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Catching up on the Winter Privilege Wars

6 January, 2014

One of the things I’ve been doing while hiding from reality has been to catch up on various blogfights. I know, right? (or, if you like, inorite?) Two that erupted over the end of the semester and winter break have really managed to hit high on my “What. The. Fuck??” scale. I’m writing about them together, in the order I heard about them, because frankly, I’m irritated and embarrassed by them. The short version, for those of you who want it, is: 

White people in the US and Europe have no business claiming to be victims at the institutional level. Feminism as defined by the concerns of (largely upper-middle-class) white women, cannot be claimed to be truly feminist. Co-opting the vocabulary of social justice in a way that implies that contingent faculty are victims of institutional prejudice is offensive, wrong, and just plain disturbing on too many levels. 

The first of the social media uproars, blogfights, whatever you wish to call them is one I became aware of through a tweet linking to a site called Hashtag Feminism. I’m not a fan of the site’s layout, but I appreciate the links to this piece at Huffington Post by Adele Wilde-Blavatsky called, I kid you not, “Stop Bashing White Women”, which… seriously? I mean, really? White women are being bashed? Wilde-Blavatsky points to Mikki Kendall’s “dreadful” #solidarityisforwhitewomen Twitter campaign, and to her piece in in The Guardian on Beyonce’s new album as evidence of this so-called bashing. I’m not seeing it.

Before anyone claims I just haven’t seen the worst (although I doubt anyone reading this will), let me say that I’m somewhat familiar with Kendall. In fact, I’ve disagreed with things she’s written under her nom de plume, Karnythia, over the past five or six years. But then I became aware of her in the context of RaceFail 2009. It was an occasion that resulted in some really good posts on social justice, intersectionality, and race; disclosed the levels of rage felt by many people of color; and also presented some nice ironies in intersectionality and privilege, in that far too many of the loudest, most condemnatory voices of self-appointed social justice warriors refused to accept that the definitions and experiences of race in the US (and to a lesser extent, the UK) might not apply equally to all other cultural situations. Many white people, especially well-meaning “allies”, complained that their efforts and good will weren’t properly appreciated. Kendall and others weren’t very sympathetic, and were pretty blunt in saying, “It’s not about you, and if you want to be an ally, don’t keep trying to make it about you.” I should probably make it clear that that’s not where I found cause for disagreement. Places where I disagreed were pretty much what you might expect from me, because they are the same things that cause me to disagree in any discussion, i.e., I hate oversimplification, generalizations drawn from anecdote, and assumptions of bad faith, even when I understand why they exist.

Wilde-Blavatsky’s piece is the sort of thing that makes me cringe, precisely because it reminds me why we need campaigns like #solidarityisforwhitewomen: because white women are still trying to control the discourse. And yes, if you were wondering, I do see the irony in the fact that I am white, a woman, and am writing about what sort of discourse is appropriate. But frankly, #solidarityisforwhitewomen doesn’t make me feel blamed. It doesn’t make me feel guilty. I don’t feel guilty about having white privilege. In fact, I don’t have any white guilt. How can I? I was born this way, and the only thing to feel guilty about would be if I denied my privilege and/or knowingly used it and tried to perpetuate it. I’m nowhere near perfect, and not activist on a grand scale, but I try to be honest and self-reflective and call people on their privilege when I see it. I don’t feel at all threatened the idea that the privilege I enjoy might be extended to others. Having said that, I did sort of hope that change would come in things getting better for everybody, rather than in having our governments abridge everybody’s civil rights. In contrast, I’m embarrassed and offended by Wilde-Blavatsky’s suggestion for Twitter: #stopblamingwhitewomenweneedunity and the Liz Kelly (I think) follow-up: #reclaimintersectionalityin2014. I don’t want anybody to think I think like that. Actually, I just don’t want people to think like that, full stop. It goes to eleven on the colossal appropriation scale.

The other controversy (linking to a heavily linked follow-up by Historiann to save time) that has been making its way through the academic internets may well go to a twelve. Why? Because not only is it a storm caused by accusations of bad faith in Rebecca Schuman’s initial post that then informed people’s reading of Tenured Radical’s responses in the CHE, but it is also one that ends with some appalling applications of Social Justice rhetoric to #whitepeoplesproblems and #firstworldproblems. Dividing people who are T-T or tenured into ‘life boaters’ and ‘allies’ seems to me to be not all that different from trying to “reclaim intersectionality.”

