Am I Being Paranoid? Being a Woman of Color in Academia

Today’s post comes to us from Prof. Saba Fatima.  Earlier this semester, Prof. Fatima gave a lecture as part of the Women’s Studies Event Series entitled “Women of Color in the Academy and Epistemic Doubt,” and it was one of those lectures that made all of us in attendance think about issues in new ways.  I also left thinking how lucky I am to have colleagues like Saba–smart, wonderfully articulate, and fearless.  In this post, you’ll get a bit of all of that.  

This blog post builds on the talk Prof. Fatima’s gave at SIUE this March, and advances her ideas as she prepares for a talk she is giving at a conference entitled “Exploring Collaborative Contestations and Diversifying Philosophy,” co-sponsored by Hypatia, the leading feminist philosophy journal, and the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Women.  (The SIUE Women’s Studies Program is happy to be joining the Philosophy Department and the College of Arts and Sciences in supporting Prof. Fatima’s travel.)

More broadly, Prof. Fatima’s research interests include Muslim/Muslim-American issues within a framework of feminist & race theory; epistemic injustice; social and political within prescriptive Islam; and non-ideal theory. More about Prof. Fatima’s work can be found at A 2016 blog entry by Prof. Fatima on women in sacred Muslim spaces can be found here

–Catherine Seltzer, Director of SIUE’s Women’s Studies Program

Something (which was perhaps, nothing) happened a long time ago. I was a graduate teaching assistant and I had just come out of a meeting with the professor for the class. He went over the final exam with all twelve TAs. Downstairs, in the library, I saw a student from my section preparing for the finals with a friend of hers who was not in my section. The student and I smiled at each other as our eyes met, and I wished her good luck. She said something about freaking out about the exam, and I said to her in an encouraging tone, “I just saw the exam, it’s not that bad.” At this moment, we were still at a considerable distance from each other. Her friend’s eyes lit up and she called over, “Hey! come here.”

I know this is strange to recount as something worth recounting. I know this, because I can read my words written above. The friend’s statement reads as harmless to many. In fact, it reads as harmless to me, most of the time. But in that moment, I felt humiliated. It was a terse command. I remember my body heating up, possibly with anger or perhaps with embarrassment, I am not certain which. Perhaps she thought I was the janitor, and had inadvertently seen the exam. I don’t know. I have no idea who she mistook me for. Perhaps, she didn’t mistake me for anyone. My student immediately said, “That’s my TA.” The friend had a slight change of expression. The student then quickly said goodbye to me, as I walked away.


 photo credit, Jeremiah Cater

I later recounted the incident to another person of color, who nodded along at my ambivalence about why that statement was bothering me. But even as I was describing the incident to him, I thought to myself that I must look like I am grasping at victimhood. It was a strange feeling of not knowing how to perceive my own reality. The student’s friend hadn’t shouted the command at me, she didn’t say it with a teenager’s attitude. In my head, I tried to make sense of why I had felt insulted in that moment, but more importantly, why I couldn’t communicate and confirm with the world at large why I had felt that way.

There have been many other incidences, where I did not need to seek confirmation of whether I was insulted by a student because I knew that I had been. As a perpetual outsider, in virtue of my brown immigrant body, my accent, mannerisms, and the assumptions about my affinities and motivations, I have encountered what are termed as, microaggressions both within the classroom and in context of presenting my research. There are countless such incidences, and they still occur every semester without fail. And even within these blatant instances of racism, there have been allies, who not only failed to understand the experience, but charged me with being overly-sensitive (paranoid). Thankfully, today’s social media exposes me to the experiences of other women of color and I can receive validation of my reality from them.

However, this particular incident stuck with me because in its aftermath, I did not know how to characterize the encounter. At the time, I wasn’t exposed to any blogs or books about minority experiences in the academia. I lacked the shared social resources to make sense of my lived reality. My source of understanding and articulating my experiences was dependent on those around me – mostly white male counterparts. In thinking about why I had heated up, I reminded myself that the student’s friend was simply calling out to someone who looked similar in age to her own self. I told myself that she didn’t mean it disrespectfully. But even long after coming to a conclusion that I had “over-thought” a meaningless incident, I still do not know how to figure out when to trust my own sense of knowing. And in instances such as these, I have often wondered if I am indeed being paranoid.

Paranoia can be described as an unrelenting suspicion and mistrust of others, a belief that others may be deceiving one, or not have one’s best interest at heart. A person who suffers from paranoia, ends up not having close relationships with others (lack of trust) and can become hypersensitive to criticism. The core concept that is central to paranoia is that one’s beliefs about others are unfounded[1].

