A couple of weeks before the semester started, I was introduced to a colleague in another department — an older white man. He shook my hand, but did not speak right away. He looked in my face, puzzled. Initially, I registered his stare as one of familiarity, a face he could not place. As this was the first time we were meeting, I was ready for the stare and the silence to break — there was no memory to jog. But, he kept staring, though he finally said hello. The “you look familiar” stare and furrowed brow that I initially read began to look more like confusion or anger.
Was he confused by something on my face? By me? Or, that they hired me for this tenure-track position in sociology? Classes had yet to start, so I was not “dressed to the nines” at that point; maybe the image of a young brown man in casual attire did not fit his mental image of a professor. I figured once I did start wearing the
costume suit, attention would shift away from my age, my newness, and any assumptions about my credentials or experience.
A few weeks into the semester, I attended a workshop on facilitating discussion in the classroom. I had recently introduced true discussion in my upper-level gender and sexualities course, so the timing of this training was great. Some seasoned faculty recognized my face as unfamiliar and asked if I was new, and then welcomed me and asked how my first month had been. When the session began, I saw a middle-aged white man staring at me. I expected the stare to break because he had been caught staring (custom holds that you look away when caught), or to realize he was staring out of the window behind me. Neither was he case. He continued to stare, his unwelcoming eyes beamed a hole into my forehead.
I decided to ignore him and listen to the panelists. Ignoring ignorance is only partially effective, if at all. His unwelcoming stare made me self-conscious. I looked at how I was dressed; were jeans, a sports coat, and tie too casual for a Friday?
Then, I looked around the room. White, white, white, white, white… Somehow, I had not noticed I was the lone brown face in the room. His unwelcoming stare had effectively pointed out that I was a true outsider. Things went downhill from there for other reasons. Though I appreciate some of the panelists, I was distracted by the burning desire to scream to one panelist, “you can get away with that as an old white straight man!”
An Unwelcoming Environment
In my mind, the confused or even hostile stare of older white straight men at me — a young queer brown tenure-track man professor — is a microaggression. It sends the message that I am an outsider and, frankly, unwelcome. These stares are just one message in a chorus of messages that I do not belong, be it internal (imposter syndrome) or external (e.g., recently, the dining hall cashier asking, “are you a visitor?”). These colleagues likely represent what I have heard described as the “old guard” — a generation of faculty who have a different set of expectations for the professoriate than the generation that has taken the reins in leadership. So, they are few in number (on the campus at least). But, I still face the occasional possibility of interacting with them.