Dear Captain Awkward:
Do you have any snappy comebacks for when someone says “You only got into <insert institute of higher education here> because you’re a girl?”
I got this a lot when I got into college, and then while in college, and now in grad school. Apparently all those lonely single dudes out there in their male-dominated labs think this is a good pick up line? I tried vocalizing my internal rant in response, but that was a little long so I’d like some help in the brevity department.
Actually I’m Overqualified
The whole “you’re only here because of affirmative action” is a perfect Catch-22 of sexist and racist insults. If you argue back or try to prove that you deserve to be there, you are stepping onto their turf and lending their arguments…hrm…not legitimacy, because there is no legitimacy to be had here…but…attention? Credence? Every minute you spend arguing with sexists & racists that you do! so! deserve! to be somewhere is a minute that you’re wasting on not doing the awesome shit that you came here to do. They get to hold onto their logic that all spots everywhere are reserved for white dudes until a “deserving” woman or person of color “proves” their worthiness (& fucking basic humanity). Read the thing about the escalators if you want a more elaborate & metaphor-filled example. Or watch the cartoon for the short version – the first 15 seconds or so sums it right up.
To say a racist or sexist thing to a colleague and try to make them prove that they are one of the “deserving” few, while constantly denying that racism and sexism are factors in how resources are allocated in academia and other “elite” institutions is itself a racist and sexist act. “You’re here because special favors, I’m here because the system is fair and just and totally works!” requires a lot of cognitive dissonance and gaslighting to pull off, right? It’s a totally ridiculous assertion! By gaslighting, I mean when privileged folk constantly derail conversations to insist that nothing about sexism, racism, or the history of the colonialist slave-labor-built misogynist kleptocratic world we’ve inherited is real and really affecting real people in real time. “Greater justice and equality are TOTALLY possible, you guys….once the last white dude has been convinced that injustice and inequality actually exist beyond a reasonable doubt.” “Oh, you explained it pretty clearly, but you were angry & mean. Try again, and try to do it in a way that preserves his self-regard and feeling of innate specialness and deservitude of a place at the top of the hierarchy.” This gaslighting is a waste of our time and energy, designed to exhaust us so we’ll give up and let them have everything. Our giving up will also prove that the system is fair – we must just not have wanted it bad enough! We should negotiate more, or harder, or something.
Depending on your relationship to the person and your relative place in the hierarchy, some possible responses:
- “Wow, that’s pretty sexist, and I don’t appreciate it. So, back to work topic….”
- “It’s very revealing that you think that would be true. So, about work thing…”
- “Are you sure this is an argument that you want to be making in a professional setting?” + long, awkward pause.
- “While untrue, that’s a pretty hurtful thing to say. I’d like an apology.” + long, awkward pause.
- “If that were true, what would it mean in terms of how we interact with each other and go about our work?” + long awkward pause. “So, it wouldn’t affect it at all? Cool. So about work thing.”
Oh, it should go without saying, document everything that’s said along these lines. Who said it, when, how you responded, if there was any retaliation or escalation afterward. A pattern of questioning a female colleague’s credentials & qualifications risks violation of university policies on harassment, hostile work environments, etc. Hopefully most people will take the hint and stop this behavior, but if they don’t, be prepared.
Don’t be a doormat, don’t just shut up and take it, demand respectful treatment as close to the moment as you can (rehearse with friends if necessary), document everything, let your work shine, and don’t let the bastards grind you down. You are where you are so that you can do great things, so don’t let these people distract you with dick-measuring contests. The stuff they are doing is insidious, it is wrong, it hurts budding scientists & academics and it hurts the field of discovery itself. “Diversity” isn’t some stupid box you check on a stupid form. The survival of the planet pretty much depends on us knocking off this thing where we undervalue and ignore the contributions of the majority of human beings to prop up patriarchy & white supremacy.
Awkward Army, let the snappy comebacks flow!