Friday, February 29, 2008

Being "Diverse" in the Middle Ground: Thoughts on Racisms, Sexisms and the Many Phobias

Gayprof, who is a continual inspiration to my desire to write and think better, recently put up this post on being a "minority" in a humanities department. In "Enough Minorities? Minority Enough? (Part I)" he responds to Oso Raro's thoughts in his this recent post at Slaves of Academe (which, if you have never visited it, is also one of the most beautifully written blogs I know.) In addition, Gayprof is following on a previous post of his own about so-called diversity hiring, and presumably since "Enough Minorities? Minority Enough?" is labeled "Part I" there will be at least one more follow up. I'm looking forward to it. And for those who want to read a really great piece on similar questions, turn to my colleague Indira Karamcheti's classic article,"Caliban in the Classroom." Originally published in Radical Teacher, it is anthologized in Pedagogy: The Question of Impersonation, Ed. Jane Gallop (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.)

Indeed, this was a good week for White Lesbian Semi-Tranny Me to read these provocative posts about the perils of embodying one's "culture" for others. Each post articulates the burdens of those who constitute the "difference" offered (marketed?) by a twenty-first century university as dilemmas that need to be at the center of the discussion. But also, to cut to the chase, I was, this week, for the umpteenth time in my career, accused of being a racist. Mostly deployed as an implicit rather than an explicit attack, it always raises questions for me about how those of us who embody "otherness" can also become entangled and implicated in the system that creates "others." I raise this because, while I don't think I never screw up, the real racists who walk my little part of the planet virtually never get told so to their faces, although they have plenty to say to me about my apparent inability to see the world with their scientifically objective eyes.

Familiar as being called a racist is (for reasons that will become clear below), it always leaves me speeechless, which is probably a good thing, because being caught in a shouting match with someone who is makig accusations of any kind is not something you come out of with your hands clean. It does not hurt as much as it used to -- or as much as it is intended to. And before I proceed, I would like to add that I am not claiming victim status from these difficult moments. Although it does not cancel out real errors I have made or have been perceived to have made, I have also been privileged with colleagues, students, friends and relatives of color who have gone out of their way to recognize my record as a comrade, and this matters too.

In my seventeen years of teaching, I have not only been accused of racism, explicitly and implicitly, I have been called names that identify me with historic figures in the history of white oppression. And racism isn't the half of it. In other heated encounters, I have also been accused of being a homophobe, a transphobe and anti-male (another version of this is "anti-whitemale.") I have been called what we might call a "heterophobe": in other words, students writing in anonymous teaching evaluations that I like queer students best; that I don't like them because they are straight (who knew? you looked so gay!); or, in a nasty dig at the fact that I am an out lesbian, some version of "although I did not feel listened to, Professor Radical loves the ladies in the room."

That's me, cruising my own office hours for innocent young things to use and throw away like Kleenex.

Two white students once accused me of sexually harassing a woman in our class by winking at her (the student took it as it was meant, as recognition of her achievement of having talked in class for the first time ever, but the Homo-Sexism Patrol had not been informed in advance.) A student once accused me of racism for bringing a plagiarism case in relation to a paper that was, in fact, copied from several books that s/he had helpfully returned to the library. Several male students have said up front prior to beginning classes with me that they don't expect to do well in a class where "white males aren't welcome." This is presumably because the class is taught by me, who does a good imitation of a white male but isn't one -- although many white males I have taught have not only succeeded in my class, but gone on to get Ph.D.'s, prestigious law degrees, and whatnot. A parent once accused me of racism because hir child was failing a tutorial, having not turned in any work all year, because, as s/he pointed out, I would "not have allowed that to happen to a white student." When I replied that a student not turning in work is not something you "allow," and that I had repeatedly asked the student to drop the honors project because s/he so clearly did not want to do it, the parent lectured me that no white student "would have ever been asked to drop an honors project."

