their labor, through working in cane fields, rice fields, right? By migrating here, my mom's a nanny. And so I felt like there was a lot of expectations for me to...definitely to go to school to get an education, but also to get a job that would end up making money and making myself in a better position than my previous generation. So deciding to go to graduate school, to do English, for me, was a struggle because there were these expectations. I felt like nobody really understood why I was going and why I wanted to be a teacher or why I wanted to do something bigger for the world. But it was also a struggle because I had to figure out everything on my own. Being in college is really hard. Being in graduate school, it’s really hard and I didn’t have a support system of mentors or people to kind of tell me what I should do. And I had professors who expected me to know what I was supposed to do. Most of the people around me who were graduate students, were very privileged. Many of them were white, but coming out of middle class homes, coming out of American homes, they had skills and knowledge—cultural knowledge—that I didn't have. I felt like I was always behind and always not enough. Then I had the people at home who are supportive and proud of me, that I was in graduate school, taking care of myself but also they didn't really understand, and so I didn't have a sense of support, which they couldn't have given me, but I didn't really have either. So I felt really alone, I think, for most of it. So I think I’d share that story with Indo-Caribbean women to just do whatever you want to do and don't live your life based on other people's expectations. Have faith and work hard, that you can take care of yourself and you can accomplish whatever it is that you want to do. Yes. So that would be the one story. But I mean, I have other stories.
(6:28) I: Did you get your doctorate degree after you got married?
(6:31) S: So I was actually in a relationship when I entered grad school. I ended up being in a long distance relationship because I traveled for grad school and that was actually really hard because I had my family who wanted me to come home a lot because we were a very tight nit, close family. We celebrated everybody’s birthday and they would ask me if I would come home for so-and-so’s birthday. So I was coming home two times a month instead of studying, which is what I should've been doing. And so I got into the cycle where I would come home, travel four hours to come home. I would spend the weekend with my family and with my partner, and my friends and I would go back and I would be really lost at school because I hadn't had the weekend to study, which is what everyone else did. Then I would slowly get back into rhythm. Then I would come home again. It was like this constant cycle of trying to please everybody, trying to please the people at home, trying to please this boyfriend, because he wanted to see me and I wanted to maintain this relationship and then I would go back and have to deal with a lot of anxiety and a lot of feeling unprepared in my classes and feeling really stressed that I wasn't going to get my work done because I didn't have time.
I was doing this for a really long time and part of it was because I had this relationship. So when I went to Maryland, my boyfriend told me that he didn’t know if we would make it. Later, years later, he told me—which is really funny—that he thought we broke up when I moved, even though he didn't tell me that we broke up. He thought in his head that we had broken up because I moved away. I said to him, “Well, why did you keep talking to me?” He said, “Well, you kept calling, so I kept answering the phone,” and I said, “Well, if I knew we had broken up maybe I wouldn't have called.” It's funny, but that's another way I think I didn't really feel supported because I felt like there’s no way he could have understand what grad school is because he didn't go to grad school.
He also grew up in an immigrant family that never really left Queens. So I was leaving, going to another state to study, nobody in my life really understood what that was like and I was in this relationship that I was struggling to hold onto. We did end up getting married and we were separated for six years, but I realize how much I struggled and how much work I did to hold onto a relationship because I felt like I needed that relationship. I felt like I needed this guy. And I think from a very early age, especially because I had lost my father, I was sort of taught that I needed to get married and I needed somebody to take care of me. At the same time, I saw my mother take care of herself and take care of her children as a single mom. So in some ways, I got this really mixed message that I had to economically take care of myself and I had to get an education but at the same time I also needed a man to protect me from all kinds of things. I really believe that part of my goal was to get married. He's a wonderful person and I think also because I had like a really chaotic childhood, I also believe that I needed him because he provided a lot of stability for me. But I recognize now how in some ways, you know, getting married was as equally as important as getting a PhD. I sort of knew from a very young age that that is something that I had to do. Now I realize that it was a lot of pressure in so many ways to hold onto that relationship.
I mean, we're married, we have a child and like I said, he's a great person, but it was just too much pressure and there was no pressure on him to maintain the relationship. For a long time, he saw it as he was doing me a favor in some ways or like he gave me permission or he let me go there, and I think a lot of people saw it that way. You know, that he was such a good guy because he'd let me go get my education and he stayed with me even though we were apart.
(12:19) I: So he took care of your son while you went back to grad school?
