[ITM readers: check out this timely reflection on the workshop at the May 2017 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, on "Whiteness in Medieval Studies." ICYMI, note also a recent ITM posting about more inclusivity in public discourse about race and medieval studies.]
“Whiteness in Medieval Studies” Workshop : A Reflection on Emotional Labor
Reflection written by Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh
Workshop organized by: Seeta Chaganti, Jonathan Hsy, Sierra Lomuto, and Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh, with Dorothy Kim and the Fellowship of Medievalists of Color
Students and faculty of color often find themselves leading initiatives to dismantle power structures of whiteness that support racism and implicit biases. It is easy to assume that we are somehow more comfortable with this kind of work, that we have less to lose which is why we are willing to risk our reputations or job prospects, or that we somehow have more support than others and are thus more prepared to put ourselves forward. This is far from the truth. I can only speak on behalf of my own experiences, but I believe my observations will resonate with other students and faculty of color. As an immigrant and Iranian, Muslim-American, I have always moved through the world expecting that, at any point, I may lose everything: immigration status, freedom of speech, physical safety due to Islamophobic violence, educational opportunities, financial security due to racial profiling, etc. In the Islamophobic world I grew up in, before I could read, write, and move for my own sake, I had to make space for myself in classes that did not welcome me, navigate the administrative bureaucracies of my middle and high schools when I was bullied or threatened, and fight for opportunities in fields, subjects, and extracurricular activities that did not readily yield opportunities to people like me. In other words, I speak up not because I have less to lose or because I am more comfortable with the consequences, but because that’s the only way I’ve ever been heard. Our experiences as people of color may differ, but what we all share is courage. We have never had the privilege of being in the white world without it.
I am also a student and educator. And it is important for me to stress that I have my courage because of my education, not in spite of it. I have learned how to think critically in classrooms. My educators model courage for me both inside and outside of the classroom. University of California, Berkeley, like other universities, is one of the few places where people think critically about the pursuit of knowledge and are committed to its advancement for its own sake and not to serve an agenda. That is to say, when students ask for change in a field, institution, department, or classroom, they are not threatening the field or institution. They are celebrating it. Their initiatives prove their investment in the degree, that they are committed, that they care, and that it is not enough for them to make it through the field. They want to thrive in it.
“Whiteness in Medieval Studies” ICMS Workshop
At the 2017 International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, Michigan, some of the members of the Fellowship of Medievalists of Color organized and led the “Whiteness in Medieval Studies” workshop to bring racial consciousness to medieval studies, disrupt white supremacists’ attraction to our field, and improve the field’s inclusivity. Sierra Lomuto laid the foundations for the workshop when she confronted the white nationalist appropriation of the field by writing a bold piece titled, “White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies.” Sierra proposed the idea of the workshop to the Fellowship of Medievalists of Color listserv shortly after the piece’s publication in December 2016. And that began an intensely laborious, yet invigorating preparation process.
The following five months were packed with hundreds of emails, countless numbers of meetings over the phone and Skype, and many, many, drafts and revisions of our workshop materials by the organizers and medievalists of color on the listerv, totalling over one hundred hours of labor by each of the main organizers of the event— Seeta Chaganti, Jonathan Hsy, Sierra Lomuto, and myself. The results of our intense labor was a one-hour workshop. The hour included: a five minute opening given by Sierra and me stressing that our main objective was to bring racial consciousness to the field, which required first and foremost recognizing whiteness as a race; a thirty minute staged conversation by Seeta and Jonathan that addressed some of the ways whiteness and implicit biases shape notions of professional merit, how scholars are read in peer review or hiring practices, and the implications of race on mentorship; and a thirty-minute discussion focused on questions based on the pre-circulated readings. The workshop was phenomenally well-attended. We estimated between 200-250 people. Many of the participants seemed to have done the readings beforehand, which suggested to us a thirst for learning and understanding beyond the confines of the workshop. We walked away proud and relieved.
The Workshop & Emotional Labor
While workshops like this one demand physical and intellectual labor, as graduate students and academics we are accustomed to tight lower back muscles and mental fatigue. What makes this work especially difficult is the emotional labor— the fears and anxieties around putting oneself in precarious positions; the calculations, the negotiations, the consideration of white fragility; strategizing how to strengthen white allyship while staring into the eyes of Whiteness in medieval studies; working through the fears; and confronting whiteness boldly and unapologetically as a person of color. It is this kind of emotional work that is taxing.
