or On Sara Ahmed’s Strangeness
Academic inequalities are never freed from the existing inequalities in society. I have been quite critical about the insecurities academia has been creating on junior scholars and especially on women of colour, I have also been spotting how the academia actually is built on creating those several layers of precarities.
Yet, it would be quite naive to assume that once the junior and precarious position is left behind, you would be welcomed, with open arms, by academia (or by the family of senior scholars). Chances are, those very individuals who have been taking advantage of academia precariat for so long have a strong feeling against how precarity is for the underprivileged: the women of colour, the disabled, the gendered/racial/ethnic/class other. They have already been thinking that those from underprivileged backgrounds have any (temporary or not) post in academia because they are ‘cared for’, were treated as ‘diversity tokens’, or for other various non-merit reasons — and not because they actually deserved it.
The same people thus would have a tendency, an impulse, or a bias (yes, you can say racism/sexism/ableism whichever applies in your case), to assume that you are a lot more junior than you actually are. They would carry the same entitlement to you that they carry with their juniors, which they are able to explain and legitimise as ‘helpful guides’. Your strange position suggests a very Ahmedian (Sara) strangeness.
Sara Ahmed explores “strangeness” in her book, as to what determines or differentiates someone as a “stranger”. A non-white/non-male/non-middle aged/disabled is, in this very context (academia), definitely a stranger. Ahmed deduces that the “recognisability” of someone’s “strange(r)ness” stems not from society (other academics, and even the staff members) failing to identify that person, but from society’s ability to have already recognised, picked out and pin-pointed that person, their body, and their culture and lifestyle as “strange”.
That is to say, the ‘Other’ as “strange” and “unfamiliar” is defined as someone whom society has identified and familiarised as “not known” and “not-belonging” through a variety of representational techniques, language structures, visual portrayals, and narratives that support, strengthen and reinforce the claim for a “stranger’s strangeness”.
Strangeness in academia is a bit like the above photo. Dr. Mezna Qato, a Palestinian scholar and historian of the Middle East at Cambridge writes the following at the bottom of this image on her Instagram page;
“This is the space I have eaten in everyday for nearly four years. I can’t begin to tell you how I feel. But to watch all these fellows so pleased with this photo has been a fascinating close encounter with the vicissitudes and violences of the politics of representation.”
The strangeness is created institutionally and carries the ability to be turned you into a spectacle.
Politics of representation works seamlessly when it places you into a display of strangeness. Once the strangeness is marked as a display, then it can establish a particular power dynamics where the estranged is watched, exhibited, paraded; as a spectacle. The estranged is voiceless. Rather, it is spoken about, marked, defined, and described.
Survival in Seniority: Strategies
While thinking about all of these issues quite analytically, at somewhat an intellectual level, I also have inevitable concerns about my own strategies, my next steps, my own everyday survival, and my own interpersonal relations. And I need to think about those without having to sacrifice my political position, and well, my own dignity.
This means a number of things but also that I need to develop new skills in this unknown territory, a.k.a. to find ways to exert or remind people of my obvious expertise and seniority — hopefully without being confrontational or smug about it.
At this point, I have come to realise that I am dealing with the same set of challenges I faced while I was an academic precariat. Growing up in a society where humility is valued (over self-assertion), the same humility, combined with the marks one is carrying (underprivileged) would signify you as even more strange in that space of power. At this point, I am trying to train myself in wearing the gown of power just enough so that I will receive the respect others receive without asking for it, despite all the negative connotations those attitudes have in my very own culture. What I do not want to do, for instance, is to having to keep being vocal about what I have done in earlier years in my career to convince those with condescending manners that I do know what I am talking about — and chances are, I might even know more than they do. I never liked it when people listed their CV’ies or name-dropped all the awards, institutions, academic celebrities they worked with/for/etc. This is exactly why I feel extremely frustrated when I feel like I might have to list any of my past experiences.
Yet, if you are a woman of color in academia, you are always, and I mean always, seen not with your merit, but by your difference. You will keep witnessing how other people of colour would achieve what they achieved by working and producing five times more than (as the saying goes) mediocre white men but you are the one who is expected to prove their worth and merit. By doing the most dreadful: listing your CV.
At that point, to be able to stay loyal to your personal values, you then need to train yourself twice too as you don’t want any of such behaviours, to sprout seeds of arrogance or hubris in your heart. Indeed I do need to learn how to carry just the right behaviours and attitudes to ensure my merit won’t be questioned, without contradicting my inner self. Yes, I do find myself in a semi-spiritual dilemma. All the reasons for me to question where I am and whether all these efforts are worth it.