(12:23) S: So at one point in grad school, after I finished my classes, I took my exams. After that you have to write a dissertation, which is like 200 pages. It takes years. At that point I decided to come home to New York and I said I would write from home. When I came home, you know, we had been married for about three years and people were just constantly asking me when we were gonna have a kid. I didn't really think that I was ready to have a child. I really wanted to finish school. School has always been my priority. Because my life has been so crazy, I think that school just offered a sense of stability and it's something that I really loved.
I love learning, I love growing and I got a lot of support from teachers because they saw that I was capable but maybe needed some extra help sometimes. So school's always been my priority. So when I came home, I felt a lot of pressure to have a child. We had been married for three years. Every time we went to any family event, that's all everybody ever asked me about. Nobody ever asked me about school. Nobody ever asked me about teaching or other things that I did, and so I felt like I had to have a baby, and so I did (laughs). I feel like that was another box, in some ways, that I was checking. And I love my son. We are incredibly close and being a mother is really incredible but at the time that I had him, I felt like I could have waited a little bit longer before having him, at least until I finished school. But because I also felt pressure, and I was also used to kind of doing what everybody wanted me to do, I decided to have him and I have no regrets about having him. I just realized that I also could have waited a little bit in my own time to have him.
(14:59) I: So that's something you would have done differently.
(15:03) S: Maybe. I mean, I don't know if waiting a year or two may have changed anything about having him, but I do wish that I didn't have pressure to have him. After I had him, I got my PhD and everybody kept asking me, when am I going to have a second child? And I felt like saying, “You're so silly. I have a PhD. I just got a PhD and you're asking me about having a child?” So I feel like in some ways, for some people, it doesn't matter what I've accomplished, it's all about being a mother and being a wife and if I'm not doing those things in a particular way or in a particular timeline, right? I feel like I've been conditioned and that I have these expectations that I have to check these boxes and if I don't, I feel like that's all that people think about or wonder about.
I think I want younger women to know that it's okay not to check the boxes and it's okay to take your time to figure things out and it's okay to pursue your career and what you want. And I also think I want them to know that they should date. They should not think that they need to get married at a particular age or that if they don't have a boyfriend, that something is wrong or that they should marry the first boyfriend that they have. Because I think that even though many people, especially young women growing up in America, may not have those expectations, I think there are some that do. I think that there's still a lot of pressure for women to get married and have a family. Sometimes I think that people just expects us to do it all, like get married, have a family and have an awesome career. But they don't recognize how much pressure they put on women to fit those roles and to kind of be perfect and to be great at all of those things all at the same time. And I also don't think that we have enough support in those different roles.
(17:45) I: Are there ways that you see or experience discrimination against women and girls in your family or in your community. What were those?
(17:56) S: My sister and I are the first grandchildren, so in some ways, we were like everyone's children and because of our migration history, our issues with our father, we also lived with our different family members. In some ways we were very lucky because we just got a lot of love from a lot of people, like really genuine love. We got to enjoy our grandparents and our aunts and uncles before they had their own kids, so it was really just a lot of fun and care. But also what came with that was a lot of I'm gonna say policing, but what I mean is, a lot of watching and a lot of people telling you, “Don't do this, don't wear this.” You know, constantly reporting back. And so, I mean, even at like 18 or 21, wearing lipstick was an issue or a tank top or something, you know? And things have changed a lot in my family. The younger women are wearing whatever they want to wear and they're also dating and having relationships, as they should. But I think for my sister and I, we also grew up in Guyana, which a lot of girls and women in our family now haven’t done, but we kind of knew from a very young age that we always had to be respectful. We always had to do a lot of housework. We had to be seen but not heard. And in some ways, I feel like as I got older, I also had to not be seen because as you get older and you start developing into a young woman, I also felt like there was a lot of thing for us to kind of constantly watch what we were wearing right.
So you don't wear lipstick because you don't want to attract attention. You don't wear tank tops because you don't want to attract attention. So in a way it's like you don't want people to see you, right? And I understand that that was a lot out of protection, right? They didn't want anyone to do anything to us. Sexual violence is real, right? But at the same time, you know, growing up as a young woman, I also internalized a lot of that. I would never wear red lipstick because it would just attract too much attention or particular dresses that showed my shoulders or showed any kind of skin.
I was just constantly conscious of that even in my twenties, my thirties, right? It's just become sort of part of who I am, constantly policing myself about what I'm wearing and what I’m doing. I think from the comments and the watching and just the way that people dressed us—which was very cute and, you know, they’d match my sister and I a lot in the same clothes—but I also think that there were other messages being sent constantly about our bodies and about covering ourselves and about not talking to men. I've actually thought a lot about how that's affected me, this idea that young girls and young boys in school, if you talk to a boy, he's your boyfriend, there’s this teasing of him being your boyfriend.