Just to complicate things for you, like Gayprof, I get a lot of crap from faculty too, which I won't go into at length because students come and students go, but tenure is 4-Evah and there are any number of colleagues who could and would read themselves into stories that aren't even about them. OK, since you beg, just one. There was the individual, years back, who told me that there was concern about me having been appointed as chair of a search committee because I was widely perceived as being "prejudiced against white people." In the course of this conversation a racial epithet was used which I think was intended to give me an opportunity to disidentify with faculty of color and demonstrate that I was really on the (white) team. Instead I went home and cried and didn't tell anyone about it for several years. Here's a lesson for you: you tell people shit like this and they mostly don't believe you. But that is just a taste of what I have had to put up with over time because of my work on behalf of the scholarly projects on race that I have worked on at Zenith. How many searches have you participated in where all the finalists were white? Nearly all of them, did you say?

Now, this narrative compresses a very few incidents (but certainly not all) in a university life that has lasted almost twenty years: the two previous paragraphs read as though I am continually under attack, and that is not the case. Most of my life is lived as other people live their lives, and things get difficult when I have to deal with structures of power to which, regardless of my whiteness and class background, I will always be an outsider because of my politics. And I don't think the burden I labor under comes anywhere near that of my colleagues of color, who are too few, too beleaguered, and the object of too much projection and expectation from all sides. But I would like to say that I think I do catch more flak than most white people, and I do not actually think these things would happen if I were not so fully engaged with race, gender and sexuality in my teaching, scholarship and institutional work.

Here is where I am often left. I have my allies, it is true, and they are good ones, and we accomplish good things together despite having to do so on the margins of what constitutes power and influence in a university. But it is rare, as a white person, that one is fully trusted by a critical mass of faculty of color among one's own colleagues. That is simply a fact, although there are transient moments that give you an idea of what it would be like to have access to a more permanent sense of inclusion. Simultaneously, if, despite this problem, (which is a structural one, not a question of so-called "reverse discrimination" as the conservative critics would have it) should you manage to maintain fragile, but successful friendships and alliances over time with faculty of color, and should you invest seriously in race as an epistemelogical field, there is a surprisingly large group of white colleagues who make it clear, in word and deed, that you are not worthy of their trust.

Being labeled more or less a race traitor is simultaneously painful and liberating. It is painful because being misunderstood sucks, and because all of us who are women, queer, of color have -- consciously or not -- spent our entire careers trying to overcome the social barriers to our success by doing anything we can to be perceived as the intellectual equal of anyone in the room. This often means, by the way, being more or less a habitual overachiever, knowing all the conventional knowledge as well as your own undervalued field, which queer people, women and scholars of color who work on so-called "minority issues" have to do to get into the room in the first place. But it is also simply the case that you will not be acknowledged as an intellectual equal unless you conform, more or less, to dominant prejudices about what constitutes knowledge; or if you don't or can't conform, you must implicitly agree to leave those prejudices undisturbed and consign yourself to a status of permanently marginal critique.

Which is why becoming a race traitor, as opposed to being called a racist, can be liberating: it opens the door to saying and doing radical things. And at least if you are taking shit for it, you are taking it from the right people. But frankly, I think we are at a place in the history of the university life -- a place where, for example at Zenith, instead of affirmative action, we have a document that gives us helpful hints on how to "Avoid Discrimination" -- that this needs to be addressed far more openly by those of us who were there yesterday, and will be there tomorrow, to do the radical work of what has come to be called diversity.


GayProf said...

Here's a lesson for you: you tell people shit like this and they mostly don't believe you.

So true. Even more, some folks could even be in the same room, hear the same thing, and then dismiss/make excuses for what they heard. My favorite was "it was just an isolated incident, there is no evidence of any coherent hostility within the department." Except, if you string together all those "isolated incidents," they tend to make a pattern.

Debrah said...

This guy has a new book and his website is quite intriguing.

Any topic can be woven into his "predictably irrational" agenda.

Everything from Obama to Ben and Jerry's.


Belle said...

Isn't the selective hearing amazing? I'm in a depressingly non-diverse academic setting, and am unhappy that our latest search turned up all white candidates. All but one, who was our #1 and had three firm offers before we could even get her to campus. And she was such a star, we'd have hired her right off.

I worry that our non-white students- male and female- lack identifiable models on campus. And like you, cringe and weep when the 'isolated incidents' are dismissed, excused or rendered invisible.

Anonymous said...

