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.
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.