Kevin Chen & Rachel Poirier

by Claire Zuo

Welcome to our senior interview series, where we talk with the mentor-peer-elder-friends who have led our clubs and protests and movements and communities. If you would like to nominate a graduating senior to be interviewed, please fill out this form and we’ll contact them as soon as we can:

I interviewed my friends, classmates in Vanessa Agard-Jones’ “Ethnographies of Black Life,” and fellow Scorpio moons, Kevin Chen and Rachel Poirier. Both are Anthropology majors graduating from Columbia College this May.
CZ: Who are you? Introduce yourselves.
KC: I’m Kevin Chen.
RP: My name is Rachel Poirier.
K: I’m majoring in anthropology, doing a concentration in economics. [R: Wow!] Surprise!
C: How do you feel about that?
K: How do I feel about that? Well, econ’s fake, but I think it’s too easy to just say that econ’s fake, because I think that anthro’s also fake, and it’s been interesting to see how both of these social sciences are trying to do the same thing. Econ’s trying to explain “human behavior,” but with money I guess, and then they just have these models and stuff. But anthro’s trying to do the same thing, on a different register, through ethnography and observation and —
R: But at least maybe anthro has some self-consciousness?
K: I think so, but it’s also interesting to see the articulations, but also disarticulations, between the two.
R: On that note, I only major in anthro – I do nothing else, and I don’t do a thesis.
C: How do you feel about that?
R: Great. I’m loving my life, I have no regrets.
C: Go off.
R: I am, you know? I’m leaving this place with no worries but also nothing to claim as, I did that. I would like to,
like, do that. Not that as in a thesis, but that. Also, is econ a different beast than finance?
K: Finance is a subset of econ, like financial economics.
R: Okay, so if I know an econ major, should I give them more of a benefit of a doubt than a finance person?
K: No, they’re both pretty horrible.
C: Is there anyone who does radical econ here in the department?
K: Maybe Karl Marx, you know him? No, not really, the department is very, maybe even moreso than anthro, even more set in its frames and ways of thinking.
C: Do you have anything to say about gaysians in econ? Or broadly Asians in econ?
K: The gaysian thing is funny because there’s this whole thing called Out4Undergrad and it’s for all these LGBT students who are interested in business, tech, all that stuff. It’s just funny because it’s interesting to see how identity is leveraged in that way, in the neoliberal – networking and getting a job. “I’m a business queer,” you know?
C: What does it mean to be a business queer?
K: They wear ties?
R: Their ties are like, slightly better chosen?
K: They’re equally vicious, though, in the business world. Maybe even more pernicious.
R: I have never encountered anything for that in the humanities – anything for queer students.
C: Yeah, there’s no queer anthro group.
R: There’s no anthro anything! [Get on it, folks…]
C: Do you want to talk about the spaces and communities that have shaped you, or not, or unshaped you?
R: I think what is very interesting is that I have no communities that I’m affiliated with here. I have no spaces, besides, like, my room. So I don’t know – I don’t know what that experience is like, to have communities that you can commiserate with or talk to and feel an affinity with.
C: Do you think you would want these? Have you avoided them?
R: I’ve avoided everything, just on account of being queer, and queer people being like, no you’re not. And being biracial but white presenting or passing or whatever the hell you want to call it. I don’t know what I should leave for other people that don’t — I present in a hegemonically appealing way, and it has nothing to do with my own choices, as much as just this is how I exist. Do I have the right to come into these spaces where people are dealing with much more violent things? So I’ve just avoided everyone. Because I still don’t know the answer to that question.
K: If I’m thinking in terms of community – because I did write my thesis on this, but whatever – there’s really something about being in common, because it’s something that’s more active, but also more transitory, more attuned to the ways that being in common is not something that’s set. Something that happens in very specific spaces and times and doesn’t necessarily last. The closest thing I probably have is dance, because I’m part of a dance group, Raw Elementz, with a Z. And it’s funny because I would say that’s the closest thing to being in common – and there’s something really interesting about how through dance, through movement and performance and moving together, that that’s how we’re in common with one another. In terms of something more identity based, I feel like I haven’t really been involved in anything, like Asian American or queer groups.
R: Identity-based communities on campus… even though they present themselves in opposition to hegemonic whatever, they often also contain very set types of people. I’m not a queer person that is very invested in certain ways of [being]. I don’t know. I haven’t felt very accepted as a queer person, if I look at the queer groups on campus that have been presented to me as options. I don’t know if it’s the way I’ve been socialized, but I don’t have the same relationship to my queerness as those have.
K: I agree. Disidentification.
C: Word. How have your four years at Columbia helped you discover those differences?
