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  • Writer's pictureMags

"You make me sick"

Updated: Mar 30, 2023

Have you ever been told, “it is sickening how cute you look every day, how annoying?” And then, before you can even think to respond, to hear, “I’m joking; it was a joke really?”

This sort of malign collegiality happens everywhere and very often in academia. It does not happen to everyone; only reserved for a certain few. If you are a BIPOC reading this blog post, I would wager the answer is, “maybe or most likely.” If you are not, what follows in the next paragraphs should make you sick.

As a Black woman, I am constantly facing, dodging, ignoring, and side-stepping comments like the one above in spaces claimed by the humanists of academia.

I recently started the tenure track line, and it took all five weeks into the semester to figure out that my presence, my black body, made my white female colleagues uncomfortable. But I still struggle to tell if it is my Jimmy Choo pumps, my Chloé sunglasses, my JCrew blazer, or anything else I wear that illicit their comments, or if it is simply that there is only one of me—the only Black woman to walk or have walked these narrow halls as an Assistant Professor.

Work it! JCrew Coat; Gap Sweater; Joe's Jeans

After 6 years of graduate school, I am used to being the only one. And I frankly expect to be. I admit that I was once fooled by the fine print DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) statements these institutions print on their letterheads, but I was quickly divested of this fantastical idea after learning that only three BIPOC scholars had made it through my French Studies program, and the fourth applicant they admitted left before completing the degree.

In graduate school, I used to question the way that I showed up in academic spaces.

The first time it happened was while standing in line at the popular local soup and sandwich café on campus with another grad student. A professor in our department (who had been on sabbatical) spotted us and made their way over. First looking at me, the professor said, “my my, don’t you look chic,” and then turning to my peer asked, “how’s your work going?” That time, I willfully could push it aside.

The next time it happened, I had to pause. It was when my own committee chair (proclaimed feminist and diversity champion) crossed paths with me on her way to the office while I was on my way to teach, and commented, “you look so fashionable; you must not have a lot of work.”

Some would say there is nothing particular about these brief interludes; simply because they were so short-lived. And if I think they are odd (insert here the synonyms: micro-aggression, discrimination, racist etc.), then it is because I wanted to read something into them that wasn’t there. But I have been trained as a humanist and reading complicated things and events is what I do very well. It is the reason I have my job.

So, here I go: the professor’s comment, “my my, don’t you look chic,” is a passive-aggressive barrier to diminish my presence, denying engagement beyond the superficial in a space dedicated to discourse and exchange of ideas; my chair’s comment, well, there is really no subtext, it was an aggression, especially given that she was aware of my teaching and researching schedule (and had even signed off on a number of fellowship applications).

Still knowing this, I could not let myself dwell on these comments for too long. I used my other talent and rewrote what they said into something banal to make it easier for me to get along and get on.

With my most recent experiences of white women saying things they probably should not, I’ve been wondering if it is hard to be genuinely nice to one another. And, perhaps it is not the ability to say something nice that is the problem, but the inability to do so.

To borrow from Maya Angelou
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard

So, do I really make you sick, white woman? Maybe the next time you want to claim fragility, think about the anxiety, depression, isolation, and trauma your words incite… and then say nothing.


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