Monday, December 09, 2019

#RaceB4Race: Beginnings

by J J Cohen

The following is the draft from a short piece Ayanna Thompson and I composed for an upcoming issue of postmedieval on Confessions. Her section of the short essay explores her nontraditional training as an early modernist and you'll have to wait for publication day to read it. My section relays the genesis of #RaceB4Race (tm) and appears below.  (Notice that we had to trademark it: there is a story to that as well).

Confession: for much of my career as an educator I participated in a system that rewards its most successful faculty (narrowly defined as research productive) with time off from the hardest work of education. I did not labor to figure out how to create ways of providing access to education across the expansive spectrum of society. I quietly assisted in maintaining a system of sorting, exclusion, and concentration of resources. When a university is content to be judged by selectivity (coded as excellence), historical inequalities and enduring disparities are reinforced. On most campuses the Office of Admissions functions as the Office of Refusal, turning away far more than are welcomed, then bragging about a low acceptance rate as if it were a sign of institutional worth. Such a system will strengthen the divisions and segregations that education ought to address. Such a system will consider those forced to the far side of its gates a problem not its own rather than the effects of the unjust structures with which it is wholly complicit. Such a system will envalue traditional, white, elite confederations, leaving to silence difficult stories of race and refusal. Narratives of rebuff are therefore everywhere in academia, from classrooms to the conference circuit. They all tell a version of the same tiresome tale.

The project that is now called RaceB4Race began at such a moment of rejection. Surprise, anger, and desires for a better field were widely expressed across social media in the wake of the exclusion of the voices, talents, and insights of scholars of color at a major (and majority white) conference in medieval studies. But the stakes were always higher than any particular gathering: exclusions upon which the fields of medieval and early modern studies were founded were being enacted all over again, this time by an academic community that would no doubt describe itself as tolerant, inclusive, and “not racist.” Ayanna Thompson has long labeled this model of academic business as usual the Country Club. Those who are not visibly part of a long existing community are in subtle and not so subtle ways told they will be more comfortable somewhere else. They are made to feel unwelcome should they place a foothold in traditional spaces, while behind the scenes mechanisms are put in place to prevent repeated entrance, often because the presence of difference makes too clear the community’s unacknowledged founding charter. The door to the Country Club may be opened just wide enough to illustrate how open-minded those inside hold themselves to be: you’ll glimpse a sprinkling of queer and Jewish folks, some first generation scholars who’ve made a success of themselves according to the rules for what counts as success inside. There may well be some scholars who are black, Latinx, Indigenous, but they have often been admitted on condition of modelling the dominant mode of being a member of that community, and will be quickly escorted to the door if they voice a challenge rooted in their embodied experience or make those within the club feel uncomfortable about themselves or the price demanded for membership. The gate is firmly shut against anyone who disputes the unspoken grounds for admission and success, or who otherwise makes those already within the club feel bad about benefits they have long enjoyed (and believe they have earned through a combination of their merit, excellence, rigor and hard work). Such beliefs are inevitably held without acknowledging that not everyone starts from the same place: the child of two Rhodes scholars enters the world with a portfolio of advantages that most cannot possess. The Country Clubs of medieval and early modern studies in other words default to white (with Christian and elite built into that whiteness), and unspoken bars to entrance and community have been enacted from the founding of the disciplines. The assumption therefore arises that scholars of color will be more comfortable somewhere else, like African American or postcolonial studies, and as they are turned away at the door they need to be civil about their own exclusion. There is nothing worse than making Club members feel ill at ease as they attempt to go about their business of business-as-usual. Or at least that is how the two fields have in a general way worked for a long time. With its capacious welcome of early career researchers and its emphasis on broadcasting the voices of those who have fought against to the Country Club model, often at significant cost to their wellbeing and career, the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies / ASU Humanities project “RaceB4Race” aims to offer an affirmative countermodel to such wearisome configurations.