Even people asking my son now like, “Oh, do you have a girlfriend?” And I feel like saying, “He's seven years old, why are you asking him that?” This idea that if you talk to somebody in school that they're automatically your boyfriend or are interested in you or that you like them, it really doesn't serve us when we go to work and we have to work with men or we’re in school, in class and you have to do projects with boys, right? We don't know how to interact with boys because we think that, "Oh, if I look at him or if I say something to him...first of all, I don't even know how to talk to him, right? So I'm going to let him talk all the time. I'm gonna let him take the lead because I don't know how to talk to men or boys. ‘Cause if I do, somehow that means I like them because that's what people have been teaching me." At work, being silent, being invisible actually works against you. You don't get promoted. People don't think you're smart. When I went to college, I had to unlearn so many things. My professors were constantly complaining that they didn't think I had ideas or they didn't think that I was smart because I never spoke in class, but I was never taught to speak. I was actually taught the opposite. When I grew up, if I said something that adults didn't like to hear, if I asked too many questions, they told me that I was rude. So when I was put into situations like school, especially graduate school, where you have to step up, you have to show that you're thinking and you're challenging ideas, I didn't know how to do those things, and I had to really try to do them so that I can actually get a good grade in my classes and so that then I could learn. I think that we need to be careful with what we say to girls, but also young boys, about engaging with the other sex, right? And that teaching them that it's okay to have friends that are boys or girls or whatever. I think adults project a lot of things in onto kids and, and in some ways don't really let them be kids.
(24:27) I: So you would recommend the younger generation people like younger should just pursue their dreams and interact more with the opposite sex and be able to speak out and express themselves?
(24:43) S: Yeah, I think interact more with everybody, right? But just to speak. Speak, right? And also learn how to articulate themselves and think through what they're saying, right? Especially when it comes to themselves, speaking up for themselves, thinking about what they want for themselves and how they're going to get that.
(25:19) I:Other ways you’ve seen or experienced discrimination against women and girls in your family?
(25:26) S: I talked a lot about myself but my mother, my grandmother, I've seen them in relationships where they've always had to appease the men in their families. So with the older women in my life, I've seen domestic violence, especially my father and my mother. My father was abusive. He was an alcoholic. He beat my mother, but he also wasn't present and didn't contribute economically. So she was always working. She had kids and we were home a lot by ourselves. We did a lot of things by ourselves but it's because she had to work all the time, and so not only was he physically abusing her, but he also abused her by not contributing to the household and not taking care of his children.
Those are really big ways that I've seen gender discrimination in my family, but in other ways too. One of the things I noticed in my family is we teach the young girls to take out food for our siblings, our male siblings, and that's teaching us to do that for our husbands, right? I don't do that and my husband doesn't expect me to do that, but I see some of my cousins doing that, the girls automatically doing that for their brothers —I do do this too—automatically in the kitchen, cleaning and cooking when we have family events and I don't really see the men doing any of this work. We've taught the males, even the young males, that this is what women do and it's okay for you not to do these things.
I wonder how they're going to treat their partners and the kind of things they're going to expect from their partners. Because since they were little, this is what they've been seeing. Actually, my husband does a lot of housework and laundry and child care, so I'm actually really confident that my son will not be that way. I'm also trying to teach him to kind of just do things for himself, things that he can do it at seven years old. But I think it's really important that he also sees me as a professional person and he sees me doing all kinds of things, because when he gets older, I think it's really going to affect the way that he treats women and the things that he expects from women. I also try to pay attention to the way my son speaks to his cousins who are girls. If I see him or hear him talk down to them or try to be bossy or always try to be the leader in the game, I try to step in and say, “Well, you know, she should have a turn.” I actually hear the little kids in my family say things like, “Oh, you're a girl, you can't do this,” especially like, play basketball with the boys or things like that. I try to step in and say, “Well no. Girls can do whatever they want and if she wants to do that, you need to give her a turn.” ‘Cause I think it's really important that they see different models of what women can do, of what boys can do, of relationships.
(29:30) I: Can you tell a little story about how you navigated through sexism or racism?
(29:38) S: I've talked a lot about at home, at work, I think that we're always sort of navigating sexism and racism. I think for me the racism, it's not as direct anymore. But at work, you know, I have a PhD, just like my white colleagues have PhDs, but people ask me all the time if...people think I'm a student at my school. And I think some of it does have to do with age, right? I'm a little bit younger or maybe I look younger than professors look, but I think that part of it is because I'm a woman of color. I'm a short woman of South Asian descent, so I don't think people think professors look like that.
