Thursday, January 16, 2014

Pass (Part II)

Part I is here. Just a heads up: This post quotes from a play that uses the f-word. I've reproduced it intact in the quotation.


Jews as white folk? This is where the terminology becomes problematic because it conflates religion and race, although that’s really a separate matter that deserves its own post. But this terminology also attempts to inextricably conflates race with power, implying that just because I look European-ish I am a part of the power structure. The idea that whiteness is the proxy for power reminds me of the scene in Angels in America when Roy Cohn, the fictional alter ego of the eponymous man who tried the Rosenbergs and pulled the strings at HUAC, explains that he’s not gay even though he sleeps with men because he’s also powerful:

Your problem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words. On labels. "Gay", "homosexual", "lesbian"; you think they tell you who a person sleeps with, but they don't tell you that. Like all labels, they refer to one thing and one thing only: Where does a person so identified fit in the food chain? In the pecking order. Not ideology or sexual taste, but something much simpler — clout. Who owes me favors. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call. To someone who doesn't understand this, homosexual is what I am because I sleep with men, but this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who, in 15 years of trying, can't get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through City Council. They are men who know nobody, and who nobody knows. Now, Henry, does that sound like me?... Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man who fucks around with guys.” (Tony Kushner, Angels in America)

Heterosexual as powerful, white as powerful, those careless substitutions are harmful all around, I think. To describe "bad feminists" with the term "white feminists" racializes social evil even in spite of all the caveats that one can be white and a feminist and not be a "white feminist." It conflates an oppressed class with an eternally, existentially, definitionally powerless one. If white is a proxy for power, then nobody else can ever even aspire to have it. The converse is just as harmful: witness a recent blog post (relevant because tenure and race have become conflated in what Another Damned Medievalist has termed the “winter privilege wars”) in which the author was given the pseudonym “Adjunct Nate” in spite of his not being an adjunct because he “has solidarity.” It ends the conversation before it begins it because nobody who isn’t an adjunct (or an honorary one, as determined by whom?) can possibly be on the “right” side or have anything productive to say. The terminology becomes pernicious destiny.

What’s more, in terms of facilitating a broader conversation in which those “white folks” begin to behave and discuss in more productive ways, then railing rightly against a warped system or structure by making broad claims about white folk is going to put a lot of white folk on the back foot. And sure, an ideal reaction would be for those people to take themselves out of it and not to react by saying, well, I’m not like that! I know this probably puts me in the bad or useless ally category, but I see it simply as realistic. (And frankly, given that the standard-bearer of what constitutes a good ally has herself just been caught out making fun of interracial families, perhaps the absolute authoritativeness of her opinions in such matters and her poetics of discourse ought to be revisited.)

Defensiveness is going to be a suboptimal but natural and not uncommon reaction; and it seems that it would be better all around to have both a more precise discussion and one that allows more people to participate. I know that critical race theory has moved beyond this, that conversations about being a good ally are done and dusted, but I’m not sure they should be. There’s something deeply twisted about ADM feeling that she has to write, in the post linked above: “I don’t want anybody to think I think like that.” I don’t want anybody to think I think like that either; in other words, don’t assume that I’m one thing intellectually or in my approach to the world because I'm in your category of white people.

The idea that being allied or supportive or just a basic not-bad person requires simply taking everything that’s dished out, and that there’s only one correct way to have these conversations, and that white people should be shouted down and should be shut out for even asking questions; to my mind, activism and education go hand in hand. It’s not a question of understanding or approving but simply of being practical and realistic. I’ll put the nail in my own coffin and quote Claire Potter, who has been demonized as an arch-conservative (which, I think, says something more about the academy at large than it does about her): “Allies don’t let allies make excuses; they push for better analysis.”

Anything short of that is a Catch-22 in that it forces people to say, oh, I’m not that kind of white person, I don’t think like that, which is also an unacceptable thing to say:

The Twitterverse is sweeping a spokesman and her movement on its shoulders as its current hero-darling. It’s a popular message that it’s easy for people to get on board with unquestioningly. It makes me want to exercise my prerogative as a medievalist and disconnect from the web. I know exactly what criticisms I’m going to receive for saying what I’ve said here, and I realize it may be stupid for me to post this now, when I don’t have time to play along or argue back because I’m trying to finish a book project. But I think it’s worth being a little critical before adopting and heralding and celebrating a subtly-but-deeply flawed message of justice.*

