Last week I attended an event run by the Centre for Feminist Research in Goldsmiths. The centre is run by my tutor, Sara Ahmed, and runs events in Goldsmiths throughout the year. This event was on sexism, and the speakers all focused on sexism in higher education.
The first speaker talked about a 'bloody document' she has carried with her for 30 years. As a young graduate student, she wrote an essay and her professor covered it in red ink, 'correcting' her 'mistakes'. When I saw each slide, my jaw dropped. I imagine jaws dropped across the room. She is now a professor and head of a department at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Her old professor is still teaching. She has kept this essay for 30 years.
This feels strange, but I can't think of a time where I faced institutional sexism while at this university.
I've never had a lecturer or professor treat me the way this speaker was treated.
Maybe it's because in Goldsmiths, I've only been taught by women. And mostly black women. My course classes are very different to what they used to be. There's occasionally one or two men in the classroom.
Queen's wasn't like that. In Queen's I was often the only woman in my class. I was taught almost entirely by white men. I was surrounded by men. I became a feminist killjoy. I was angry, all of the time.
But I still can't think of a time where my tutors or professors sexually harassed me. That feels strange.
But then I thought,
I have spent a lot of time arguing with Goldsmiths as an institution about being disabled.
I spend a not inconsiderable amount of my time explaining to other students how to navigate disability bureaucracy.
I sat with my friend and the staff member who approves assignment deferrals, as she sat in tears, shaking with anxiety, and he visibly did not care. He did not offer a tissue. There was no empathy in his voice. My friend and I left the meeting and she cried for a while. She was shaking with the ferocity of her sobs. I was furious. I wanted to complain. I was so angry at how she had been treated by a staff member who was responsible for supporting disabled and unwell students.
I have sat opposite men members of staff who have rolled their eyes at the hysterical angry woman in front of them.
I have sat in the disability room in the library while a male staff member stood over me, making me explain why I was in the room. Why I was allowed to be in the room. In front of a room full of students I didn't know. Afterwards, the shame burned my face and I felt like a child.
This is sexism repackaged and combined with disablism, entwined with racial and class dynamics in the case of my friend's experience.
After the event, there was a wine reception and I talked with a few of my classmates. I talked about how lucky I felt to have had such incredible teachers during my time here.
A classmate has taken an elective module with another department, and has had a tough time. She is taught by a man who, within the first two classes, she knew she couldn't stand. She knew it was going to be difficult to get through this term, being taught by him.
We talked about the way that sexism has worn us down to the point where we think we do not encounter it.
When we encounter sexism in class, from male classmates, we are exhausted before we put up our hand to tell a man why what he has just done was incredibly sexist. We feel the weight of the response our response will get. And we decide in that moment whether or not we have the energy to respond to the response our responding to sexism will receive. And more often than not, we decide the effort is too great, and we don't put our hand up.