Thursday, August 31, 2017

Medievalfail

by HELEN YOUNG

Many if not all who follow this blog know that in the past several months racism and other forms of prejudice in the discipline of medieval studies have been variously and manifoldly made evident, and fought against. The mishandling of the theme of Otherness by Leeds IMC organisers (despite the best efforts of some on the committee) were a catalyst, but not the cause. Centuries of structural racism in the field of medieval studies is the cause. We work in a field which, at least until WWII, was used in overtly and deliberately racist ways to attempt to justify European imperialism, colonialism, and attendant white supremacy. Despite the best efforts of some (even many), those legacies remain.

And it’s not just legacies or habitual whiteness in the field. The tactics of internet racism are playing out in our field, particularly in and around the Facebook Old English group (currently migrating) and the Anglo-Saxon Studies group. Harassment of medievalists of colour and their supporters by individuals within the discipline has include:
  • Banning Dorothy Kim and removing all her posts from the Old English group, including posts directly related to the focus of the group, and claiming when questioned that her account was mistaken for spam
  • Abusive language (“racist bitch”) and the dogwhistle of the racist far right including the relatively recently emerged “Stalinist”/”Maoist” (actual quotes).
  • Doxing – gathering personal information through internet searches, in this case Google and academia.edu, with the intention or possibility of releasing it to others to cause harm or targeting
  • Sending emails (to more than one scholar) seeking to discredit medievalists of colour and their supporters by questioning their academic credentials and even identities
Martin Foys, the outgoing Executive Director of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists published a statement as I was beginning to draft this post, which also summarizes recent events (link here accessible if you are a member of the AS group, but variously circulating publically on Facebook if not).

In the past day some of those involved in some of the above actions have made partial apologies (it’s not always clear who was doing what, and I don’t suggest that those who have publically apologised were responsible were doing those things they have not mentioned). As a result they have been constructed by others as victims of bullying rather than as individuals facing consequences for their actions. In any case, as the ISAS statement says “apologies for individual incidences do not efface ongoing issues of systemic racism or prejudice in our worlds.”

The people who have apologised publically are a small number of those who are responsible either directly or indirectly because of lack of action. They have not been made victims by anti-racism activists, but rather hung out to dry by supporters who either will not take responsibility themselves or who fail to understand their consequences of their own actions. This ongoing harassment has taken many forms: from white-anting of scholarly credentials and authority (I can’t count how many people demanded Dorothy provide exact quotations for ‘alterity’ being a preferable term to ‘Otherness’ to the extent of refusing to even read the references she gave for themselves); to creating ad absurdum arguments (‘they want us to destroy all Celtic crosses because some white supremacists like them’); to arguing that we should empathise with the feelings of white supremacists, and allow them at our conferences ‘because they don’t go to papers anyway;’ to dismissing the fears of those who know more and are targets; and by being silent bystanders in places of privilege and safety to all of the above.

This is not a ‘there was violence on both sides’ situation any more than Charlottesville was.

The harassment tactics are familiar to anyone who has spent any time with internet trolls, but the dynamics that I’ve seen across many social media posts in the past few months remind me of things I saw studying racism in fan communities including RaceFail 09, and of the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies attempts to choke off moves towards diversity in science fiction and fantasy. Both were flare ups which resulted from much broader structural and systemic habits of racist whiteness in those genres (texts and communities). Which is also what is happening in medieval studies.

The details of RaceFail 09 and the Sad/Rabid Puppies are beyond what I can cover in the length of a single blog post, but, like events in medieval studies in past months they:
  • Mainly occurred between small groups or individual who were part of much larger communities that watched on bu t did not engage
  • The larger community is in the habit of seeing itself as powerless and under threat from wider society (we are used to having to argue for our existence in the academy as a whole) and therefore oppressed
  • That wider community doesn’t recognise its own history of misogyny, homophobia, and racism (and more) well.
In that context, where we think in a defensive frame, it’s easy to see anyone who suggests that there is a problem in our field as attacking us, as an enemy to be fought not an ally and advocate for improvement.

