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 http://www.siue.edu/~sfatima

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.

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 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.

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A Day in the Life of SIUE Women: A Call to Participate

Today’s post come from Prof. Wendy Shaw, an Associate Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, and, unlike other posts, it is as much a call to action as it is a reflection.  Wendy is spearheading a project in which women from all across the SIUE community will  take a moment on March 6 (International Women’s Day, observed) to record a detail of their lives using a camera or smartphone.  Then we’ll share these images, allowing for glimpses into one another’s lives and into ourselves as a larger community.  It’s  terrific project, and we hope you’ll participate!  Wendy describes the inspiration for the project–and how you might participate–below:

Quick… take this quiz. What is special about December 25th, July 4th, September 11th, and March 8th?   If you got three out of four you are probably not alone.   Every year March 8th is celebrated as International Women’s Day.   The day is fundamentally different than the other three dates. Christmas Day is obviously important to (some) Christians, while July 4th and September 11th are seminal dates to Americans. International Women’s Day, in contrast, crosses faiths, national boundaries, age, ethnicity, class, and cultures. It is a day that is relevant to almost half of humankind and is celebrated or recognized in multitudinous and multifaceted ways. International Women’s Day activities may celebrate, document, agitate, contemplate, or network. Whatever the activity, at its heart are the lived experiences of women.

A Women’s Day was first observed in 1909 in an event organized by the Socialist Party of America; the event came after women marched and went on strike in 1908 seeking shorter hours, better pay, and voting rights. In 1911 International Women’s Day was honored for the first time, and International Women’s Day became more firmly established in 1977 when the United Nations invited member states to recognize March 8th each year as the U.N. Day for women’s rights and world peace. So here we are approaching International Women’s Day 2015.

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The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘Make it Happen’. A call to action. I found myself thinking about the diversity of women and their lives across the world and what those words might mean to them. I know so little about the lives of my global sisters. Thinking about it, I don’t know very much about the women who I might pass by on a daily basis. We live so much in our own skins, see only our own footsteps, see through our own eyes. How can we do otherwise? Continue reading

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Talking About Race Isn’t “Impolite” and “Feminist” Isn’t a Dirty Word!

We were delighted to welcome Prof. Alyson Spurgas to SIUE this Fall, and now to the Women’s Studies blog.  Prof. Spurgas’s work is rooted in sociological approaches to sex, gender, and sexualities, but all of her research and teaching is informed by a deep commitment to social justice.  In this post, she reflects upon her experiences at SIUE last semester, and discusses the ways in which critical pedagogy at public universities is obligated to engage in projects that are explicitly feminist and anti-racist.  Please check out the links at the end of her post for more information.  

I arrived in St. Louis one week before Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in the neighboring town of Ferguson, Missouri. About a week after that, I began teaching an introductory sociology course to seventy students—many of whom were not social science majors, and many of whom were first year college students—approximately twenty-five miles away in Edwardsville, Illinois. I have heard it said that Fall 2014 was a difficult time to teach sociology in the United States. If my experience is at all illustrative of the experiences of sociology professors across the country, then this is certainly true, and it may be especially true for educators who believe that an important part of pedagogy is to investigate the structural systems within which we live, and for those of us who believe that sometimes these investigations and examinations might result in critique, interrogation, reorientation, and intervention.

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An image from the Silent March/MUC Protest on the SIUE campus, January 20, 2015