R: Since I first came in, with all these identities (/) politics, what’s affected me the most is my socioeconomic bracket combined with my race. And I don’t think there was really any place I could go to actually talk about that. I was terrified when I first came here, and I didn’t speak at all in my classes at all my first year – I just did not feel like I was a part of this campus community,or whatever you want to call it. I don’t think I feel any more integrated into it, but I kind of realized the reason why is because these things are lacking in their definitions – I feel more okay with myself in the ways I disidentify with that. It’s a weird way of becoming comfortable with yourself — not through other people, but when it’s easier for you to embody being not part of that.
K: Yeah,  I came onto campus with a very naive idea of what my life would be like here. I had all these expectations built up, even just specifically with my relationship to queerness; I don’t know how, but I thought I was just gonna blossom into it, embody it more full, in a way I thought I couldn’t in Houston for whatever reason. It was sort of interesting to get to know people who were involved in LGBT student groups and were really into that and sort of represented, as Rachel mentioned, a very specific vision of queerness. Especially in my 1st and 2nd years, I really realized how queerness for me operated on a different register that isn’t so based on a question of identity as it’s commonly understood in these student groups. As, oh, we’re all queer, I guess, we’re all like this. At the end of the day I feel like a lot of them ended up centering whiteness, not just because most of them were white – though that was a big part – but also because emphasis on “queerness as visibility.”
R: The grammar they use – not just the vocabulary, but the way the conversations were structured.
K: The way that queerness was read –
C: Or not read.
K: Things like race really complicate that. I still think that’s the biggest complication for me. And at least, for me and my queerness, it relegates that to another space, another register, that isn’t captured by these spaces, that these groups are in mostly.
R: These conversations – on the level that I’ve been socialized into my race and my queerness – as someone who is Black and queer – in a lot of these spaces, there’s no room for nuance and it gets really oversimplified and put into a corner.
K: Yeah. Q+A was formed — I don’t know what they’re doing but I know people in it. They’re probably okay, right?
C: You’ve talked about dance – I’m wondering if there have been other ways you’ve been able to talk about or access your queerness, maybe in spaces outside student groups?
R: My entire time here has been like shaped by feeling isolated, all the time. I don’t have any experience with student groups – I have a lot of experience with wanting to join groups even dance groups – that’s a very racially heavy thing for me, as someone that’s white passing. Even that, or even joining a gospel choir group – all those things become so hard to come to terms with and feel like you can actually embody or go into that.
K: There’s dance and I do think a lot of how I relate to my queerness is through movement, there’s something about embodied performance. (C: Embodied knowledge!) Even for a performance group, without any specific goals in that way, just to perform and “entertain” or whatever – I still get a lot of out of that, and find ways of relating to my body that I love.
In terms of other spaces that might exist, there are these everyday moments, that are also transitory and impermanent, but are acts of recognition. Acts of seeing something and sharing a certain type of feeling with someone, even if it’s only one person. Like a joke about gaysianness as a coherent category. Those really small moments that don’t amount to anything that you can ever even name. But you can feel something that’s weird and funny –  there’s definitely an element of play.
R: I’ve been thinking a lot about taking Afro-Cuban [dance], and that’s been really important to me. Even though I’m not part of any dance community, just learning how to be comfortable with my body in the most basic level of its physicality – how does it move, what can it do, what are its limitations? What is my relationship with that? That’s been so important for me, just being comfortable with moving through whatever environment I’m in. It’s also very important for me feeling some recognition of, you know, a certain diasporic Blackness. The thing about friends, it’s hard because I still don’t know anyone – not that I’m some fucking special mixed snowflake, but I don’t know anyone like me still. Whether I talk to my white friends or friends of color there’s still a certain disconnect and lack of recognition at such an intimate level it’s really a very painful, lonely feeling. But it’s a certain way of just existing by oneself. You just have to deal with being – [Kevin] said disidentification, but at such a fundamental level, in every relationship you have.
C: You also talked about not finding a place to think about class and race together. Do you want to talk more about that?
R: Certainly. There are very important things that are happening on campus, especially with regards to first gen students. I don’t know what the hell – what stars convened in my life to make me [and my positions] so ambiguous, but my mother was a teacher, so she did go to college. But she’s dealing with a lot of the aftermath of racial violence, trauma, and a socioeconomic history where now she’s homeless — but I still don’t fit into the first gen category. And my father got his GED, so I don’t know what the dynamics are. There’s a conversation lacking, and it’s important to recognize the identity aspects of that. But I still can barely pay my phone bill and have to take care of my mother and don’t fit into those categories, so it’s like, what do I do? I don’t know.
