Being Brown

Have you ever felt discriminated against because of your gender in your place of work?

Yes, I have. Being in the market for a job is a good example. When I was in the market, I was a good seven-to-eight months pregnant. It was fascinating the way people responded to my abilities—in particular, watching people thinking about my body versus my ability to think clearly. I take that experience with me everywhere. That was the most visible place where I felt the gender disparity because you don’t really realize how people respond to pregnant bodies until you’re the one pregnant. You realize people really do have a different way of thinking about who you are and your capabilities. Of course, there’s a point where you are limited physically to do something, but that doesn’t change the way you think. It’s something that as a pregnant woman you have to struggle with, and then that carries on to being a mother. When I went to the interview for the University of Richmond, my son was just born. He was nursing at the time, so I had to bring him to the interview. I actually couldn’t bring him to the university—something about the liability of bringing infants to the university. I couldn’t stay at the Bottomly House on campus so I had to lodge somewhere else.

The interview was on campus but I couldn’t have the baby on campus. They lodged me at Embassy Suite, and then we found a babysitter to be with him while I was doing the interview. I thought that was fascinating. How do you deal with a mother who’s bringing in a nursing child while you’re interviewing? What are the systems in place that make you feel a little alienated? It would have been easier if I could have just walked to the Bottomly House after my interview, but instead I needed bigger gaps during my time on campus to compensate for the fact that I had a nursing baby.

Being a woman of color, I see certain microaggressions that happen at the university to professors of color—they are not publicly visible, but they are there. For example, your ability to teach a survey class was questioned, perhaps because your area of specialization is specifically about an ethnic group or ethnicity or racial community. There’s a way in which you get hazed or questioned about whether or not you have that capability, even after getting a PhD. People are not doing it in a malicious way, but no one else would get questioned of their ability of teaching a survey class in the department. That happened to me—and it didn’t happen one-to-one, it happened in front of my departmental colleagues. Moments like that make me think, “Why question my ability to do that? I thought I already went through graduate school.”

Do you think your identity as women of color changes the gender discrimination you experience?

Yeah, I would say it complicates it. The first two years that I was at the University of Richmond, many students at first didn’t think I was a professor. At first I was like, “Oh, isn’t that great, I look young!” I started realizing that it wasn’t about my age, that I didn’t look that young, but it was the fact that my brown color, my brown skin didn’t read as a professor. Many times I would sit and not push myself in the center; it would take time for them to realize I am the professor there. Even this semester for my FYS class, some students called me “Professor,” and then there were other students who said “Miss.” I would say “Professor” to them; still they said “Miss.” You wouldn’t do that to any professor, and there’s a questioning there when you’re using “Miss” instead of “Professor.” The first time I co-taught a class with another professor on campus, it was interesting the ways in which students spoke to her and then spoke to me. We had to establish explicitly that we were both professors and that I wasn’t an assistant in any way. If we asked a question during class, they would respond to her and not to me because I am a person of color and she is not. There are assumptions about women of color teaching. There are very few women of color faculty at University of Richmond and in the rest of academia.

Do you see any discrimination or gendered language in your end-of-semester evaluations written by students?

Yes, absolutely. One of the patterns in my evaluations is: “The professor creates a safe space to talk about very challenging issues… This is the first time I’ve ever been able to articulate some of the challenges of sexism or racism” as an answer to the question, “What did you gain?” But if the question was “Was the course intellectually rigorous” the response is “No” or “Hardly so.” There’s a distinction between what they gain and their perception of the rigor: we’ve created a safe space and we can talk about theories complemented with personal experience, and yet it’s not intellectual enough. And that’s because I’m a woman and I’ve made it comfortable enough for you so you can speak and share your experience. I think that’s a place where judgment really does play a big role. It’s as if a women cannot be intellectual.

For me, there’s also been interactions by students where they want to test you in front of the class or correct you. There are different approaches. Asking a question is different than stating “You are wrong” in front of the class. For me, as a person who is interested in having discussions about race and equity and power, thinking about how to talk about those things within the context of the class—who’s in the class and who’s the professor—is something that I have to do. I have to say, “Look, what are the assumptions that you make about me as a professor and as a woman of color?”