But how do we establish the motivation of perpetrator’s (racist?) act, especially not as it pertains to blatant acts of racism, but microaggressions. In acts of microaggression, while the damage of the singular act is harder to explain, it fits into and perpetuates a larger framework of systemic racism. Furthermore, it is not any single act, rather a lifelong accumulation of indignant experiences that begin to shape the marginalized experience. As women of color, we are greatly underrepresented in academia. This adversely impacts our ability to speak about our experiences with an expectation of understanding such encounters by our allies. And when one is constantly given alternate banal explanations for their ‘overly-sensitive’ perceptions, one loses the epistemic ground they stand on. They cease to give credibility to their own perceptions.

This self-doubt about how to comprehend and articulate one’s experiences becomes much harder to escape, when skepticism is cast by people who self-identify as ‘allies.’ If our own allies, well-acquainted with the concept of microaggressions, and well-meaning in their commitment to end discrimination, cannot see our experiences as the very sorts of experiences that they should validate, then it becomes much harder to trust our perception of reality.

Of course, that student’s friend meant nothing by her tone (right?), but I couldn’t assess my own experience in that moment because I wasn’t yet a reliable testifier to myself, because I did not have shared language of similarly-located academics to provide me a framework to make sense of my reality. But even today, after lovingly listening to and exploring the lived lives of minorities in academia, sometimes I still wonder, am I being paranoid?

(I do hope this entry is read with loving eyes).

[1] I worry about the issue of paranoia, because I have seen it deployed in, what I deem as, pernicious ways as well. For example, often we see on media and in politics, an unfounded fear of ‘Shariah law’ taking over our constitution. This fear reduces the cognitive dissonance for people who are bigots and cannot bear to see themselves as such. Their bigotry against Muslims isn’t bigotry to them, rather a rational response to ‘intolerant’ and ‘supremacist’ Muslim ways.

14 thoughts on “Am I Being Paranoid? Being a Woman of Color in Academia

  1. I have had several of these moments myself and have hated the feeling of not knowing whether the microagressions were real or perceived. Thank you this post!

  2. Thank you for this post. I know that even coining the term “micro aggression” is huge. For the longest time I felt things were happening to me in the class and I could not rightly name some of the stuff that students, colleagues, administrations etc were doing to me. Now for the next step training or exposing our co-workers to acknowledge that such a thing exists and to tackle it so women of color in academia feel supported. Thanks again for such a thoughtful post

  3. Maybe the other student thought that you were a student, and when you said that you’d seen the test she was going to ask you what was on it. Her friend, sensing that this was what she was about to do, cut her off by saying that you were the TA. Not about to dare to ask a TA to reveal the answers on the test, the student quickly said goodbye.

  4. Its real racism (or sexism, or otherism) if it hurts you. Disrespect from students is awful, I’ve had it from students who know who I am. There tend to be a few upper middle class students every year who, after we’ve started to workshop class based inequality, begin to speak down to me. They might mention their boarding school, or ask where I’m from. In short, treat me like a dirty slut who is working as a casual because, well, that’s all I’m worth.

    Fortunately, I have thick skin, and I’m the one with the red pen at the pointy end of semester. My message is, don’t let people put you off your game. Your obviously don’t, since you’re pretty successful – but just keep in mind there are people who (on a quite unconscious level) are out to destabilise their competitors (that’s everybody they encounter), and do it habitually and routinely.

    Thank you for talking about this.

  5. Being disrespected is bad enough; having to go through the kind of self-doubt you described here is worse. I used to feel this way a lot (especially before I became familiar with much of the feminist literature), but then I adopted a consequentialist attitude towards social interactions — you’re hurt if you feel hurt. The question “are you supposed to be hurt by this?” doesn’t make sense. Of course, what you want to do about it is an entirely different issue, and possibly one independent from the “legitimacy” of hurt feelings. (In the sense that there are many cases where the appropriate thing is not to do anything, even if the incident is “legitimately” racist/sexist; in other cases, the appropriate thing might be to do something about it, even if no one has the slightest intention to offend and everything can be explained away.) In other words, I don’t believe a person can be “hurt when they are not supposed to”, the same way I don’t believe a person can have an “illegitimate headache”.

  6. Question: Do all people, regardless of race, power, and prestige, have e,periences where they feel awkward or unaccepted or put down, without being able to identify why….or even be certain that the event was negative? Don’t we all…..with a few exceptions such as narcissistic demagogues, have such moments of insecurity or disapproval? I certainly do.

  7. Reblogged this on aliaazmat and commented:
    Great post. Sometimes it’s not about the incident but it’s the inability to communicate the reaction and why it “did” something to you which is most surprising and humiliating to me.

    Reflecting on anger and allyship this morning. So so grateful for academics of color courageous enough of to write about their experiences. Your words and presence are virtual warmth and bring me sobmucb comfort. AThank you.

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