Monday, January 18, 2016

Antifeminism, Whiteness, and Medieval Studies

by Dorothy Kim

MLK Day 2016

Recently, much of the medieval interwebs have been having discussions on Facebook and Twitter (#femfog) about the implications of a particular senior Anglo-Saxonist medievalist’s toxic misogynist blog.

Many have created compelling responses, including Peter Buchanan; Lavinia Collins; and The Syllabub. Several scholars have responded today on the ITM blog as well, including JJ. Cohen.

In addition, a group of senior Anglo-Saxonists made a strong statement:
Old English Literature and Anglo-Saxon StudiesBy far the majority of contemporary scholars in the field of Anglo-Saxon Studies and especially Old English strive to be professional, respectful, generous, equitable and welcoming to all others, irrespective of identity, including but not limited to, gender, sexuality, race, or age. The field does not belong to any one scholar, or to any one approach, or to any single authority. It is the duty of every generation of scholars in Old English to promote our subject and make the field a better, kinder and more desirable place in which to work for all succeeding generations.

In this way, the response to the identification of MRA scholars in the midst of medieval studies has been vocal, community building, and has mobilized scholars in the field.
I am writing this post today as a way to meditate on intersectional feminism and the difficulties that Medieval Studies seems to have with dealing with both gender and race. I have been thinking a lot about this because I am writing a book called Digital Whiteness and Medieval Studies for ArcPress and one of the chapters addresses the issue of medieval scholars and white supremacy. I am sad to report: it’s become a literal cakewalk to write this chapter. The examples are just so numerous.

Recently, I got another example from Twitter via Jeffrey Cohen who pointed me to a blog post titled “3 Cheers for White Men.” It was written by Rachel Fulton Brown, a tenured medieval historian at the University of Chicago who also blogs at fencingbearatprayer. The post in question—while not her only problematic post—valorizes the supposed whiteness of the Middle Ages. Her post states:
1. When white women (see Marie de France and Eleanor of Aquitaine) invented chivalry and courtly love, white men agreed that it was better for knights to spend their time protecting women rather than raping them, and even agreed to write songs for them rather than expecting them to want to have sex with them without being forced.
2. When white men who were celibate (see the canon lawyers and theologians of the twelfth century and thereafter) argued that marriage was a sacrament valid only if both the man and the woman consented, white men exerted themselves to become good husbands rather than expecting women to live as their slaves.
3. When white women (see Christine de Pizan, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the suffragettes) invented feminism, white men supported them (see John Stuart Mill) and even went so far as to vote (because only men could vote at the time) to let them vote, not to mention hiring them as workers and supporting their education.
And before you start telling me about all the terrible things that white men have done, take a moment to reflect that it was white men who voted in favor of the First Amendment to protect your right to disagree with me in the public sphere, including on matters of heated political discourse.
So, three cheers for white men! Hug a white man today!”
The ensuing discussion on the SMFS Facebook group has been interesting in many ways—with Rachel Fulton Brown stopping by to defend herself.

Here, I want to concentrate on how this post is a #WhiteLivesMatter for the Middle Ages with all the political dimensions that the hashtag denotes. On my original post that accompanied my link to this blog I wrote the following statement:

I believe that one should always support good feminist work in the world, however, I am not OK w/ supporting white feminist work. I am sorry, this is an example. This goes beyond just #‎solidarityisforwhitewomen, it's starting to teeter into a whole other zone particularly in relation to race/religion as well as the consistent upholding of whiteness as a category. And can I discuss how much medievalism and apparently Tolkien is used as a crutch to uphold that whiteness. I wrote this at a roundtable for Homonationalisms at Kalamazoo last year, and can I say, I am dismayed that it has become so EASY for me to write the book Digital Whiteness and Medieval Studies, so easy, the examples of medievalists upholding white supremacy just continue to proliferate... 

"There is no way we can hermetically seal the past in our current moment. The medieval past is already queer time; medieval time has become part of our queer now. Homonationalism now means medieval scholars must address how our historical fields are being used to uphold white supremacy and military machines. This is not the time to scold the public for not being medieval historians; rather, this is the time to educate the public about the medieval past. If medievalists think that they can escape this fact or imagine that their work is not political and/or not going to be used in contemporary war machines, then medievalists must consider what privilege they have to dodge this? The idea that this can be separated away from the current now is a privilege of whiteness, a privilege of heteropatriarchy. 
Homonationalism now means that medieval studies is and always will be political. Flavia Dzodan wrote the oft repeated phrase that “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” I would like to end this by saying that this should be repeated in our field—“my medieval studies will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.”

