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White male privilege

Dietrich: I understand that men are never asked why they enter the foreign legion

Cooper : that’s right. They never asked me. And if they had, I wouldn’t have told.

Dietrich: there’s a foreign legion for women, too.

These are some lines of Gary Cooper’s [Tom Brown] and Marlene Dietrich’s [Amy Jolly] from the 1930 Josef von Sternberg’s film Morocco:

morocco 1930

Here is a scene from my own Morocco, featuring a modern-day Tom Brown, not in film, but real-ity.

I entered my classroom to give a final at 9am as I’ve done semester after semester for years. There were 3 students in the classroom, and I announced loud enough that I am giving a final that starts now, after waiting for the room to empty up to the very last minute. Sometimes, students need every minute to finish an exam, and some professors accord them extra minutes until the next class shows up. One of the three in the room, Tom Brown, volunteered an answer by looking at his watch : ” I have the classroom until 9.30am.”

Some silence.

Me: my final is from 9-11 and starts now.

And thus began his plague of questions:

  • Who are you?
  • Are you a professor here or from elsewhere?
  • Show me proof of who you are
  • Show me your final exam schedule

With 22 students in tow waiting impatiently to begin finals and about a hundred pages weighing on my arm, Tom Brown asked me for my credentials and the reason why I was there. The question ‘if I was from outside of the university’ threw me off completely. Why would a professor ask another if s/he was from outside? I then quickly processed the following info:

The university security would not have let me into the building to give a final in the room I taught all semester three times a week that day if i didn’t have the right to be there.  I know that everyone entering university premises must have a faculty or student ID or must be signed in and issued a name tag for everyone to see. I saw no name tag. It would never occur to me that I could be from outside giving a final to 22 students in a precise room at a precise time. I may be naive, but I sincerely thought the only way a professor could do that is if s/he had been teaching a course and now that it was finals week, it was exam day.

Naturally, I’ve never been asked to prove myself at this university, except by workers in the freight elevator who think they own the freight elevator because they are employees, and who generally refuse to let students enter an empty elevator just because. That’s how they show their might to students. Perhaps they thought I was a student because once, I had to say I am a professor and I am staying in the almost empty elevator. Then they asked if i taught there. I also them it was ridiculous to run an empty elevator when herds of students are waiting and going the same way, and reminded them that they use the students’ elevators often, then asked where was the problem if  students used the freight elevators. I can run late from classroom to classroom when given only 10 minutes to cross one end of the university to another, floors, buildings and throngs of students separating the two classrooms. Now the same employees say good morning to me, and fuss no more.

During the two-hour final exam of my real-life Moroccan scene, I began to think about this white male privilege which I just encountered. Tom Brown interrogated me about my reasons for being there while I did “not” do the same to him. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and accepted his announcement that he was a teacher for special Ed kids. I had more right to be there than him since it was he who was the “outsider”. He, however, asked not one, but 4 questions to me to “prove” myself. When I saw that he refused to leave the classroom I proposed sharing it, since he had 2 only students against my 22. But, he huffed and puffed and left the room as my students began pouring in, but not before asking my name, department, course I teach etc, all of which I furnished him to avoid more time waste.

At 11 am, Tom Brown promptly re entered the classroom and slapped a letter addressed to the chairman about my rude, disrespectful and unprofessional treatment of him “in front” of his students. The letter was 14 lines long, double spaced [so really 7 lines long], and at a loss for words because kept insisting on – and reiterating- my abruptness, disrespect, unprofessionalism, and my dismissal of him. Nowhere did the letter mention the questions he asked me in front of his so-called “disrespected” two students or my twenty two. Nowhere did the letter mention that he asked me to prove who I was. Nowhere did the letter state or imply his claim to legitimacy of the room via telling me I didn’t ‘belong’ there. The letter ended with hopes that my department will address my actions appropriately and promises of further pursuing the matter.

I was asked to write a letter of apology to him in order to defuse the situation since he went to the registrar, chairman of my department, his principal and dean of my university. And since he ‘paid’ for the room. I didn’t pay for the room, but it was ‘given’ to me for the semester.

Would it not be odd if Obama had to prove he’s president when he enters a room? Not that I am a president, but it is obvious he is president, as it was obvious that I was a professor with 22 students and lots of exams on my arm.

These are the questions that made it white male privilege versus a professional matter:

1. Why didn’t Tom Brown have to write a letter of apology to me – as I did him – especially since it was he who was out of line to plague me with so many inappropriate questions? Did it matter where the error or the mix up was located and was it not “in front” of my students, too, who stood impatiently waiting to take their final?

2. Did I ask Tom Brown to prove his credentials or reasons why he was there? I’d already factored in my head that he would only be there if he were a professor. But not for a moment did Tom Brown pause to reflect – like i did- why I was there with 22 students. Not for a moment did he pause to reflect that our times overlapped and what we should do as ‘equals’ in academia.

3. Was this NY Legionnaire intent on showing me his might; who’s bigger and who has more clout and thus the reason for coming back to slap a letter of complaint on my desk the moment I finished my final?  Would i not see this letter, sent to my chairman, after all, since it was a complaint against me and only me?

Or perhaps he did not know the route that professional matters go, so he hand delivered the letter? That seemed a proper waste of time, especially after he’d gone up to the department, “storming mad”, raising his voice, about having to leave the room. He did not ask what happened, but gave himself the ‘right’ to go on and on about the incident. This is what white privilege looks like. For Tom Brown, no one else had the right to occupy the room he reserved. Tom Brown does not want to hear what anyone ( the secretary of the department or me, both women of color) had to offer about the room mix up.

Would this outside teacher have done the same to a white professor walking in to give finals, whether male or female, but especially male? Which professor has to enter a building with 22 students in tow on the day of a final and prove she is a professor at 9am in the morning? Any other educated professional would engage into a conversation to understand and relieve the schedule conflict and eventually negotiate for the time difference, but instead, Mr. Tom Brown wanted me to prove who I was and why I was there, even though I proposed we share the room at the point when I said I am not providing my credentials. Instead, he packed up and left, threatening I will hear from him.

This situation reminds me of another situation I experienced in 2005 in a family court in Jamaica Queens when a white judge told me to quit my PhD and get a “real job” opposite my smugly seated, white ex husband who was there to contest paying child support for a child he doesn’t support financially; except on paper. The same paper which flies in the air like affirmative action where women of color exist. Blacks and people of color are sentenced on the spot to questions (or arrest) from white men who are still not bound to respect their rights – and in my case ‘presence of a colored female’ in academia. Yes, I exercised assertive action when affirmative action was failing me left and right on the day of the final exam, but even that warranted me some form of ‘arrest’: complaints to dean, chair, registrar, letter of redress, slapping me with a letter after the final was barely over.

I often read about white male privilege in blogs, upworthy, feministing, Atlantic black star and many other sites. But I can’t say that I’ve ever felt it in academia, where we teach students of color in our courses to stand up and speak.

There’s a foreign legion for women, too, as Amy Jolly said to Tom Brown in Morocco. And for women of color, our ‘foreign legion’ is sometimes digital when all else fails. Long live our digital voice!


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