I am delighted to offer another guest post contributed in response to my recent call for contributions to the blog by black women and other women of color.
If you’d like to submit a post or an idea for a post for consideration, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I pay $150 for accepted posts. The posts can be anonymous or not, as you prefer. I welcome content on #MakeupMonday (the initial impetus was a Twitter follower asking for #MakeupMonday posts oriented toward women of color) as well as anything related to the academic and post-academic career.
Dr. Shahla Khan is an author, blogger and YouTuber when she isn’t teaching or researching. Life forced her to convert to feminism and she never looked back since.
So, this happened in 2010.
I was 23, a second-year Ph.D. Fellow and also a part-time lecturer at the university that shall not be named for some boring legal reasons.
The university building was divided into student area and staff area. There were 4 floors and each floor had classes on the left and faculty offices on the right. Not sure if every university has this privacy feature but the only faculty could enter the faculty area (as the doors would need a card barcode to open).
One fine afternoon I was in the faculty lounge waiting for some papers to be printed off of the common printer. As there were plenty of them, I sat by the lounge sofa and began reading one of the academic magazines. A colleague arrived to fill water in his bottle by the nearby kitchen sink. I looked up, smiled and descended back to the world of academic luster.
Suddenly I heard him “hi”. I looked up and responded “hello” thinking this would lead to some small talk.
He had a stern look on his face as he questioned: “you know this part of the lounge is for faculty only, right?”
I didn’t get the implication yet but naively affirmed “yes of course” and went back to my magazine.
He interrupted me again “which means no student is allowed in here, for any reason unless with a faculty member?”
Now puzzled, I respond “yes”.
At this point, I felt the discomfort of this guy about me being there quite strongly.
And then it dawns on me, he thinks I am a student!
Before he blurted out other questions with disgust, I showed him the lanyard and the card it held.
As he looked at the card, his face turned red realizing that he misbehaved with a colleague who is a woman of color. The bias just spat across the whole room.
To me, this was unpleasant, certainly disrespectful, but hardly a surprise. I am asked over and over again to prove my identity, show my documents and fight to be in a place because I am a woman of color. My other British and European counterparts, unsurprisingly have never once talked about any such thing happen to them. They just belong.
If you think this was bad, he added, after pausing for the redness from his face to calm,
“you know it’s a compliment, right?”
I get the vibe of an expensive Dior Rouge lipstick being put on a pig, but I ask hesitatingly “sorry, what?”
And with that weird look on his face he says “you know, I thought that you were a student because you are so young and good looking…”
At this point, I don’t utter a word because frankly, I couldn’t think of a decent way to respond to this piece of #’!& but I have that look in my eyes that roughly translated to ‘seriously dude, WTF’!
I assumed he got the message because his pathetic smile transformed into a fearful look as he rushed to leave the room.
Within a matter of a few minutes, my entire experience of academia was reduced to two stereotypes. First that as a woman of color, I need to prove my worth at every spot, even at the lounge where others just hang out. And second, that this privileged ignorant idiot thought that I would take it as a compliment if he called me young and student looking. The first one was racist and the second one was sexist.
Women have hard enough time in academia and other professional fields to be taken seriously. And then there are people like him who think that calling a fellow colleague young (outer appearance) would make up for the fact that he just misbehaved with me.
I know that many people won’t even see the first act as misbehavior as he just wanted to know if a student was hanging out in the staff lounge. But this is awfully painful because this is a pattern and not a single incident. When you look at this from the other side of the table, only then you feel the depravity of it. And while I politely I assured him that I was aware that students were not allowed in the faculty lounge, he still continued to pester me.
Am I supposed to forget that my academic worth and right to belong was questioned just because he called me ‘young and good looking’ before he left? Is that all female academics aspire to be? Put the brains in the bin and just dress hotter?
Our society puts this pressure on women to look younger and sexier and then punishes and mocks us for being vain and dumb. For women of color this gets worse because we are either ‘exotic’ or ‘uncivilized/unworthy’. And neither of these are helpful when you are out there to be an academic. It is like asking if the ripeness of a tomato would help fuel the rocket.