It happens so frequently, to me, to my friends and colleagues, and in professional settings no less. In asking about your work, they say, “Mrs. Biolock, can you explain your findings?” You find yourself wondering if it is necessary to correct them, to ask them to refer to you by your professional title: “Dr.” When deciding whether to halt the conversation, to introduce that awkward moment of correction, we are actually considering whether (as my mother would say) we are willing to ruin the party. Is your name, your title worthy of the tricky pause, the halted speech, and the stilted correction?
Whether someone refers to you as “Dr.” or “Mrs.” or “Ms.”, and whether or not you correct them is in some small part about the politics of respectability. Not the typical respectability politics (à la Don Lemon ) that continues to haunt the Black community, but the kind of respectability politics that forces you to acknowledge that titles matter. They shape how people speak to you, whether they respect your opinions, whether they validate your work, how your work gets covered in broader science communications pieces.
In my discipline, there has been much talk for the at least the past 40 years of abandoning the well-worn practices that reinforce institutional hierarchies. For some scholars, this has meant aligning oneself with leftist politics, engaging in extensive community outreach, or even simply dressing casually and encouraging students to call you by your first name with no signifier. However all of this positioning occurs while folks remain fully entrenched in the privileges bestowed upon them by the doctorate, seniority, and ethnic and/or socioeconomic backgrounds.
For women and people of color working in the academy, decisions around titles are constantly being weighed by several factors including the age of the professor, institutional cultures, students’ backgrounds, and gender dynamics. As a person of color and junior faculty member, I do not allow my students to call me by my first name. However, I know of several white woman of similar rank who encourage students to call them by their first name in the classroom.
In my experiences, I have never needed to encourage students to be less formal with me. I remember standing in front of the classroom a few years ago, writing my name on the board, when I overheard a student ask “do you know who the professor is?” I gently turned and said, “That is me” to surprised faces and raised eyebrows. While most students are at least outwardly comfortable with me as their professor (and some students are openly excited at the prospect of having a young female professor of color), many students are unsure of how to manage me in the classroom. Should they trust me? Is this a valid educational experience? I have had to explain my credentials so often that I only recently stopped beginning each semester with a not-so-subtle run down of my professional qualifications.
Although I only completed my doctorate six years ago, I am already exhausted by the constant need to validate my worth in the professional settings. As evidenced by recent discussions at predominately white campuses throughout the country (including at one of my alma maters), this conversation about worthiness and deservedness begins for many people of color as undergraduates. So perhaps six years is not correct, maybe 17 years is more accurate. I have been asking people to call me by my right name for at least 17 years. An accumulation of racial and gender microaggressions has left me weary of informal titles in professional settings. In a few experiments, informality has never ended well. When I have had to rebuff requests for extensions and grade changes, it has ended in anger – because I was their friend after all; we spoke to each other so casually.
Additionally, the discussion of whether to correct someone if they refer to you as “Mrs.” is a question of identity politics. I am also married, and for professional reasons and personal politics (similarly discussed in a recent interview by famed author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), I did not take my husband’s last name. Thus, I am not Mrs. anyone. I am Dame, Dame B. Biolock or Dr. Dame B. Biolock, depending on who is asking. Mrs. Biolock does not live here.
Although I know that titles matter, respectability politics eventually fail at every turn. My professional identity will never supersede the fact that I am a woman of color (nor would I want it to). I am always living at the intersection of several identities. So let’s start with “Dr.”, and go from there.