Monday, August 28, 2017

Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy

by Dorothy Kim


Today, medievalists have to understand that the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists. The medieval western European Christian past is being weaponized by white supremacist/white nationalist/KKK/nazi extremist groups who also frequently happen to be college students. Don’t think western European medieval studies is exceptional. As Catherine Cox recently presented at MLA, ISIS/ISIL also weaponizes the idea of the pure medieval Islamic past in their recruiting rhetoric for young male Muslims. If the medieval past (globally) is being weaponized for the aims of extreme, violent supremacist groups, what are you doing, medievalists, in your classrooms? Because you are the authorities teaching medieval subjects in the classroom, you are, in fact, ideological arms dealers. So, are you going to be apathetic weapons dealers not caring how your material and tools will be used? Do you care who your buyers are in the classroom? Choose a side. Doing nothing is choosing a side. Denial is choosing a side. Using the racist dog whistle of “we must listen to both sides” is choosing a side. I am particularly struck by this last choice, since I want to know: would you also say this about ISIS/ISIL?

This is not a problem for me by the very mere fact that I am a woman of color. My actual body waves the “highly, ridiculously unlikely-to-be-a-white-supremacist” flag in the classroom (not that Asian Americans are not anti-black or marched at the Virginia riots for white supremacy, as is noted here: https://nextshark.com/asian-man-caught-camera-marching-kkk-charlottesville/). However, this creates a completely different set of issues for almost all medievalists (medievalists of color barely make .5%-.75% of this population). How are you signaling in your classroom that you are not upholding white supremacy when you are teaching the subject loved by white supremacists (feel free to read all the articles that discuss the love of medieval history on the part of the white supremacist who is now a poster image of the Charlottesville riot: http://talkingpointsmemo.com/edblog/im-not-the-angry-racist-they-see-in-that-photo)? Neutrality may have worked in a distant past when white supremacists/KKK/white nationalists/Nazis were some imagined fringe group, but that is not going to work now.

Marcia Chatelain recently wrote an excellent article about “How Universities Embolden White Nationalists” (http://www.chronicle.com/article/How-Universities-Embolden/240956?cid=wcontentgrid_hp_2) with excellent suggestions to college faculty on how to not embolden white nationalists in the classroom. So, this is the question I pose to our community of scholars: “Are you, as medievalists, emboldening white nationalists?” The range of white supremacy and medieval studies’ complicity in it include the following: denying the problem exists (or even that there are medievalists who are white supremacists); labeling the backlash and protestations of medievalists of color as alarmist; imagining there are two sides; deciding that you want to give sympathy to the pain of white supremacists; declaring that medieval spaces (IRL or digital) are above contemporary geopolitics; stating that conversations about white supremacy and race are ancillary and “spam”. None of these fix the problem of white supremacy in medieval studies nor make our classrooms an inclusive space for the bodies targeted by the white nationalists—your students who are BIPOC, LGBTQIA, differently abled, Muslim, Jewish, and women.

Chatelain explains in her article: “The basis of the white-nationalist anxiety is that inclusion means erasure, that they are fighting a mass invasion of outsiders into institutions that rightfully belong to whites. They inspire victimhood among their adherents by ignoring the evidence of the durability of white supremacy in the United States, including on our campuses. Most faculty, staff, and administrators abhor this thinking and ideology, but in my experience, they often tacitly endorse ideas that may help create little Richard Spencers” (http://www.chronicle.com/article/How-Universities Embolden/240956?cid=wcontentgrid_hp_2). What medieval studies do you imagine is going to be erased if the field is inclusive? What is so difficult to understand that white supremacists have had a stake in medieval studies for a long time? Medieval studies is the go-to subject for white supremacists who want to uphold their belief about the “pure white” Middle Ages. Feel free to read Derek Black’s discussion of this (https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-white-flight-of-derek-black/2016/10/15/ed5f906a-8f3b-11e6-a6a3-d50061aa9fae_story.html?utm_term=.232602f5e80c). So, what are you doing to overtly signal that your medieval studies class is not going to implicitly or explicitly uphold the tenets of white supremacist ideology?

In various conference (MAMO, Leeds) and digital spaces this summer, I have had numerous medievalists tell me the following: (1) We should listen to the point of view of white supremacists; (2) We should allow white supremacists at our conferences; (3) We should feel and sympathize with the pain of white supremacists; and (4) White supremacists and medieval studies are not in any way connected; and (5) White supremacy is an American problem. Many medievalists, then, are either going for full denial, using "both sides" racist dog whistles, or are insisting that it's a strictly American issue. They do so in spite of mounting evidence that demonstrates the deeply interconnected nature of medieval studies and white supremacy: from medieval cosplay (http://www.publicmedievalist.com/leaving-medieval-charlottesville/), to medieval symbols (https://newrepublic.com/article/144320/racism-medievalism-white-supremacists-charlottesville), to the love of the medieval exhibited by the white supremacists marching in Virginia [l1] (http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2017/08/white-supremacists-love-middle-ages.html)

Let us be crystal clear here—medieval studies is intimately entwined with white supremacy and has been so for a long time. Feel free to ask historians of 19th-century Confederate history, the KKK, and the Nazis. They will produce reams of bibliography, material culture, documents, images, etc. for your perusal. Let us be even clearer on this second point: white supremacy is not fringe. This is not a peripheral, tiny subculture problem. They are mainstream—how many can we count in the White House and the current US administration right now (even if Bannon has been fired)?

