Archive for the ‘whiteness of philosophy’ Category

After all the ups-and-downs, ins-and-outs, rough-and-tumble politics of a graduate career, as a “woman of color” (a term which I despise, but for which no adequate substitute really exist), the final nail was hammered into the coffin of my philosophical aspirations just over two years ago. My Ph.D. program expelled me, under the thin veneer of academic failure. Internal appeals failed me, and the prospect of pursuing external appeals through various deans and administrators, even should they succeed, seemed to exhausting to consider. As information about how other (white, male) graduate students were treated, it became clear to me that had I received even slightly comparable consideration and treatment, I would have been able to finish. No one will ever admit my expulsion had to do with race or gender, and indeed, there is a very good story about why I was expelled and department policies. On paper, it is all legitimate. The story completely fails to explain why white, male students were not subject to the letter of the law, and given chances I was not owed. The message was clear: THEY can fuck up frequently and continue, but YOU are always a fuck-up and we will run you out.

There was definitely a grieving process. After all, a Ph.D. in Philosophy had been my singular objective for more or less a decade – my entire adult life, at the time. I organized my life around, I made my choices to reflect it. It occupied a significant portion of my emotional life. It defined, in part, who I thought I was.

That was, as I said, about two years ago. As life moved on, my life changed form. Though employed as a philosophy professor at a community college, and, thus, technically a professional philosopher, I began to mentally disassociate myself from the profession. I no longer identify as a professional philosopher. When, in social settings, someone says, “You are a philosopher?” my joking response is to say, “Shhh! Don’t tell anyone!” and promptly change the subject. Rather than regularly checking blogs, I wandered onto them only occasionally – sometimes realizing months had passed since I’d visited them (once a daily activity) – and then only in some sort cathartic rubber-necking type moments. I signed off of email lists and gave away books (well, not all of them, but a lot of them). I stopped listening to philosophy podcasts, and gradually eliminated all but a few philosophers from my social life. The ones who are still in my life are people with whom I, as a stringent rule, never discuss the profession or philosophy at all, except as a passing remark here and there.

I became involved in legislative advocacy for higher education in my state (so I still deal with plenty of, uhm, colorful behavior). I subscribed to the local symphony. I went to hear bands and traveled to places where I wasn’t going to conferences. I made friends who are artists and real estate agents and accountants and school teachers and chefs and most definitely not philosophers.

I realized recently that I was happier than I had been in years. In fact, I was happier than I had been since I first started taking philosophy classes as an undergrad. This realization was both joyous – that I had recovered from such a brutal and unfair ending to my hopes and ambitions – and melancholy – that something, which I had loved so much and brought me so much joy when I first encountered it, had been reduced, through the racist and sexist actions of its principle advocates – to a increasingly distant memory that is better banished from my life.

I wonder how many people out there feel the same way.

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.