Ways of Seeing by Mary Mendoza: Teaching teachers about inequality
I write this column from a place of total exhaustion. Why? Because I am tired of teaching people how to pay attention to inequality.
I’m tired of it across the board, and I’m especially tired of doing it for folks who should know better. I don’t mind teaching my students, but I should not have to teach my colleagues and peers.
I’m a history professor and I study U.S. history with a focus on race, environment, and the U.S.-Mexico border. When I teach, I teach classes on race in America. My profession is still dominated by white men, white women come in second. Only 2.4 percent of all professors at every rank and field in this country are Hispanic, like me. Break that down between women and men and the numbers shrink even more. Break it down by field, and the numbers shift again.
All of this to say, as a Latina woman with a Ph.D. in history, I am not all that common. There are reasons for that. The quickest way to describe it is structural racism. Other factors that keep people like me from getting to where I am include structural classism and sexism. That is to say, growing up poor makes it more difficult to get where I am regardless of race or gender. Being a woman in a world historically run by men makes it still more difficult. Add that I am woman of color and that makes my challenge even greater.
Academics refer to this set of conditions by using the word “intersectionality.” This means that a number of my identities intersect and work in distinct ways to shape my experiences in the world.
Today I want to write about and to my well-meaning colleagues and friends and say that these intersectional experiences matter.
In the past few weeks, I have encountered a concentrated series of ridiculous comments, requests, and treatment, sometimes by colleagues who honestly believe that they are trying to be inclusive or treat me “like one of them.”
Three weeks ago I got a request from one well-meaning colleague: “Hey, can you be the person who facilitates a discussion at a large national conference about nature and race, even though your scholarship actively works against the things that the actual speakers on the panel will argue?” When I asked why me it became very clear that the reason they were asking me had little to do with my scholarship, in fact, the only reason my work came into play was because it makes me relatively well-known (and let’s be clear, in the small world of my subfield, that means that about 100 people in the world know and care about who I am). The real reason I was asked to do it? Everyone else on the panel was white and, you know, diversity matters.
After some conversation with the organizer, it became incredibly clear that I was a token, rather than a valued member of the profession. I turned down the invitation and explained why this was not a good approach to “inclusivity.” In short, they needed a brown person and they needed one fast. They recognized my name so they came to me, even though I was not a good fit.
This week, I had a male colleague joke with me in offensive ways and when I explained the problem to him, I quickly became perceived as hot tempered and sensitive. When I addressed all of this with him, he explained that his inappropriate banter was something he does with his white male colleagues — in effect telling me, “Isn’t this what you people want? To be treated like everyone else?”
The answer is yes and no. Yes, when you actually value a whole person, value me as a whole person, just like anyone else. But by valuing me as a whole person, recognize that no, I am not just like everyone else. I admit that it is a fine line, but we all have to do better.
Mary E. Mendoza is an assistant professor of history at the University of Vermont and the David and Dana Dornsife Fellow for Historical Work in the American West at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. She lives in Weybridge.
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