Archive for the ‘whiteness of philosophy’ Category

I’m new faculty and just out of grad school. I’ve been in the town in which my university is located for about two weeks. Tonight, I (and other new faculty) was invited by the grad students to meet and have some casual drinks before the semester started.

It started out okay, but quickly turned for the worse. One second-year grad student mistook me for an incoming grad student, and proceeded to talk to me as though I was such. I pointed out that I was incoming faculty, but that did not seem to make much difference. He belittled what I said and made inane jokes about my background. At first I laughed it off but as the night wore on, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with comments that were being made at the table. None of these were overtly or maliciously racist or sexist, but they all certainly pointed to my obvious “otherness” while I was sitting at a table of white male philosophers. Every comment, every joke at my expense just made me feel more alienated from the group. (Remember, these are people I will have to teach in a week or so, and I have not met them before, and they have been at the university longer than I.) When I made responses, I was interrupted or talked over more frequently than other people at the table. (I actually pointed this out later and it was apparently not noticed at all.)

I imagine that some of the teasing was definitely meant to be in good humor, but it was furiously frustrating to have to politely and good-naturedly respond to them when they couldn’t see that I was finding their comments offensive and hurtful. At the same time, I don’t want to be cast as the oversensitive non-white, non-male person in the department who takes everything too seriously and everyone has to tiptoe delicately around.

Of course, I want to be able to be friends with these people–after all, I do have to work with them and possibly advise them for the foreseeable future. However, at the same time, I do not see how I can do this if they do not take me seriously. Eventually, I made my excuses to leave, because I was frankly sick of defending myself. At that point, one of the students even said “Yes, I think that you should go,” while several others laughed. I felt like I had been undermined, both personally and professionally. I felt humiliated, and definitely not comfortable socializing with them again. I’m sorry to say this, but I cried pretty much all the way home.

I am a female grad student in a top-15 philosophy department that offers a chilly environment for women and minorities. The faculty male-to-female ratio is worse than 80-20, there are zero people of color on the faculty, the number of female grad students who leave the program before finishing vastly outpaces the number of males who do the same. I could go on.

During this year’s week-long prospective student visit, I have decided that I will be forthcoming with female prospective students about the environment here. I have hesitated to do so in the past because I wanted encourage diversity in the incoming class. But as a woman who, as a prospective student, had the luxury of choosing between several top programs, I cannot in good faith recommend this department to others. Quite frankly, my experience here has been devastating. I wish this on no one else.

On calling out racism

Posted: February 24, 2012 by Jender in whiteness of philosophy

At the Central APA, a friend and I sat beside a group of three white female philosophers at lunch. These women began breaking down the ‘conduct’ of a Black female colleague who in the Q&A called out the racism of a panelist’s argument. Of course, this Black woman’s ‘conduct’ was ‘unproductive’, ‘contentless’, ‘offensive’, and ‘irrational’. Without a trace of self-consciousness and using the most tired Othering scripts in circulation, they pathologized this woman. As a junior colleague, I am struck that they couldn’t even imagine that they were sitting next to two other philosophers (a white woman and Black man). Overhearing them confirmed to me that no call for accountability goes unpunished; unless you want to be trashed, beware of naming sexism or racism publicly.

Lately (as in, over the last yearish), I am finding myself constantly — constantly — thinking about quitting academic philosophy, and finding something else to do. (I’ve worked outside the field before, so I know that I could do so.) This is despite the fact that I am actually in department that is genuinely pretty women-friendly, compared to the department where I did my MA, and where other women I know are situated.

I can’t help but think that this is at least partially a function of simply being a woman in this field. It doesn’t seem to me like the men I work with seem to even consider leaving. Yet the thought is almost constantly on my mind. It’s on my mind:

Every time I hear something explicitly or implicitly sexist uttered by another philosopher (or academic, generally). Every time I hear male colleagues talk about their female undergrad students like objects for consumption. Every time I see benefits given to men but not women. Every time I get comments (positive or negative) from colleagues on my clothes, shoes, hair, nails, weight, make-up, etc. (happens almost daily). Every time I hear the men talk about how a woman needs to lose weight or got ‘surprisingly’ fit — a conversation that never seems to happen about the men. Every time they act like women are making up whatever problems they encounter, particularly with reference to this blog. Every time I look around and realize I have no black colleagues, or that I am the only minority woman working as a philosopher in my entire geographic region.

Every time another brilliant, amazing woman I work with confides in me her fear, anxiety, feelings of inadequacy. Every time I comfort her with the assurance that she is not alone, that she great, and realize that I need to hear that constantly as well. Every time a good and trustworthy friend tells me how great they think I am at what I do, and I find myself unable to believe them.