K: Right, yeah. In terms of groups, I remember FLIP came out our sophomore year. What was funny for me was I remember the CSA, the same year, started this program called first in family and they have all these events, which I’ve never gone to [as a first gen student]. But there’s clearly a real disconnect between how the admin conceives of these identities – these positions, maybe that’s a better way of thinking about it – and how to fix them, that’s really how they do it. They’re thinking of [first gens] as something that needs to be fixed, as opposed to something that needs to be addressed, recognized.
R: Fixed in two senses, like they’re trying to get rid of us, and also consolidating a certain image and definition.
K: Yeah! And also socializing them into a certain way to understand their position from a certain way, and do something with that.
R: It’s so – not to be like, neoliberalism! – but it’s also placing this whole burden of identity on these students. And it becomes a matter of identity politics that the students have to deal with. It’s like, the administration is not actually accounting for anything.
K: Yeah, in the daily lived experiences of these students, beyond these things that you’re ‘fixing’ onto them. Advising, they’re a mess. Like, everything’s becoming a task force, everything’s literally a task force to fix things and I don’t know if that’s really getting to the heart of the matter.
R: It’s funny, because they say it’s a task force and they do absolutely no tasks.
K: They have no force.
R: They just sit and have, like, meetings. It’s a way of shutting people up, if [the administration] says they’re making a committee about this!
K: Yeah, like, what is it, Committee on Racial Equity?
R: Any issue about some kind of injustice is just relegated to that domain. “We have students on the board!”
K: Like, which students? What are they saying actually?
R: What clout do they even have?
C: Do either of you have thoughts or ideas on what students can do to take care of each other outside of reformist politics? Or if you think that should be happening, or the extent to which we should be appealing to the university for various things?
R: I think it’s so important — even as you’re doing the work of grappling with administration and the university, a huge part of that kind of activist work is taking care of yourself and taking care of other people. That’s enfolded into it, and that doesn’t get recognized nearly enough, but I mean, I’m not a part of any group that’s into that. In terms of taking care of yourself, there’s just like, nothing I can really say helped me on this campus. Not to sound, like, hopeless.
C: That’s also fine to sound.
R: It’s like, yeah. I don’t want to – there’s such a tendency to end things on a final hopeful note, but I think we have to recognize that sometimes that’s not possible, and there’s a reason why that’s not possible. And it’s not an affective lacking in yourself. This all relates to this bigger problem, and that’s not fair to put on someone’s psyche.
K: Yeah. In terms of appealing to the university, I think – there are student groups doing important things, like divesting from private prisons was something that was achieved. I don’t know how much impact it had, but, obviously, it did something. There are lots of student groups trying to do stuff with financial aid, food insecurity – I think that’s really important. We exist within the fact of Columbia University, the neoliberal university, whatever – and those things are so important, but I do wonder about what happens outside of those spaces, activist-y spaces. I think those groups do important things, and I haven’t gotten involved for a variety of reasons, but neither of us really have. The most I’ve done is Under1Roof with the OMA, but even within that, it’s happening on a different sort of register.
R: I think there are several things embedded in activist groups and activist identity that don’t really get accounted for – who’s bearing the brunt of the emotional labor, what does the leadership look like, how are these configured? I know there are lots of in-group tensions that I don’t really see…I simply haven’t known what is appropriate for me to do and what is actually going to do something. And I found that when I did try to get involved, there were politics that barred me from actually doing something that felt necessary.
K: I think, in terms of care, I was reading secondhand from this anthropologist, writing this thing about queer anthro, who interviewed Reina Gossett. And Reina said something like, we have to figure out what we want — we have to shift from a politics of identity to a politics of desire. It’s like, what do we want, what does this group – coalition, if that’s what it is – want, and I think that’s a question that needs to be asked, because it get to the intimate, to different levels of interacting within these spaces. So it crosses these different scales. What do we want, and in care it’s easy to lose sight of that — it’s easy to lose sight of what we’re actually desiring, so that people end up feeling burnt out, exhausted, bearing the brunt of this. Because what we want is fundamentally different or doesn’t match up in a way, or doesn’t get actualized in the way that we want it to.
R: When we’ve been having this conversation, it’s been kind of circling around that – that intimate register of desire, and I think so much of the in-group tension and disconnects are a matter of — we all theoretically have this shared vision, or shared experience with the world, so why are we still having these —
K: Mismatches, disjunctures, tensions?
R: Yeah, whatever word you want to put on it. Like, what is that? What’s going on? I don’t know.
C: That’s a good final note – what’s going on?
K: Yeah, what’s going on? And what do we want out of that? Beyond something that’s as easy as a goal. Why do we want it – what’s the motivation? Because I think a goal is easy. It’s easy to say that we want to do better for everyone on this campus. That’s, like, every CCSC candidate. Well, why? People come with different motivations, clearly, and what do people really want out of that?


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