The twin rhetorical techniques of piling on and shouting down is just a long winded, cathartic way of saying: Get out. (And I know that saying this opens me to charges of “tone policing.” Go ahead. I’ll wait.) But two cases where other academics were trying to think through structural issues this winter are perfect counterpoints that illustrate the problem. Claire Potter, quoted above, is a prominent academic blogger who wrote about the extent to which internet rage is or isn’t a productive response to the sorry state of the academy; and the raging internet didn’t hesitate in proving her point by piling on, heavy-handedly shouting down, ad hominem attacks, and frivolously declaring victory. Karen Kelsky, who blogs job market and professional advice, tried to tie that broader discussion of the horrifying state of the academic hiring to the ongoing discussion on Twitter amongst activists and academics about racism, structural and otherwise. She wrote an exceptionally offensive post in which she completely appropriated and minimized the conversation on race by comparing white people to tenured professors in the way that they take advantage of a system that is rigged in their favor. And oddly, despite how so clearly offensive it was, the web response, at least where I was looking, wasn’t so much unbridled rage but rather explanations about why different people found every aspect of the post problematic; and the blogger listened and apologized in a genuine and unqualified way.  It was obviously really big of her to apologize straight-up with no rhetorical curlicues or contortions. But I suspect that the fact that there hadn’t been a great piling on, that people explained what they found problematic or offensive about her argument, and encouraged her to read specific things to educate herself more, that all of that made it easier to apologize than it might have been from a beaten-down position.

Am I making this about me? Yeah, I am. And that’s because I’m thinking about this from my own perspective as someone who wishes she had done a better job in handling an issue of structural racism that came up in her classroom, as someone who is still trying to work out how to balance her pastoral role against her pedagogical one. I’m thinking through it in the way I know how to think through things — by writing about them, by reading, by talking to other people. I don’t really want to participate in the discourse that I have found, though; but I suspect that’s ideal because I’m smart enough to know that in so many ways I’m not welcome there.

For the most part, this just makes me want to stay farther away from the corner of the Twitterverse I have begun to inhabit; it has stopped being useful and interesting and has become more like distracting, hurtful background noise. There are more examples and problems I’d like to draw in, but this has already gotten quite long, so I’ll stop here with this: I went online, I found a relevant discussion that wasn’t going to be productive. I couldn’t join in and I couldn’t even just plain quietly walk away without being rendered some other kind of caricature:

There was never a way in; but even for a bystander looking in from the outside there is also no way out.


*Edited on 1/21/14 to add: Some of these deep flaws came into sharper focus when this particular activist gave an interview on CNN, didn't like the way it went, and called the African-American journalist interviewing her an "Uncle Tom." 

I'm not saying that society at large isn't racist or rigged in favor of white people — it is. But any individual who calls someone an Uncle Tom (on the eve of writing about whether it's possible for Asian-Americans and African-Americans to be in solidarity with each other) and then chalks it up to not having read enough to realize that it was a racist term and makes the same kind of perfunctory apology, simultaneously overwrought and unbelievable, that she regularly mocks white people for making loses a lot of her authority both to call out individuals for bigotry and to dictate the rhetorical terms of the discourse. 


  1. I think we (using 'we' in a general way) are making a mistake taking Claire Potter and Rebecca Schuman as the voices we have to respond to if we want to be involved in the conversation. They are important voices, and because of their platform, they reach a lot more people than you and me ever will (and one thing I definitely don't want is to be the voice of anything, no thanks). However, they are not the only voices. Probably the most productive thing that I got from reading the Twitter kerkuffle with @readywriting was discovering other people with blogs that have something to add to the issue (Gerry Canavan, Raul Pacheco-Vega, etc). Lee Skallerup also has her own voice. I also like Jonathan Rhees of More or Less Bunk a lot.

    In my opinion, we should avoid turning this into "Team Rebecca"/ "Team Lee" vs. "Team Claire". While the problem is structural, the specific situation varies so much from institution to institution that there is no one solution. What may work at NYU may not work at my Jesuit university. Thus "Refuse to hire adjuncts" as an absolute I s as helpful as "Organize, organize" repeated as a mantra (actually, the former is probably less useful". I "am all for organizing, but it doesn't happen in a vacuum. While I advocate for it as a long term strategy everywhere, I get the feeling that in certain places, you also need to advocate for more specific measures that can improve the situation of contingent faculty in the short term.

    One last thing: I have the feeling that the reason why Karen Kelsky was not piled on has to do with the fact that when she started being criticized, she listened and did not try to make excuses. TR doubled down on the defensiveness (specially in the Chronicle article).

  2. Fair point about not making it into Team Schuman vs. Team Potter, but here, for me at least, that's kind of a tangential issue that got wrapped into another one and uses some of the same discursive techniques. (Sorry for this being such a short reply to such a long and thoughtful comment, too!)