Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Unbearable Whiteness of Medieval Studies

a guest post by Dorothy Kim

[ITM has been publishing as blog posts the presentations from the New Chaucer Society congress session "Are We Dark Enough Yet? Pale Faces 2016." Here are the pieces by Cord Whitaker, Candace Barrington and Wan-Chaun Kao. This collaboratively shaped roundtable pondered the ways in which literary medieval studies has both changed and resisted some profound challenges to its self-identity over the past decade and a half. Returning to the theme of Carolyn Dinshaw's 2000 Biennial Lecture in London "Pale Faces: Race, Religion and Affect in Chaucer's Texts and Their Readers," presenters wondered about diversity among medievalists, the place of the personal, the matter of race, and the decolonization of medieval studies as a discipline.  Please share and add to the discussion -- which has now become even more urgent and timely -- JJC]

The Unbearable Whiteness of Medieval Studies: Post-Brexit, Post-Trump

This post began as my talk at NCS 2016. I have added more at the end to address post-Trump era and the US Elections.

On Saturday, July 9, 2016, my colleague and collaborator Helen Young and I met up in Brixton to go to the #BlackLivesMatter protest in Windrush Square which was named after the 1948 ship, the Empire Windrush, that brought several hundred Jamaicans to England. This immigration has been touted as always the beginning of multicultural Britain. The protest started with a number of speakers who brought up the connections between #blacklivesmatter in America and the conditions of the black community particularly in Brixton because Brixton has had a long history of police abuse and violence. The speakers connected US racism with British imperialism, settler colonialism, and postcolonialism. They discussed how they were a diaspora and how the British fight for #blacklives is also about Brexit, austerity, gentrification, the abuse toward detention and asylum seekers, and also about how #blacklivesmatter in education and in history. Numerous times, speakers pointed to how much British history and literature is white history and literature. And how no one seemed to have ever been taught by teachers who looked like them.

We, as academics, should not be shocked by this emphasis on education and the complexion of the academic world. It has been an ongoing campaign here in Britain under the hashtag #WhyIsMyCurriculumSoWhite? The discussion of this means is clearly delineated by the National Union of Students on their site:
“Universities in the UK have operated under a colonial legacy, perpetuating ‘Whiteness’ both structurally and in the confines of knowledge reproduced. Symptoms of a White curriculum can be seen far and wide, from the glorification of thinkers such as Galton, to the distinct absence of academics not racialised as ‘White’ from faculties, reading lists and ‘core’ subjects.”
These issues of curriculum and bodies in academia are intertwined. They cannot be uncoupled. In relation to curriculum, Britain is not the only country where students have demanded a change. Likewise, you see this also in the US with #blacklivesmatter protests in the university and have seen it in our field of English literature with the protest at Yale regarding the core canonical authors class. In those demands, Yale English students demanded to know why their curriculum and core required class is a bastion of colonial male white privilege. They want their classes decolonized and they have, of course, named Chaucer as part of the problem.

In South Africa, this has sparked a huge student push in activism with the hashtag #RhodesMustFall. The point is to address how to decolonize a university and its curriculum (starting with the University of Cape Town). This piece by Surren Pillay, given as a talk in 2015 crystalizes this issue and has so much resonance now in a post-Brexit and post-Ferguson world:
“But we have to ask ourselves always, what more can we do to work towards undoing the epistemic violence of colonial knowledge? Should we settle for a supplemental concept of history, where we now add African Studies onto the existing curriculum with the danger of once more ghettoizing it from the other mainstream disciplines? Or, do we have to reconfigure the entire curriculum in ways that allows us to think the world, now equipped with the intellectual heritages that we have been taught to ignore from across the previously colonized world? …How do we recruit new knowledge into our universities that breaks with geographical and linguistic apartheid so that the antiquated idea of a Department of English can be a department for the  comparative study of Literature? And how do we bridge the continental fault lines between Anglophone, Francophone, Lusophone, and Arabic knowledge? And should a decolonized knowledge project ask questions about the work that the disciplinary forms of knowledge do to reinforce unequal power relations or inhibit our thinking about certain objects of knowledge in particular ways?” (
My answer is a resounding YES. We must do all these things to decolonize medieval studies and particularly medieval English studies. And if we consider our disciplines histories, English studies was already always about the world (and the non-white world) before they became part of white English canon.” I also suggest reading this great piece about British universities (

Gauri Viswanathan wrote in 2014 in the preface of her 25-year anniversary republication of the now classic “Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India” that now “Perhaps the most significant effect of postcolonialism—with all its shortcomings, blind spots, and metropolitan evasions—is that the curricular study of English can no longer be studied innocently or inattentively to the deeper contexts of imperialism, transnationalism, and globalization in which the discipline first articulated its mission” (xi). She points out in this study but also in thinking of the work done since the first publication of her book that English literature as a field has a very short history (150 years) and in fact began as a colonial project and thus was formed internationally before become a “national” literary field (xii-xiii). We need to ask ourselves as Viswanathan suggests: “precisely where is English literature produced?” I was particularly delighted to note that in her preface the work that most impressed her in “refocusing attention on the linguistic, literary, and cultural hegemonies that established the terms of colonial identity and difference” and “succeeds in disrupting some of the national geographies and periodizations that generally structure disciplinary identifications” (xiii) was the volume edited by Patricia Ingham and Michelle Warren, Postcolonial Moves (Palgrave: 2003). As medievalists, we have a view from the past that already should see medieval English studies as already always global, inclusive, multilingual, multicultural.

