You (yes, you) should really do something about that.
When a Racist Event at an academic conference or on a listserv is subjected to more public scrutiny, it becomes a topic of outsider conversation. Not because it was racist, but because it was made visible beyond the particular group that has come to tolerate – and to abet – that behavior. These events are not new. The recognition of their racism is not new. Nonwhite people have noticed and called out such racist events again and again.
With any Live-Tweeted Racist Event, the real disgrace itself predates the publicity. That disgrace is the harm caused to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) who participate in these organizations. It is disgraceful that such organizations continue to cause this harm.
But this does not bring these institutions to the kind of disgrace that matters to a white majority. The disgrace they feel is when the depths of their racism is exposed beyond the community, because while the white people of these organizations gaslight their colleagues into believing everything is as it should be – either through their endorsement or through their silence – they have also gaslit themselves into believing this is true. They pretend it is true in order to pretend also that they are less racist than other white people and other predominantly white organizations. Even this gaslighting reflects the illogic of racism.
When that harm takes place in public and becomes the topic of conversation beyond the organization’s members, this disgrace is exposed, uncovering also the litany of privately racist events that predated this one, and the effects are cumulative and collective.
Predominantly white academic organizations – like predominantly white academic fields of study – are predominantly white because they have been historically (and disgracefully) unwelcoming to nonwhite people.
This unwelcome takes myriad forms. Whether through the gatekeeping of editorial desk-rejections and racist reader reports, all-white hiring committees, inadequate mentorship, white supremacist methodologies and pedagogies, toxic graduate programs, or the soul-crushing racism of introductory courses, cultural norms have worked together to drain the energy, resources, and will of BIPOC who might otherwise participate in these organizations.
Our intellectual histories are illogically characterized outside of the realm of knowledge-production. We are either inexplicably erased from historical periods of study or reduced to objects of study within them rather than recognized as full participants within and contributors to the world in which we, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, have always lived and participated and contributed.
The vast amount of antiracism work in predominantly white organizations has always been done and continues to be done by BIPOC members. We have (collectively) watched as our academic organizations – this one and that one and yours and mine – have worked to recruit BIPOC scholars only to allow their racist colleagues to alienate us with their bad behavior, the vast, vast majority of which is not live-tweeted. We do not simply watch this in silence but talk amongst ourselves. Your predominantly white academic organizations (and mine) are predominantly white because they have a reputation, among BIPOC, for being unwelcoming, disgraceful.
Despite this, some of us (often to our own emotional and physical detriment) persist in our work. Our predecessors demanded entry into academic institutions, knowing that they and we could contribute productively to them, knowing that our perspectives and contributions are absolutely necessary to any endeavor worthy of the name “higher education.” Some of us have even entered into predominantly white fields and organizations, knowing that our work can add not only breadth, but also depth to these fields of study that have previously lacked the rigor to produce knowledge that can think beyond whiteness.
Some (far too few) white scholars have even worked alongside us in these efforts, themselves rejecting the white supremacist cultures from which they know themselves to still benefit. They sometimes assist in making space not only for better work by white scholars but also for the work they understand white scholars cannot do, from the perspectives they cannot reach. They sometimes even speak out against disgrace, though not often enough to prevent it entirely, and not in the numbers necessary to produce a cultural shift.
This is a game of bad math. BIPOC scholars are minoritized, kept to fewer numbers because – frankly – the cultures of predominantly white organizations are just too racist for more of us to stay. And when we do stay, we stay for one another. If we are successful, that success comes at a price we cannot begin to explain to you. We pour into these organizations a disparate amount of our labor in proportion to our numbers and watch as that labor is ignored and dismantled by our white colleagues. And sometimes we leave, either by force of the weight of one gatekeeping mechanism or another or because this work is inequitable and unsustainable.
When a racist event is live-tweeted, it is generally accompanied by 1) feigned shock that such a thing could occur in “our” organization and 2) an assertion that this was the action of a single or few bad actor or actors and definitely not who “we” are. But BIPOC people have always known that this kind of thing can and does occur, because the occasion of the live-tweet is never the first and seldom the last racist incident. It is exactly what predominantly white organizations have been, are, and will continue to be without radical change.
That change cannot come in the form of a single racially diverse program committee or even in the election of individual BIPOC to positions of power. Even a thoroughly successful, antiracist and racially diverse academic conference program is potentially just one conference cycle away from a new disaster. (Please take some time to consider this proximity to potential disgrace.) Electing BIPOC people to positions of organizational leadership is necessary, but even this is insufficient. In predominantly white organizations, relying on the racial competence of individual officers and program committees to prevent racist disgrace is not enough to shift an entire culture. Moreover, this strategy often contributes to the overburden of labor put onto BIPOC members, only for this hard work to be abandoned and undone as we try to pass more of that labor onto our white colleagues.
Further racist disgrace will only be prevented by a cultural shift. That shift must be structural, methodological, pedagogical, generational. These organizations must be re-envisioned and rebuilt. New methods and organizational structures are necessary because the existing ones have continued (and will continue) to fail us. Organizations will have to think beyond “inclusion” and come to recognize and understand the very real relations of power that have cultural and material effects on our fields. They cannot simply “diversify” themselves only to rely disproportionally on the labor of their BIPOC members. They cannot simply invite more BIPOC colleagues into an unsustainably racist environment.
Predominantly white organizations will have to pay attention and learn to recognize and call out disgrace even when it isn’t live-tweeted. Members will need to work in earnest to prevent this disgrace – preempting the harm your organizations cause BIPOC members – rather than simply responding to it after the fact.
They will have to stop hiding behind the rhetoric of bad actors while also repeatedly inviting those bad actors to the table. They will have to speak up as much as – more so than – those with less institutional and racial power. They will have to sacrifice relationships with those who continue to cause harm. They will have to recognize racism as unrigorous and unsustainable and work to shape their fields accordingly. They will have to learn from the various ethnic studies fields who already do this work and recognize and compensate for the fact that they have more to learn from than to offer to these fields. They will have to listen to and learn from younger generations of scholars and learn to respect work outside of academic institutions – because good, rigorous, and useful work on race has always been done outside of academic institutions because it has so often been thwarted by them, and some thinkers who have important contributions to offer have been pushed out or have deliberately chosen other venues. They will have to learn to call things like racism, genocide, rape, and other forms of violence exactly what they are, rather than paper them over with euphemism. They will have to devote less time and space to some of their favorites (both living and dead) in order to do and learn and become something new. This will call for experimentation and discomfort. It will be hard work.
The burden of this work cannot continue to be shouldered primarily by the few BIPOC members of your organization. No academic organization can pretend to call itself antiracist unless a vast majority of its membership is pulling its weight.
Your predominantly white academic organization (yes, even yours) is exactly one live-tweeted racist event away from public disgrace. Do not sit idly by, waiting for this completely avoidable event to happen, further alienating your BIPOC colleagues and setting back the good work these colleagues have been doing and from which your organization and your field has benefited.
As the racial makeup of US schoolchildren shifts to a nonwhite majority, your organization – and your field – is unsustainable in its current form. Organizations that continue their histories of racism will not survive. They will be abandoned by the most interesting and rigorous and useful scholars, whose work ought not to be impeded by the sheer time and space that your organization’s racism claims. It is long past time to realistically consider how you, personally, can contribute to the project of preventing further disgrace and contributing to the future of your field.
Brigitte Fielder: Avidly’s Sojourner Truth Correspondent