I just went to Belle's ID page where she indicates that she resides in "Red Neckville". Is this meant to be insulting to people who work out of doors instead of inside a school room? My point is, tenured radical, people call other people names. I wish that you would worry less and try to enjoy your life more.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear anonymous 2:29,

Critique that essay any way you want -- and talk to Belle about her blog and the implications of the language she uses if you like (although, not in defense of Belle's designation, I would refer you to the many country music songs that do use the phrase "red neck" as a descriptive badge of pride rather than diminishment.) But it is a more or less jerky response to diminish a serious conversation about the difficulties attending so-called "difference" in the academy, or the desire to have such a conversation, by labeling it "worrying." What I have to say might be right, it might be wrong, but it is critical thought, not worrying.


Anonymous said...

Great post, TR, on a difficult subject. Another issue that is connected to the "isolated incident" tactic of dismissing these concerns is that minority faculty--be they women, queer, or people of color, or two or three out of three--are almost always told that the isolation is their problem to fix, and that these "isolated incidents" wouldn't happen if they were just more collegial, or took their colleagues out to lunch more often. So although these faculty members tend to be younger and untenured in most places, they're also the ones who are charged with making themselves seem "less threatening" to their senior, tenured colleagues who have the power to fire them.

It's this inversion of power relations that I find very telling about just how "liberal" academia is. The people in our system who receive the most scrutiny are the people who have the least power, influence, and money. Tenured faculty are still scrutinized regularly, but administrators and presidents, who are the only ones making the major money, have apparently risen above scrutiny.

Tim Lacy said...

TR (& Commenters),

I loved this line: "Homo-Sexism Patrol." Boy o boy.

What your post makes abundantly clear is that "racism" has been applied to so many situations that the term has almost lost its meaning. First, for the "cry of wolf" aspect, but second---and perhaps more importantly---because economic class is all too often wrapped up in the racism accusations.

Class is the one kind of difference in the academy that few want to acknowledge and tackle. Perhaps some have lashed out at you, or questioned your work, because they haven't yet overcome their class issues (i.e. horizon limitations) in order concern themselves with higher order problems like difference/diversity?

- TL

Poor Charlotte said...

So as not to hijack the comments, I'll post further about this on my blog, but I do have experience with students "crying wolf." I was shocked that they were able to cry racist so willingly, and obviously didn't have a true sense of what racism can mean.

They used the word vindictively, and too lightly for my own comfort. They clearly didn't have a sense of how serious a charge it can and should be. It made me sad and angry that they were so disconnected from the power of that word.


Anonymous said...

I don't think that it was a "jerky" response to show personal concern for the angst of a writer of a blog. You wrote that things made you cry and they seemed like sincere tears to me and personal ones. I just thought that it would be good if you would lighten up on yourself a little bit as you seem to desaerve to suffer less personal anguish. Is that jerky?

cantdance said...

okay, so how can those of us not affiliated w/ universities read a copy of Karamcheti's piece? (I am suspicious it may not be online since TR didn't hyper link, and I couldn't find a copy on web search or google scholar.

What I notice, in my circles, is the reverse of what TR describes. Racism is seen so taboo that people are hesitant to call each other on it. I don't think the label "racist" should not be reserved for blatantly and consciously racist actions/people. For example, though I actively work to be non-racist, I'm quite sure that I screw up from time to time and, well, do something racist. BUT I have yet to be called racist to my face. I'd rather be called racist, and feel like shit. In that scenario, I am more likely to learn, and become less racist, than if no one calls me out.

Anway, that is clearly not a problem TR has. It was informative to read a different perspective, and certainly motivation to do more anti-racist work.

anthony grafton said...

Great post, and great comments--esp. historiann on how we putative normals project our own frozen visages onto the putative others.

The AHA Professional Division, at which I finished my term with great regret, will be devoting itself more systematically to this set of issues in the next few years. All the PD can do is call people on their games--but giving the problem a name is better than nothing.

Anonymous said...

To Tim Lacy: I'm curious what your rational is for the suggestion that racial diversity is a "higher order problem," whereas inattention to class differences is a more primary and more horizon-limiting problem that academics face.

Tim Lacy said...

Dear Anonymous 10:31,

I believe---and this my empirical if not-thoroughly-studied opinion---that it requires more learning to understand the subtleties of racism and diversity than class differences. Here's how I see it:

Understanding diversity in a thorough fashion requires emotional and cultural intelligence, as well as knowledge of racial, ethnic, educational, and power differences. But understanding class differences thoroughly requires only the knowledge of educational, power, and economic structures.