Every time I have a disparaging thought about another women who is a philosopher. Every time another woman says something disparaging about other women philosophers.

WRT to a previous post — An Open Call for Reasons to Stay — many people mentioned that sexism is present in every work environment. Yet I’ve worked in several fields outside of philosophy before and never dealt with the kind of sexist bullshit I deal with on a daily basis as a philosopher. These things happen daily, weekly, monthly. I face one of these things every day. The psychological effects — loss of confidence, imposter syndrome, anxiety, etc. — compound every time it happens.

People might also think “Maybe she doesn’t love philosophy.” The truth is that the only time I experience joy in philosophy anymore is when I am alone, reading. And every time I think “Why do I put up with this?” I struggle to find an answer. It’s psychologically exhausting, and I don’t know anymore if I have the emotional and physical resources to do it. Of course, though, if I quit, it’s because I’m a woman, and so I’m not made of tough enough stuff.

I really don’t think my male colleagues understand dealing with this sort of thing. As one of them told me recently, “I don’t know why you aren’t a happier person.”

I was at a conference a few years ago and I was having dinner with another professor and another person who was then student at a highly (Leiter) ranked department where I had also once studied. The topic of having children came up. I expressed some ambivalence about having a family and the graduate student replied that if I and my partner at the time did have a child, that child would be “a mongrel” (I am white and my partner was not). Would this graduate student have said this to a male professor? Perhaps he would have. I don’t know. But I think in general this sort of thing happens to women more than men.

I’m a female grad student in a field cognate to philosophy and have taken four graduate seminars in philosophy that overlapped with my disciplinary interests. (The philosophy department here is Leiter top 20, if it matters.) What an experience it’s been.

In each of the four classes, one of the male students asked me out. Believe me when I say that this does not happen every time I take a class in my own field.

Although I wasn’t interested in any of these men, I didn’t mind these experiences because the students in question all treated me with obvious respect, and remained interested in conversation, about philosophy and other things, after I declined. So I didn’t have the experience of some women who’ve posted here, who had to wonder whether apparent philosophical interest in them was really something different.

It was other things that made me sometimes feel unwelcome. Sometimes these were fairly subtle. One time, a male student (who I quite like) was joking around about an undergrad woman he’d met in a bar. “I don’t know,” he said, making “on the one hand, on the other hand” hand gestures. “Great rack, but likes Kierkegaard…” He wasn’t remotely talking about me, but the offhand remark made me feel judged in a way that the repeated offers of a date never had. I had a flash of feeling that for all the other students around me, this was how it felt normal to think about the women around them — does her hot body outweigh being an intellectual lightweight?

Other times, my experiences were blatant, though still (I presume from my sense of the people involved) without any ill intent. I vividly remember one time we were all sitting around talking before class started. I jumped into the conversation, and in the middle of my sentence, the man sitting right next to me jumped in over me as though I hadn’t said a word.

After class, another student — the only racial minority in the class — caught up with me and apologized on the group’s behalf. “I really hate it when they do that,” he said.

I am happy to respond to this request for more on what’s its like to teach philosophy as a woman. I am a tenured professor at the metropolitan center campus of a very large urban junior college. I’m a “woman of color” in my late-twenties, and have been teaching here full-time for some years.

The issues I face as a teacher are not just from my students, but from my older colleagues, and have to do with age, race, and culture as much as they do with gender.

Let’s start with my students. Almost all of my students are minorities, predominantly Black American, Hispanic American, and Hispanic or Carribean immigrants. They are evenly split among men and women. About half of them are either immigrants or first generation Americans. Most of them come from impoverished backgrounds. Many of them are multilingual. (These are not my impressions — they are the statistical facts about my institution. What follows is my observation.)The student population is highly conservative, almost of all of them accepting “traditional” misogynistic values regarding family, the role of women, and sexuality/sexual preference.

I have to fight very hard to be taken seriously, particularly since I am a young woman of color teaching a required subject that is not viewed as important by most of my students, and directly challenges most of the conventionally held beliefs of the student demographic. My male colleagues (regardless of age) and older/white female colleagues, on the other had, are treated with due deference and respect. Male students, in particular, treat me badly, (but so do female studnets) assuming that I am dumb or ditsy. I am also, like the previous author on this subject, routinely called “Miss” rather than the college-wide standard “Professor” or “Ms.”, which I request as an alternate. The male students assume it is acceptable to call me by my first name, use obscene language in my presence, interrupt me when I am talking, argue with me about grades, make sexual implications. On the worst occasions, they talk to me as though I am a somoene they are hitting on with cheesy lines in a bar or
club. Most of my male students are clearly not used to being told they are wrong or out of line by women. I have been called, by students, “a bitch” “an ice queen” “soulless” “uncaring” “unemotional” “flaky” “dumb” and a whole host of other things, directly to my face by male students. This is depsite the fact that, on the whole, my teaching is evaluated positively by 80-90% of my students on end of the semester course surveys. When I teach issues relating to sex or sexuality, like reproductive rights, pornography, sexual harassment/discrimination, etc. male students feel it is appropriate to belittle or undermine the problems (my male colleagues who teach the subject do not seem to have the same problem).

