janko-ferlic-sfL_QOnmy00-unsplash.jpg

"In the Back of My Mom's Classrooms":

A Conversation with Durba Mitra

BY NIKHIL DHARMARAJ

Durba Mitra is an Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality and Carol K. Pforzheimer Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University.

Nikhil Dharmaraj  

I'd love to start by asking you about how you grew up and your childhood.

 

Durba Mitra  

I mostly grew up in Fargo, North Dakota. I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, where my mom had moved to do a master's degree. And then we eventually moved to Fargo, because she got a job as a professor there and also got into a PhD program at North Dakota State University. We ended up in this crazy, cold Midwestern place that didn't have that much of a South Asian diaspora at all. 

 

We used to drive to Devon Avenue in Chicago once a year in a van, essentially to get our daal and masala because there was no Indian grocery store. My mom was super inventive. My mother is an amazing person — she did a PhD and worked full time and was a single parent of two kids. In addition to that, she loved cooking Bengali food. But that required some innovation because you couldn't get the ingredients that one usually would use. I remember her making Indian sweets, like gulab jamun and rasgulla, and innovating with evaporated milk and cream cheese and other things that she substituted because she did not have the original ingredients … 

Nikhil Dharmaraj  

That's so cool. You touched on this a little bit, but could you speak more to how your family background informed this career choice?

 

Durba Mitra  

When I look back on it, I realize I grew up in the back of my mom's college classrooms. She would just put me in the back of a classroom, with a book. The thing that really influenced me in terms of my career trajectory was the fact that I grew up with a single mom, and she worked full-time, and she worked really hard — we grew up pretty poor. I also watched her as a divorced woman navigating the social norms and judgements of the South Asian diaspora. In the early 1980s, for a woman born into a Hindu family, people had pretty conservative understandings of what her appropriate social position should be. My mom navigated those normative understandings in such elegant and graceful ways.

 

Nikhil Dharmaraj  

Would you say that there were any texts, works, or experiences along the way that made you realize that this is definitely your calling?

 

Durba Mitra  

As an undergrad, I was inspired by texts on critical theory, including the work of Gayatri Spivak, Frantz Fanon, Mohandas Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, Chandra Mohanty, Toni Morrison, bell hooks — these critical thinkers helped me think about the relationship between knowledge and systems of exclusion, colonialism, and enslavement. That is the amazing work of critical theory. You read these texts, and you know that you've had a discomfort about dynamics of race, immigration, and gendered power your whole life, but you didn't know how to diagnose it. And then you read someone that activates this part of your brain that you always had, a part of you that was critically observing, translating, and critiquing social dynamics, and then you find in these ideas a way of thinking about the world in critical ways, you know what I mean? There were also these amazing feminist scholars of South Asia — people like Tanika Sarkar, Uma Chakravarti, Sharmila Rege, who helped me understand that patriarchy was not timeless, but a deliberate social and political project that was enacted by people in power.  

 

Nikhil Dharmaraj  

Yeah, for sure. What would you say has been your proudest professional moment?

 

Durba Mitra  

In my book, I say that it was a relief when my mother held my book in her hands for the first time. I talk about my mom in my acknowledgments, how she worked really hard and how she was really a model for me. And not only a model, but a person whose life has helped me think intellectually about a set of problems around issues of women and gendered power. In January, when my book came out, I took a picture of my mom holding my book. That was a really big moment for me. 

 

Nikhil Dharmaraj  

Would you say that there have been tensions between certain South Asian cultural norms and some of the more radical principles that you've been studying and working with? 

 

Durba Mitra  

Oh, definitely. In my first year, I did an event with a set of South Asian American students. I was joking about how if you want to be a good feminist, the next time you go to some Desi function, instead of having the kids eat first, the men eat second, and the women eat last, what would happen if the women ate first? Our normative structures create all sorts of problems for people who are non-normative, whether you're gay, or queer, or a woman who doesn't want to get married or be reproductive. All of those things are out of sync with social norms. I myself don’t fit into normative visions of what a good woman should be and how a woman should act.

 

And then, of course, the other thing that happens in South Asian diaspora communities is what feminist scholars in South Asia have described as “conspiracy of silence,” the enforcement of gendered and sexual norms. For example, if domestic violence is happening in a household,  people don’t always come together as a community to help address it. We sit in silence, knowing that people are suffering, and those people who suffer abuse sit in silence, afraid of social judgment.