Here’s the thing: the tone argument, and the whinges about silencing, etc., just don’t work. Being a working academic is a choice. Pursuing a PhD is a choice. Both are choices made by people who, by and large, have a shitload of inherent privilege. In order to get to the job market, a person has to have had the sort of background that gets her to, and through, the university, as well as the sort of attitude towards it that gets her noticed by people in the system who will then back her efforts to continue. Some people will have worked far harder to get to, and through, an undergraduate education, but it’s something that confers a sort of privilege on all. I’m not denying that effort and merit are involved, but having an undergraduate degree puts the holder into a different social category. Likewise, the very act of pursuing a PhD is a sign of certain types of privilege.

In order to pursue a PhD, a person has to have more than the skills and smarts for admission to a program. Even if fully funded, grad school costs money. Fellowships don’t pay for setting up a household, for example, or visiting family at holidays. Families, especially those of non-traditional students, don’t necessarily pick up the slack when it comes to a grad student’s family commitments. Working partners (a luxury!) don’t give student partners a pass. Being a grad student (in the US, at least) means having access to good credit and some sort of support network of people willing and able to make sacrifices to help you out. These are things that indicate a certain level of social and economic privilege.

Tangential Disclaimer: I have a university degree because the aspirational members of my working-class family expected it of me. It wasn’t a conscious choice. Most of them freaked out when I said I was going to grad school, because their aspirations were “get the paper, get a good job, get married, have kids.” I only attended because of the Cal and Pell grant programs that paid for much of it, and the fact that I worked 25-35 hours a week for most of the time I was an undergrad AND was lucky enough to have family and friends who rented rooms out to me for well under the going rate. I couldn’t have gone to grad school without a full ride, which I got. Those who know me know that most of my first year of grad school my furniture consisted of a futon on the floor, a table made of a salvaged glass top on two wine crates, four folding chairs and a flat-pack table from Target, and a comfortable chair from my advisor’s basement. It was not luxurious, but it was a choice. I could easily have gone to work and would be in a much better economic situation than I am now. It sucked. My current financial situation is comparatively sucky for someone with my skills and education. I have no hopes of retiring in any comfort, period. But that’s not entirely the fault of the so-called academic system.

So anyway, I find it offensive that anyone who has had the comparative luxury of being able to pursue a PhD should write about the hardships faced by some members of the group within the context of the group using rhetoric adopted from Social Justice and Critical Race Theory. Does it suck that the system relies on too many contingent faculty? Yes. Does the system work against lowercase social justice? absolutely. Should faculty who have managed to get T-T and tenured jobs try to improve the system? Of course. But FFS, fighting for better working conditions for people with PhDs is NOT the same as fighting for LGBTQ rights, or trying to eliminate racial bias. And people who are lucky enough to get jobs — and no matter how good a person is, luck comes into it — should not be demonized for having them, nor for trying to keep them, even if it means they don’t spend their waking hours trying to improve the system.

The truth is that the system is broken to such a degree that no amount of faculty effort, individual or collective, can fix it. The truth is that many of us are working damned hard to keep our jobs, tenure or not. An awful lot of currently employed faculty are, like me, people who spent several years as contingent faculty. We know lots of excellent people who haven’t managed to get permanent jobs, and we probably know some people who have permanent jobs who aren’t as well-qualified as people who don’t. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that they aren’t every bit as good at their jobs, once they have them. And sometimes they aren’t. Life isn’t fair. So Schuman’s implication that those of us who lucked out are somehow complicit in the bad fortune of those who haven’t just doesn’t work for me. Neither does her assertion that people in my position expect to be treated with deference by contingent faculty. The fact that some people behave like assholes, and worse, that they behave that way because they can’t be bothered to look around them and see what’s going on, doesn’t mean that the majority of people act that way.

I get that Schuman exaggerates to make her points, but it’s just tiring. So, for example, her tirade here, the title of which makes no sense, by the way. The sorts of professional things she mentions are not permanent vs. contingent differences. They are ‘people who behave like jerks’ vs ‘people who are thoughtful and responsible’ differences. Show me any institution of higher education where these things don’t come up, and where some faculty end up carrying more of the administrative, teaching, one-on-one-time-with-students load than others, please. Because it happens everywhere. Doesn’t make it right, and it’s definitely a part of the academic ‘system’, but it’s not a Social Justice issue. Nor is someone telling her she should change her tone, or that perhaps it’s her tone that explains why she doesn’t have an academic job. Nor, for that matter, is it sycophantic cowardice to choose to speak out against the injustices (and stupidities) in academia without resorting to shouting and accusing people of being bastards. The system, right or wrong, is inhabited by people who invest a lot in their work, and often feel overworked, underpaid, and under appreciated. Academics in general are fairly insecure: is creating an emotional environment where they feel even less secure going to make things better? It never does.