Fall 2014 may have been a hard time for educators at all levels, given the charged and heated political climate around the country, and the violently reductive way that the debate about Brown’s murder has been framed in media accounts, everyday conversations, and through the rhetoric in both of those domains, as well as the rhetoric at some protests and within the criminal justice system itself. I have heard many conversations about the shooting and its aftermath devolve into an extremely binary framing—some students (and many other people I’ve discussed the event with) made comments like: “I’m on _____’s side,” or “He was just doing his job,” or “I would have done the same thing.” Somehow, the issue has been stripped down to a “Brown versus Wilson,” or even a “Black versus White” dichotomy, with deeply troubling consequences for the national conversation regarding this tragedy—and thus the conversations in our classrooms, as well. This framing not only permeates our conversations, but it degrades the justice system itself, as became evident via the handling of the Brown case before, during, and after Wilson’s grand jury trial. Protests in Ferguson and around the country became increasingly well-attended, vehement, and explosive, and, in some cases, the response of “pro-police” demonstrators (for example the “#seaofblue/police support” demonstration in Cleveland, Ohio in December 2014) became well-attended, vehement, and explosive, as well. And so now it seems that we can add “police versus protestor,” “police versus criminal,” or even “[disruptive, violent] protestor versus [productive, upstanding] citizen” to the slate of reductive binary framings that have overwhelmed educators, students, and lots of other folks, and which have unfortunately led to knee-jerk, angry, and thoughtless outbursts and defeated silences. But what does “police” stand for in this framing? Who are the “criminals”? Why do so many of us think there is a difference between a “protestor” and a “citizen”? What is violence? And specifically, how do our students understand these categories? What do these concepts mean to them? How do they affect their lives? I suggest that this is what we need to consider in a thoughtful, honest way. We must examine how this framing, and, for too many, this binary lived reality, has come to be, and why it persists in our cultural consciousness, in our crime and job statistics, and thus in our material world. And I suggest this this is an anti-oppression project, and thus that it is also an anti-racist and feminist project.

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Time to Throw Out The Broomstick

Today’s post comes to us from Thomas Kivi, a graduate student in American History at St. Louis University.  When he’s not wandering the library stacks, Thomas is an active singer-songwriter, and he has just released an album, Cornucopia, which is a collaboration with Women’s Studies graduate assist Sarah Pray.  Here, he thinks about the ways witches have long defined a site of cultural anxiety about female identity.

Today is Halloween, and so instead of worrying about terrorism or Ebola, I’m thinking about a more conventional  object of fear, the image of the female witch in mainstream American culture.  The witch is perhaps the American symbol of Halloween, and it is a startling example of female objectification. Think about this: the original fairytale of Sleeping Beauty was first popularized in France by Charles Perrault in the late-1600s, within the final decades of the witch trials in pre-Revolutionary America. Angelina Jolie—arguably the most voluptuous and powerful woman on the big-screen—recently played the leading role in Maleficent (2014), based on the evil queen from Walt Disney’s cartoon Sleeping Beauty (1959). Witches in Colonial Massachusetts were accused of something called maleficium. What does it mean that the modern witch now takes the beautiful, female form? Can you think of a story where a man is cast as a witch? Darth Vader maybe? But that is a more Freudian dilemma, having more to do with the oedipal urge to kill one’s own father.

Suddenly, I have the creeping dread of an Edgar Allen Poe poem. All I begin to see is the gendered nature of the witch. To dress up like Judy Garland from the Wizard of Oz (1939) is to play the innocent, uber-feminine antithesis to the hideously green, spell-bounding, broom-riding, fortune-telling witch. Dorothy is the model girl whereas the witch is the pure, gendered objectification of evil. She is not a person. People are not green. The witch’s death, therefore, is not the death of a woman but the inhuman shriveling away of wickedness itself. The dire contest between them in the Land of Oz is made plain by the final words of the melting wicked witch of the West: “who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?” Dorothy and the witch are objectified by their relative beauty so as to conflate goodness with beauty, ugliness with evil. Will there ever be another ugly witch in Hollywood? I would say it’s not likely. These days, the Devil runs with sexiness. Sexy women are the scapegoat for man’s fantasies. The witch is now the temptress.

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The most infamous episode in the era of witch hunts occurred when the Puritan town of Salem, Massachusetts accused, sentenced, and executed 22 people to death in the early-1690s. Arthur Miller’s 1963 classic play The Crucible captures the epidemic of suspicion that swept Salem, popularized by the 1996 dramatic screenplay of the same title starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder. But what has long been a lesson about the consequences of superstition and religious extremism fails to showcase the question at the bottom of it all: “Why women?”