For example, one’s first inclination when organizing a workshop on the experience of people of color with respect to Whiteness is to structure it so that it values the personal anecdote. As people of color in predominantly white spaces, we do our best to stand out as little as possible, and to blend in as much as possible. Personal anecdotes are empowering because they give us the opportunity to set the tone and lead the conversation. And they do so in a way that foregrounds, rather than tempers, our identities as people of color. That is just the work it does for the speaker, however. Sharing personal anecdotes, experiences of microaggressions, and/or just plain agressions has the power to validate the experiences of every other person of color in the room. It is equally if not more empowering to realize that there was never a need for you to experience a vortex of self-doubt as you silently sat in a seminar room a few months ago or a conference last year, that your experience was real. This validation allows you to begin the process of healing that you have resisted because you convinced yourself your worldview is a paranoid, critical, or judgmental one. That is the power of the personal story.
And yet, to be taken seriously while speaking personally is itself a privilege that people of color do not have. We understand that too often the personal anecdote is mistaken for shaming and blaming the white body. It triggers guilt that is toxic for any constructive conversation. And more importantly, often when people of color offer specific examples, the focus of the discussion moves away from, “What about the power structure led to this act of marginalization?” and focuses instead on, “What were the intentions of the accuser?” Most often, the intentions are honorable, and yet this is besides the point, for as Sierra and I mentioned in our opening remarks, to confront whiteness is to move beyond the particular bodies in the room and to think about power structures that allow, train, or accustom bodies to work, move, or speak in certain ways.
To be an ally is to first and foremost accept that structural racism exists, and to expect it wherever and whenever there are spaces, much less fields, that are predominately white. To demand specifics or to defend the well and good intentions of one person or another is to miss the point. It shifts the burden back on the person of color. It suggests that they were not generous enough, that they were or are sensitive, judgmental, or critical. This unfortunate maneuvering of blame detracts from the real problem at hand: the toxic structure that underlies microaggressions and makes them possible. Seeta, Jonathan, Sierra, and I wanted to bring the community together to address the underlying condition, rather than fiddle with the symptoms.
So, every time the four of us met on Skype, edited documents, or spoke to one another, we asked ourselves again and again: Should we risk shifting the focus of the discussion in order to validate the experiences of those most vulnerable in the room? Are we convincing ourselves to keep it impersonal and general because we are afraid of how our predominantly white audience may interpret our stories? Will we seem threatening, petty, angry, rude, or judgmental if we share them? Will this turn people away from our main cause? Are we withholding our personal anecdotes because we are doubting those experiences again? Such questions required us to collectively revisit our experiences again to reassure ourselves that they were part of a larger pattern of marginalization. We interrogated our choices and intentions at every turn, because it was important for us that fear was not guiding our decisions. If after our discussion, we realized that we were containing our personal anecdotes because we were afraid of the consequences, then it was even more imperative that we work up the courage to make our stories heard, not only for our own sakes, but for the sake of every other medievalist of color in the room. On the other hand, we were willing to forgo the desire to be heard if the stories undermined the structure and objectives of the workshop.
After a lot of deliberation, we decided to keep our comments and the staged conversation and questions general, speaking as medievalists of color rather than as Seeta, Jonathan, Sierra, or Shokoofeh in order to keep the discussion as focused as possible. At the same time, we agreed that we should introduce a personal anecdote whenever we found it pertinent. We also distributed index cards to the audience to give people the opportunity to share personal stories.
I describe this example in detail not only to expose the emotional and intellectual labor that went into every decision, every spoken line, and every group question at the workshop, but more importantly to show that this work is not easy or comfortable for us. Despite our willingness to organize this workshop, at the end of the day, as medievalists of color, we are a minority in our home institutions, in the field at large, and especially at the International Congress on Medieval Studies. We are not familiar bodies. We do not blend in. And this inevitably makes us vulnerable.
In fact, when Sierra and I began the planning process with Seeta and Jonathan, we were so afraid of the professional and social consequences of publicly exposing the field’s racial politics that we neither intended to put our names on formal documents nor speak at the workshop itself. This was the plan for months and, looking back, I am deeply unsettled by our willingness to put in so much labor without taking credit for it. It wasn’t until we created the website, and were faced with the reality of leaving our names off of the official, public-facing presentation of the workshop, that we realized the disempowerment embedded in our decision. To choose not to put our names on the website was to officialize the anonymity. This was silencing, defeating. However, to publicize our names was to present ourselves as critics of a field before establishing ourselves as scholars and professors.
