Quick, what does a professor look like?
Apparently not like me. I’m 5’3″, brown-skinned, and a woman. I still get ID’d at the liquor store and I have a modest tattoo collection.
One of my greatest personal challenges (and annoyances) is how often people of all ages, backgrounds, and educational levels cannot seem to wrap their brains around the fact that I’m a college professor. Perhaps it is some kind of karmic irony that I spend much of my time critiquing the way certain groups are misunderstood and misrepresented in public discourse while I am almost daily misread by people.
I once naively believed that if I worked hard and accomplished certain credentials it would be impossible for individuals and society to dismiss me. Naive isn’t even a strong enough word. It becomes abundantly clear to most women and people of color as they pursue educational and career tracks that, no matter how intelligent or accomplished, their perceived race and gender still has a major impact on how the world understands them. I’d add perceived age to that as well, since it has been an ever-nagging issue for me.
On occasion I still get followed in department stores but more often I just get ignored while the forty year old white woman who walks in after me gets a “Can we help you find anything specific today?” Last time I signed a lease the partner of the realtor I was working with said (loud enough for me and the other folks in the office to hear), “Make sure to run her credit check before we take that place off the market.” During my last move one of the men carrying my belongings decided that even though I had marked a box fragile because of its glass contents “someone your age probably doesn’t have much stemware to worry about anyway.” Really? Really.
So what happens when you are an academic who is also a woman, person of color, and quite young-looking? To steal a term from Jon Stewart; it’s a clusterfuck of identity confusion, assumption, and justification.
A few personal examples:
I was interviewing for a faculty position at a private college recently. The college had flown me in to meet my potential colleagues and students and provide me with a tour of the campus. During this tour several prospective students and their parents joined us. I explained that I was potential faculty and in town checking out the college. The mother of one student immediately asked, “So what do you plan to major in?” “I’m sorry?” I said. “What do you want to major in? Have you thought about that yet?” she asked again. I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt; maybe she was deaf in that ear. “No, I will be faculty here,” I said, “Teaching.” “Oh,” she said with a quizzical look on her face at which point the father of one of the other potential students chimed in, “So you want to teach? What grade?” Seriously? Seriously. The conversation went back and forth like this for some time with me trying not to reveal my annoyance at what I felt was these folks intentionally not validating me. Finally I broke into what I hate doing but often find necessary and rattled off my credentials… “No, no, I went to undergrad at yada yada, got my Master’s at yada yada, and have had my Doctoral degree since yada yada. I’m a professor.” The first mother gave me a quiet “Ohhhhhh” and proceeded to look me up and down for several seconds as if she was trying desperately to find something that looked professorly about me. This all happened right in front of their 17 and 18-year-old children. Nice. (I shouldn’t have to, but I will note that I was wearing a very professional business skirt-suit at the time. You can only imagine how difficult it would have been if I had been wearing street clothes.)
Recently I ran into a friend of mine who was having lunch with his friend who works in corporate law. Upon being introduced to the lawyer, my friend explained that I was faculty at a university in the area. The lawyer asked me “What are you studying?” Here we go again… “You mean what is my research on?” I asked, “or do you mean what do I teach?” “Oh!” he seemed to get it, “you’re a grad student!” Or not. “Nope, I have a PhD already,” I said. “I’m faculty there.” That should have been the end of it, but this man who had only just met me and was probably only a couple years older than me said, in a teasing tone, “But you’re way too young and cute to be a professor!” “What does a professor look like?” I asked, trying to maintain my composure as opposed to telling this lawyer that he was a sexist asshole. “You know what I mean,” he said. “I don’t mean it like that, it’s just that…” *awkward pause*… “well, you don’t dress like that when you teach do you?” Really? Yep. It happened to be a hot summer day and I was out running errands in a sundress (that I wouldn’t wear to work), but the fact that I would even have to explain that to a stranger incensed me. Have you seen what many white male professors wear lately?! In the classroom?!? The idea that it would matter what I wear to teach implies that my clothes somehow make my PhD more or less valuable. And I suppose if I were old and unattractive my credentials would be easier to believe? Welcome to being a woman.
While these types of comments from strangers sting it is those from colleagues and friends that hurt the most. Soon after defending my dissertation and moving from grad student to faculty I met for drinks with some of the other graduate students that I had become close with over the years. One, who I did and still do consider a friend, attempted what he clearly thought to be a complement by saying, “Next thing we know we’ll see you being called upon as an expert on CNN. After all, it’s not like there are many attractive, educated, black women.” To say that this stings is an understatement. It’s flat-out ignorant. It perpetuates the (false) idea that black women are neither educated nor attractive and assumes that success will come to me as a result of my “attractive” appearance and race/gender, not my qualifications. This type of thinking permeates our culture and is also reflected in the words of our now-Vice President who once noted that Barack Obama was “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Of course Joe Biden denied that he was implying that other black people were illiterate, stupid, dirty, and ugly, just like my friend denied, when challenged, that he was saying anything prejudiced about women of color. He argued that this was “just a fact.” (For the record I know countless African American women who are both educated and attractive–not that the latter should matter–but I think the lack of visibility of these women in public spaces disproves the assumption that being an intelligent black women is an anomaly that provides an advantage over men or white folks.)
Other than a rare student who writes something stunningly bigoted on a teaching evaluation (which is fodder for a whole other post), young people, for the most part, actually seem to accept my rank pretty easily. In fact, after getting over the initial first-day curiosity, and seeing that I obviously know what I’m doing and have done it before, my students generally seem to like having a “cool” young professor who provides them with examples they can relate to and knows how to use Twitter. My students seem much less trapped by societal expectations of appearance than the folks I have to deal with outside the classroom, both professionally and socially.
Finally, it’s worth noting that in the several positions I’ve held as a youth worker, which has included working with k-12 students, I do not face a similar set of confusions. People seem ready and willing to accept that someone like me might work in urban schools, with 4th graders or 8th graders or 11th graders. Call me cynical, but I’m willing to bet that if I told people I worked in retail or the restaurant industry that would also lead to little confusion.
Note: While writing this post I Google imaged “professor” to see what public opinion dictates a professor looks like. This was the first photo result:
According to the website this is “Professor Roy M. Mersky, the Harry M. Reasoner Regents Chair in Law and longtime director of the Tarlton Law Library and Jamail Center for Legal Research at The University of Texas School of Law” Professor Mersky passed away in 2008 (RIP) and according to his bio was “a decorated World War II veteran and civil rights advocate.” I bet I would have really liked him.
Sarah Jackson is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. Her research and teaching focus on how media discourses of race, class, and gender reinforce and/or challenge concepts of national belonging. Outside her academic life, Sarah volunteers with youth in educational equity programs, does a lot of yoga, and fantasizes about being an artist. Read more of her writing on Wandering In Love and follow her on Twitter @sjjphd.
This post was original published on Wandering In Love. Republished with permission.
Photo credit albany_tim/Flickr.