How We Hurt Each Other Every Day, and What We Might Do About It
For those who do not experience their ill effects, it is difficult to recognize the ways in which a glance, a comment, something mentioned or overlooked, made invisible or hyper-visible, a seat not taken or a body too close, inflicts pain on others. For those who do experience these often subtle acts of othering, the visceral knowing-ness is immediate and the effects cumulative. And they take a large toll on our bodies and our psyches. As the poet Claudia Rankine says, “You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.”¹ Overt acts of sexism, racism, and homophobia in Geography are far less apparent than they used to be, but not so their subtle, small, everyday enactments, what Chester Pierce called microaggressions, that serve to keep people in their place (and that oftentimes means out of Geography). The words that recognize and speak back to these microaggressions are difficult to conjure; a rebuke does little good since the insult wasn’t ‘intended,’ while a complaint raises the specter of the ‘sensitive and difficult person.’ What some have called death by a thousand cuts keeps cutting; perpetrators not recognizing the damage they cause, the victims still and again left silent.
And so what to do with the outrage felt and injustice committed when someone says or does something often unwittingly, perhaps unintentionally and unconsciously, that causes damage because of its insistence that one is less than/different from? I have started by asking fellow geographers to open the cupboards and tell me their stories.² Inspired by many,³ my goal here is to make everyday acts of racism, sexism and homophobia apparent to those who do not feel their effects; and to make the task of holding up those cupboards a little less difficult by sharing its heavy burden with others. Here, only slightly annotated, are some of those stories, collected between April 4 and April 28, 2015.
I have just been asked by a senior male colleague, via email, to join a panel because I’m female, and he needs a female to balance the panel. Why does he not indicate that I have any other skills to offer to the process other than that I am female?
What I have found is that for many ‘critical’ thinkers these isms are wrapped up in a meritocratic veneer. Most recently a colleague who had asked me to work on a grant with her and on which I spent several weeks redid the grant structure and dropped me but kept a white female professor who had purportedly done nothing as yet for the grant. This was because having a white female professor would improve the chance of success for the grant. The desire to build upon the ‘success’ of the white body through association led to the appropriation of the efforts of a black woman.
Day on day, I find myself damning myself with gender by performing surplus emotional labors for my supervisors: ever so slightly inappropriate expressions of concern, admiration and sympathy; praising their outputs which they already know are great. My praise, like any criticism I might come up with, ultimately means nothing. None of this, perhaps, is reducible to gender. Yet it is gendered. The academy must yet be one of the most forgiving or survivable environments, nevertheless, my embodiment feels wrong within it and experiences friction and an alienating discipline.
At a recent grad student party, I noted to a male friend about the noticeable gender segregated activities (e.g. an all-male card game). He responded, “You know you’re one of the guys, right? You can join us any time. You’re cool.”
I heard more than one account from younger female master’s students in my department who were hit on/sexually propositioned by well-established “critical” male geographers at AAG parties. I believe it was clear to others (including other faculty) at the party what this man was doing and he was not called out on it.
Because I am raced, some of my students assumed that I wanted them to read an interview about race. I doubt that if I were a white professor they would have made this mistake. This is because people of color bear the burden of race while whites in the United States are unencumbered by it. Race exists for many whites only when they are in the presence of nonwhites—that is, the raced.
As a teaching assistant, the university’s internal studies are gobsmackingly clear: at ratios of 90:10, complaints will target me and not my male counterparts; will deploy concepts saturated with expectations of masculine authority and tropes of feminine hysteria. Students preponderantly respond to female PhD students, employed to deliver their undergraduate tuition, as though they were not legitimate sources of university level pedagogical value.
Everyday I notice that the lecturers, all of whom are women, teach more and are paid less. The senior lecturers, all of whom are men, teach less and are paid more.
A visiting prospective graduate student walks past the sign outside my door that says “Professor My Name,” sits down in my office and says: “What is your job here?” When I explain my job as a professor, he quickly sits up and explains that he had assumed that I was a member of the office clerical staff.
The disconnect between rhetoric and discourse of being progressive, liberal and inclusive with the actual practices of discrimination, silencing, and marginalizing could not be more glaring in my department. Faculty write about race, class, and other geographies of difference, but cannot seem to recognize, let alone account for, the racism and Othering that they perpetuate all the time, and the various ways it shows up in their behavior and actions. A few colleagues have not spoken with me nor acknowledged my presence in the same room for a number of years due to my calling out their problematic behavior.
Last week I mentioned my ‘partner’ in the classroom. I was way more cautious than I usually am not using the gender of my partner in any of my discussions around immigration and law. Yes, this was my own way of ‘closeting’ myself but it was something that, as a new faculty member, I have been working through in the classroom. Constantly thinking about how my queerness is perceived in the classroom.
After my AAG paper presentation, the only comment I received was: ‘Wow – you only cited women and black people! Was that on purpose?’ If citing ‘women and black people’ still manages to cause such a stir, that means that there is still a lot of work to be done.
When a colleague suggests that our faculty meetings be rescheduled for a time that would be easier for faculty members with school-aged children to attend, a senior male colleague proceeds — in said faculty meeting — to ask each faculty member with children if it is a problem for him or her personally to attend these meetings. Not surprisingly, no one says “yes.”
I am afraid to send this email, because I need my job and if word of this got out, I’m sure I would be let go.
I had this interview with a governmental authority. The interview went quite well and then we talked about this report that was important for me. So the guy said: “You know what, I could give this to you…” He stood up, and while walking over to me he said “But only if you keep this to yourself.” He leaned over, grabbed my boob and tried to kiss me (he only made it to my cheek). I was totally shocked, it took me some seconds to realize what just happened and then I immediately packed my stuff and rushed out of the office. Funny enough one of my research fellows knows that guy and he was talking of him (before that incident) as “good old XXXX.” So while they are having this fella-like male relationship, I’m the one that is being touched and harassed, because I’m a woman.
Otherness is also a question of language and academic context.
I try where possible to avoid ever being in a space where I have to interact or collaborate with my colleague; whenever I find myself in such spaces e.g. department meetings, I can rest assured that any comment/observation that I make, will be routinely discounted or devalued by my colleague, never directly but always by way of a generalized statement that articulates some ethical/moral high ground that positions me/my views as unethical, or naïve or unhelpful relative to their own.
I am constantly being told I don’t need ‘it’ — the ‘it’ being promotion, publication, progression, recognition, then often implicitly but sometimes explicitly reasoned through a familial logic of me not having family (reduced to not having children).
This kind of harassment by men — standing way too close in public and commenting on their consumption habits — certainly felt like a form of misogyny in the moment.
While it’s important to talk about (micro)aggression, I would also like to open a dialogue about what to do when you see it happening. This occurred to me when I was told about an incident when a male panelist made an excuse to leave the room when the women on the panel were being ignored by the audience. And other small, but significant interventions in a handful of cases of “whitesplaining” when people of color were being told about their experience by apparently clueless white people. It wasn’t much in the way of effort — just subtle maneuverings of conversations and body language to shut out/down the ‘splainer (usually a white dude).
I’ve ended with this last story because it reminds me that this (listening to each other) is just a first step. There’s a lot more work to do, including thinking through and sharing strategies with others about what and how to say something/intervene when microaggressions are directed at you or you witness this happening to someone else. I look forward to hearing your stories, strategies, and interventions.