Twitter Spiel: Reflection on Gender, Race and Power in Academia

Gender, Race and power in Academia: Complexity of Intersectionality.

Figure 1. Tweet Captured from Prof X’s Twitter feed on 28/4/2022, 10:18 am, UK Time

The tweet above is tweeted by an Asian American women professor in sociology, Prof X, who serves as the director for the Centre for Research on Social Inequality. My understanding of the original post (OP)’s intention is to invite discussion and reflection on the inequity and (micro) aggression directed towards women of racialized communities in academia; in this case, from a student.

However, Twitter reacted slightly different from what the OP expected. At first glance, a lot of people saw this as an act of oppression and public shaming of the student. I thought we Twitter user must have learned by now that 280 characters is just too little to paint the full picture, and to be kind before jumping to conclusions. Prof X very soon found herself at the receiving end of all sorts of criticisms and degrading comments on her character and professionalism. This is an unfortunate case study to look at how intersectionality plays out in real life, how the role of race is dismissed for minority groups in power, and the lack of solidarity within racialised communities.

Photo by Armin Rimoldi on Pexels.com

I am summarising a few common comments (filtering out straight up insulting ones) under the original tweet:

Response 1: “It is a right question to ask!”

This response highlights that it is important to find out about potential supervisors’ skills, styles and whether it matches with them before a student decide to work with them. I think this is indubitably true. However, this comment missed the OP’s point. The problem is two folds. It was never about whether the student should ask the question, but the subjective experience of an Asian American women’s qualifications and capabilities being constantly questioned in academia. It is not about whether the question is appropriate, or even how that question was asked, it is about the cumulative experience of being treated as lesser because of their gender and race. In Ljeoma Oluo’s book, So You Want To Talk About Race (2018), she illustrated clearly the case of how racism cannot be reduced to isolated events. What is experienced and reported in this tweet is merely the tip of the ice-burg, the straw that broke the camel’s back. Many comments along this line went on to discuss “Whether or not” this question should be asked, such as:

“It’s that the student asked a professor if she was qualified (like an interviewer) instead of asking if they were a good fit (like an advisee). The tone and phrasing can feel insulting because it questions competence instead of appealing to the specificity of one’s expertise.”

But the OP is not really talking about the wordings. It is about TO WHOM this question is asked, and what this reflects. In case this was not clear, a fellow Asian American colleague of Prof X shared in the comments, but it did not turn the tides of toxic criticisms towards the OP.

Figure 2. Tweet reply under OP. Captured 28/04/2022, 10:21am, UK time.

Instead of recognizing the racial and gender inequity that lingered for far too long, instead of believing that the OP is, indeed, about race, instead of reading carefully what the OP is trying to get to, Prof X was torn into pieces. This blue bird is definitely a carnivore, beware.

Response 2: “Why would you shame your student in an open platform?”

This points to a different problem. Where is the proper place talk about racism?  When is the proper time to talk about racism? Should this be discussed on a public domain where people can share their learnings, or should this be a private conversation between the affiliated parties? We may never have a good-enough answer for everyone for the questions above. However, the problem I see here is the need for people to police on how these issues should or can be discussed. This act of policing itself is part of the attitude that perpetuates structural and casual racism. This suppresses minorities groups to share their lived experiences on a day-to-day basis. Yes, the OP did not spell out word by word that the student is sexist/racist; yes, the OP tried to find excuses for such questions to be asked given it’s unpleasant manner; I see these are the result of similar policing on when can people from racialised or minority groups talk about their lived experience, such that we pitifully comply with conscious choice of self-censoring and humour to cover up our pain. This is not a problem of platform; this is a problem of power.

Reflections

I think the presenting case here is a lively example of the complexity of intersectionality, when power and race coincide. A lot of the criticisms following the lines of Response 1 hold the notion that, the professor is in the position of power, it is hence an act of oppression. When the OP talked about her particular interaction with a student, they are automatically assumed to be the oppressor, wherever the platform may be, on whatever topic, in whatever context. The position dictates everything. Perhaps the OP would be much less controversial if the question did not come from a student, but from a colleague, or a member of the public, where public discourse favours OP’s position. Perhaps the OP would be much less controversial if the OP is a white male professor, where public discourse favours the criticisms. This reductionist way of thinking succeeds only in applauding a superficial understanding of “social justice”, but in reality often works against their intention, in worse case, a valorised, covert form of racism.

This is an example in how intersectionality plays out, in situations where systems of powers seem to operate in contradictory manners. When people from minority races are in a position of power, people assumed that their position of power would always overshadow their race, and that racism does not seem to, and should not affect how they interact with the world. The emergence of Critical Race Theory is a response to exactly these situations. Our case here exemplifies that we’ve still got a long way to go.

East Asian are the majority ethnic group in the world, but we are never the majority in these contexts. We are not white, not brown, not black. We are a distant majority group that was left out of the discussion. We are the ones that are stuck in the middle. We do not need to indulge in a competition of whom the most deprived group is, it is meaningless; however, we do need solidarity from other racialised communities to stand with us when we face racism, sexism, as other groups do. Please be kind.

Thinking of you Prof X, hope you are well.

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listenslow to speak and slow to become angry,”

James 1:19

Author: joseph lam

On a Part-Time PhD Journey. Reflection on living Academia into a better place. 🇭🇰 Migrant in 🇬🇧

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