After the thread on the SMFS page had more or less died down, several things have struck me especially in comparison with what is going on with Frantzen’s identification as a believer in MRA activism (down to blue pill/red pill). Brown’s defense in the Facebook discussion thread amounted to a stance that included the following: 1. the blog is performance art;  2. it’s written by her persona the bear, not her; 3. she was being ironic by saying “white, white, white”; and 4. she’s still working out the tone of her public writing (though she’s been writing this blog for years); 5. I have been reading too much into the color of her bear (rather than reading her blog post and her statements). I find these responses perplexing.

First off, performance art or aesthetics will not save you from antifeminism or racism-- as so many people know from looking at recent controversies related to contemporary poetry ( or the Whitney Biennial ( Similarly, the persona, “the bear” is espousing statements that entangle one’s scholarly world with one’s personal/political views along with a dash of medievalism for good measure. This cannot escape critical view, especially posting things like “3 Cheers for White Men.” I believe, from the discussion, this was a reaction to Chicago #blacklivesmatter protests. If so, we should meditate exactly on what it means to do a #whitelivesmatter for medieval history in response the current political and social justice terrain.

In this post (as well as others), Brown uses a fantasy “white male” version of the Middle Ages as a way to respond to current conversations about race and uphold white supremacy as a structure. Implicit in her “Three Cheers For White Men” and her explanations of the Middle Ages is the “other”— if it is white men who are to be credited with everything she considers valuable, where does everyone else fit? (Blacks, Jews, non-Christians, non-white women?) As for saying “white, white, white” as a form of irony, I have already pointed out in the discussion thread, there are critical discussions online and in academic circles about hipster racism and irony ( As for her defense that she is still evolving a tone for public writing, the blog has been up for many years. Likewise, as a tenured scholar who has written and published scholarly books, I don’t think this is nor can one use the defense of “new to writing” as a deflection for the content of this and other posts. And no, I am not reading too much into the color of her bear—I am reading her statements about valorizing the benevolence of white men and the importance of whiteness in the legacy of the Middle Ages.

Another rhetorical move I find especially striking is the combination of white fragility+benevolent sexism. The latter parallels what several of the blogs have made clear, that men have been so generous in giving women permission to have rights, create rules for their consent, etc. We responded to AJ Frantzen’s MRA post because it was a form of hostile sexism. However, when medievalists, even the ones who identify as feminist, encounter benevolent sexism, the reaction is quite different:

[Benevolent sexism is] a subjectively positive orientation of protection, idealization, and affection directed toward women that, like hostile sexism, serves to justify women’s subordinate status to men (Glick et al., 2000, p. 763).
Yes, there’s actually an official name for all of those comments and stereotypes that can somehow feel both nice and wrong at the same time, like the belief that women are “delicate flowers” who need to be protected by men, or the notion that women have the special gift of being “more kind and caring” than their male counterparts. It might sound like a compliment, but it still counts as sexism.”

If one couples this with white fragility and particular female white fragility, it makes for an interesting cocktail, particularly when it’s the rhetorical stance being used by the female writer in response to her writing. White fragility and female white tears has been explicitly discussed in both scholarly circles and also in the wider public. The terminology (like white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, cisgendered, white privilege, etc.) can be easily found on google searches. What I mean by white fragility, white feminist tears, etc. can be summed up in the following articles:;;;

As someone on the SMFS thread pointed out, it’s not about intention, it’s about the effects. And I am happy that there were people pointing out this problem as well as some of the complicated dynamics related to white fragility and antiracism work. So this is what I saw on the SMFS thread, the bandying of “civility” and “niceness” on the thread in relation to defending RF Brown’s intentions or tone or apologizing to RF Brown was an interesting slice of all these various identified structures that I have just discussed. And the discussion of her being “ganged up” on by the woman of color making a critique of her antifeminist, white supremacist blog also fits these structural dynamics. People have written about these patterns extensively. Sara Ahmed’s work is one I go to frequently and this particularly passage resonates with me at this moment. I have often in my public writing made it clear that I identify as a feminist killjoy. And in particular, this statement: “When black women and women of colour spoke of racism in feminism we were heard, we are heard, as angry, mean and spiteful, as hurting white women’s feelings. The angry woman of colour is not only a feminist killjoy she is often a killer of feminist joy. She gets in the way of how white women occupy feminism.” There are power dynamics at play in whose affective pain has more priority and what roles certain bodies are cast as in these situations.