This is not helped by my older, white female colleagues, who make a constant commentary on my clothing and styling choices (all of which are more conservative than I’d really prefer and very professional). I have been told by them that I look like “I am going on a date”, “I am appearing on MTV”, “I am going out for cocktails” and “I am out to catch a man”. I have been asked “if male students actually pay attention to what I am saying” in class rather than how I look. I have been told, upon getting a new haircut, that it was a good idea because “it makes me look more sexual, which will make students pay attention”. Comments are also frequently made about any weight that I gain or lose, and about how nice my skin, hair, nails, etc. look as gauges of my health.

But not all is bad. Here are some of the good things. When I get great, successful, amazing students, they appreciate how hard I work and I get an amazing sense of accomplishment. What I do is essentially social justice work, serving an oppressed and disadvantaged population who has been deprived of the many educational privileges I received as a member of the middle class. Many of my female students have told me that I am a role model of independence for them, and that my example helps them solidify their ambitions to achieve professional success and break the financial barriers that leave them dependent on men — their fathers or husbands. When I talk about my background — I, too, came from a highly conservative immigrant family — many women come and speak to me after about how I achieved my freedom and independence, and how I overcame the obstacles in my way. I know that I change the minds of at least some of my students about gender roles and misogyny, and that’s enough. Some
of my male students come to respect me and change their attitude and behavior towards women; I have witnessed it first hand. And if I can help some people challenge misogyny in their own lives, then I think my struggle is worth it — and I will continue to try.

This happened a few years ago.

When I was an undergrad in philosophy I attended a liberal arts grad school fair. There happened to be a female philosopher there who was recruiting for her university. She wanted to meet with me to discuss my research interests, etc. When I told her that I was interested in contemporary analytic philosophy, she lowered her head and fell silent for a moment. When she raised her head to look at me she told me that I would “never make it”. She explained that analytic philosophy would just be too hard and cruel for someone like me (I am a woman and a minority after all). She suggested that I switch to continental and do work in philosophy of race or feminist philosophy (never mind that at the time I had no interest in working in these areas). She then proceeded to guess (incorrectly) at my ethnicity for the rest of the interview. After meeting with her, I felt smaller than a speck of dust.

However, I didn’t let her ignorant and bigoted remarks deter me from philosophy, from applying to grad school, nor from pursuing my interests in contemporary analytic philosophy. I am currently a PhD student doing work in mainstream analytic and feminist philosophy. I came to feminist philosophy out of my love for and personal commitment to feminism. Feminist philosophy is not the only option for me; rather, it is the option that is most desirable to me.

I am an undergraduate studying molecular biology and philosophy at an American university. I have not experienced a trace of sexism in any of the science departments on our campus. Female presence is commonplace and widely accepted. The vast majority of my professors in hard science classes are female.

My experiences in the philosophy department have been entirely different. The department is overwhelmingly male and 100% white. Many professors are derogatory towards feminist theory and feminism. I have been an active participant in an informal philosophy-oriented student group andhave made many presentations to the group on a variety of topics. When I offered to present on an area of feminist philosophy, I received no reply to my e-mail. After reminding the professor twice, I still have received no reply. Since then, I have not attended the group. The same professor has repeatedly made the sexist conjecture “Can the feminist airplane fly?” Another student was told by his advisor that feminist theory was “emotional,” and was discouraged by the professor from taking feminist theory classes because of that.

My self-confidence as a philosopher seems to be, not a barometer for whether I should continue on in philosophy, but an indirect measure of who is in the room.  I had the same experience as the author in “The Stereotype Threat Room:” in a room of mostly white men, my confidence, concentration, and performance for a familiar talk (given successfully elsewhere) plummeted.  When I attend talks, my confidence and concentration also take a hit when the audience is overwhelmingly white and male.  As I continue on in philosophy, it feels disorienting and inauthentic to distrust my own feelings of self-confidence.  But, understanding why these feelings can be so volatile helps a great deal.