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05/30/2015

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Frederick

Until my mid-30s, I was almost universally assumed to be a graduate student (and sometimes an undergrad). I am a male. What follows from this?

I have good genes. (Just for the record.)

Meena Krishnamurthy

Frederick, I take it that you are suggesting that race or skin color may not be the only reason for being misidentified. I agree. People wrongly misidentify people all the time for many different reasons. This only goes to the point – we need to find better ways of interacting with people that don’t rely on making such assumptions – especially because in some (not all) cases the assumptions that underlie such interactions are insulting or undermining. Moreover, I also take it that your experience doesn’t generalize across white men. And, this matters to this discussion. After I wrote this post, I received a lot of feedback from women of colour who had experienced similar things. If the tendency to misidentify women of colour as being of less academic status is a common or generalized one, then this suggests that race or skin color is at play in the misidentification. In this case, the underlying assumptions are insulting (i.e., that women of colour aren't likely to be part of the academy as Professors). Also note that you weren't misidentified as a "staff member" - something that is more likely to be connected to race or skin colour. Finally, the point of my post isn’t to examine individual experiences in isolation, it is to examine them cumulatively. My cumulative experience at the conference was as being an outsider. That’s the general point. Thanks for pushing me to say more.

Frederick

Virtually everyone in the profession struggles with feeling like they are not getting the recognition and treatment they feel they deserve. Sometimes those feelings are warranted, sometimes they are not. But we are a profession of many insecure people. And if I've learned anything from my career, it's that I am much happier and secure when I am not so concerned with making sure people have totally accurate perceptions about me and my work.

Of course, we are also a profession where people make honest mistakes. Short people will be more likely to be assumed to be students (there is a whole raft of literature on bias against short people). So will people who "dress younger" or have hipster haircuts. But I'm not sure what follows from this. Perhaps we should simply ask everyone we meet how they fit into the hierarchy of the profession right off the bat. But for my own part, I'd rather just get to know other philosophers for who they are, and not really care so much about what "role" they fill in the profession in order to know what box to put them into. Whether I am TT at Michigan or a grad student at a poorly-ranked program, when it comes to the context of interpersonal interactions, so what? Why insist that others know my credentials immediately?

The philosophers I have most admired are the ones who let me *discover* their greatness--not the ones who simply insisted upon it.

Meena Krishnamurthy

Frederick - You miss the point. I am not insisting that people "know my credentials immediately". What I am asking is that people don't make assumptions about my lack of credentials simply because of my skin color/race. If people could interact with one another in a truly open manner, without making such assumptions, that would be great.

Elizabeth Barnes

Frederick, I think you're not being charitable to what Meena is saying in her post. Yes, all of us (or almost all of us) deal with feeling unappreciated or badly treated at times. But Meena isn't talking about feeling unappreciated. Rather, she's describing an experience of alienation. Having multiple instances of being assumed to not to be a philosophy professor - including being mistaken for hotel staff - at a conference the aim of which was to promote inclusiveness and diversity, including by promoting the work of philosophy professors of color, was, as she describes it, an extremely alienating experience. And that kind of cumulative assuming-you're-not-one-of-us is something that likely wouldn't happen to a white woman at the same conference. I was young when I finished grad school; I got mistaken for a grad student all the time; but I never got mistaken for hotel staff.

I think the kind of experiences - and the feeling of alienation - that Meena is describing are very common among philosophers from under-represented groups. And I think there's an unfortunate trend of telling these people, when they speak up about their discomfort, that they are just being too sensitive, overreacting, or not doing enough justice to 'good intentions'. Meena isn't, contra to what you suggest, demanding that others know her credentials immediately (at least as far as I can tell - please correct me if I'm wrong, Meena!) She's expressing frustration at the repeated assumptions that *of course* someone like her isn't a philosophy professor. These kind of assumptions are part of a wider pattern of exclusion, and I think Meena has done a brave thing in drawing attention to her experience of them.

Frederick

If I may be so bold: in this ~300 word post, the author informs us that she is a TT professor at Michigan no less than three times. If this is not an insistence that others recognize one's credentials, I don't know what is.

Meena Krishnamurthy

Frederick - I have focused on people's surprise regarding my position at Michigan. This is because people's surprise surprised me. It was slightly surprising that I might be a graduate student at Michigan, but even more surprise was elicited once I clarified that I was not in fact a graduate student. People seemed genuinely surprised that someone like me could be a professor at Michigan (I have not had similar experiences when I have explained, elsewhere, that I was a professor at the University of Manitoba, for example). Again the underlying assumption that women of colour aren't likely to be part of the University of Michigan as professors is what concerns me. Also, I am not asking people to recognize my credentials (they are what they are and they are a continued work in progress). What I ask is that people not assume that I lack credentials.

Jon Cogburn

I also want to thank Meena for calling attention to this.

I'm troubled by the kind of criticism Frederick is attempting in part because if nobody talked about their experiences of being treated badly due to others' unconscious biases then nothing would change. The logical conclusion of what Frederick is saying is that only people with precarious employment should be able to share their experiences of discrimination and negative bias. But they are in the situation where they are least likely and able to do so!

In any case, I think it takes a lot of guts for anyone to say anything about their experience of discrimination both because people will stone you for doing so and because part of how discrimination works is by getting people on the receiving end of it to internalize a lot of self-sabotaging beliefs and feelings, including a lot of irrational self-blame. I think that this probably makes doing or saying anything about it that much more emotionally difficult (let me be clear that I'm not trying psychoanalyze Meena, or anyone, in particular).

From a lot of blogospheric discussion it should be clear that it's *very* natural for people not in the discriminated against group to get defensive in weird and often insulting ways (cf., or don't, Brian Leiter raging about what he calls "the new infantilism" for a particularly vivid example of this). A much better response would be to think about different ways that the bias in question is harmful, how the harms might be mitigated, and we can free ourselves from having such biases.

As someone who was a basically middle class white male in the American South in the 1970s, and who lives here now, Meena's post really hit home for me. I know that it's helped other people too.

In general I love how the contributors to this blog are so effectively presenting these issues not merely as abstractions but as lived realities.

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