Session Proposal: Speaking Silence: Race, Racism, and Feminism in the Academy

Michelle Moravec and I are interested in a discussion of the risks of speaking and silence when race, racism, and feminism are the topics of conversations.  The starting point for this conversation will be a few blog posts that exemplify both ends of the spectrum–the silence and the speaking.  In May 2012, I wrote a blog post titled Of Clicks and Cliques: White Women, Women of Color, Diversity and Tension. Michelle Moravec wrote a response (because hard questions deserve answers), and we hoped for a dialogue around the recurring tensions between white women and women of color in the academy. The posts were met with silence. Although my post generated 130 visits to my blog in just a few hours and remains the most visited post on the blog, very few women responded, and of those who did (mostly via e-mail), Michelle was the only white woman to respond. Almost a year later we both watched as Tressie McMillan Cottom asked what seemed the most mild of questions about the silence surrounding “The Onion’s” slur against little Quvenzhané Willis: Did White Feminists Ignore Attacks on Quvenzhané Wallis? That’s An Empirical Question. The backlash didn’t just come from defensive white women on twitter but, as McMillan Cottom recounts in a follow-up post (On White Women’s Anger), from Women’s Studies faculty enraged by her question.

We are interested in a discussion that aims to get underneath both the silence and the speaking (and the shouting). If, as so many have argued, social media and digital communities can be a space for open dialogue, why the silence? Why the shouting? And what do we do with the fact that when a white feminist wrote on the same subject (On Quvenzhané Wallis ) she got a very different response?

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About Patricia Matthew

I am currently the department Romanticist at Montclair State University. I specialize in the history of the novel, specifically during the Romantic period (1790-1830), and am writing a book on the intersection of literary history and nineteenth-century medicine. I have also edited an anthology about race and tenure in the humanities.

10 Responses to Session Proposal: Speaking Silence: Race, Racism, and Feminism in the Academy

  1. Kim Hall says:

    I like this proposal so much! This silence about race is not unique to the digital world (see the essays of Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua or almost any feminist of color who was in the academy in the 70s & 80s), but it does seem to have taken on a different dynamic. Or is it because I feel like more is at stake because the conversations are both more public & more anonymous?

  2. “Or is it because I feel like more is at stake because the conversations are both more public & more anonymous?”

    I think this is interesting (and since I’m sitting here having a drink with Michelle, I can say she thinks it’s interesting too!). Michelle pointed out some new language we might think about in our discussion tomorrow: online disinhibition effect. (for more see here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Online_disinhibition_effect)

  3. Tressie says:

    Cheers to you both for taking this issue up as a matter of serious inquiry.

    I am also intrigued by how these episodes intersect with social media/online spaces. You would have thought that would generate more anonymous attacks, particularly for the more contentious comments. However, my experience is that many academics felt rather comfortable using their names and institutional affiliations, even when the comments they were leaving went beyond the bounds of what one would say in peer review or a conference setting. I’m not sure what to make of that, but it is interesting. Perhaps there really is no expectation of collegiality, online or off? Or we’re reproducing the same offline status hierarchies that stifle minority perspectives online?

  4. Rosa E. Soto says:

    I assume you have already seen this text, but much of the above is agonizingly addressed in this text.

    www.amazon.com/Presumed-Incompetent-Intersections-Class-Academia/dp/0874219221/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1363444311&sr=8-1&keywords=presumed+incompetent

  5. I have seen it, and it looks terrific.

    Could you perhaps suggest a specific essay from the book? It would be a useful reference.

  6. Here are some questions/issues we’ll be taking up (thus far):

    Who gets to pose critiques of white feminists and mainstream feminism?

    Is this a generational problem?

    Is the problem with three-dimensional people of color as opposed to representations of people of color as subjects in texts and studies

    Is it the fear of saying the wrong thing and being called a racist that leads to silence?

  7. Tennille Allen says:

    This looks amazing and is so necessary.

    One thing that propelled me to attend graduate school was my wanting to explore what I saw as an inherent contradiction within the Black Power Movement in that they demanded liberation for all African Americans and preached and practiced subjugation of African American women. That some call for freedom and social justice while not realizing or checking their complicity in the oppression of others has puzzled me. Though my interest in the BPM waned, I still pondered this contradiction and see this as I read and interact with many White feminists. How can a truly liberatory feminism ignore issues of poverty, immigration, sex and sexuality, and/or race…? How can feminist truly interested in and dedicated to justice become angered or offended when their ignoring/ignorance of issues of poverty, immigration, sex and sexuality, and/or race…?

  8. Thank you for this, Tennille! I will definitely raise these questions, especially this last one because I think it gets to the heart of things.

  9. Kim Hall says:

    Is it possible that some of the online silence around issues of feminism & race from white feminists who should know better some misconceived form of “respect”? That is, waiting for feminists of color to speak first? (This category of course does not include various forms of dismissal/deflection from women who identify as feminist)

  10. Pingback: Clicks and Cliques: Part III (The THATCamp Converation) | Written/Unwritten: Tenure and Race in the Humanities

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