not knowing

I’m writing this from the Ninth Biennial Feminisms and Rhetorics conference, at Stanford University, where I’ll be presenting a paper on archival research. I had a situation this morning where I was genuinely unsure of the best way to be better a feminist (or feminist ally).

I attended a panel in the first session on motherhood and adoption, with a particular focus on the adoption by Americans of Chinese children. One of the symmetries between the three papers was how they troubled the simplistic divisions exemplified in nationality. I asked a question at the end, rather inarticulately, about how college administrators could better describe international students in their official documents. In my experience, college administrations tend to use a lot of reductive and patronizing language when both discussing their international students and talking to their international students. As I said, it was not well articulated.

A woman seated next to me seemed very unhappy with her question. She was demonstrating this displeasure to a woman who was on the panel. I was unsure what she found problematic about my question. After the panel, she said “I hated that question,” although not really directly to me. Then she said, “I’m sorry, I’m feisty.” And she walked away.

I’m someone who has said a number of stupid things in his life and has come to regret it. What I find most frustrating is when I know I’ve said something stupid but don’t know why. So I very much wish the woman had told me what about my question was unenlightened or offensive. At the same time, I acknowledge that it is no one’s obligation to educate or correct me. But I’m left here at a conference where I have offended someone with genuinely no idea what I have done that is wrong, and I wish that I did know. I wish she had been willing to tell me. I know what one response to this specific situation and ones like it: don’t say the wrong thing in the first place. I’m afraid that I’m aware enough of my own flaws and of the fallibility of human nature to find this an insufficient response.

Update: I talked to her, and it went well!


  1. Perhaps it had to do with the wording or context of the question? What exactly, or as closely as you can recall, did you ask? You quote her but merely brush aside your question as “not well articulated.”

    Did anyone have an answer or thoughts about your question? Given the number of international students at Purdue, and many other universities, I think the language used to describe international students is hard to separate from the economics. The reliance universities have on the money brought in by international students, and the deep reliance of cross subsidies that their tuition pays for, must have an impact on the thinking of whole groups of individuals.

    I also think the class structure of international students who can afford the enormous price tag charged by universities must play a role. This all brings to mind a recent article in the New York Times about international students and Harvard Business School, which more or less exemplifies your reductive and patronizing language observation:

  2. It was, as you could have guessed, a misunderstanding. More than anything, I just want to respect other people’s criticism in a forum like this; not to treat them as though they are obligated to correct me; but also to learn. Which can be tough! But if it were easy, anyone would do it.

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