As an undergraduate, I have had professors try to explain concepts to me by appealing to Confucianism or reading tea leaves. I know nothing about Confucianism or tea leaves (!), but I am Asian.
I attend a private university on the West coast. I am majoring in philosophy. I don’t look like a philosopher being that I am not white. One day, while sitting in the department hallway, a philosophy professor walks past me and begins to stare. Believing that he was impressed with the four books I was carrying, I quickly went over in my mind what smart thing I would say if questioned. However to my surprise (or not) he asked if I was a football player.
I would have preferred that he kept it pushing.
In my first year as a graduate student, I was in a seminar that was discussing Heidegger’s “Origin of The Work of Art.” We were trying to make sense of the Earth/World distinction. My take on it was influenced by a model of natural selection that takes seriously the unexpected side-effects of technology, whether artistic or otherwise. As if out of nowhere, my comments were taken to be some kind of reference to Africa and the world-making power of African masks.
I can’t say that I was shocked. I had, after all, encountered this kind of thing before. I simply hadn’t expected it in this context. In a place where you take your interlocutors seriously, it’s harder to laugh off those kinds of silly misinterpretations as a consequence of a kind of honest, but well-meaning, naiveté.
Apparently my skin had contributed crucial content to the meaning of my words that, in a certain sense, was already spoken in advance. This came to be a fairly common experience for me, and I came to understand that my words would be systematically misinterpreted by my professors and often by my peers as well. It had an odd silencing effect that began as a kind of fear and eventually became a kind of contempt.
I guess that’s how being a person of color in philosophy has felt for me so far.
The contempt is working better for me than the fear ever did.
At the end of the semester I spoke with a white female student of mine from an upper-middle class suburb. She mentioned that she took a class at Harvard and was trying very hard to go there. She said that she did not believe I was qualified to teach and was not a reliable source of information because of my ethno-racial background and because I had not published any books.
One day, while I was in grad school, an undergrad who is in the same racial minority group as me, came up to me and said—-oh you must be so and so! I said, how did you know? She said that the department secretaries are constantly calling her by my name. This is despite the nearly 10-year age difference and the fact that we don’t look a thing alike. Worse, for me, this particular undergraduate dressed quite provocatively. (Nothing against her, again, she’s 10 years younger!) This would explain the occasional secretary comment on my “better” clothing choice on any particular day.
I’m a late year graduate student in a mid-ranked department. By far the most distressing experience as a young philosopher of color is not ever feeling comfortable calling out fellow students or professors on racist or classist comments for fear of being labeled the “angry minority student”. I’ve heard grad students and prominent philosophers say the following to either myself or to other students-
- “That’s so ghetto.”
- “What language do your parents speak? Is it one of those ching chang chong languages?” -Amazingly said by a prominent philosopher of language!
- “How old are you? You must be 15!” Said to a female Asian student.
- “Have you heard of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy?” -Said by a professor, assuming I’m incompetent.
- “Do you know what Gmail is?” -Same professor, assuming I’m incompetent.
- “Don’t move to that area, it’s dangerous.” -Referring to an area with a large minority population.
It’s suffocating to be in an environment where you feel powerless to assert your true feelings, beliefs and experiences out of fear of alienating too many people. I only hope that after tenure I won’t have to care so much about being “nice” “polite” and “respectable” to have the slightest possibility of securing employment in the profession.
I was wearing a black dashiki with yellow and red checkered designs down the middle. It was from Oaxaca. Young folks in Acapulco wear them. I have also heard these three quarter length arm shirts called guayabera’s by some folks in Acapulco. These shirts are not the guayabera short sleeve button up shirts with the collar as can be found in Puerto Rico. I was walking down the hall toward my office and a white ethnic male faculty member who was dressed in a suit and tie looked at me and said, “So you have gone native.”