Wednesday, September 20, 2017

4 thoughts about vulnerability and community

by J J Cohen

1. Regarding our co-authored Statement of Support for Dorothy Kim, you may find some background to what unfolded via Quod She, as well as the account published yesterday by Insider HigherEd (there is also a piece in yesterday's Chronicle of Higher Education but it's behind a paywall). Here too is a Statement of Commitment from some medievalists at the University of Chicago. But to really understand the stakes of what unfolded -- and to take some wind out of the "but both sides!" argument that would posit a tenured professor is being attacked rather than an untenured scholar is being supported -- read this piece by David Perry on the actual content of Milo Y's "livelier style" and this piece by Bryan William Van Norden on what unfolded, the power imbalance, how race matters, and the potential harassment being incited against Professor Kim. That her friend Milo Y was repeatedly tagged in her Facebook posts and that Professor Fulton Brown placed an article about herself on his website are of consequence here -- and it has become clear to me that some people do not understand why.

2. Did you not the sign the various letters of support for Dorothy Kim? Did you refrain from making any public statements at all? That's ok. No one ever should feel pressured to place themselves in a position of vulnerability: as the links above make clear, the risks are real. Scholars work to bring about a better field in different ways, and many of those modes are not publicly visible. Each person commits to doing the work that they can as they can, knowing their own limits and vulnerabilities. That's how community works: some of us step in to support those who need help, and know that the situation changes over time. And note that you are likely a member of a group that advocated on your behalf: New Chaucer Society, Medieval Academy of America (the trustees of which also wrote a personal letter to Professor Kim), the International Piers Plowman Society, the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship. That's a powerful commitment on their part to speak out for members who may be in too vulnerable a position to do so themselves. Onwards.

3. Let me share something I posted on Facebook yesterday. It's disappointing to hear that Professor Fulton Brown is now identifying me as the "mastermind" (her term) behind Dorothy Kim's writing and actions. This maneuver deprives Professor Kim of her agency, intellect, and accomplishments, and sets me up as the Jewish Svengali behind her actions, mobilizing (intentionally or not) another alt-right as well as a medieval narrative. I have never met Professor Fulton Brown and I bear her no animus (even if she will never have my respect for the actions she has undertaken against an untenured scholar of color). Everything that I have written has been not to attack Professor Fulton Brown but to support Professor Kim. Everything Dorothy Kim has written and posted and urged is hers. No one requested that she research and write what she did, and should be attributed to her genius alone. To make of Professor Kim a puppet or a pawn is demeaning. It also mistakes my own interest in Professor Fulton Brown and her career, which is zero, except when she uses her position against the vulnerable. And let me also make clear that neither I nor any other member of "In the Middle" ever contacted (and have no influence over) the New Chaucer Society, the Medieval Academy of America, the Society for Medieval Feminist Studies, or the International Piers Plowman Society. We did not compose or have any input into the the letter sent in support of Professor Kim to the U Chicago History Department (though I did share links). I also want to make clear that I did not ask anyone in any social media to post anything about Dorothy Kim or Professor Fulton Brown. But let me also state: I remain grateful to anyone who did. You make me proud to be your colleague.

4. What has unfolded over the past few days has been frequently reported as exposing a rift or divide in medieval studies (if not the humanities writ large). What I take away from these events is just opposite: the IPPS statement has garnered 1136 signatures, the open letter to the U Chicago history had something like 1300. The Medieval Academy and NCS and SMFS and many other organizations have demonstrated exemplary leadership and made clear that they support Dorothy Kim. This sense of community is wonderful to behold: I have never witnessed the field so united in an effort to bring about a better future. That is what I am holding onto from these terrible past few days.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Recommended Reading

by J J Cohen

It's been hard to keep up with what has been unfolding. Read this please, among the most important posts the six of us have written for In the Middle. We want a more diverse Middle Ages. We want a more diverse medieval studies. We want both to be empty of white supremacy in all of its forms. We acknowledge the troubled past of our discipline and we strive together with you for a better future.

And, if you need some background, read this excellent overview on stakes and repercussions and moving forward at Quod She.

Onwards.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

In Support of Dorothy Kim

by the ITM Bloggers

Rachel Fulton Brown, a tenured white medieval historian at the University of Chicago, has recently used her blog to attack and disparage Professor Dorothy Kim, an untenured medievalist much her junior. The post foregrounds Dorothy Kim's body as a scholar of color (including the use of a photograph of Professor Kim lifted without attribution and published without consent) and the post belittles Professor Kim's training and intellect  that is, her license for intervening in the field's most urgent conversations. The post ends with the command that Professor Kim "Learn some fucking history." This is not normal scholarly exchange. This is unprofessional discourse by any standard. Just as disturbing is posting pictures of scholars of color to score rhetorical points or to serve the aims of doxxing and harassment. This post irresponsibly misrepresents Professor Kim's work and is woefully under-researched when it comes to both the history of the formation of the discipline (see, among other sources, the work by Professor Kim), the active and inclusive role of the Medieval Academy in the field, and the history of race and its relation to color in the Middle Ages (we have a helpful bibliography here that might serve as a start for those who wish to conduct initial work on the topic, and we highly recommend this essential post by the Medievalists of Color as well).

Rachel Fulton Brown's blog post is ostensibly framed as a response to a guest post on "In the Middle" that Dorothy Kim composed recently about white supremacy and the classroom. Professor Kim's ITM post "Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy" was published with the full support of all six of us the "In the Middle" co-bloggers. Each of us looked at the post in draft and approved the final form for publication with enthusiasm. A renowned scholar of histories of medieval Christian-Jewish enmeshment, Early Middle English literary and cultural studies, critical theory, Digital Humanities (including manuscript studies, sound studies, and media theory), Dorothy Kim is a frequent guest contributor here at "In the Middle." We will continue to welcome her at this blog and do what we can to support her work.

We stand with Dorothy Kim and we recognize that medieval studies is a far better field for her presence.

Karl Steel
Leila K. Norako
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
Jonathan Hsy
Cord J. Whitaker
Mary Kate Hurley

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. 

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.