Archive for the ‘Whiteness of academia’ Category

I am a white male doctoral student in a philosophy program in North America. Once I was at a conference in my field of research in North America. I had an experience there that opened my eyes. Generally, I’m a pretty naïve person. I’ve always sympathized with the efforts in academic philosophy to broaden what is studied and considered philosophy and create a more diverse learning and research environment, but before this experience I never really understood that these efforts are responding to deep and systemic problems in the academy itself as an institution, which has been designed for particular members of a particular class, racial group, sexual orientation and gender. (Names, places, etc. have been changed).

The conference was a mix of faculty and graduate students. Most of the people were upstanding, though the conference was entirely male. One of the panels had a young professor, “Ted,” from a school in North America that caters to students from France. During the Q and A a priest in attendance, who is West African, asked a question to another member of the panel. The priest was smart and really knew his stuff. Ted wouldn’t look at him and would roll his eyes when he spoke. He didn’t do that to the white members of the audience.

I happened to sit with Ted and a few other people at dinner that night. Ted mentioned that he taught at a French school. Trying to make conversation, I said that there is a group of French students in my program. He knew one of them and asked if I knew her. I said yes and he replied, “Yeah, cute little thing.” It felt like one of those male-bonding rituals that establish the “code,” ensure solidarity, and make us “safe.” I said, “She’s a very smart student.” He looked me, “Yeah, cute little thing.” I said it again. He looked at me disdainfully and let it drop. He then proceeded to tell us how he drinks heavily, got made fun of and never had any friends in high school, and made a possibly sexual comment about children, all unsolicited.

Ted can be in academia and was able to get a number of degrees in philosophy, because there is a system that was created for him, has protected him, and continues to protect him. I never understood that before.

I do, now.

At a traditional college in the UK, academic staff would dine together and wear academic gowns to dinner. One nice thing about this arrangement was that you would get to speak to researchers in subjects other than your own. This also meant that, initially, I’d be dining with people to whom I’d not yet been introduced. Upon entering the dining hall, the startled and bemused reaction of the (predominantly white, over 50, and male) academics indicated that they took it to be more likely that a student had inadvertently donned a gown and stumbled into dinner than that a young woman like myself might, just might, be a member of the academic staff.
Subsequent interactions ranged from open, friendly and welcoming (thankfully!), to frosty and patronising (humpf).