Not Much Has Changed

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I was reading Breeze Harper’s piece on racist and misogynist trolling of her website Sistah Vegan a few days ago and thinking how little has changed for black intellectuals in North America. Breeze mentions how she has advanced degrees from prestigious universities, honors, and awards that should make her word hold some weight. However, as a post-colonial reading of Merleau-Ponty quickly points out the imagined black Other supersedes that of any disconfirming information. So we are always ignorant until proven smart. Always race baiting haters until we allow racism to run rampant on our sites or bow down to the know it all white expert who is likely reading an uncited bastardization of our own text back to us incorrectly. And so on.

What struck me most reading Breeze’s article was not just the long list of educational credentials that amount to nothing in the face of whiteness, but also the fact that she has been harassed by so-called Buddhists for daring to participate in decolonizing wellness practices. Not only does this seem decidedly anti-Buddhist, but it touches very close to home. You see, I have a white male Buddhist in my life, through no fault of my own, who is consistently harassing me about my intersectional politics and my desire for equal treatment at the university. He denies that there is any sign of discrimination in the classrooms he oversees and yet there are multiple complaints about racism, sexism, and homophobia overheard in the halls, claimed to be written on the evals, and most importantly several students and one faculty member have threatened to sue over oppressive behavior or pedagogical choices. He calls me unstable when I advocate for myself or others, and has literally told people to stay away from me if they want to succeed in our profession. Once, he even maligned my family and allegedly physically threatened a gay male colleague. But when anyone who he cannot menace asks him about the rumors about his behavior, he laughs and falls back on his Buddhism as proof that he would never harass students and faculty of color, queer students and faculty, women, or differently-abled people. He talks about his spirituality and its call for authenticity that he takes seriously and even publishes about. When backed into a corner, he even beats his chest and talks about his own experiences of being bullied in school and all the poor black families he worked with when he was young.  He, like the Buddhist in Breeze’s post, is accessing whiteness through the lens of “good person”, i.e. the idea that because he practices benevolent spirituality he has already conquered oppression not only in his own mind but in any arena in which he enters or controls. As such, he has the right to silence and deny evidence of oppression and the need to heal from it coming from the people most likely to know what it looks like: the oppressed. Unlike the spectres in Breeze’s article however, he is not a pimple faced kid hiding at an internet cafe or in the back room of the Women’s Studies class he hopes will get him dates all the while resenting nothing else was open in this time slot. He is a tenured department chair. A real live, living breathing man, with the power to shape minds and marginalize and oppress those he does not see as fit to complain.

This is why I started with the image above. You see, it was not too long ago that schools were segregated and people had to fight to get access to good educations. It was not too long ago that students had to walk out to see themselves reflected in the curriculum. And in fact, despite these huge gains often met with unspeakable emotional and physical violence from the “good people” brigade, the reality is that very little has changed. Key historical figures in the history of social justice in this country are slowly being removed from history books. Important people of color, queer people, and women are being slowly erased and their contributions being usurped by the assumption that the men in the books did it first. Differently-abled and trans folks have very seldom if ever seen themselves in the textbooks and when they do, it is often with their identities completely washed away. The demographics of schools are also showing a rise in re-segregation and the middle and high school level which leads to even more “Real World encounters” at the university level. Just last year I had a student tell me that she had never had to be in a class with a black person before meeting me and another tell me that she lived in a neighborhood where the police would escort me out if I ever visited. But the Chair swears this is a safe place for students of color to learn and faculty of color to teach, all though there are no faculty of color to speak of in his department if you do not count us fellow cross-listing faculty, none.

So, what does it all mean? Ultimately, while Breeze’s piece resonated with me on so many levels from shared experience in and outside of the blogosphere to the myths I internalized about education and meritocracy without even realizing it, I have to disagree with the premise. I do not believe that trolls are the stuff of the internet. I work with trolls every day and in this climate they are empowered to troll me with the goal of making me break without any consequences. Like the girl pictured above, I sit in classrooms with students who literally point and say snide things about the way I smell, how I do my hair, the things I find important and meaningful, etc. and when I discuss it with other faculty, I often see folks who are lead by the likes of Dr. Crackhead or worse Mr. Buddhist-light, whose capacity for emotional sadism rivals any white supremacist in the history books or outside of it. (Material added 4/27/13) To be clear, the N word, “black bitch”, and the like have all been said to my face or the face of my colleagues at one time or another in our careers; one can only wonder what these “colleagues” and instructors call us behind closed doors or with the not-so-invisible veil of the internet. (End of added material)

Something has gone horribly wrong with us as a nation when we have already fought the battle of equal education and seen its toll, only to let it slip through our fingers. Something has gone horribly wrong with us as a people when we have looked on lynching images and read about how group think works, and we let our classrooms slip back into seethingly invalidating environments egged on by the person in the front of the room or their boss. I write this, with no answers, as one person trying to change it, speaking to all of you readers who I hope are doing the same. Let’s join our thoughts and our voices and our strength because otherwise it will be too late.

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10 thoughts on “Not Much Has Changed

  1. Thanks for taking time to read and reflect on my blog post. I really appreciate it.

    As I read about your own experiences, it disappoints but does not surprise me.