It never does. Schuman’s rants, and TR’s responses, hold true for any profession, and for society in general. This is another reason I find using the rhetoric of Social Justice in this case offensive: it’s not a clear case of the academic haves trying to silence the have-nots. TR and others are not trying to silence the leader of a national movement to reform university employment practices, let alone someone working against some sort of institutionalized bigotry and prejudice. I am not saying that there’s not a place for angry (sometimes even violent, although preferably not), rhetoric employed to effect changes that lead to a more just society, or to end the oppression of an othered minority at the hands of a privileged majority and its adherents. But by using the rhetoric of Social Justice to discuss academia, Schuman grants contingent faculty the status of an othered minority. It’s appropriating issues of real, lasting societal injustice and applying them to a situation experienced only amongst a relatively small group of people with privilege. By doing so, she shows no more empathy with those who suffer real injustice than do the creators and users of hashtags like #stopblamingwhitewomenweneedunity and #retakeintersectionalityin2014.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 January, 2014 1:57 am

    Thanks! I think you meant to insert a negative into this sentence in your last graph, however: “TR and others are trying [NOT?] to silence the leader of a national movement to reform university employment practices, let alone someone working against some sort of institutionalized bigotry and prejudice.”

    BTW, Tony Grafton mentioned you very warmly in a social gathering at the AHA. I hope you are well, and have a happy new year!

  2. 7 January, 2014 2:29 am

    Thanks! And he did?? I’ve never met him iRL, but I’ve used some of his stuff when teaching Ren-Ref, and have generally enjoyed reading his stuff both professional and scholarly. *goes off to be a fangirl*

  3. 7 January, 2014 3:01 pm

    It is unfair that white men get head pats just for trying. Why give white men a pass?

    • 7 January, 2014 9:03 pm

      nicoleandmaggie — to which white men, head pats, and pass are you referring? None of those things even come up in my post.

      • 7 January, 2014 9:11 pm

        No, white men rarely if ever come up in the discussions of “bad allies” at all. It’s almost always white women. That’s the point.

        This complaint is similar to the observation that Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Meyer are attacked and scrutinized for their views and actions towards women, but Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are rarely even mentioned.

        Hell, even in the comments section here, Scalzi is quoted laudingly (and it is a good post that explains things clearly). But even he is not always perfect on these topics and occasional says things that are terrible or defending -ist assholes. Still, he gets a much bigger pass when he screws up. That’s also privilege.

  4. 8 January, 2014 3:23 am

    Not sure which comments you’re referring to. This is a blog with a lot of different posts on different topics. The post above is not a discussion of “bad allies”, nor does it focus on anything where bringing in white male privilege or head pats for white men would be relevant.

    I am not saying a discussion of those things is not important; however, they are at best tangential to *this* post. It may not be particularly polished, but I spent time and effort on it because I thought the topics were worth thinking about and discussing. If it’s not the conversation you want to have, then perhaps you should look somewhere else for that conversation.

  5. Bardiac permalink
    9 January, 2014 3:53 am

    Thanks. I found this helpful to my thinking.

  6. 9 January, 2014 5:54 am


  7. 11 January, 2014 10:58 pm

    dear lord, I’m sorry I didn’t come to this sooner. Yes. to. every. single. sentence.

  8. 17 January, 2014 6:32 am

    Another great post. 🙂

  9. 23 January, 2014 5:22 pm

    Still thinking about this. The idea coming from Schuman & friends that the only acceptable thing from anyone is that we practically give up our jobs for them, or to all go to 4/4 instructorships so they can keep teaching at the university level, at poverty although not starvation wages.

    But I notice that at an individual level, the various people who I have gotten onto the tenure track from adjuncting, or pulled back from the brink of not getting tenure, or things like this, do not turn into people who would pay it forward — they turn into the kind of person Schuman is complaining about.

    Also, I have been getting unreasonable requests from TT faculty lately, as in, requests that I get the instructors they don’t like fired, or that I do the paperwork to start and run a journal that THEY want us to have.

    All of these shenanigans are just not making me all that well disposed, or are making me think one should not be too kind. I might have to generate an application form, for when people demand “solidarity,” asking them to demonstrate when they have ever shown any.


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