Recently I returned from a foreign land, as foreign as the desert to someone who had experienced only lush green fields in the past. That foreign land was the 1996 CAUT Status of Women conference in Halifax, N.S. I was being offered an opportunity to interact with like-minded women who had made major contributions to the struggle for equality for women in Canada. I expected that I would be able to learn more about this struggle; to take part in dialogue about substantive and important issues; learn how to do a better job of representing women faculty on my campus; and, learn how to provide more inclusive and equal classrooms, to fight for better circumstances for part-time faculty, and to deal with setbacks and disappointments following experiences that might stem from my gender.
I have learned. I have learned about ageism, racism, exclusion, and silencing in a way that I have never experienced anywhere else. I have learned that even those most aware may be guilty of these same practices. I have learned, as one of my black sisters pointed out in one session, that every meeting and classroom unfolds in a way different from its published agenda, and one must keep two sets of notes so as to chronicle what is really going on. These words are, in some way, my second set of notes, and my attempt not to be silenced, to be heard.
The opening address was excellent and I wandered from the room in search of coffee wondering if I would get an opportunity to share my thoughts with the speaker. As I approached the coffee urn I saw, from the back, a short, dark woman getting coffee. Delighted that I had found the speaker, I stepped up to the urn, poured my coffee, and turned to her to make my comments. Before the first sentence was out of my mouth I realized that she was not the speaker. By the time I finished the sentence I felt that she believed that I thought that "all black people look alike." My embarrassment and horror rendered me speechless. Her anger and pain made it impossible for her to understand that my aging, 63-year-old eyes had rendered the speaker’s face unclear from the back of the room, leaving the identifying features for me as short, dark skinned, with a very short haircut. She could not know that I had only seen the back of her head until that very moment. I mumbled an apology as she stalked off and I fled in embarrassment.
I moved on to the first session which was part of a series on inclusive teaching. The presenter was using experiences with music very effectively to draw analogies about various factors that influence our ability to be sensitive to differences and to practise inclusion. She was interrupted from behind me. The voice was that of the woman I had offended at coffee, a voice that I had recently heard say "But I’m wearing green and she was wearing black!" The woman was expressing rage, and frustration, that this women’s conference was excluding her experience as a woman of colour — the music chosen thus far as examples was all western, white members of the audience had talked through the black speaker’s opening presentation (were "disrespectful"), and that she had just experienced the ultimate offense — she had been mistaken for that speaker. There were gasps of horror from many of the women in the room. It was an extremely emotional moment for all of us. Torn between wanting to let the presenter complete what she had prepared and my need to explain, I chose to remain silent, no doubt influenced by my embarrassment, but also feeling that my explanation would only help me justify myself and lend nothing to improve the situation.
The second session on inclusive teaching involved viewing a video clip of a critical incident. In small groups we were assigned the task of diagnosing what the problem was. The incident involved an older, white, male student aggressively challenging a younger female instructor who was a woman of colour. She was unable to quiet him and the other students (female) were obviously annoyed by the male’s frequent interruptions. One even challenged him but received no support from the instructor. In our group we saw this as an example of an all too frequent circumstance where a student was dominating and challenging the instructor. The majority also felt that this was a typical case of a white, middle class male dominating a group of women, and, in particular, a black woman. All expressed the view that it was necessary to deal with him very firmly. Some advocated addressing him in such a way that he would experience humiliation. When I suggested that the solution should take into account that he was a member of the class as well, and it would be necessary to deal with this in such a way that he could continue to feel part of the class, my views seemed to fall on deaf ears. I sat back wondering at a view of inclusive teaching that would choose to handle any student with less than respect, apparently because he belonged to the ‘enemy’ camp. When I asked how this situation should be handled if the offending student were female I was told that female students seldom behaved this way — a statement that openly denied our experience of the previous session where the presenter, a blonde woman of European ancestry, had been loudly challenged by a woman of colour, in part because her first set of examples had come from her own Western culture. It seemed moderate views were not altogether welcome here.
In a subsequent session, the speakers were challenged because only one of them had made reference to lesbianism, thereby denying the existence of that subgroup and leaving lesbian women feeling ignored and even unwelcome. As I poured my coffee I pondered how I could incorporate all these considerations into my teaching, and how much there was to deal with that I had not thought actively about in the past. There was something in the tone that made me feel that if I did not subscribe to the prevailing views I should not be there.
In 29 short hours I, a reasonably articulate, confident person, was effectively silenced. I felt my views were not welcome in this gathering and I gradually withdrew my contribution. In all my experience living in a male dominated world, returning to school at an age older that most of my professors, sitting in seminars with only male students, working in a department with some men who periodically exhibit male chauvinism, in an institution with a patriarchal reputation, I have never felt that I had so little to contribute, nor that there was such minimal respect for my views.
In a discussion on making classrooms safe and comfortable for all students, another participant said that she did not feel safe anywhere. I certainly didn’t feel safe with these women.
Forever, the Status of Women Conference for me will be associated with unpleasantness and confrontation, with no resolution, and a single minded belief that any view that offers consideration for ‘the oppressors’ is inappropriate. Circumstances left me feeling less than equal. I know that not all participants supported the views that created these feelings in me, but those others contributed very little to the discussions. I had no sense that those others would support me. Perhaps they were silenced too.
To the woman whose identity I had mistaken and the protesting lesbian woman I must express my thanks, for they provided me with the focus to analyze this experience, albeit painfully. I wanted learning, and I got it. As a little forethought might have suggested even those who are knowledgeable and concerned about issues of equity fall prey to their own narrow inclinations. It is possible for women to promote humanistic practices but behave in less than humanistic ways. Women are not necessarily more receptive to the practice of equity, nor are they generally gentle, considerate, and civil just because they are women. The most compelling learning I will take to my classroom. I learned that letting someone say her piece does not constitute giving her a voice. From my new perspective on silencing I shall try doubly hard to avoid doing this to my students, whatever their origins or gender.
And finally, to all who shared in this conference, I must ask how we can promote ideas of inclusion and equity if our zeal to right the injustices we have experienced does not permit us to practise, in all aspects of our lives, what we preach so vehemently.
Zoe L. Hayes is a professor in the Department of Psychology at St. Francis Xavier University.