    I did want to clarify that I do not think that trolls are only in cyberspace. I know they exist everywhere and have dealt with many, including the white male professor type you speak of. I was just saying that cyberspace trolling means I can be called “racist cunt” or an “asshole with a chip on her shoulder” by a ‘hidden’ avatar, but would never be called that in a professional space. I know more ‘covert’ violence language would be used that is played off as ‘I’m not being racist, sexist, white supremacist, etc, you’re just being sensitive and emotional and obsessed with identity politics.’

    Thank you for your time.

  2. Hey Breeze

    I actually did get your point, I think perhaps my conclusion was less clear. What I was trying to say was that in fact the terms that you are being called online may be easier from the comfort of one’s home or favorite cafe, but that these same or similar comments do get said to my face and the face of other black women on campus. I have been called the N word without any consequence, another faculty person was hung in effigy without any follow up or press, and “racist cunt” and “black bitch” or words that have dotted more than one hallway. To me the problem is the overarching culture of white supremacy combined with a digital age in which people have been empowered to say whatever oppressive thing pops into their heads without a second thought, so that when they are moving through the real world they become less and less likely to filter there either. 10 years ago, no one would ever have said the things I have heard to a person of color or queer person’s face regardless of the power they had now they do without apology and there are very few avenues for holding them accountable. So, I think the supposed anonymity of the internet means it happens more often from more people than in the real world but not that the quality of face-to-face hatred is any less in the real world at this time for many of us. I think we need to think more about the way our real and digital worlds collide, overlap, and amplify because I do not think these behaviors are distinct.

    • Thanks. Because I have never been a professor in the academy, I have not encountered such disgusting behavior. I am admittedly ignorant to think that sick violent language would not be used in the professional academic workplace, but you have proven me wrong.

      I do wonder now, where I can find a ‘safer’ place to work. Seems like a professor in academia is just out of the question for me, here in the usa, for the most part….

      Thanks so much for the wisdom and dialogue.

      • My short answer: I think academia is no more safe than anywhere else in the world because it is part of the world. I think we have to start creating “safer” spaces in ourselves and in our lives to combat the unsafe spaces in which we often have to work; by so doing, we change the possibilities of where we can and do work by creating new structures rather than depending on the old ones.

        My longer answer: University culture changes according to the region of the country, focus of the department or program in which you teach, your status within that program or department (not just your rank – which matters – but also your social capital), and the emphasis of the university on accountability. I think a lot of people think that SLACs are better than R1s are better than non-tiered, etc. but the reality is that you can teach at a community college where most of the folks are people of color who have lived real lives and have a strong community or you can teach at a tiny, high ranking SLAC, and have a core group of folks who make up your community. I was more alone at my minority serving state school – where I was the only poc on the hall and in the wing of my building – than I was at a SLAC in one of the whitest cities in the nation because all the qtpoc professors stuck together and there were people pulling for our success. Where I am now, there is absolutely no accountability I have seen for saying misogynist, racist, or homophobic comments. I have seen students made to cry by unaware/unintentional homophobia or ablism and faculty break down because of concentrated racist misogynist targeting. Complaints go nowhere. So the people who do it on purpose feel untouchable and they set the tone for the people who would change if they weren’t being told that they actually didn’t do anything wrong. By the same token, at a previous institution I was told that a student has the right to use the N word to describe me and other people of color but that I do not have the right to ask her to participate in class according to the state code of conduct for the class, the department, and the university. Basically, oppression exists everywhere and you get 3 days of interview time to suss out what oppressions and at what level you will likely have to endure them. Use those days wisely and you should be able to find a good fit. (An example: during one interview, a white faculty member took me over to Black Studies to “meet other black professors”, they had not bothered to tell Black Studies I was coming, so the entire department was in an all staff training, the white professor was originally just going to leave me sitting in a hallway for the 1.5 hours in the schedule with the statement “I am sure they will be back” but when she saw the Chair of the Department – a black man- she accosted him and demanded he entertain me for the scheduled time despite the all staff and the lack of scheduling. Then she stomped off in the midst of his protest. He looked at me, saw the look on my face, and said “If you want to work here, in that department, you do not want to make her angry. Just smile in her face and know she is a racist in your heart or you won’t get tenured.” I said back “That won’t be a problem.” I got on my plane the next day and never looked back, despite all the brilliant minds teaching at the school and the student projects that floored me.) Keep your eyes open, listen to your heart and gut, and have a plan to pay your bills that lets you walk away, and you should be able to find somewhere kind of safe/safer.

  3. You know it’s bad when: you post an honest, raw paragraph about your own experience with racist academic hiring practices on a blog critical of academia–and it doesn’t get published.

    In short, I wrote that EEOC statements are merely a nice set of words that remain inoperative. Look at humanities/social science faculties across the board. Are they diverse? No. Is it because there are no superb candidates of color? No. It’s because faculties in the humanities/social sciences have internalized racism but they are masters at deluding themselves–through a thicket of theory–that they are inclusive, bright, liberal. Yet, time and again, it’s the wispy blonde who speaks the “subaltern discourse” (my, because we ARE enlightened!) who gets the second round of interviews/campus visit/job over the large woman of color with the same credentials. And, the smoke and mirrors is always the discussion about the impact of “diverse faculties” as if it was actually happening. Once lilly-white, always lilly-white. Oh yes, the token non-white will be there but is buried by whiteness of the faculty majorities. Having faculty of color makes white colleagues have to face their own discomfort and privilege. And who would want that, right?

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