Ayanna Thompson and I have been friends and co-conspirators for quite a while. For five years she and I had weekly lunches at George Washington University, where we would talk about our hopes for and frustrations with our home fields, brainstorm ways we might make them better, and enable their best missions to converge. The GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (MEMSI) assisted the execution of some of these ideas, but we had trouble securing sufficient attention and resources. After a decade it became clear that the mission of the Institute had run its course, and for various reasons it seemed to each of us that it was time to move on. I departed to become Dean of Humanities at Arizona State University, and Ayanna left at the same time to become the Director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (ACMRS). Our families are close and have gone through many things together, including a relocation from DC to Arizona with our belongings on the same truck. We trust each other deeply. We often urge each other towards the realization of uncomfortable truths and greater striving in the face of occasional despair. That is what good friends do. Because we share the same fundamental values (including pragmatism, action over complaint, challenge, community, inclusion, and collaboration) it is easy to work together. For Ayanna the move to ASU marked a return to what had been her home institution, a mission-driven place that she missed. The ASU Charter speaks deeply to both of us, especially in its opening line: “ASU is a comprehensive public research university, measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed.” That sentence is a salvo launched against the elitism built into most university education, which prizes exclusivity and the cult of selectivity, a narrow vision of meritocracy that undergirds university ranking systems. ASU does not always get things right, but nonetheless offers a powerful countermodel of education as open door.

When the Medievalists of Color (MOC) proposed a series of sessions for the International Congress on Medieval Studies (ICMS) that were turned down by its program committee while similar sessions proposed by white scholars had been accepted, Ayanna and I realized that ASU had a chance to offer a powerful affirmation in the face of this rebuff. We were both new in our jobs and realized that we were seeing once again our fields practicing the worst of the exclusions of which they are capable, and that it would not be enough simply to condemn what had unfolded. We now had resources available to us that our previous positions did not provide: staff, structure, funding, and an institution that we knew would back our congruent visions of what the humanities should become. We wrote to Seeta Chaganti, who had recently published an open "Statement Regarding ICMS Kalamazoo" on the Medievalists of Color website. We thanked her for being a force for good in the field, and asked:
We would like to use some of the resources we have at ASU towards building the future so many of us want (the future that seems to have been rebuffed by the ICMS). What would you think—and what would your colleagues in the MOC group think—of ACMRS creating a symposium around the three sessions affiliated with the MOC that were rejected by the ICMS committee? We are eager to affirm a vision of the field that has been rejected. There is a better way.
The rest is both history and a horizon of promise that continues to beckon. RaceB4Race enabled a convergence between the Medievalists of Color and what has long been known as #Shakerace, a community of early modernist scholars of color and their allies undertaking critical race studies. Both groups have in common painful and often quite personal stories of rejection by “mainstream” organizations and senior scholars for undertaking the kinds of work that challenges the Country Club model, reorienting the assumptions of the field, and interrogating the self image of white scholars who consider themselves “not racist” but practice business as usual all the same. The first RaceB4Race symposium was held in Tempe and gathered about 300 people, many of whom were community members who showed up because they were intrigued by the topic and wanted to learn more. They left delighted, inspired. The second RaceB4Race was held in Washington, DC and gathered 200 people. Both these events were co-sponsored by the Folger Shakespeare Library, demonstrating that hallowed institutions can change when a will exists. The third RaceB4Race is going to be held next month in Tempe. Future sights for this twice a year gathering include Boston, Newark, Toronto, Chicago, and London.

I’ll end by stating what I hope is evident in everything I’ve written: it’s an honor to work with Ayanna Thompson. Some mutual plotting was the germ of the idea that bore fruit as RaceB4Race, but the merging of MOC and #Shakerace scholars was, like the title of the gathering and its welcoming structure, fully hers. The staff at ACMRS worked diligently to mount the three iterations to date; they do so with enthusiasm because they are inspired by this vision of a more inclusive field. RaceB4Race is the future of the humanities, forged through a renewal and a reclamation of its past.