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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On Humiliation

Jan Coztás/2006

An interesting multi-blog conversation is unfolding in the academic blogosphere about the role of humiliation in academic relationships. While the conversation is quite complex overall, I find myself fixated on a single supposition: academics seek out humiliation. From my limited vantage point in the conversation, I have not read the book they are discussing nor been an active participant in the conversation, it seems the idea is based on a discussion about a “fictitious” academic from a working class background writing about a series of humiliating events in her early career. Part of that writing includes the fear of being outed as a poor girl in a field in which everyone is assumed to be rich and talking class is often the surest way to get shoved to the margins.

Long time readers, no doubt, can see why I might fixate on such a point. Perhaps it is because I am a poor girl who was given endless “tea cup tests” (does your pinky stick out or not) at my first appointment at Snooty Poo U. Perhaps it is because I chose to work at an extremely poor university that serves even poorer students and spend a ridiculous amount of my career saying to those who assume we are all elite surrounded by over-privileged students that not only is their reality not mine but there is nothing wrong with me, my scholarship, or my cognition because I chose to leave New England. Or Perhaps, it is just because I read, research, and work with and for people who have all at some point suffered serious humiliation at the hands of elitests who shrug off their cruelty like a stray cat hair on their sweater. I don’t think any of us seek out humiliation and if some do,  in this context, I would argue that it is about internalized shame taught to us outsiders to keep us from ever reaching for things we are allowed to dream about but never call our own.

More than that, I wonder about those who delight in shame. Is the delight in recognizing behaviors you have once engaged in but now have the privilege to forget the desperation that motivated them? By which I mean, when one seeks out counsel from Super Star X as a junior scholar, isn’t the motivation primarily to learn what Super Star X knows? Or if you are more self-interested, then perhaps the goal is to be taken under Super Star X’s wing so as to sail through tenure (which seldom happens by the way)? And in that instance does the humiliation stem from the system that marks out Super Star X as untouchable and therefore able to publicly humiliate others or even destroy their careers? Are you really a self-hating fool for talking to Super Star X if this is the only system in which you can engage him and he you?

Let me put it another way. Hegemony is based on naturalizing inequality to the point where we no longer recognize it and/or engage in it without the intent to do so. As students and junior scholars your success in academe is often based on networking with Senior scholars who have the power to radically impact your funding, advancement, tenure, and overall career. As you pass through each stage of academe the power they have over you diminishes. However, in order to pass through those stages you will likely have to swallow your pride, dilute your morals, and except things that in any other field of work you would be empowered to change. Those little compromises make you more and more immune to the vast array of inequalities and oppressions that fester in the academic world. This happens to everyone regardless of identity but is exacerbated by membership in a marginalized group and multiplied outward by the number of groups to which one belongs. This is something that we all know, that is written about in anthologies, and the subject of endless panels, and yet it is something that most would deny when reading it so starkly written out on a page as I have done here.

When you cross the line from un-ternured to tenured, the game changes immensely in some ways and not nearly as much in others. However, tenure provides a certain kind of safety that when coupled with years of minimizing and intentionally forgetting, ultimately translates to forgetting what it is like to dependent on good evaluations, Senior scholars liking you or at least not being annoyed with you because you wore purple on a Tuesday, and people perceiving of you as smart but not a threat to any of the status quo ideas that predate you. People forget what it is like to be the girl in the corner with one wool sweater, sleeves rolled up to hide the hole, in a room of girls with closets full of cashmere (to reference Pat Hill Collins essay on class antagonism in academe).

And while I am making critical feminist references to class analysis and academe why not trot out some tried and true readings on the subject; each of the books below contain essays on the subject:

  1. Alsion Trash
  2. Anzaldúa & Moraga This Bridge Called My Back
  3. Collins Fighting Words
  4. Kadi Thinking Class
  5. Langhout et. al “Assessing Classism in Academic Settings”
  6. “Classless and Clueless at NWSA” (haven’t read this but have had it on my to read shelf for a while)

So I put it to you dear readers, those of you who are working class academics or simply people whose identities have been the source of others attempting to humiliate you in the workplace:

  1. do you seek out humiliation?
  2. If so, why?
  3. what do you think the purpose of humiliation really is regardless of your own relationship to it?

As I always, it would be great to discuss it here for the people who don’t use twitter, but if you want to talk real time you know I’ll always answer your tweets.

Sabotage

It was just brought to my attention that a jealous colleague sabotaged a huge grant my colleagues and I have been working on for almost a year. I am particularly upset about it because this person is someone I have gone out of my way to include and encourage for over 10 years while others have walked away. There have been many times in public spaces when particularly egregious accusations have been made by woc and I myself have experienced some of their complaints first hand but luckily only once outside of the blogosphere. In my mind, while there have been many reasons to isolate this person when writing or doing innovative research, I have always worked to make room for scholars of color and to encourage them to decolonize their minds and their praxis & I was not going to stop in her case just b/c the writing seemed to be on the wall more often than not.

Many people start from places that in one way or another are destructive because of poor coping skills learned in marginalization or the general horrid competitiveness that structures much of academe. It can take a long time to unlearn that, especially if you work in a destructive department, institution, or community. There are very few consequences for Senior scholars who behave badly (including engaging in identity based oppression) toward junior scholars and many of them survive by passing it on.

The irony of this particular event is that in some ways the grant we were working on was about trying to shift milieus and extend supportive spaces …

So I am thinking about what it means when someone destroys so much good work out of fear, anger, and jealousy. I am trying to keep my mind from cycling over rumors that have popped periodically around this person time and time again throughout the years and wondering how many things were in fact true. Most of all, I am trying to find the productive lesson in the ruins and the grace to find the 70 x 7.

Until then, I’m practicing the following:

Breath

Let Love in

Create

Oh and steering clear of the blog lest I start naming names and spelling out tenure revoking behavior and yes, dear reader this pattern includes things that bad.