In relation to power structures, as a woman of color, I do not have the privilege of white fragility especially in academic discussions. There are entire books written about this in relation to women of color in academia ( or this very useful article ( Or as this post explains so succinctly about the uses of white tears or white emotion in relation to discussions of race ( :
1. Having Emotions Validated Is a Direct Example of Privilege…
In this example and countless others since, I’ve learned that white folks usually receive affirmation or comfort when their problematic behavior has been called out, especially in mostly white spaces…The simple ability to publicly display emotions and have those emotions validated – is a direct example of white privilege.”

So I found it fascinating that a discussion that was a critique about benevolent sexism and benevolent racism (which consistently wants emphasizes the goodness of white culture, which is then implicitly pointing to the lack of goodness of non-white culture), ended up mostly in a whole series of examples of these kinds of behaviors. How so very different from the discussions regarding AJ Frantzen. Somehow we cannot address benevolent sexism intermingled with racism in any sustained or systematic way even in a closed Facebook group for medieval feminists. So literally my point about the intersectionality as central to medieval studies vanished, rather got whitewashed, in the whole thread since it became an ongoing conversation that continually centered whiteness again and again. Or in another way, if I posted the exact same thing in the Facebook Group for a Research Cluster on Women of Color, I am absolutely positive that discussion thread would have been completely different. So maybe this is my challenge to the field, how can we make Medieval Studies reach the benchmark that happens in groups like the Research Cluster on Women of Color?

This is the heuristic: why is it so hard to let go of whiteness and white supremacy in medieval studies? Why is it difficult to acknowledge our spectrum of various privilege and try to do the labor and work of dismantling white supremacist ableist heteropatriarchy? Why is it hard, even in a Facebook group for medievalist feminists, to model or even understand intersectional feminism? Why are there not attempts to read, research, learn, and decolonize our historical pasts and reframe medieval futures? Why is it so difficult to read critical race theory and the work of historians of race?

It is both heartbreaking and often exhausting to realize how easy it has become to write this chapter on Digital Whiteness and Medieval Studies. So I appreciate Karl Steel’s post about the issues of the Vikings and the ongoing discussion of imagining a white medieval past and the inherent dangers in this vision ( This summer, I am scheduled to present at New Chaucer Society on a panel discussing why Medieval Studies is still so pale. I can give you an early glimpse at my answer. Look around—consider the white supremacist and patriarchal things being written by medievalists in Medieval Studies. Imagine what that classroom feels and looks like to an undergraduate or graduate student of color. What exactly are students of color supposed to do with a post like “Three Cheers for White Men”? Though the student demographics continue to shift to the extent that soon, it will eventually be majority non-white campuses across the country, what does our professoriate look like? It’s still over 75% white and predominantly white and male. The statistics in academic circles are just as bad as the Silicon Valley tech circles. And what does Medieval Studies currently center? Are we decolonizing our fields of study, our curriculum, our graduate training? What are programs doing to increase the number of faculty of color in the field? This is not just a pressing concern for North American campuses as we have seen a wave of protests and demands from students across the country to have more inclusive curriculum and more faculty of color on campus. This is also something recently discussed in the UK with the campaign that asked “Why Is My Curriculum White?” Jonathan Hsy recently posted steps to move forward on ITM, “#FemFog Medievalism: Lessons Learned+Proactive Steps.” I urge people to read and think about how they can include these suggestions in their academic lives.

So yes, is your Medieval Studies intersectional? If it’s not, it is bullshit.


Heide Estes said...

Thanks Dorothy.

skellis said...

This is fantastic. Thanks for your thinking, the links, and your care.

Becky said...

I read this back in January and wanted to share that it has been in my thoughts ever since. And changing the way I think about and "do" medieval studies. Thank you.