In the white academy, the quest for legitimacy and authority, even from students in one's own constituent group, is a dire issue for women professors of color who already face "authorial" challenges from the mainstream because of their race and gender. (Example: The first day of my African American survey course, I was in the hallway chatting with a Black male professor when two white male undergraduates approached us. They were searching for Mr. Williams' class. My colleague replied, "You mean, Dr. Williams? She's standing right here.")
I did not respond to the "Rho-Rho" email. I decided to talk to this student in person as much as I dreaded it. She never came back to the class. Days after the "Rho-Rho" email, I had an appointment with another Black woman older than I. A Philosophy Master's student, she wanted another opinion of her proposed thesis beyond that of her white male advisor. She also wanted to talk about being a Black female in the academy. Was it all worth it? How does one bridge the academic and "real" worlds, especially if one wandered around in the world of the "abstract" - philosophy?
Before she left my office, she asked me, "So is it alright to call you Rhonda?" I'm fresh off the still-unresolved "Rho-Rho" Incident. Now, clearly, a (Masters') student asking whether it is alright to call you by your first name, and a student deciding to (re)fashion you as "Rho-Rho" - well, they are different, aren't they? After all, I called some of my advisors by their first name. I guess it was what came next that ushered forth another "authority" attack. "I think it's an issue of age, since I'm probably much older than you," she said matter-of-factly.
"And why should my age make a difference?" I ask, veiling my slight disturbance under a chuckle, knowing full well that age often did make a difference. While many students think it's "cool" to have a young professor, and at times age can facilitate teaching and reaching students, it often serves as yet another obstacle for Black women professors, simultaneously with race and gender. I am not speaking so much of "authority" as the power to enforce unmitigated obedience (though, of course, it would be naive for me to think that my position as "professor" does not evince a power relationship). I am conceptualizing "authority" as scholarly legitimacy, as the ability to command attention and a level of respect in the classroom. And what about mentoring?
The fact that I received the Ph.D. was not a function of age; and yet it seemed to matter, but only after the moment of mentoring?