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!