What I Learned By ‘Going Against My Professor’ Who Had Made A Sexist Remark

Posted on March 2, 2015 in Education, My Story, Sexism And Patriarchy, Society, Staff Picks, Taboos

By Abhishek Jha:

Some time ago – a month really – a professor in my department made a sexist remark in the class. He did it in a class where 75% attendance is mandatory, as opposed to doing that in a place or forum from which the audience could walk out. When I learnt of this, I drafted a letter asking for an apology from the professor. I had my first few setbacks when I started collecting signatures for the same. Some people thought that I was deliberately making an “issue” out of the matter, that the professor was a gullible one and had no intention of hurting anybody, and such similar things. After the letter had been signed, we were pressed to delay the delivery of the letter until we discussed the repercussions of “going against the professor”. During this time, a bunch of students went to discuss the matter with the professor and he apologised to them verbally, (although he did make a homophobic comment during this meeting). Some students were satisfied with this and did not wish to pursue the matter further. A few others withdrew their signatures.

Picture Credit: Jonathan McIntosh
Picture Credit: Jonathan McIntosh

Can a “good person” be an oppressor?

During the emotional verbal apology of the professor, I battled a question. The professor had hardly understood why the comment was wrong. So, I wondered whether I should just try to make him understand and not let justice take its due course, which would both inform him of his failings as a professor (thus doing justice to him) and do justice to the students of the institute. In some time, I was able to answer this question to myself. In this the following from the Pedagogy of the Oppressed was of great help to me:

“Any situation in which “A” objectively exploits “B” or hinders his and her pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression. Such a situation in itself constitutes violence, even when sweetened by false generosity, because it interferes with the individual’s ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human.”

In our case, a lot of students (we have more than 200 signatories by now) felt that they needed a written public apology so that they did not feel that the matter had been taken lightly, so that they felt that they had some agency in deciding what was acceptable in the classroom. In that case, the argument of some students that the professor is not arrogant, that he offered platitudinous generosities does not discount that he is sexist and probably a closeted homophobic person. However, it does make me feel defeated after having to let go of my chance at freeing myself of one oppressor. For Paul Freire says later in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed that “As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors’ power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression.” I was, essentially, being asked to let the matter remain settled after that discussion in the office of the professor. The matter was to remain suppressed – by a notice not being issued – because it would “dishonour” a respectable professor, who had “several other good qualities in him”. I am being asked to let the oppressor oppress me once again. If we were to let this sexist comment pass, we must let every other comment pass too, for the people making those comments no doubt must have exercised their will and understanding in doing generous, industrious, and sincere work at some point in their life.

Can ignorance be an excuse for sexism?

Some other people, who have tried to dissuade me from taking the matter with the professor any further, have also pointed out at his ignorance of feminism as an excuse. I understand how that ignorance may prevent a person from coming out with a paper in feminism. But for a professor to feign ignorance of women as fellow human beings is to allow us to understand that you are not to help your students in even affirming their own humanity, forget about fostering any spirit of innovation. The position of being a teacher, a male teacher at that, is one of privilege and power. Are we to give a person, ignorant of what exercising or not exercising that power can do, a free reign?

Does your university agitate?

I understand why a lot of people get satisfied with muffled half-apologies touted to them as sincere remorse. This is because that’s comfortable. It keeps their university free of dissenting, protesting people. It keeps their grades safe. If they think that they will participate in a protest or lodge a complain the day that they themselves get hurt, they are either ill-prepared for it or they are to return to tweeting on that day too. Prasanta Chakravarty’s article in response to the criticism against Jadavpur protests is of much help here:

“To invoke goodness and humane qualities in any institute is risible, an unfortunate form of pathos by which the academe is often bound to justify its existence, a delusional and infantile mode of denial of the rough and tumble of our daily existence. Goodness and greatness foment a vision of normalcy that is simply non-existent. It divests us of the same greyness that I referred to — of the university space — that in actuality universities are places of educational exchange and occasional camaraderie as well as spaces of intense manoeuvre, gaming and subtle hierarchies.”

It is then necessary for us to reflect for a moment on what bubble we are allowing to build around us by giving struggles a pass, movements a miss. When you celebrate International Women’s Day this Sunday, do it with much pomp and gaiety. But don’t stop there, for your university, your workspace, your mohalla, or your home cannot go on celebrating forever. There will be struggle soon at your doorstep (just as I, with a few others in campus, am trying to get a public apology while our signatories dwindle and opposition to us gets louder), and then you will have to make a decision. And when you eat that hard bread of reality, it is then that you will do justice to yourself and your oppressor. I asked Meena Kandasamy a question about fighting oppression some time ago – a month to be precise. And after she had answered my question, she inscribed her book for me with three words, which I offer to you here:

Educate.
Agitate.
Organize.

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