There’s more at play, and I’m going back to the work I’ve done on fan communities here. We invest some of ourselves in our work, our professional identities as medieval studies scholars are personal as well. We are embedded, online and offline, in networks of other scholars in our field; embeddedness is one of the major concepts of sociology which in essence states that people tend to be influenced in their actions by personal connections, i.e. networks, because we tend to trust those that we know. When most people in our networks are either silent or seem to be defending our community from criticism or attack, we’re inclined to let them do it at the very least.

I speak from personal experience when I say that we don’t want to hear that the field we have invested out time, effort, thought and parts of our identities (professional and otherwise) in is structured by racism and has been since its inception. One of the first articles I wrote after completing my PhD essentially argued that Lord of the Rings (which I still love) wasn’t racist; I don’t recommend looking it up, I was wrong (for my perspective after learning what I didn’t want to know see this blog in 2014).

But just because we don’t want to hear it doesn’t mean it’s not true.

We’re scholars, we’re supposed to be better than that, to be critical, reflective, and open to new ideas. Just because something is hard isn’t a reason not to do it however. PhDs are hard and many of us have done or are doing them.

When it comes to race in particular, many of us in medieval studies are not well equipped with critical tools or knowledge. Feminism and queer theory have been making in-roads into medieval studies spaces much longer than race studies. But that only goes so far. There’s now a substantial and growing body of scholarship on race and medieval studies and medievalism (see this crowdsourced partial bibliography if you haven’t already).

Ignorance is not an excuse. Habit is not a justification. We would not accept these from our students (‘I didn’t know the assignment was due, I’m not used to coming to class’), why on earth would we accept them from ourselves?

Consider who has been positioned as ‘an outside attacker’ in past months (and years): medievalists of color and their allies. Dorothy Kim, a woman of color, has been the target of most harassment. Don’t tell me it’s because she’s the most vocal. We were on a panel together two years ago where I and another white scholar talked about race and medievalism and Dorothy didn’t. She was the only one who got trolled. It’s not just that the ideas are new and challenging, it’s that they are coming from people who are habitually understood as not belonging in medieval studies because of our field’s history of propping up and perpetuating white supremacy.

This is not a blanket condemnation or despairing wail.

Many scholars are beginning to try to engage in both their teaching and research if comments and posts on social media are anything to go by.

A year after RaceFail 09, N. K. Jemisin – who was one of the targets of harassment – wrote a post titled “Why I Think RaceFail Was The Bestest Thing Evar for SFF.” RaceFail was bitter and painful and divisive and caused harm to many people of colour, but was also, as Jemisin put “a good thing…a necessary thing” because it made change happen. I highly recommend reading Jemisin’s post in full, but the short version is that systems and structures don’t change by themselves. It takes disruption, sometimes major disruption because that’s what makes people pay attention. @medievalpoc has been thinking along the same lines about what we’re doing in medieval studies being a race fail, and abut Jemisin’s post; her take is here.

I have heard from several people in the past day that they hope medieval studies will improve because of this. I hope so too, and I think not unrealistically. Jemisin just won her second consecutive Hugo Award for best novel (the most prestigious in SFF). She was the first person of color to win one. SFF is far from perfect, but it’s more diverse (not just in terms of race) than it was even five years ago. I hope to say the same of medieval studies. 

1 comment:

Ray said...

You know I want to thank you for this very informative and thought provoking post. I have been around for over 60 years and I can truthfully say that things have changed. Yes they have changed in that the older I get the more I realize that what has changed is the realization of what has been going on for years. Most of these things have occurred all along and for the most part I was too busy to take time to notice.
It is nice to see that others have awakened as well to these issues. Myself I was raised military, my father never judged anyone by their race and taught me the same. I judged alright but by ones ability to overcome, adapt and improvise when life throws things at you.
I have seen racism but it was the other kind of racism that for years I did not notice in all forms of entertainment and education.The more that awaken and speak out the better.
Please forgive my probably numerous writing errors, I was never good at English comp and life has thrown 2 strokes my way in the past that sometimes make me far less then academically competent.
Again thank you for the numerous great post you do on vitally important topics.
Raymond E. Smith