By the nature of the term 'diversity,' one must understand a plethora of contributing factors. While I respect what is needed to understand class difference (that's been a big one in my life), it's clear that real and substantial knowledge of diversity is a higher order problem.

- TL

Anonymous said...

So, TL, class is easier to understand than race???

Spoken like someone who's never had to deal with class except when you feel liberal enough to buy a Streetwise paper from the guy on the corner.

When I hear someone say class is easy to understand and that it is the the "horizon-limiting" thing that makes poor white people (supposedly) hate people of color, I think that person needs to re-read their David Roediger, to start. Class is as complex as race, and like race, it's not something one can ever "transcend" or "get over" so that "higher-order" issues can be dealt with.

Think more ... write less, TL.

Anonymous said...

To anonymous 1248
I'm not a professor of history but I read this blog and others associated with it to educate myself in their opinions which often astound me. Yours astounded me for I have long wondered "When did I become White?". MY family was militantly Irish Catholic .My grandfather was a labor union leader (seriously and at great cost to our family) who made me read The Wall Street Journal and the People's Weekly with him to help train my mind.We thought of the Irish as a race defeated by the English and boy did we hate them. When I become "White" I feel deprived of my entire history and culture which comprised lots os struggle but also a rich complexity.
I'm going to read that guys books. Do you have a blog? Thanks

Anonymous said...

[sorry if this gets posted multiple times... i'm having trouble telling if the publish button worked or not.]

Thanks for answering my question, TL. I was anonymous 10:31, but I’ll give a name now since otherwise with several anonymous posters it gets confusing.

Let me see if I understand where you’re coming from. What I get out of your second paragraph is that class is more basic than other kinds of diversity because understanding class differences does not especially require emotional and cultural intelligence.

One can understand class differences thoroughly without having significant emotional or cultural intelligence.

That’s your claim?

Tim Lacy said...

Dear Anon 10:31/2:16,

To clarify, for the other Anons above, I'm not at all lacking in respect for the importance of class differences. Period. I've been subject to many of them over time. It's an extremely important category of analysis. So get off my back, flaming Anon 12:48: flame less and give others whom you don't know the benefit of the doubt.

But, in terms of navigating a middle-ground in academia---the point of TR's original post, diversity (which includes race), is trickier. There are fewer variables in terms of understanding class difference than diversity in general.

Understanding class difference requires a lot of thought, but understanding people in the context of diversity requires ~more~ thought---especially since class is often an amplifier in diversity issues.

This will be my last comment on this subject. I said originally that this was simply an opinion based on my empirical observations, no more no less. To Anon 10:31/2:16, thanks for the attention.

- TL

Debrah said...

These are the first questions an authentic professor should be asking before wallowing inside an amorphous collage of class/race/gender angst.

What, after all, is your mission?

To pick up a paycheck for being sensitive to whipped-up fantasies which do not exist?

I knew things just had to get back to race-hustling. Some miss the lacrosse hoax like a wino misses a bottle of cheap wine.

Debrah said...

And please, you feverish little white people, read this from Elder who is a Brown graduate...cum University of Michigan Law School graduate.....cum attorney......cum author.....cum talk show and radio show host...cum philanthropist.......etc......

Anonymous said...

Anon 1248 here ... I don't have a blog, I just lurk here and there.

I'm not "flaming," TL, just astounded (and a wee bit irritated, I admit) that someone who claims to be an intellectual historian is so ... well, unintellectual.

And how do you know that I DON'T know you???

Tim Lacy said...

To Anon 12:48,

Wikipedia on "flaming" -- "Flaming is the hostile and insulting interaction between Internet users. Flaming usually occurs in the social context of a discussion board, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) or even through e-mail. An Internet user typically generates a flame response [singular] to other posts or users posting on a site, and such a response is usually not constructive, does not clarify a discussion, and does not persuade others."

Your cavils:

(a) "Spoken like someone who's never had to deal with class except when you feel liberal enough to buy a Streetwise paper from the guy on the corner."
(b) "Think more ... write less."

These seem to constitute flaming.

If you want to exchange constructively, I would welcome a non-anonymous e-mail at

Please do write. I'm not an uncivil person. Unfortunately, the comments section of another's weblog is probably not the best place for a deep exchange.

Most sincerely,


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