Sometimes when I go into spaces, offices, I'll go to another office, to go to a meeting in another professor's office in another building and the receptionist will ask me for my ID because they think I'm a student. It may not seem like a big deal, but when it happens over and over and over again, or people yell at you for not showing your ID, it becomes really a thing. I also had a professor one time sort of question if I got a particular position at the college because I'm a person of color. So I think there are really minor ways that all the time racism and sexism is happening.
I think that sometimes I also feel like I have to work harder than some of my white colleagues just to be recognized and then when I do get recognized, they sort of seem surprised that I've accomplished certain things, as if we all don't have PhDs or if my PhD is not as worth as much as theirs or something. I also think I experienced sexism all the time in all different spaces. So at work, the male colleagues tend to speak up. Even if we work on something together, sometimes they claim your ideas as their own because we've talked about it, so now you can report back to the supervisor or to the larger group and claim my ideas as your own. A lot of times, male colleagues will want to be the leader but then not do some of the logistical work or the smaller things we have to do and expect the women to do them, like take minutes at meetings, send emails, place food orders, all that stuff. And I think at home, I'm constantly navigating sexism and it’s not intentional, but there are times, especially when I was younger, when my husband didn't really listen to me. He would say, “Do you want a red apple or a green apple?” and I'd say, “A green apple.” and he'd say, “But the red apple looks better. Let's get that.”
He's also grown up in the kind of families and community that I've been talking about where, he really did not let me have a voice for actually for like 10 years in our relationship. He just dominated. I've had to work really hard to get him to recognize some of that behavior and he's really come a long way. So like I said, he’s always done housework and whatever, but there are these other ways that he didn't recognize that he actually was taking a lot of power and control in the relationship and in the home and wasn't giving that to me.
(34:13) I: And last, is there any story that you think should be hidden from future generations?
(34:19) S: No, because there are actually so many stories that I don't know from previous generations from my family in general and from the women in my family, that I wish I knew, and I feel like if they had told me, especially if they had told me from when I was a little girl, those stories might have helped me to navigate some of the situations that I have encountered. Just from being a researcher and doing a lot of work on Indo-Caribbean women, one of the things I do work on is I read a lot of literature and all the women's literature talk about sexual abuse and talk about domestic violence, and the literature is talking about this because publicly we don't talk about this. So I think that those are the stories that are hidden and those are the stories that need to not be hidden because it just keeps happening in different ways for different generations.
(35:35) I: What do you think stands in the way of women across generations, building relationships?
(35:40) S: Hiding the stories, you know? I don't ever talk to my mom about my father and about their relationship, about abuse. It's just something we don't talk about. There's so many things I wish I had known about my grandmother and I can't ask her now because she's not here. She died. We started talking about, as women and girls, we don't really get to ask questions and we don't really get to talk, and I think that like stays with us and it affects the way that we communicate with each other, you know? It's really hard for me to talk to my mom about her life. Sometimes I feel like she doesn't want to talk about it, not because she doesn't necessarily want me to know, but because it's just really hard for her and she's just kind of locked away a lot of her stories, but I wish that I knew them. I think there's just silence in general and like this idea that we can’t ask questions, especially between generations, like the younger generation can’t ask the older generation questions, I think that's part of it.
(37:07) I: So what will be your hope for future generations?
(37:13) S: I told you a little bit about the kind of things that I hope for my son and the kind of man or person that I want him to become. One of the things that I realized, especially because I'm not like a traditional mom, I realized that the things that I can give him, no one else could give him and the kind of broad view of the world and experiences, I don't think that other people can give him. That's also because of my privilege of education and my really wanting to make the world a better place. I feel like my number one purpose is being his mom and then being a teacher. But for me, I try to think about what kind of adult I want him to be and what do I need to do now, including thinking about what he sees, what kind of woman he sees me being and the way he sees me interacting with his father or our family members or the kind of job that I do, right? What is he learning from that and how is that going to affect the way he treats women and treats other people and what kind of partner he's going to be? So that is my hope for the future generations, that women and girls will not experience the kind of things that I've seen the women in my family and that I've experienced, but also that the men will be more conscious of their power of, be more conscious of gender equality, believe that women can do whatever they can and maybe even more, and not think that they need to dominate, but that we're equals.
(39:29) I: Your story’s intriguing. I hope it inspire other women to live their dream also, and be more liberal, and pursue their higher education.
(39:38) S: I hope so too. Thank you for talking with me.