writing ‘from’ rather than ‘about’ a position

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While I tend to avoid writing explicitly about race and gender (and all the rest) I am happy to write about anything and everything from a raced and gendered position.  I am mindful here of  the tendency to morph into Sutapa’s housewife with steak knives (what is she holding in her lower left hand). Beautiful though she is, my intention is clear: to succeed in studying certain types of knowledge is to undo that knowledge system itself.

Reading Heidi Mirza:

Transcendence over Diversity: Black Women in the Academy

“Puwar (2004) draws on the social theorists Bourdieu and Foucault to explain how cultures of exclusion operate within contested social spaces such as universities:

“Social spaces are not blank and open for any body to occupy. Over time, through processes of historical sedimentation, certain types of bodies are designated as being the ‘natural’ occupants of specific spaces….Some bodies have the right to belong in certain locations, while others are marked out as trespassers who are in accordance with how both spaces and bodies are imagined, politically, historically and conceptually circumscribed as being ‘out of place’ “(Puwar 2004: 51)

Puwar suggests black bodies out of place are ‘space invaders’. She argues there are several ways in which black bodies are constructed when they do not represent the racial somatic norm within white institutions (Puwar 2001; 2004).

First there is ‘disorientation’, a double- take as you enter a room, as you are not supposed to be there. You are noticed and it is uncomfortable. Like walking into a pub in a town where you don’t live. There is confusion as you are the not the ‘ natural expected occupant of that position’ . I know this well, in many meetings even though I am a professor I have been mistaken as the coffee lady! Even students do a double-take when they see you are the social theory lecturer.

Second there is ‘infantalisation” here you are not only pigeon-holed into being ‘just a race expert’, but black lecturers are seen as less capable of being in authority. This can mean black staff are assumed to be more junior than they are (I have been told to get off the photocopier as it is not for administrators). There is a constant doubt about your skills, which can affect career progression.

Third there is the ‘burden of invisibility ‘, or hyper surveillance. Here you are viewed suspiciously and any mistakes are picked up and seen as a sign of misplaced authority. You have to work harder for recognition outside of the confines of stereotypical expectations, and can suffer disciplinary measures and disappointment if you do not meet expectations in your work performance”

Mirza, H. (2006). Transcendence over diversity: Black women in the academy. Policy Futures in Education, 4(2), 101-113.

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4 comments

  1. ‘‘’’Confirmation bias’’: tendency to focus selectively on evidence that supports one’s ideas’ Garvey & Stangroom on Francis Bacon. ‘Projection: too often, what some believe to be true of others, is usually true of themselves… prejudices… interfere with true interpretation of reality’ K.Martin. Azumah, I have often been underestimated, certain people have had low-expectations of me. Some times I have felt the criteria assessing me is more harsh than criteria assessing others. Like you, I have used this apparent misconception to my advantage. It has motivated me to work harder and prove them wrong.

  2. Sorry, Azumah, in my haste to post a comment I neglected to notice you were quoting from a book and these were not your actual experiences. At least I hope you have not had similar experiences!

    • Thanks for your comment Mike which I accept has been left with integrity.

      But please be aware that although the text is a quote, I recognise each of the experiences that Heidi refers to … and could add a few more. Indeed, I suspect there are few black women in HE, few women in HE, who would not find such a deep resonance here. I accept that this may also seem to connect to aspects of your own experiences as well.

      The things is whether we feel it or not, discrimination in real. It is so much more then just a feeling. The only option is how to we fight against it on a daily basis. (Sometimes with fisty-cuffs and sometimes with humour, other times with silence). It is always good to know that there are like minded others who recognise the experience, can connect it to their own lives and who express solidarity.

      The references you mention are interesting and I’d like to be able to locate them.

  3. *deep breath*
    Thanks for sharing Mirza’s analysis. I think that being able to separate experiences into component parts not only helps us understand the processes that we are subject to; but also helps us to distance ourselves from the pain involved.

    Expressing solidarity is not unproblematic; it is difficult to situate ourselves in relation to the experiences of an individual or a group and yet not come across as diminishing the experience in some way by a form of emotional bandwagon jumping. Posting a response on such topics is risk-laden; can I get the balance right and empathise without going too far and seeming to make it about me? Yet if we don’t engage with these difficult experiences, are we just in some way denying them through our lack of engagement? We need to be honest about the underlying values of our society and who benefits from this (although it is easier to do so from the standpoint of being a member of a disadvantaged group).

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