Not all Bureaucracy are Created Equal
Continuing with the notes on strategy, I have also found myself in a number of conversations with other women of colour in higher education, about how they raise certain important points with the support of (white or male, or both) allies -either by being backed up by them or by letting them raise those very points. They are so used to being silenced, dismissed, or ignored in those meetings that they find alternative strategies to move on with their work life.
That particular strategy is, coincidentally, exactly what I used to do twenty years ago when I was working in a firm in Istanbul that was run by religious Muslim men. I would ask my (back then) fiancee to raise whatever important issues I had in mind, as I knew those points would be either ignored, silenced, or talked over if raised by myself. I was confident about the content and I didn’t care who carried that. Besides, being ignored, silenced, or talked over is not necessarily the position I want to find myself in. Not then, not now. Hence the strategy.
Now, let’s think together whether such a strategy, albeit survivalist, is a politically acceptable one. It would never provide a transformative step and definitely not enable the next person in my position. It would not create the critique that is needed to address the issue. It would be no more than a patriarchal bargain, in Kandiyoti’s terms. That it does not create a change — only makes you survive. I have left some overwhelmingly difficult spaces in earlier years, where only a survivalist bargain was possible.
Maybe that is a question of staying and improving. Calculating the energy needed, and anticipating change. It’s a question of hope.
Which means that is a question of loving and belonging too.
A speech is not a speech if you are unheard.
Although she has become incredibly controversial (mostly for the right reasons), I cannot help to quote Mary Beard’s Women and Power when I think about voice.
“We find repeated stress throughout ancient literature on the authority of the deep male voice in contrast to the female. As one ancient scientific treatise explicitly put it, a low-pitched voice indicated manly courage, a high-pitched voice female cowardice.” (2017:19, emphasis mine)
A man says it once, and he is heard. A woman has to repeat thrice, only to be called a nagger. And yes, she’s still unheard. Ignored.
Being unheard is a state. It is a cosmos that creates its own reality. A void filled with denial. Paradoxically, she cannot prove that she is unheard as her options are either being further denied, or treated as ‘too loud’ (high-pitched). In this state of void, free speech does not really have any particular relevance. There are other ways of making a speech unfree, including by making it insignificant [and then marking it as uncivil or too loud when forced to repeat].
When such a norm is embedded into the institution, and we all know it is so in academia as a broad institution, then she received this entire treatment not by single individuals, but from every which direction: peers, other seniors, staff members, and of course juniors and even students.
Racism can be spotted when a perfectly good person’s competence is questioned.
One of the things I learned during my life in Quebec as a (back then) headscarf-wearing woman during the years when reasonable accommodation debates were at their peak, was that any individual could be found problematic if not guilty of something; as long as they were surveilled insistently. While reasonable accommodation debates were taking place, in media, they were always accompanied by either images of Sighs with a turban, or of Muslim women wearing a headscarf. This was making my body a trigger for consistent monitoring. There would be times I was scanned, head to toe and from toe to head again, for long minutes, so that something I do could be spotted and corrected. Even in places like Tim Hortons where no one really stares at each other, I could be warned by the staff member for the bag I kept under the table (no it wasn’t leaking). The warnings you receive would sound fair but they would often either be ungrounded or something everyone else has been doing already. But you would be made to explain.
We had this with the infamous ‘safety’ protocols for headscarf-wearing football players when they were attempted to be banned for the safety of players as if no safe-hijab was produced for companies like Nike.
And the process would almost always be illogical. The safety protocols won’t be followed because someone’s safety would be seen to be at risk, looked closer, and then the safety issue would be pointed. Rather, the process would be reversed: (1) You will first be screened, (2) after a long screening/gazing/policing period, something about you will be spotted as a problem/risk, and then (3) legitimate reasoning will be tailored for you.
This illogical process is the best way to spot any unreasonable and unfair treatment, whether due to racism or due to good old rivalry. Any time one’s perfectly normal work performance, behaviour, or collegiality is questioned in a manner out of proportion, you can take steps back. In my circle of friends and colleagues (other people of and women of colour), a number of them keep feeling singled out very easily but the real triggering moment as to how they were spotted (before being singled out) begins with their racial difference. A point rarely (well, never) raised in ‘unconscious biases’ trainings offered at universities.
Probably to be continued..