On Safe and Unsafe Academic Workplaces: An Email to a Colleague

Here, on this blog, I have often written posts about the academic life. Some of those posts have concerned themselves with the state of affairs in my discipline, philosophy, and yet others have been more generally directed–perhaps about academic publishing, for instance. A recurring concern in my posts on academia might be termed ‘workplace issues’–matters that make our professional spaces for working hostile or friendly, supportive or inhibiting. Unsurprisingly, some of these have centered on how women and other minorities might fare.

In today’s post, I want to reproduce an email I wrote to an academic colleague–otherwise very friendly and great company–with whom I had several uncomfortable interactions over a period of time. I was finding myself increasingly resentful of the interjections and interventions that were made in our conversations and suspected I was heading toward what might be an irate, loud, and potentially friendship-destroying response. To head that off, I wrote my email.

Here it is, edited to protect identities. (NOTE: I’ve realized since I wrote this post that my use of “colleague” implies a member of the philosophy department; this email, however, was not written to one.)

Dear X:

I don’t think I would be representing myself fairly if I didn’t say that I’m finding your style of referencing India and all things Indian quite off-putting. I don’t know how serious your feigned ignorance of the subcontinent, its culture and history is, but I think you should be aware that when you do so you don’t come across as remotely funny, and only serve to marginalize me and make me feel extremely uncomfortable. These comments of yours, which relentlessly push India to the dusty margins of history, culture, and material accomplishment, do no justice to your intellect and wit, of which there is abundant supply. They are especially peculiar because they are made to a person who never, ever, tries to be a triumphalist about anything Indian, in which case you could at least say that you were trying to bring me down a peg or two. These remarks of yours, which depict you as Euro-chauvinist, simply do you no justice, and are unfair when directed at someone who fights an almost constant battle to have himself taken seriously somehow, to get people to look past his accent, his brown skin, and his association with a country that despite its rich historical and cultural accomplishments is almost only ever associated with the kinds of images you seek to conjure up again and again.

I’ve come to accept the fact that I’ve lost my ‘home’ and will never find one here, no matter how hard I try, no matter how ‘American’ I become, no matter how knowledgeable I become about this land, its history and its peoples. But I find it hard to accept that even in a space that I normally find so intellectually and emotionally invigorating, I have come to feel that I have to tread warily, making sure that I don’t ever mention India or anything Indian, thus continuing a process of effacement forced upon me in many other contexts.

I write this to you because I consider you a friend, because I respect your intellect, and because I consider my conversations with you to have been some of the most intellectually simulating that I have had in a long while. And it distresses me to think that there are times that in those spaces I feel tense, uncomfortable, and carry resentment out with me.

I might have come across as stereotypically too-sensitive, bristling with a chip on my shoulder. Perhaps I have run the risk, in writing this email, of having you consign me to the trash heap of all those folks who complain too much, who lack a sense of humor, who can’t roll with the punches. But I thought it better that I take the risk and express myself, perhaps not clearly enough, rather than simply pretending that I don’t feel a particular way.

When I wrote this email I was, as I am now, a tenured full professor. I do not know how many untenured juniors simply hold their tongues.

One comment on “On Safe and Unsafe Academic Workplaces: An Email to a Colleague

  1. Wow, that was very brave of you—even if you did have tenure. If I received an email like this, I would first feel ashamed, then do my darned best to try to make it up to the person who sent it to me. This is a model example of how situations like this should be handled, I think.

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