It’s a well-known saying, a paraphrase of the International Workers of the World organizer Joe Hill’s last words. They’re not easy words to live by.
In fact, I would argue that it’s virtually impossible to organize effectively without allowing yourself time to mourn somewhere along the way. I offer this post as a personal commentary on my own process of mourning, reflecting, and re-engaging, but also as a reminder to other white academics to consider the impact of their public statements and make careful choices at every step. I hope that making these thoughts public will advance the conversation in positive ways, and will also shine a light on certain aspects of the Material Collective’s activist projects–particularly since more of those are now dealing with whiteness and institutional racism in academia. As always, we welcome discussion and critique.
I’ve been struggling a lot with mourning and organizing over the last few years, and the recent publication of Whose Middle Ages?: Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past brought up a whole new round of thoughts on both, and the relationship between the two, particularly as they relate to public scholarship. For readers who are not in Medieval Studies, there has been an important discussion over the last few years about how to address the problems of systemic racism in our field (and in academia more broadly). You can learn more here, here, here, and here. In addition, white supremacists and white nationalists have frequently looked to the Middle Ages to justify their racist beliefs and practices, and we’re seeing a resurgence of that kind of activity in the 21st century. Whose Middle Ages? was developed as a pedagogical tool to counter those inaccurate, far right narratives, and it offers a wide range of excellent essays; unfortunately, the process by which it was assembled reproduced some of the systemic problems in the field.
When the book was released a few weeks ago, it met with an important critique. My essay was put forward as an example of how white scholars’ can erase the labor, insights, and risk-taking contributions of scholars of color. Although I was not involved at the editorial level, I have been working to educate myself in how to be an anti-racist, and as a contributor I should have addressed these issues with the editors and the press. Particularly as someone who has played an editorial role in other projects, I am aware of the sometimes messy ways that such collections come into being. That knowledge should have prompted me to consider how vital it is for both contributors and editors to be particularly sensitive to problems of erasure. Other contributors have expressed similar thoughts:
On a personal level, I definitely needed time to mourn when I read the critique. My essay for the book first developed in the months after my father died, and, I wrote it in tandem with his eulogy. My dad was an “English” (i.e. literature) Professor, but personally and politically, he identified as Irish (specifically as a nationalist, in the popular sense of supporting a united Ireland). He was very attached to that identity, and his desire for cultural belonging fueled my interest in considering how Irish crosses functioned as visual emblems of that sentiment for many people—both in the past and in the present. But that was in the 1990s, when I was more of an academic medievalist and a scholar–before I spent time in the labor movement and teaching in NYC’s public schools. My recent thoughts on “Celtic” crosses and race have been conceived as an organizing tool, not an academic project, and while I still believe that organizing for change can work, it certainly involves its own kinds of blindspots.
I am not a scholar of whiteness or race studies, nor do I anticipate publishing further academic work on the topic of Irish crosses and race. I’m also not a trained anti-racist educator or a person of color with lived experience. I am, though, a person of conscience, and a number of moments in my life have taught me to question systemic and institutional racism. The experience of teaching at an institution whose student population is “majority minority” and heavily composed of first generation college students raises almost daily opportunities to challenge racist systems in the classroom and with colleagues. My experiences studying the arts of Africa in graduate school, and teaching this subject, as well as the arts of the Islamic world, have informed my overall approach to a more global art history. My experience teaching elementary school in the South Bronx and Brooklyn showed me the negative impact of the structural racism in NYC public K-12 education. My experiences as a union organizer taught me to risk whatever privilege I might have for the sake of solidarity, and I hope that my work with the Material Collective can continue to do that.
As I sorted through my emotional response to the criticism, I thought about how my literal white tears related to Robin Di Angelo’s White Fragility, which I read with several colleagues over the summer. Those readings helped me to deal with my feelings in private, and not to derail an important public conversation about structural racism. The members of the reading group were all folks who identify as white or white-passing, and they were among the leadership of the Material Collective and the ISSM (International Society for Studies of Medievalism). I reached out to the ISSM folks because much of my own work has been in the area, and because I feel strongly that medievalism (the study of later receptions of the Middle Ages) is a particularly crucial arena for public statements of anti-racism. Most of the participants in the reading group entered the discussion with true humility and we had intense and productive conversations about how whiteness has shaped our lives and how we might start learning to be better allies to our colleagues of color. The reading group was followed up by a roundtable discussion at the ISSM conference in September, which also seemed to go fairly well. Although I was sad and frustrated that BIPOC colleagues had expressed feeling excluded and/or unsafe in ISSM circles, it appeared to me that some incremental progress was being made in the group and that’s the most I could hope for as a relative outsider myself.
Along with the summer reading group (which we are trying to maintain throughout the school year and hope to revive next June), the Material Collective sponsored a rogue workshop on whiteness at the Kalamazoo Congress in 2019. The session didn’t make it into the program, but we invited a trained facilitator in diversity work to host an important and substantive conversation with leaders from several other professional organizations. We also compensated the facilitator for their time and labor. (Note: ICMS leadership did not endorse the event, but they also did not oppose it. They have clearly taken the 2017 charges of systemic racism to heart and are willing to address it in whatever ways they can.) The Material Collective conceived of the workshop as a way to “get our people,” and we thought that it was important to do the work ourselves rather than asking our colleagues of color to spend their time and energies teaching us how to be less racist.
For the 2020 Congress, we decided to expand that strategy by reaching out to the leadership of several other organizations to co-sponsor a series of workshops designed to work towards being better allies. Our hope is to form a sort of ally coalition, and also to demonstrate publicly that these calls for change are not only coming from a small number of scholars of color. We have partnered with trained facilitators for these workshops. We will compensate these facilitators for their time and labor. (Note: I have also been in touch with the Walker Institute for Race and Ethnic Studies at WMU, although we did not ultimately partner with them.) This strategy seemed like a way to use my training as an organizer to build a real coalition of folks who will listen and work to gain a better understanding of what their colleagues of color experience. The workshops will not solve the problem, but we hope that they will generate some positive conversations.
In the planning stages, I intentionally did not reach out to scholars of color because this seemed like labor white scholars should be doing on our own. In the wake of the discussion around process and Whose Middle Ages?, I now wonder whether I should have instead followed the competing dictate of “Nothing about us without us” and I have also been thinking about the ways in which these events might benefit me. White scholars need to do the work of educating ourselves, but we also have to continually remind ourselves that we’re in the position of learning, not leading.
So, the planned workshops have been submitted, and the names associated with them in the program are all names of white or white-passing scholars. On the one hand, I see how that is whiteness–or at least privilege–at work. My own inability to see the need for representation—in terms of academic CVs, jobs, promotion, recognition, and the financial question of getting travel funding—is a direct result of my privilege in several ways: I can afford to pay the remainder and go even if my name is not in the program, I don’t need a line on my CV, and the topic isn’t something that I need to build an academic reputation on. Because I conceive of my work as para-academic–as activist work and organizing work–I was blind to the potential needs of scholars of color.
I offer this post to invite critique in the hopes that, when we do finally gather in Kalamazoo next May, the discussions can be as deep and meaningful as possible. If that means I need to change the make-up of the workshops to include more scholars of color, I will work to do that. If it means that I need to cancel the workshops altogether, I can do that too. But I hope that, with a little tweaking–or even a lot of restructuring–we can make these discussions happen because I think they’re helping to reach those people who are reachable.
I’ll close with the words of another organizer hero of mine, Walter Reuther of the UAW, who said:
“The time is short. I urge you to raise your voice. We must be heard. We must be heard now.” (– June 1, 1946).
Together, we can be outraged and nuanced at the same time.