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In Our Backyard: Sex Trafficking and Exploitation

Today’s post comes from Criminal Justice professor Erin Heil. She began studying domestic human trafficking in 2008 and has since published numerous articles on the subject, as well as the book, Sex Slaves and Serfs: The Dynamics of Human Trafficking in a Small Florida Town.  She shares this post with us in anticipation of the upcoming panel, “Sex Trafficking and Exploitation,” co-sponsored by the SIUE Women’s Studies and Peace Studies Programs on Oct. 21 at 12:30 in the Morris University Center.  At this event Prof. Heil will be joined by Congressman John Shimkus, FBI Intelligence Analyst Derek Velazco, Rescue and Restore Coordinator Kristen Eng, and Covering House representatives Deidre Lhamon and Lindsay Ellis.  The event is free and open to the community.

“I was taken from my doorstep…I was sold for sex with men in exchange for money and drugs. I was forced to work out of motels, brothels, prostitution houses, and massage parlors. I tried to run so many times but I never seemed to be able to escape without getting caught and beat up. I have had chains wrapped around my ankles, wrists, and neck like a dog. I got beat up with baseball bats, crow bars, basically anything that they [could] get their hands on.” These words were spoken by a brave survivor in front of hundreds of listeners attending an anti-human trafficking event. Although her voice shook and she read from her hand written script, she stood strong in the face of her victimization. She wanted her story to be heard, and more importantly, she wanted to be seen. She looked up from her small piece of paper, looked the audience in the eyes, and proudly stated, “I refuse to believe what the world labels me as. I refuse to believe that I am trash. I refuse to believe I’m good for one thing only. I refuse to believe that nobody loves me. I refuse to believe that I’m not beautiful. I refuse to believe that I am nothing.” Although these were the words of emotional torture she was told while she was being sold for sex, she had survived, and she was able to victoriously tell her story.[i]

Trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is one of the many forms of human trafficking evident in the United States. Legally defined as the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion, human trafficking can entail a number of forced activities including, but not limited to: agricultural labor, domestic servitude, servile marriage, begging and panhandling, prostitution, construction work, sweatshops, and restaurant work. However, many of these activities remain hidden behind concrete or landscaped walls, thereby limiting the potential of identifying victims. Sex trafficking, however, requires some amount of visibility in that the traffickers must advertise the victims in order to recruit potential buyers. Given that, social service providers and law enforcement officials have been more able to identify victims of sex trafficking versus victims of labor trafficking.

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Researching sex trafficking is an extremely complex process with each layer revealing another layer that needs to be examined. Therefore, I am only going to scratch the surface by providing some general information that has been identified in my own research. First of all, I have found that the victim demographics associated with sex trafficking vary greatly with geography. When I first began researching human trafficking, I was led to Immokalee, Florida; “ground zero” for human trafficking. The victims that had been identified were generally foreign nationals, most of whom had been smuggled into the United States from Mexico or Guatemala. In contrast to other areas of the United States, the majority of the research conducted in Immokalee discussed the slavery evident in the tomato fields. However, as with most cases of human trafficking, labor trafficking in Immokalee was occurring in conjunction with sex trafficking. In other words, where labor trafficking is evident, there is generally sex trafficking occurring in the same area. This symbiotic relationship occurs partly due to similar demands; the demand for underground cheap (or unpaid) labor coincides with a demand for prostitution.

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Indignation Without Reflection: Malala and the Western Imagination

Today’s post is from Prof. Saba Fatima, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy.  Her research interests include Muslim/Muslim-American issues within a framework of feminist & race theory; virtue ethics; social and political within prescriptive Islam; and Non-ideal theory.  (More about Prof. Fatima’s research and teaching can be found at http://www.siue.edu/~sfatima.)  Here, she considers the ways in which the narrative surrounding 2014 Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafza is often oversimplified, and has become a means of reifying an image of the Pakistani Other in the western imagination.

It is a proud moment for Pakistan to win its only second Nobel Prize (the first one was in 1979 to Mohammad Abdus Salam in the field of Physics.)  And while Pakistanis are very happy about the honor and the positive media coverage, some are a little wary of the narrative surrounding the award.