What are some strategies you use to navigate your race and gender in the classroom?

I think the more experience I have, the more I am comfortable with people resisting or questioning. I think what I do differently now is I ask about the place where the questioning is coming from. Is it a question because they’re questioning my intelligence, or is it a question of curiosity and exploration and discovery? Throughout my time as a professor I’ve been trying to make those distinctions. For example, there was a student about three years ago who wrote a paper. In her paper, she was using very racist discourse. When I had to confront her and explain to her how this might be offensive, it led into a questioning of my intelligence and my credibility. That was another moment where, if this was a man sitting giving her this feedback, would she respond in the same way? Would she respond in the same way to a white women?

Do you feel as though you have a good work-life balance?

One of the things I feel might be very different as a woman of color is that I tend to have students of color share their experiences of racism—or feeling discriminated against or alienated—with me. They’re not my formal advisees, nor are they formally taking my classes, but I’m informally chatting with them. That doesn’t always get valued—although I’m really happy to do it because that’s why I went into academia. But it doesn’t get recognized that that’s the type of work that professors, especially professors of color, are also doing in academia.

I mention this because part of the work-life balance is about how you balance your service, your teaching, your research, and then your personal life. I think that a lot of our work is the time that is spent outside of our classes that really is harder to juggle. For me, I spend a lot of time trying to balance what’s the time that I spend in the classroom and what’s the time that I spend one-to-one with a student, and then what’s the time that I spend with my family and with my personal life. Those are hard and challenging. There’s not a perfect formula for that. I think for me, the best ways have been to take real moments of “I’m not doing any work” and protecting that time. But mostly, I’m really immersed in my work and I love it. I love spending time with students and I love being in the classroom and I love writing and I love my research: as long as I’m happy doing it, that’s balancing for me. If I’m happy in doing the work that I do, and then I’m able to spend time with my family, then I feel like I’m good. But it’s always a struggle. Some semesters are harder than others, and I think that the biggest job of an academic is time management. And it’s hard to do it when you’re thinking about being a mother and being a woman in a space that is really dominated by men for the most part.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Before I was in the world of the arts and humanities, as an undergraduate student I was in the science world. I think it’s interesting to have been both in the science world and then in the humanities world and seeing how gender in the sciences plays out in ways that are invisible in the humanities. I remember specifically in a lab, a professor telling me when I was an undergrad that “You’re a girl, you can find other jobs, this might not be the place for you.” That might have been the reason why I didn’t go into sciences. I think there were other reasons too; my passions were in the humanities. But I always think about that moment; when it’s an adult, an authority figure giving you those types of messages, it can do a lot of damage to a younger woman. That really might determine your pathways, in terms of your life and your career. Thanks for asking those types of questions, because I think these stories need to be told.

Do you think that there’s less sexism and racism at the University of Richmond than in other institutions you’ve been at?

That’s an interesting question. I think it’s hard to compare, but I would say that at the University of Richmond, there is a willingness for people to listen. I think we’re at a point where people are ready to implement stuff and want to see some of these changes happen. There’s still a disparity in terms of salary between men and women at the University of Richmond. It’s shameful that there’s still not enough women full professors; we’ve got to do better than that. I think that there is a good number of faculty who are aware of this; they are not only willing but they are ready to take the steps to implement that. That’s the kind of environment that I’m interested in being in, ones that really wants to implement some kind of change so that people can actually experience the difference. I don’t know if that’s true in other institutions. The ones that I’ve been to, I think people are kind of frustrated but nothing happens. At the University of Richmond, I feel like there’s kind of a momentum happening—whether it’s happening in the faculty learning communities talking about gender issues or whether it’s the new student movement about race—that’s taking into consideration inequities. There’s something happening in our campus that people are beginning to have these important conversations. And not only are they beginning to have the conversations, but they are ready to ask what are the steps needed to make those changes happen. I think it’s exciting.