The ease with which we were willing to pour ourselves into this work while remaining anonymous is a perfect example of the power structures of whiteness at work. We silence ourselves because we are afraid of further threatening our already slim chances of getting hired as people of color in a white field. The silencing in turn suggests that what we have to say is disruptive, disrespectful, and most of all shameful. Moments before launching the website, Sierra and I decided to publish our names on the home page. There was little to no discussion about why we had changed our minds. The anxieties and concerns for our future never fully subsided, but they were countered by trust and self-respect. It was a choice driven by courage.
Responses to the Workshop
It was encouraging that our workshop participants responded to our vulnerability with courageous statements and promises of their own, both during the workshop itself and in their online reflections. In fact, all of our white friends and colleagues who attended the workshop later applauded it. People we did not know approached us during the Congress to express gratitude; many told us they were encouraged and motivated to interrogate their own practices as educators and do more at their own institutions. One man raised his hand during the workshop discussion to admit (and I paraphrase), “I thought I knew what the folk theory of racism was, but after doing the reading, I realize that not only did I not understand it fully, but that I am guilty of it in my classroom as well.” Another woman had the courage to admit that she had not put forward a black professor in her department for a teaching award because the professor (as well as many of the other professors of color in her department) was cross-listed with a different department— in this case, African American Studies. She always assumed that the other department would put them forward for the award. From the reflections we learned that people who felt like they were always “second-guess[ing]” themselves or “overreacting or overanalyzing...felt very validated and less alone.” At the same time, white individuals in the room expressed that they needed to focus on “what [the] IMPACT of [their] actions/words/assumptions” were “regardless of their INTENTION” (emphasis not mine). And one person even acknowledged that her “anti-racist intentions and actions don’t necessarily mean that [she has] rooted out problematic unconscious ideas.”
More than anything, a sense of urgency permeated the reflections on the workshop. “Change is needed RIGHT NOW,” one of the participants has written. “It is time to change...the woeful inadequacy with which whiteness in medieval studies has been addressed.” Many expressed the need for “more of these” kinds of conversations, “more…[workshops] in Kalamazoos [sic] and elsewhere,” a desire to make this “an annual workshop at the ICMS,” a desire for “more time,” “more discussion[s] of whiteness and how it functions in the field.” And some even acknowledged that they “cannot let medievalists of color do all the work.”
From these statements, it is clear that our white friends and colleagues also recognize the power structures at play, and there is a yearning not only to better understand how the structure functions but more importantly, how to dismantle it. It takes strength to admit white privilege, but it takes a sheer amount of courage to confront how whiteness has led one to overlook prejudices and to then commit to breaking destructive patterns that the white power structure has established and eagerly welcomes white bodies into.
Reflection & Next Steps
Only acts of courage can change systems. But acts of courage are not comfortable or convenient. They are not safe. They are never anonymous.
They can, however, vary. One does not need to lead a workshop in front of hundreds to make a change. In fact, the smallest act of courage can have an intense ripple effect. Speaking up with a person of color when she raises concerns at a meeting, speaking up in forums when a person of color is disrespected, not hired, not promoted, etc. Relentlessly pushing for inclusivity initiatives at institutions, putting that ask in writing, and sharing it with colleagues is perhaps one of the safest yet most powerful acts of courage available. It can have a monumental impact on many levels. To have others raising concerns about inclusivity not only relieves a heavy burden from the person of color, but dramatically impacts how welcome they feel in the community.
One of the qualities that ties these examples together, however, is that they are public. Concern, disappointment, and even rage in private (and here, private includes sympathetic friends or colleagues) is limited in its efficacy. It is comfortable, convenient, more or less anonymous, and it neither weakens the structure, nor validates the person of color. It is only with sheer vulnerability that there is any hope of bringing this power structure to its knees.
To that end, then, we must admit that more than anything acts of courage are about acknowledging fear. Fear is a central part of courage. To admit boldly that we are afraid, and to list what we are afraid of is to admit that we have something to lose. It is only courage when we recognize what we have to lose and continue to fight for it. After all, what we have to lose is the very thing we’re fighting for.
If you are a person of color who works in the field of medieval studies, the Fellowship of Medievalists of Color warmly welcomes you. To join the listserv, contact the current administrator Jonathan Hsy at jhsy at gwu dot edu.
About the author: Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh has an Mphil from Oxford University, and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation, tentatively titled "The Muslim Prism," explores the entanglement of race, ethnicity, and faith as reflected and refracted in the Muslim body and in representations of Islamic space. She invests as much of her free time as possible in inclusivity and diversity initiatives on the UC Berkeley campus and in the field of medieval studies.