Very few dispute the circumstances through which Malala and her family persevered.  Her will to survive made her into a ray of hope for countless advocates for basic human rights.  She was constantly threatened in her village prior to the shooting but continued her message.  She was unrelenting in advocating for the rights of girls to educate themselves.  With her father’s support, she was vocal against the barbarism of the Taliban that were destroying the beautiful Swat Valley.  After she was shot, she neither became silent nor did she forget her country.  Despite this trauma, she became more determined and firm in her cause and went on to rally unprecedented support for education initiatives from world leaders.

Malala has often attributed her courage to the confidence her father has in her.  Her father, in turn, grounds his convictions in his faith, Islam.  As Insiders, indigenous to the region, both Malala and her father are critical of Taliban’s stance on women’s rights.  This authentic insider status has given further legitimacy to her determination to take a stand in face of constant threats.

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Pictured here: Malala in the UK with her father

 

However, some Pakistanis are wary of this recognition, precisely because it fits neatly into a Western narrative of backward Muslim countries. Yet again, the West rescues and honors brown women who defy their barbaric cultures. This is not to say that Malala is a stooge of the West (as some lunatic conspiracy theorist claim.)  In fact, her agency is on full display and her strength shines through her character.  Indeed she ought to be a source of pride for the country.

The wariness stems from the lack of outrage at death of young girls caused by acts in which the West is complicit in, such as drone strikes, and a simultaneous embrace of those girls that highlight Pakistan’s regression on women’s rights.  For people in the west, indignation comes much easier at the oppression of women/girls’ rights by the Taliban in Pakistan’s northern regions, however, there is a glaring absence of any reflection (and a definite absence of outrage) on our complicity in these very same girls’ death by drones.

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We Need More Than Pink Cleats

Prof. Kiana Cox joined the Sociology and Criminal Justice faculty this year, and we’re thrilled to have her as a member of the Women’s Studies faculty as well.  She identifies her research interests as gender, intersectionality, black feminism, race/ethnicity, African American politics and social movements, and popular culture, and if you check out her blog or her Facebook feed, you’ll notice she’s a sports fan too.  She’s given us permission to repost a piece she first published on the Feminist Wire, available here, and she writes of this blog post:

“Over the past month, the NFL has been embroiled in tremendous public criticism of their handling of the high profile domestic violence and child abuse cases of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, and Ray McDonald. In this blog post, written when the first video of Rice dragging his then-fiancee Janay Palmer was released publicly, I explore the apparent contradiction between the NFL’s conspicuous support of women’s health in the form of breast cancer advocacy and their patent silence on the danger that many of their players pose to the women and children in their lives. As an avid sports fan, I implored the NFL to recognize that its female fans need more than pink cleats.”

Her original essay is included here:

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Every October the NFL, in partnership with the American Cancer Society, adorns itself in pink to raise awareness about and funds for breast cancer. Via their NFL Pink website, the league encourages women to make a “crucial catch” and to know that “annual screening saves lives.” Amidst these messages are videos and stories of women who are currently enmeshed in the fight against the disease. The implicit message here is that the NFL recognizes its female fan-base and appears to be dedicated to a cause that might impact a significant number of their lives. Despite recent criticism that the NFL profits from their Pink campaign, the visual spectacle resulting from the NFL’s use of pink cleats, towels, and goal posts is impressive.

And yet these efforts do nothing to assuage my increasing disgust with the league and the androcentricity that governs U.S. professional sports in general. Several recent issues involving current and former NFL players have left me watching sports television less and less. And this is quite a feat, because I have loved sports my whole life. From watching every game played by Jordan’s Bulls from 1991-1998, to the White Sox’s World Series win in 2005, the Blackhawks current reign as NHL champions, and the newly revamped Bears offense- I know my sports, I love my sports, and I love my Chicago teams. But the thing that is driving my growing contempt is their refusal to deal with issues of violence, masculinity-as-violence, misogyny, hyper-sexualization of women, rape culture, and countless others issues, which are part of a culture that consistently puts women in danger. Their steadfast support or patent silence on situations where current and former players have molested, abused, raped, and even killed women is alarming. Continue reading

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