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  • Gabriel, D., & Tate, S.A. (eds), (2017). Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of Colour Surviving and Thriving in British Academia. London: Trentham Books

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    Overcoming objectification and dehumanisation in academia

    Deborah Gabriel

    ‘Domination always involves the objectification of the dominated’.

    (Maynard cited in Collins, 1986: S18)

    Introduction

    This chapter is a critical reflection and analysis of being objectified and

    dehumanised as a Black female academic. Objectification and dehumanisation as

    the ‘other’ is a typical component of Black women’s raced and gendered experiences

    (Collins, 1986, 1989). Through critical reflective analysis I aim to highlight the role

    that objectification and dehumanisation play in maintaining our status as ‘others’ and

    keeping us on the periphery of academic life. Using Black feminist theory as a critical

    lens helps me make sense of my experiences through a unique standpoint of and for

    Black women that involves self-definition and self-valuation as tools of resistance

    (Collins, 1989). In this chapter I also highlight the role that community networking

    and sister relationships has played in supporting my survival and progress within

    academia.

    Objectification and dehumanisation

    Objectification is defined as treating people like objects, while dehumanisation

    refers to seeing and treating people as if they are not human (Gervais et al., 2013).

    Dehumanisation can involve the denial of human attributes to groups or individuals

    (ibid.,) as is the case with people of African descent, or those of us racialised as

    Black. Throughout history Black people have been subjected to objectification and

    dehumanisation, with many of the ideologies that underpinned our systemised

    dehumanisation during European slavery being espoused during the Enlightenment

    by celebrated White philosophers. For example, in his Lectures on the Philosophy of

    http://blacksisternetwork.blackbritishacademics.co.uk/projects/women-academics-of-colour/ http://blacksisternetwork.blackbritishacademics.co.uk/projects/women-academics-of-colour/

  • Gabriel, D., & Tate, S.A. (eds), (2017). Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of Colour Surviving and Thriving in British Academia. London: Trentham Books

    2

    World History (1822-8) Georg Hegel, proposed that Africans remain in a perpetual

    child-like state of being where they have no consciousness of their existence as

    human beings (Eze, 1997). In 1775, in his essay On National Characteristics, So Far

    as They Depend Upon the Distinct Feeling of the Sublime, Immanuel Kant

    suggested that Africans are incapable of moral and aesthetic feeling (ibid.,). Kant

    regarded objectification as the denial of humanity which results in objectified people

    being perceived as existing purely to serve the ends of others (Loughnan et al.,

    2010). The sexual objectification of Black women was most pronounced during

    European slavery when the rape of Black female slaves was legitimised through their

    interlinked status as chattel and concubines (Jordan, 1962) and through their

    construction and representation as hypersexual, amoral beings —the antithesis of

    White female virtue (Craig, 2006). The present-day dehumanisation and

    objectification of Black people should therefore be regarded as legacies of White

    European slavery and colonization which are rooted in White supremacy.

    When I was undertaking my PhD from 2010-2014 in media and cultural studies,

    I taught on undergraduate degrees in journalism and during my first year became the

    object of racist and sexist discourse exchanged between a group of White students

    on Facebook, three of whom were females. Their online conversation, during which

    they referred to me by my race and gender in animalistic and graphic sexual terms,

    took place during my class where they laughed openly, though at the time I was

    unaware I was the brunt of their jokes. While their actions enraged me, I also felt a

    profound sense of disappointment — not least because I had gone to great lengths

    to support some of those very students who had come to me for additional

    assistance with their work, which I had happily provided. Their behaviour

    demonstrated not just a deep lack of respect for me as their tutor, but also spoke to

    http://blacksisternetwork.blackbritishacademics.co.uk/projects/women-academics-of-colour/ http://blacksisternetwork.blackbritishacademics.co.uk/projects/women-academics-of-colour/

  • Gabriel, D., & Tate, S.A. (eds), (2017). Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of Colour Surviving and Thriving in British Academia. London: Trentham Books

    3

    their rejection of me as a human being worthy of respect. Racist and sexist

    ideologies are often expressed in animalistic terms (Collins, 1986) whereby

    controlling images of Black women help to normalise racism and emphasise our

    outsider status. It is a way of signifying our un-belonging (Collins, 1990).

    A key reason why as Black women we are frequently objectified as the ‘other’ is

    because we do not conform to the dominant, normative conception of an academic,

    which is a status reserved for White men, primarily, but also for White women. The

    term ‘space invaders’ describes the status of Black women as outsiders in British

    academia occupying a White, male-dominated space Puwar (2004), where

    marginalisation, over-scrutinizing and the absence of a sense of belonging

    characterise our experience (Wright et al., 2004). Space invaders is an apt definition,

    given it is argued that we do not embody that which is deemed as ‘normal’ or

    ‘natural’ and in this regard, are perceived as alien others, since ‘the White male body

    is taken as the norm’ (ibid.,149). The experience of being over-scrutinized in

    academia is not limited to staff, since there is also a tendency among students to

    question the credibility of Black academics. Discrimination is sometimes projected

    through negative comments on course feedback that are often personalised (Bhopal

    and Jackson, 2013). During my academic life, students have made personalised

    comments in course feedback at different universities I have taught. On one

    occasion, I was compared unfavourably to a White, female colleague who I taught

    with on the same course and whose style of teaching is similar to my own. But of

    course, I was not evaluated in the same way since ‘Black bodies entering spaces not

    traditionally reserved for them are in a tenuous position’ (Wright et al., 2007:149). I

    have come to believe that just as during European slavery Black women were

    constructed as the antithesis of White females, so as women of colour academics we

    http://blacksisternetwork.blackbritishacademics.co.uk/projects/women-academics-of-colour/ http://blacksisternetwork.blackbritishacademics.co.uk/projects/women-academics-of-colour/

  • Gabriel, D., & Tate, S.A. (eds), (2017). Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of Colour Surviving and Thriving in British Academia. London: Trentham Books

    4

    are perceived as the opposites of our White female colleagues and are therefore

    perceived as being ‘out of place’ (ibid.,). Dominant, western ideologies racialise

    Black people in oppositional terms, not merely as different, and objectification is a

    key part of this process (Collins, 1990). Being objectified means being defined,

    labelled and positioned by others, and thereby subordinated.

    My PhD thesis focused on Black bloggers in the UK, examining their

    motivation, gratification and use of blogs as discursive activism. Most of the

    participants were women, many of whom shared their experiences of raced and

    gendered discrimination:

    There was that whole thing about the lecturer who said that Black women weren’t

    attractive. I was pissed off about that and …it really got me thinking, you know,

    how we are seen. We are either demonised or fantasied, it’s one extreme to the

    other.

    Chioma, cited in Gabriel, 2014: 129.

    My doctoral thesis drew theoretically and conceptually on Black feminism and critical

    race theory. I found that analysing the experiences of the participants, that bore

    similarities to my own biography, helped me to better understand my raced and

    gendered experiences in academia. It highlighted how Black women speak up and

    speak out as a response to being objectified and dehumanised in the media and

    popular culture and the importance of creating spaces to enhance our voice and

    visibility and to counter marginalisation and exclusion.

    Ironically, while invisibility is a key dimension of our experiences as Black

    women in higher education, hypervisibility is equally problematic. We may not fit the

    http://blacksisternetwork.blackbritishacademics.co.uk/projects/women-academics-of-colour/ http://blacksisternetwork.blackbritishacademics.co.uk/projects/women-academics-of-colour/

  • Gabriel, D., & Tate, S.A. (eds), (2017). Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of Colour Surviving and Thrivin

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