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“Oh, you have everything going on there, don't you?”
The above question took me by surprise. I was going about my usual routine in the campus writing center, checking in with student athletes and their graduate student mentors about upcoming assignments. My questioner had appeared from around a corner just as I was leaving a study room. With a smile, he gestured toward my face.
I laughed, awkwardly. It was immediately clear to me that the “everything” to which he referred were my nose and septum piercings, as I had become accustomed to people commenting on them regularly.
As I prepared myself to make an excuse to turn and walk away, he said, “You even have one in your tongue; let me see it.” The awkward smile on my face fell, and I choked out a short laugh. I felt frozen, unsure of what to do or what to say.
This older man was not my superior, but a coach for one of the university sports teams for which I tutored at the time. Though I had been warned that coaches should not be asking questions about student athletes, little direction was provided for how to avoid a coach if they did try to chat. As I mumbled about having students to check on, he reached out a hand towards my curly hair and inquired as to whether I was married or had any children.
I was able to end this encounter by entering another study room and checking in with some other students. But I spent the rest of my shift at the writing center feeling extremely uncomfortable and questioning whether I had done something to invite the coach’s comments and questions about my appearance and personal life.
This moment remains vivid in my memory because it is not the first time that I experienced unwanted attention in my workplace or other professional spaces. Truly, it is not the first time in my life that I have had my appearance discussed in a way that made me uncomfortable.
I am a light-skinned, mixed-race black woman who is visibly feminine, with big curly hair and what is considered to be both a “voluptuous” and “fat” body. Consequently, I have been subjected to aggressive street harassment, followed by men in stores, grabbed by men (and women) in bars, had students write offensive comments about me in their course evaluations, and witnessed rape “jokes” being directed at student athletes in the middle of a writing lab.
I have even experienced sexual harassment at the hands of fellow academics. For example, at the 2016 American Sociological Association annual meeting, I had the unfortunate experience of having a male professor comment on my “beauty” in the middle of a conversation about my research, with him reaching out to caress my face.
A lifetime of men (and many women, too) feeling entitled to make lewd comments or touch me without my permission has, in some ways, made me numb to the ways in which my body is viewed as accessible. My research on the intersections of race, gender and sexuality has allowed me to intellectualize why such harassment often happens. Yet even with the minor protections that an intellectual understanding of these experiences lends me, I continue to struggle with being socialized to believe that I am somehow complicit. I often feel guilty about wearing makeup and dressing in formfitting clothing, even as I wear high necklines and hemlines that come to the knee. Despite teaching my students about how the notion that women are sexual gatekeepers is part of an oppressive gender structure, I have a hard time not blaming myself for the harassment I experience.
My physical appearance remains a factor in everything that I experience in the academy, particularly the ways that my students and my colleagues find it appropriate to speak on my attractiveness (or lack thereof). My experiences contribute to well-documented evidence of the ways that femme people are subjected to particular kinds of surveillance and, subsequently, harassment and violence. My membership in a discipline that recognizes and produces knowledge about various forms of sexual violence yet also fails to address harassment forces me to realize that there are still many gaps in how sociology departments and national organizations take steps to protect scholars.
I spent most of my graduate training unsure to whom to report these encounters and feeling awkward about discussing them with my (black, cisgender) male adviser. That awkwardness mostly stems from my own insecurities about admitting that I am vulnerable rather than deficiencies on my adviser’s part; in bringing up my harassment, I confirm that I am a sexualized body. Due to having had colleagues who are men of color tell me that the racialized and gendered harassment that runs rampant in higher education is something that I should “get used to,” I feel hesitant to bring up how my appearance impacts my ability to teach, to network with others or to conduct my research.
When I did report to one of my university’s human resources offices, I was told that I was not guaranteed any anonymity and, in the case of the coach’s unwanted attention that I described above, he would be let off with what they called a “positive confrontation” that I was assured would not enter his employee record. Instead, I was moved to another writing center and forbidden to work with student athletes who were members of that coach’s team. Essentially, this suggested that I was actually at fault, rather than the man who invaded my personal space and asked me inappropriate questions.
A Call for Change
Considering that women and femmes of color in academe already must anticipate that they will be viewed as less capable based on racist and sexist assumptions, what steps can they take to care for themselves amid a culture that fosters harassment?
To survive and thrive in the midst of these issues, I find it important to note that I am not alone. A 2017 report from the University of Texas at Austin found that 22 percent of students have experienced harassment perpetrated by a faculty or staff member. To this end, I have relied upon friends and mentors as a source of support while navigating these experiences. They remind me when something I have experienced is not OK and help me determine how to report or confront sources of harassment.
For women and femmes of color to thrive in the academy, and within sociology more specifically, there must be structures in place to support mentorship and community building. For instance, having multiple women and femme scholars and allies to reach out to redistributes the labor that often is placed on a single faculty member of color to provide all emotional support.
Further, faculty advisers need to be sensitive to the specific kinds of harassment that women and femmes of color may be subjected to. Advisers and department administrators must actively work to swiftly and effectively address harassment at the hands of faculty and other superiors, as well as between graduate students.
These interventions are just a few that can reduce feelings that there will be repercussions for reporting or that someone being subjected to harassment is at fault. Recognizing this issue, implementing clear and direct procedures for reporting and reprimanding harassment, and encouraging those with social and institutional power to intervene and quickly shut down inappropriate behavior are small steps that can be taken toward making the academy a safer place.