At Leeds last week in a late-added session on #femfog, a number of medieval panelists noted the issue of the whiteness of medieval studies. Christina Lee said that Anglo-Saxon Studies has a whiteness problem. Another panelist suggested outreaching to high schools in order to change the complexion of our classrooms. However, I would like to point out that this suggestion is part of the problem. #WhyIsMyCurriculumSoWhite and other campaigns, researchers, highered critics have discussed how the best way to make the field more inclusive is to make the bodies teaching in permanent positions less white. The assumption that was made when this suggestion was made at Leeds is that somehow we have a “pipeline problem.” This is a myth, just like, “broken windows” is a myth of how to fix an inequitable system.

We know that UK universities have a dismal record of diverse faculty. In 2011, the Guardian reported there were 50 black professors in a field of 14,000. In 2013, 17 was the count of black women professors. The US does not get off so easily either. The numbers are down in relation to black faculty in highered institutions in the US in the last decade. And if we didn’t have over 3,000 Historically black colleges and universities who employed 97% of black faculty in the US, those statistical numbers would plummet dramatically possibly down to the UK’s current .3% range. In the United States, the demand for our curriculum to change, for our universities to decolonize have come from #blacklivesmatter and student protests have prioritized in their top ten lists of demands an increase in black faculty of 10% campus wide, thus, on par with the percentage of black students on campuses.

I knew of at least seven people of color this year who were on the job market in N. America and Europe in medieval English (widely). Though there were not a huge number of jobs, can we guess how many of them were hired this year. The answer is none. Again, we do not have a pipeline problem. Instead, the question is what are you doing to change the complexion of your departments, the complexion of your field. Let us do some radical counting. Let us look at what you have answered in your surveys. [I asked everyone to answer two questions at the beginning of the talk: 1. Tell me how many faculty colleagues you have who are POC 2. How many of them are medievalists?} How many of you have medieval colleagues of color in your departments as faculty? Talking is all well and good, but isn’t it time to actually do something to change the complexion of our departments and our discipline. I gave the inaugural talk at Yale’s DH Lab this winter. I spoke about “Decolonizing the DH.” The points I gave there can be applied here: Are you creating research grants and fellowships specifically for POC who are graduate students and faculty? What do your keynotes and panels look like? What does the complexion of your departments look like? And finally, do you even know the POC in the history of medieval studies? I recently found out that Carter Revard, whose work I know from his excellent discussion of the early 14th c. Harley 2253, is also a famous and reknowned Osage Native American poet and Native American Studies scholar.

The framework for this session was to ask Why are we so pale? I would say, the real framework should be, what do we do to make it less pale? I am interested in action not in rhetoric or discussion. Post-Brexit and in the wake of another round of wrenching #blacklivesmatter protests, we don’t need more discussion and really more white guilt and fragility, we need commitment and action to fight for inclusiveness, equity, and justice for POC.

Post-Trump and the anniversary of Kristallnacht
Nov. 9, 2016
"Thanks to the white people who voted for hate, 2 million people are about to lose their health insurance with the repeal of the ACA. 3 million American Muslims are at risk of being sent to internment camps or deported. Roe v Wade might be overturned. Planned Parenthood is at risk of getting defunded. Forget getting equal pay for women any time soon. Every executive order that President Obama signed to protect LGBTQ folks is at risk of being overturned. We've lost the chance at a liberal supreme court. Black people will continue to get shot by cops, not to mention that might increase thanks to Goldemort's call for stop-and-frisk nationwide. And forget comprehensive legislation for either gun control or immigration reform. This is also the guy who wants to overturn birthright citizenship. Thanks to white people voting for the hateful xenophobic racist misogynist, we're about to lose 8 solid years of progress AND may soon be seeing America's more fascist side.” (A Graduate Student)

Today in Philadelphia, there was Nazi vandalism on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. The US Elections and the white nationalist agenda delivered Donald Trump the White House. The statistics of the election show that white men and women (and a lot of them with college degrees) voted for racism, sexism, xenophobia, ableism, etc. What they voted for was to keep white supremacy and whiteness as the center and power in this country. This violence is only the beginning. We can see what happened in post-Brexit England to view what will happen to black communities, POC (particularly Latino and Muslim communities and anyone else seen as an immigrant), LGBTQA friends, the disability community.

