I used to live at work. As an academic, I spent up to 16 hours in my office, in meetings, or in classrooms, and then I would return home (also work) as a resident director. I worked with first year students for two years and then with juniors and seniors for a year and a half, before my partner and I bought our home.
In that time, it was easy to see me. I moved to California knowing no one but two friends I hadn’t seen for a sustained time in over five years. I had also known them in New York City. Totally different context. In addition to that, I was moving back to States after living and working in Germany for three years. Knowing how important establishing a social network is staying in a place, I went to every program on campus. I started with my immediate community and then extended beyond it. For my first two years at Saint Mary’s in particular, I could be found at lunches and dinners (networking, community work, and poverty/free meal) and on a seemingly endless list of committees.
I’ve written extensively about how my immersion in work wasn’t a totally healthy practice. It led to professional and social rewards in some ways, but also increased my contact with racism and sexism in the workplace. I rarely had any peace, other than when I traveled. I traveled a lot.
Especially since we got the house and got married, I’ve been consciously trying to establish a work/life balance. Despite what some might think, work (as a teacher educator) is not my life.
When I come in to the office, I am often besieged by “I haven’t seen you in a while” comments. This is nearly always said by white women. In fact, I can’t think of an instance when this hasn’t been said by a white women. This is never followed by an inquiry into what I have been up to on campus or even a statement as to missing my presence at work or in a social exchange. I don’t have social exchanges outside of work with these women. I have never been invited into their homes or spaces. I’ve never had dinner with them or met at a café for a common writing time. These are women who are senior faculty or staff members who have longstanding privilege and power.
We are not friends; we are associates in the workplace. To me, this statement, the “I haven’t seen you in a while”, seems to be a performance of caring rather than actual care. Actual care requires an exchange, a sharing of time, a focus and attention on one another.
It also demonstrates a desire for control. Why does it matter that I have not been seen? We all have our work to do. I do that work outside of my office. On days when I need concentrated time on my writing, teaching, or mentoring, I may choose to take a back entrance that goes straight to my office. I like to be social; I also recognize that I have a limited amount of energy and time to accomplish tasks. I no longer live on campus. If I forget something and go home, I can’t just go back to the office again. I like to focus on my list of tasks and build in lunches with friends around them.
In the questioning without personal engagement, it seems to me a display of power, an implicit communication of the desire to control and track my movements, which I resist.
Unfortunately, in my academic work, it is in those unplanned moments, those interactions that do not have a particular professional purpose, in which I have experienced professional misconduct. When I am a part of an assemblage gathered for a particular purpose, there is a collective and positive movement to address that purpose, often (though not always) escaping the baggage we all carry with us.
I mention whiteness and gender, too, in exploring control, because, in my interactions with women of color, a statement like, “I haven’t seen you in a while” is almost always – in fact, I can’t think of an instance when it isn’t – followed by even a question: “What are you up to?” or “How are you?” or even inquiries into my family or life in Berkeley or what’s happening in the garden these days. These are women with whom I may not have shared an afternoon in their homes or at cafes either and yet there is a connection, a visibility that is not about control or tracking movements. Rather, there is a desire for kinship and community.
I’m curious about the performance of care from a white feminist stance that seems to glorify in movement against patriarchy while, in action, preserving it alongside white supremacy. How does this play out in the experiences of other women of color in academia?
What I know is that with other women of color I find myself often exchanging a look or nod in passing or in meetings. We spend time with one another, check in with one another, and when we ask of one another, “How are you?”, there is more likely to be a genuine exchange rather than the expectation of a “Fine” before moving on. I know, too, that I treasure and seek out those exchanges.
I’m an academic who believes that the personal is very political and that the erasure of the humanizing acts is also a political statement about place and control.
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