 

Nikhil Dharmaraj  

Yeah, definitely. Within the academy itself, what were the unique obstacles you faced as a woman of color who is generally studying non-normative things?

 

Durba Mitra  

I think there are lots of challenges to being a woman of color in the academy. There is a way in which women, and particularly women of color, are seen as not quite as intellectually capable as men. And that becomes more and more exaggerated as one gets further and further along in one’s education. …  In academia, there are lots of studies that show bias by gender and race in student evaluations. In student evaluations, a student is less likely to use laudatory language about intellect and command of knowledge on a Q score for a woman’s course, especially for a professor who is a woman of color, than they would for a more traditional-looking faculty member.  

 

Nikhil Dharmaraj  

Along those lines, at your most difficult professional moments, what do you find yourself going to and going back to for re-inspiration and comfort?

 

Durba Mitra  

Music. I'm a big viewer of old-school, classic Bollywood songs. Music is really important to me. I teach a GenEd class called Global Feminisms, and every Monday is Music Video Monday, where we watch a music video and we analyze it in relation to the themes of the week.  Sometimes intellectual life can become really disassociated from the experience of everyday life and the many sensorial forms that shape our social experiences, like music and dance. Music is about sound, it's about feeling, it's about all these other things that are not just reading and writing. 

 

Nikhil Dharmaraj  

How do you think the academy could begin to address some of the systemic inequalities we've talked about? I've heard a lot about the phrase "decolonizing the academy" — I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.

 

Durba Mitra  

People talk about decolonizing the academy, especially with regard to curriculum. Sometimes it’s related to the question of what is considered canonical in terms of the texts we teach. When you take a major sequence of classic Western civilizations, what are the texts you are supposed to read? What kinds of histories are you supposed to learn, and how do these texts reflect the values of a society? For me, it means diversifying the types of things that are taught but also thinking critically about how the canon came to be constituted as a canon in the first place. What is the place of the colonial world in the making of European social theory? How are normative values of gender and sexual difference embedded in theories of democracy and social progress written primarily by men? 

 

The people I teach in the Global Feminisms class are asking the same kinds of questions but often from feminist perspectives, or from perspectives of women in the colonized world or the post-colonial world who were questioning their exclusion from the social and political worlds of men. You may have read major philosophy even in high school, like Kant or Hegel. In my course, I ask you: How might we re-evaluate these ideas in light of the political and philosophical interventions of women? What are the politics of history for a colonized Indian woman writing in the moment of decolonization? What does liberty look like for a Chinese woman in 1910? How can we think about what fraternity is, and how was the concept of fraternity exclusionary when we look at the writing of women’s rights activists from the late 19th century? 

 

Nikhil Dharmaraj  

Yeah, for sure. My final question is what advice would you give to South Asian students, specifically women, looking to enter academia?

 

Durba Mitra

I would say that you have to be resilient. Academic life is about critique. As a woman of color, you will be subject to more critique than a traditional scholar would be. Not just women of color — queer people, queer people of color, all people of color going into academia, because we're pretty marginal in the scheme of academia. I think you just have to be super tough.

 

At the same time, you have to know when to ask for help. The best version of academia is the one where we create sustained networks of feminist scholars who share in their social and political commitments. I have an amazing support system of women scholars and senior colleagues in WGS at Harvard to whom I can say, "This thing happened to me," or "I'm writing this thing but I don't know how to solve this intellectual problem," and they are there to think with me about these urgent intellectual questions. I build on their wealth of knowledge about intellectual life. 

 

The last thing I would say is that you need balance. Young people of color give themselves into organizations, extracurriculars, and classes. At some point, it's to the detriment of your own health. You have to remember, you can't sustain it at the same intense rate at all times. Intellectual life requires some forward thinking and grounding in a burning intellectual question that drives you.

 

Nikhil Dharmaraj  

For sure, that's a big one. Those were all the questions I had. Thank you!

 

 

This conversation was had on Weds. May 6, 2020 over Zoom. It was transcribed with the help of the service otter.ai.

Nikhil Dharmaraj is a member of the Class of 2023 at Harvard College.

Graphic: Janko Ferlič / Unsplash

EXPLORE
CONNECT WITH US

Copyright © 2020 by SAAPS. All Rights Reserved. 

Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Princeton logos are trademarks of the respective institutions

  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Twitter