Ever since I can remember, I have been a talker. I was never shy. I never needed any encouragement to belt out songs and nursery rhymes in front of complete strangers. As I grew older, I made friends easily and carried on conversations with strangers on airplanes without much effort.
A few weeks ago, I had an experience that made me realize I am not that person anymore. My older daughter is five and is starting kindergarten in the fall. A few weeks ago some parents organized a meet-and-greet play date at the school playground. I had never met any of the parents before. As we arrived and started introducing ourselves to each other, I had to repeat my name as many as three or four times (per person!) before we could settle on some variation of my name that seemed to me to be a close enough approximation to the real thing. I’m used to that. I don’t fault people for it, but it does make me feel uncomfortable and it certainly announced my presence as the only non-white person in the group that day.
I spent most of the morning chasing my two-year-old daughter around the playground and left the socializing to my husband and our five-year-old. I chalked up my sense of discomfort and alienation from the group to my “foreign-ness”. But as I reflect on that experience I realize there was another reason for my sense of alienation and distance, and it had nothing to do with being a foreigner: it had to do with being an academic and a social scientist. Strange, isn’t it, a Sociologist who feels alienated from people? How did this happen? Aren’t I supposed to be interested in people and social interaction?
In my introductory Sociology courses I often tell my students that they’re going to learn to “see” –they’re going to learn to see the things that most people don’t see because they are normalized, because they are “natural” or because that’s just how they are expected to be. Seeing is what I do for a living. The problem with seeing, as Arundhati Roy has put it, is that “you can’t un-see”.
So here’s what I saw that day at the playground: Of the ten or so girls, only one (besides my two) was wearing sneakers. The rest were wearing flip-flops. Not only are flip-flops bad for your feet and ankles (if worn regularly) but in the case of these girls, they limited what they could do on the playground. On the other hand, every single boy was wearing sneakers. I saw that the parents had split themselves along class lines (based on their cars/clothing/conversation) into two groups. I saw that although it was a Saturday morning, there were only two fathers present (one of whom was my husband). I saw a boy trying to convince other boys to kill a hornet by stepping on it, while the girls stood around and watched. And I saw and heard mothers converse about their “dependent” little girls and their “independent” little “men”.
My training as a sociologist, as a feminist, demands that I make these observations. It demands that I pay attention to seemingly trivial things like my daughter’s footwear and clothing. Further, I can’t join in on conversations about gender differences as “natural”, and I can’t join in on conversations about the fathers’ “natural” lack of involvement with household chores or childcare (I have a feminist husband!) without lying or simply going against what I believe in. At the same time, this playground was not my classroom and these mothers didn’t come here to listen to my views on the social construction of gender. And so it is with some sadness that I must admit: All this “seeing” has turned me into a terrible conversationalist!
My experience that day on the playground certainly had something to do with my foreign-ness, but it also had a lot to do with my profession. My job doesn’t end when I leave the classroom, and it doesn’t end when summer starts. In fact, it never ends. The decisions I make on a daily basis—down to every outfit and every toy that I choose for my daughters—are hard to disentangle from my disciplinary knowledge. How can one separate thinking and seeing from doing and talking?
I’m beginning to think that a Sociology degree, and perhaps all social science degrees, especially when earned by women and mothers, should come with a label: “Warning: Can put a real damper on your social life!”
Afshan Jafar is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. Her research and teaching interests are cultural globalization, gender, religious fundamentalism, and trans-national women's movements. She can be reached at email@example.com.