Thursday, September 28, 2017

Where do we go from here?


My last post here, about racism and what I think of as ‘medievalfail’, I ended with hope because of what N.K. Jemisin had to say about similar events in science fiction and fantasy fandom (and scholarship): good came of them because the status quo doesn’t change without major disruption.

The past couple of weeks have seen an extraordinary backlash against progressive moves in medieval studies, aimed initially at Professor Dorothy Kim (again. See Quod She for an account), and now a smear campaign against Professor Adam Miyashiro. Both are shocking in that the attackers have turned not to other academics for support (although social media shows there is some within our disciplines), but to right-wing outrage machines, drawing in actors with no knowledge of our fields, no allegiance to scholarly integrity, and a history of organising harassment so bad he has been permanently banned from Twitter.

I’m still reminded of SFF, and I’m still hopeful because I’m reminded of SFF. In that sphere, after the initial turmoil of RaceFail09, there were – and still are – concerted backlash campaigns of harassment and abuse and attempts to ‘game’ the Hugo Awards perpetrated by groups calling themselves the ‘Sad Puppies’ and ‘Rabid Puppies.’ Their particular (although not sole) targets were women of colour (sound familiar?) who they claimed were successful because of ‘political correctness’ rather than talent. Damien Walter suggested the opposite in The Guardian last year: “I say it [the Puppies’ campaign] is to sponsor awful writers.” Although they did manage to disrupt the Hugo Awards for a few years by ‘slate stacking’ nominations, a process that was within the rules but against common practice and community ethics, they’ve lost and are becoming increasingly irrelevant. And as I wrote last time I posted, N. K. Jemisin – one of their main targets – has won the last two Hugos for best novel. So, I am hopeful.

But if the various unpleasant Puppies have lost some momentum, they’ve also been actively resisted. SFF hasn’t gotten better *just* because of social media campaigns and discussions and fights, although they matter and can important ways of resisting. The disruptions are important but they don’t have lasting effects if that’s all there is. The disruptions matter because they make people, more people, pay attention and care and act.

Not everyone can do the same thing to make medieval studies less racist. As Kathleen Kennedy pointed out on Twitter, 70% of medieval studies scholars are in the precariat. Not everyone is in a position to take a public stand, for many different reasons.

Change happens because we make it happen, but we don’t all have to do the same things and we’re not all able to. If you’ll forgive me the swerve over into early modernity, John Milton wrote in “They also serve who only stand and wait.” We can’t all, to keep borrowing from Milton, “post o’er Land and Ocean without rest.”

Many of those taking a public stand are not in a safe position to do so, and become less safe when they act and speak.

White medievalists, we need to do more, we need to care about our own feelings less. We didn’t earn our privilege – that’s the whole point – and if we didn’t ask for it we’ve still benefited from it. We’re playing the game on a low difficulty setting. Being uncomfortable is not the same as being unsafe. We may become less safe, but we are not targets just because of who we are, by our existence.
So what do we do? What can we do? I don’t have all the answers, but here are some general ideas that I’ve learned, mostly again from SFF fandom and scholarship and the collective work of many people there:
  • Accept and acknowledge that medieval studies has a racism problem and that it’s not just a ‘few bad apples’ or whatever. Our whole inter-discipline was built to bolster whiteness and justify colonialism and imperialism. Literally, European cultures got interested in the Middle Ages right at the time biological concepts of race went mainstream. If we can’t even acknowledge that how can we be sure we’re not still doing the same things, standing on the shoulders of racist giants?
  • Listen to people of colour and believe them when they talk about racism they have experience/seen/noticed in your syllabus
  • Do your research! It’s not up to people of colour to educate you if you don’t know what to do/ if something is racist (here’s a tip, if you’re not sure don’t say or do it or like it on social media).
  • There’s a good chance that a person of colour has already answered your question/ talked about the issue online generally, even if not in direct relation to the particular text or context. Try finding out before you ask for that work to be done again.
  • Don’t assume that your minority friend/ fellow faculty member is there to do the diversity work. They have experience as a person of their own identity, but it’s not necessarily their scholarly field of expertise (I know next to nothing about queer theory). A single minority faculty member does not equate to diversity.
  • Do your research again! If you don’t know what to do or how to do it then find out. You have excellent research skills, use them
  • If you’re white and feel uncomfortable talking about racism, stop to think for a minute about how people of colour feel because of racism. And they don’t get to just not talk about it.
  • Think about racism, think about structural and systemic racism and how to change it.

Many people have been putting together resources and doing other really practical things that can help us change our field. Here are two places that resources have already been compiled:

I don’t have all the answers and I know others will have practical suggestions, resources and general ideas that I haven’t thought of or don’t know about. If you have something – a syllabus, an idea, a reference, I hope you feel safe to share them here in the comments. If you don’t feel safe DM me @heyouonline and I’ll post them for you (with a note saying it’s not my idea). If that doesn’t feel safe then if there is anyone you trust (doesn’t have to be in medieval studies) get them to pass it along.


L Ramey said...

Thanks so much for doing this. I hope people will add many resources-- that would be so helpful. Here is a link to a syllabus I use to discuss race in medieval and early modern French literature for graduate students. Undergrads could also do this, with selections from the primary sources rather than the entire books. Please forgive mistakes and omissions, and I update it all the time, so I welcome suggestions!

L Ramey said...

Revised comment due to mistake in URL - syllabus here: