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

February 29, 2008, 12:56 pm

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 wou
ld 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.

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