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March 2013

On Being A Black Female Engineering Student: Street Harassment and Microaggressions At School

A college classroom isn’t a safe place from street harassment. My youngest sister (I have 5) is an Electrical Engineering student nearing the completion of her degree. This semester in her Circuits lab, while working on one of her complicated projects, an older male student came over and demanded that she smile. When she didn’t smile or respond to his demand, he asked why wasn’t she smiling. She said the work, as he well knows, is complicated, and her expression is what she has while thinking. Apparently, being an object solely existing to perform emotions that men find pleasant and non-threatening is the expectation of a female Engineering student.

Who the hell sits in a STEM lab grinning like The Joker while they work? (He didn’t demand her White female lab partner to smile. I can relate to this—men often harass me while treating White women nearby with respect, which doesn’t mean that the latter are never harassed, however.) This is about control and power, as usual. Male students who don’t want her there and are intimidated by her being able to do the same things that they do engage in this behavior to re-instill a sense of authority and superiority.

My sister has told me so many stories of annoying experiences of harassment and racial microaggressions that she’s dealt with being a Black woman in an engineering program. When teachers applaud White students for doing well on complicated exams, they ask her if she “got lucky.” When she arrives to a new class at the start of the semester, she’s repeatedly asked if she is in the right class, when White students are not asked this. When it is time to take an exam, the TA often ignores her, then when she tries to pick up an exam packet herself, the TA places a hand over them and questions her right to take the exam, as if she has not been in the course the whole time. It’s the binary of being extremely visible as a stereotype but also insistently ignored. Black women know this all too well.

Imagine dealing with endless racial microaggressions but on top of people questioning your abilities, despite excellent grades and amazing critical thinking skills, having to deal with street harassment in the classroom.

People whine and whine about women and men of colour, as well as White women not entering STEM fields as much as White men (while of course ignoring the institutional/structural racism and sexism at play…) ignoring the fact that once Black women, for example, are in these fields, even in the classes, there is a great deal of psychological warfare to navigate through for years on end (most Engineering students spend more than 4 years in college) just to later enter a career field where the same things will be repeated. It is not easy.

I am angered that my baby sister is dealing with the street harassment that I deal with, well…everywhere, in her classrooms. She’s trying to concentrate on complicated material and is PAYING to be there, and shouldn’t have to deal with this ignorance on top of all of the microaggressions and other nonsense that she deals with as a Black woman studying Engineering.

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