How to Drink Water

I published this on Medium awhile ago and am submitting it here. It’s about just one of my experiences of sexism in academia.

In grad school I learned that when I drink out of a water bottle I look like I am sucking dick. I learned this from a male professor. I was taking a film history course with a rather famous guy. Well, famous for academia. I am not sure that is really, famous, you know? It was my first year. Your first year of grad school is scary. It’s like, “oh my god these people are smarter than me and oh my god the professors can be assholes (not all, of course) and oh my god I don’t belong here and oh my god I’m not really that smart.” It’s petrifying and ego shaking, unless you’re a sociopath and your ego can’t be shaken. Actually, if you are a white dude in the German Department your ego seems to remain intact. Studying fascism is somehow ego fortifying. This guy was German. He had chin length stringy blond hair that was long enough to look European and short enough to not look American. He always wore button down shirts, in pastels and a lot of pinks. He would keep the first few buttons open. This exposed his chest. His chest was a very red color—lobster, Rosacea red.

There were around twelve students in the class, a mix of people from different departments, including German (hence, my intimate knowledge of white dudes who study German and their fortified egos). I barely spoke in class. In fact, most of the women didn’t. There were the few that did. The few who somehow were able to break through the fear that they would say something stupid, a fear that paralyzed me to the extent that whenever I did say something I would have to try hard to not let the class hear the slight tremble in my voice. 

At the end of the semester the professor decided to introduce us to the art of presenting a conference paper. He organized a two-day mini conference where we would each present our final work to the class. He made it all proper, with our fellow classmates introducing us and everything. Obviously, this was petrifying to me. Luckily my friend Gino introduced me. He gave a lovely introduction, claiming I was the “best-dressed graduate student on campus.” This bit of flattery let me shake off some of that trembling and get up with some confidence. My paper was on Satyajit Rays’s Pather Panchali, colonialism and modernity. Fun stuff.

There I was. I had my film clips, my pencil, my paper, and the Prof had provided us with those short little Dasani bottles of water. I read my paper aloud and sometimes even riffed off the content. I raised my eyes to that class that intimidated me so much. I showed my clips and pointed at the screen. I made intelligent points about trains, electricity and modernity. Occasionally I took sips of water from my short Dasani water bottle. I was fully into it. I was confident. I got great questions, primarily from the women in class. I answered them intelligently; at least that’s how I remember it. I was totally happy. I felt confident—this experience was proving to me that I could be smart, I did belong there, and I could speak without a trembling voice.

Each of us was assigned a time to visit the Prof’s office to discuss our paper and performance presenting. I walked into his office excited to hear get his feedback. I sat down and looked at him and his dirty blond chin length hair and red chest. I smiled. In his authoritative German accent, he said:

“Next time you present a paper, don’t drink out of a water bottle, it looks too provocative. Use a cup or a glass.”
Talk about your ego being shook. Talk about tearing down the excitement of finally feeling like I belonged. I didn’t know how to process the information— the “feedback” he had just provided. He didn’t have a single other thing to say about my presentation, no academic insight, no praise about how I had presented my work. He didn’t even have any criticism, something academics are like biologically prone to do. He gave no points to help me re-write and re-shape my project. On the contrary, my presentation was eclipsed by how I drank water out of a water bottle. Shaking runs throughout this story and boy did I shake as I walked a mile home to my apartment. I didn’t want to let anyone see me cry on the bus.

As I walked, I thought back to the other students and their presentations. Had they drunk water out of those bottles? I didn’t remember there being any cups. Were their cups? Memories of students, men and women, drinking out of water bottles surfaced. I wasn’t the only one who had done this so maybe someone else had gotten the same feedback? I called Gino and asked: Did you get told not to drink out of the water bottle? That it was too provocative and distracting? Of course he didn’t. I got nauseous at the thought of my Prof imagining me giving a blow job while I presented that paper, a paper I had worked so hard on and was so petrified to present. My one shining moment of being able to speak up in the class was stomped on by the “dangerous” lure and “distracting” nature of my sexuality.

At the end of the semester the Prof had us over to his house for dinner. He ordered pizza. It came cold so he had to reheat it and ended up burning it in the oven. Bad taste in the mouth, indeed. His wife wasn’t there but he talked about her a lot. Apparently she was a saint. She taught ESL to “foreign students because she wanted to help the poor children.” He noted how brave these foreign children were and how his wife was even braver to be teaching them. She was the epitome, in his description, of proper femininity, and that too, a white savior. She probably never drank water out of a bottle.

His wife collected Art Deco Bakelite bangles and they were laid out all over the house. I mean there were tons of them. They were on top of the coffee table, the hutch, the bookcases—everywhere. They were each unique, some dotted with tiny rhinestones, others carved into different patterns, the feel of the Bakelite soft and smooth. Being the best-dressed graduate student on campus, I admired all of them and coveted them. Now if you don’t know much about Bakelite bangles they are expensive, running from 40 to 100 bucks. Basically, he had hundreds of dollars of vintage jewelry strewn across his home. I so wanted to steal one of them. I wanted it to be a big ole fuck you and your comments about how I drink water out of a bottle. Fuck you for making me feel stupid and reducing me to my sex. Fuck you for taking away my belief in my belonging and for beating up the little confidence I had in your class. But I didn’t. I didn’t steal any Bakelite bangles.

Since then I am pretty awful at presenting at conferences and I don’t drink water out of a water bottle. I still haven’t learned how to save the foreign children. Maybe that’s next, but I doubt it.

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