A striking number of medievalists want to go for some “both sides” argument about the point of view of white supremacists and thus perform the micro-version of the “free speech” debate on college campuses. We have already seen how that has played out after #Charlottesville and how rhetorically that is a dog whistle for racism (https://www.vox.com/2017/8/12/16138896/trump-speech-charlottesville-many-sides). The whole, “I want to sympathize with white supremacists, we should listen to white supremacists, we should have them in our conference spaces,” is flat out a declaration of white supremacist sympathies at the very least, but really a declaration of your belief in white supremacy and the utter white privilege of medievalists.  Please read an academic expert on white supremacy and the issue of ethnography before you decide somehow your research in medieval studies makes you an expert in the KKK/Nazis/white nationalists/white supremacists and that these violent hate groups are just misunderstood men and women who are in pain but really just nice people (http://www.kellyjbaker.com/nice-decent-folks/). Many of the same medievalists want to imagine this is isolated to America and not a global problem, even though white supremacists/white nationalists/Nazis and other such groups proliferate in the UK, Europe, and Australasia (Golden Dawn, the French Election, Brexit and UKIP). My colleague Helen Young recently pointed me to this article among so many others that discuss antifascist action against these hate groups globally: (https://theferret.scot/anti-fascists-shut-down-first-public-meeting-of-new-far-right-group/).

Finally, realize, your BIPOC, LGBTQIA, Jewish, Muslim, differently abled, and female students are terrified of violence from white supremacists. What are you going to do to address this dynamic in your classrooms? White supremacy by inaction and thus by complicity translates into violence—in both speech and action. If you do not signal that you are not a white supremacist or address white supremacy, what do you imagine your most vulnerable students feel? They will absolutely question whether they can speak in your class with safety.

Our old-style position that objectivist neutrality is where medievalists should be no longer works, because it facilitates white supremacists/white nationalists/KKK/Nazis and their horrific deployment of the Middle Ages as we saw in Charlottesville. For several months people have been adding to this partial bibliography, “Race and Medieval Studies” (https://docs.google.com/document/d/18JClsma1BMKYCxvgeWqwPej3ZSCrQXlAlXbL0CdqWmE/edit), and have been discussing in various digital groups and spaces about how to change their syllabi to address the last year of white supremacist hate. Many are frantically preparing their syllabi for the Fall semester. You really have no excuse to address whether your medieval studies is a white supremacist medieval studies or not. You also do not have a choice in whether you are part of this debate because the debate is already prevalent and public. Our students are watching and will make judgements and calls on what side you are really on. I suggest overt signaling of how you are not a white supremacist and how your medieval studies is one that does not uphold white supremacy. Neutrality is not optional.     



Dorothy Kim is a medievalist, digital humanist, feminist. She teaches medieval literature at Vassar College. 


4 comments:

Sarah RJ said...

Powerful writing is just what we need for difficult and dangerous times. Thank you.

In fact I think quite a bit of our scholarly training can be used an armoury against hate speech that abuses the past for its own ends.

So I would qualify a couple of things. Objectivity is much maligned on many fronts. Sometimes associated with 'mere' empiricism or antiquarianism (superceded and out of date after all the other post-linguist, post-anthropological -isms), sometimes belittled as 'geekery', now very often dismissed as (usually inconvenient) Expertise. But ....... there is a difference about trying to establish some objective basis of knowledge for our field and remaining neutral about how that field is politicised. As for the latter I am with you 100%, as for the former not so much. The England's Immigrants Database project - www.englandsimmigrants.com - has been effective (and garnered its fair share of hate speech too), I think because it has tried to stick with the analysis and presentation of data. It has written this up for educational use - even getting it into school textbooks which is a major achievement - but it has not itself tooled it up for political purposes. Perhaps in many ways it does not need to - the evidence for endemic movement of people into England from outside (as soon as records exist) - is all too apparent to any casual observer. And more scholarly understanding of the nuances of the strengths and weaknesses of the sources does nothing to undermine that impression. So this is a strong case where 'objectively motivated' critical core skills (transcribing, translating, editing, web design, source criticism) ultimately provide a much stronger platform of evidence for political use than if the project had had a partial political objective from the outset.

The other thing - yes this is not uniquely a US issue, far from it - but we need to remember that it is not a universal issue either - in that there are many other reasons why students study the middle ages and they may be as surprised as anyone to discover the use of the medieval by white supremacists (that may be more or less true in different places, I don't know). FWIW students specialising in the medieval here tend to be female (at least they tend to be in a majority on medieval modules) - and very often their interests are in gender studies, education, immigration, social history of various kinds. Hard to think of any specialising in traditional military topics. Racist attitudes are by no means restricted to students studying medieval modules either - some of the most infamous cases recently - including use of the n word in class - come from students taking modern modules (in one case in a module on modern Caribbean slavery). And the equivalent of the alt-right here in the UK tend to dress up as Conservatives (suits and ties), Nazis (but rarely) and modern terrorists (balaclavas, combat boots). http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/uk-alt-right_uk_599576d9e4b0acc593e56a78 (the second picture here was taken of a protest in front of medieval York Minster that I will be discussing in a lecture on British Public HIstory in China next week). So for me it would be odd if we were to suddenly start saying that one type of module is particularly prone to racism or misogyny. Better (as our national (HEFCE, ECU) gender equality and race equality charter marks encourage us to do) to review and monitor the whole curriculum - and to have required standards of behaviour for all our students.

None of this is to condone the cack-handed treatment of Otherness at IMC which I have commented on before. fwiw I already include sessions on immigration and anti-alienism (is that a thing?) in medieval modules that are not about race or immigration, much as we all incorporate discussion of race and gender in our core modules too. That is a better way to go than creating ghettos I think. Let's make discussion of these issues part of the air that students breathe.

Nicole Guenther Discenza said...

Thanks for this post, Dorothy. I'm finding it worth reading and rereading, and I'm sharing with my students.

Joey Kim said...

Thank you for this motivating, necessary post! #neutralityisnotoptional

Jesse Cohn said...

Much appreciated even from my corner of academia (lit studies).