What it’s like to teach philosophy as a woman of color

Posted: December 6, 2010 by Jender in insults, sexual comments, whiteness of philosophy

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.

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