Medieval Studies, you are at a crossroads. Why do I say this? Because Medieval Studies has become the historical belly of white nationalism and white supremacy. If you don’t believe me, then read this really insightful Washington Post article about Derek Black: “The White Flight of Derek Black” . As an academic community (because the contemporary publics do not ignore this) you must face our field’s long history and current complicity in white nationalism and what we see happening now on both sides of the Atlantic. What will you do to make sure that Medieval Studies is not imagined as an academic space that upholds white supremacy? What will you do to make sure that students don’t imagine that if they take a medieval studies class it will be a lesson in the centrality of white nationalism? Not addressing this, not considering how you have not decolonized our field, your research, your pedagogy, in fact bolsters white nationalism. Neglect and silence are not an option, and in fact make you complicit in upholding systems of white supremacy/ white nationalism."

But what about the bodies in academic medieval studies—the researchers, graduate students, the undergrads? Academia is a toxic white space and also an incredibly antifeminist one. What these twinned events (Brexit and a Trump presidency) will have done is basically make all of us who are not white, cisgendered, Christian, heterosexual upper middle class males targets. This is not just about implicit bias anymore, this is about virulent aggression and violence towards anyone who does not fit the image of male white supremacy and white nationalism.

Being silent, accommodating this, hoping that it will go away will only put the bodies not welcome in these spaces further in jeopardy, further in danger, further from ever being able to be in these spaces again for their own safety. Do not tell your students that you want everyone to come together. The students who do not have white male cisgendered bodies are targets and will see Medieval Studies as the center of the white nationalist patriarchal agenda.

In other words, medievalists wake up.

Your colleagues and students are now specific targets of virulent attack, not just bodies that have to deal with implicit bias and a host of daily microaggressions. There is going to be no progress in our field in academia against racism, sexism, transmisogyny, ableism, xenophobia, antisemitism, Islamaphobia, etc. Medieval Studies doesn’t even have enough POC to become 1% of the population of Kalamazoo. We are going to be driven out not by implicit systems of discrimination and small cuts but by larger, virulent, and a more bold and vocal whiteness and white supremacy.

What are you going to do about it medievalists? Will you hide and just hope that being silent will allow you to be overlooked? That somehow it really won’t change the conditions of your life in academia? Will you comply with the academic structures that mean you uphold white Christian able-bodied men at all junctures? Let’s call it what it is, will you collaborate? If this is your thought or answer, this is also your incredible privilege. Guess what, it completely changes the bodies in this field who do not have your cisgendered, white, male, Christian privilege. Your silent, tacit, or enthusiastic compliance will mean these bodies will be violently driven out of the field.  

What happens in Medieval Studies is not my choice. It is your choice, my white colleagues, to shape what this field will look like. Will you be silent in the hopes that you will not be a target? Or will you defend and fight tooth and nail for your vulnerable colleagues? If you choose to comply, we will be gone from this space. Medieval Studies will be seen as the nexus of white nationalism and be a space in which any student of color, queer student, disabled student, and women would feel that your classroom is a hostile space of white masculinity and white nationalism. But hey, maybe that’s how you imagine Medieval Studies will be saved from the chopping board of austerity. Your version of Medieval Studies will uphold the white nationalist interests and thus will be enshrined as canon and also be given money. Your choice also means the rest of us who do not have this privilege will disappear from this academic space. It means Medieval Studies will continue to be known as a space of white supremacy and virulent sexism filled with “nice, silent” white men perfectly willing to grab all of us by the “queynte” without consequence. No one will even realize we were ever here.

What can I do you ask? Do the work and fight for us in every arena, if you do not, expect this field to look the way it did in the nineteenth century when it was explicitly formed to help distinguish European White history from the history of non-white colonies. Your good wishes and intentions and feelings that you are good people are not going to help any of the bodies not normal in this field be able to survive Medieval Studies.

I don’t want this Medieval Studies. This is not my Medieval Studies, but I am enough of a pragmatist to realize that it is many people’s Medieval Studies in this field. What are you going to do to fight this? What are you going to do to make sure these bodies don’t disappear from the scholarship, the conferences, the classrooms now and in the future. Be assured, we are going to disappear without intense fighting from our white colleagues to keep us here. The pressures of virulent and implicit white supremacy have already begun to make us disappearing acts. Or let me be even clearer, your marginalized colleagues are going to be attacked and run out. What are you going to do about it?  It is on you what this field will look like, what reputation this field has now and in the future. 

We get this week to mourn. Next week, let's get to work.

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


Fr. Gawain said...

Many years ago I read a poem from the 17th century that had been written by a semi-famous English poet, mocking English claims to ethnic purity. It referenced the many invasions and immigrants that had created England.

I'm wondering if that sounds familiar to you- I remember reading it, but I never bookmarked it.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Gawain--the poem you're thinking of is probably "The True-Born Englishman," by Daniel Defoe, published in late 1700 or early 1701.