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Response to 'Slippage Essays' from Grace Pusey

jccohen's picture

Thursday, December 31, 2015


Hello! I hope everyone is having a restful winter break. I know that the fall semester has passed, and people have probably long moved on from class discussions about the Black at Bryn Mawr tour you took in September 2015. I’ve been mulling over your responses to the tour on and off for a few months now. I’m not sure that this process has been especially productive for me, or if it will translate into a particularly clear or cogent response, but I’ve finally decided to respond because I don’t think I’d still be mulling over your essays in December if I didn’t feel strongly about them in some way. I do apologize for my less than ideal timing.


Rather than responding to some twenty-odd essays individually, I have chosen to respond to people’s essays as if they were a single body of thought. My critique is targeted primarily at what appear to be the most widely agreed-upon criticisms of the tour. I’m writing mostly to process my own thoughts, so my tone here is impersonal and casual, and I appreciate your patience with any typos or run-on sentences I may type. I understand that some people had strong emotional reactions to the tour and may not want to revisit them, so while I am open to hearing any responses you may have, I certainly don’t expect them. Prioritizing your well-being is important, and for some of you that may require totally disengaging from all things academic during winter break, so I’m sensitive to that, too. In short, I won’t think of anyone any less for not responding, because there are any number of reasons people may decide not to engage what I write, and I don’t get to speculate about which reasons are legitimate. I do want to state that my intention is not to come across as confrontational or off-putting. I try to be conscientious about how I say what I say so that even if I disagree with people they still know that I fundamentally care about them and want to see them succeed. I hope I communicate that effectively here.


First, I want to stress that the Black at Bryn Mawr project was Emma Kioko’s idea. Emma identifies as a Black woman, and she worked hard last fall (2014) to get her idea for a historical walking tour off the ground. Her efforts are the reason that Monica and I were invited to collaborate with her in the first place. The name for the tour was Emma’s choice, a reclamation of a title on one of the few archived pamphlets designed to recruit Black students to the College in the late 1960s and early 1970s.


The project’s mission was shaped by community-wide conversations that took place after two students hung a Confederate flag in Radnor Hall in September 2014. In these conversations, community members repeatedly articulated a need to build institutional memory of Bryn Mawr’s historical engagement with racism in order to empower future community members to better hold themselves and others accountable to racial power dynamics on campus. In November 2014, Emma and I drafted a learning plan for the Praxis III Independent Study course that would launch the Black at Bryn Mawr project in Spring 2015. Rather than targeting the project’s critique at the flag or the students who displayed it, Emma and I took a decidedly Baudrillardian approach: in tandem with the stated goals of the campus-wide demonstration that took place in late September 2014, we set out to show that the real “scandal” was not the flag or the students who displayed it, but Bryn Mawr’s long legacy of unsafety for marginalized groups. To delimit the project’s scope and maximize its impact, we structured the project in accordance with three core principles: 1) The project needed to focus on the experiences of Black students, faculty, and staff at the College from its founding in 1885-present, not because we deemed the histories of other marginalized groups unimportant, but because centering Black histories seemed most appropriate given that the Confederate flag -- the symbol that catalyzed our community (re)education project -- was an icon tied to American slavery and Jim Crow terror in the South, and Black students had been the ones to spearhead student organizing in response to it; 2) The project needed to be publicly accessible so that future community members could use this history as an educational resource; and 3) The project needed to offer multiple avenues to engaging Bryn Mawr’s Black histories so that no one would leave the College without *at least* having heard about the project. By December 2014 we had mapped out a semester-long project with three key components: a blog, a walking tour, and a digital historical record.


From students’ responses to the September 2015 tour, it is unclear to me whether or not people were aware of Emma’s role in the project, or if people simply deemed her role irrelevant because she wasn’t present. We always preface the tour by explaining the project’s origins, and since May 2015 we have been careful to note Emma’s instrumental role in getting the project off the ground. Most students’ responses seem to indicate that they were aware of her role in the project when they wrote their essays, so I hope it doesn’t seem unfair to infer that the second scenario is the case. Reading statements like Emma “moved on” from the project after graduating while I “continued to invest” in it troubles me, because this phrasing seems to imply that Emma no longer has a stake in the project. As the project’s innovator, chief organizer, and co-researcher, Emma definitely retains a stake in the project, both emotionally and intellectually. She has a stake in its continuation, its presentation, and in how it is perceived. She has continued to collaborate on the project remotely and provided feedback and support since May 2015. The tours represent the most visible aspect of the project, but the bulk of the labor that goes into the project takes place behind the scenes. I don’t want Emma’s relationship to the project to be overlooked or minimized just because it’s not as visible or extensive as it used to be.


At the time your class took the tour in September, the project was going through a transitional phase. I agree that it’s uncomfortable for none of the primary decision-makers on a project about Black history to be Black, but we never imagined that this would be the project’s permanent status. One of the things I worked on over the summer was preparing to transfer the project to other students. I didn’t want to recruit co-researchers or tour guides until I was sure that students would be compensated for their work, however, because one of my primary concerns was that Black students -- who ostensibly have the most immediate stake in the project’s continuation -- would be the group most interested in continuing the project, and it wasn’t acceptable to me, as a white student, to set a precedent that Black students would produce scholarship which benefits the entire community for free. I can’t confidently recall that I discussed steps we were taking to secure the project’s future during the tour you took, but Monica and I did talk about this at length at the “Black at Bryn Mawr: What’s Next?” Diversity Conversation that took place the following week, which one or two members of your class attended. In November 2015, the Friends of the Library funded two part-time student research assistantships specifically for the Black at Bryn Mawr project, and these positions are currently filled by a Black student and another student of color. (To clarify, they are not research assistants to *me*, but to the project itself; I do not supervise their work.)


On a related note, one of the most frequently asked questions we get on tours is whether or not we considered incorporating oral histories with Black alums into our research. The short timeframe we had to plan the project in Fall 2014 precluded this possibility because we didn’t have time to submit a proposal for IRB (Institutional Review Board) approval with enough of a margin to revise/resubmit if our proposal was rejected. However, one of the things that the project -- particularly the tour -- has done is helped us identify people to talk to about their experiences at Bryn Mawr, and made people who never thought the College would be interested in their stories aware that the institution is now (unofficially) backing a project that cares about collecting and preserving their memories. Monica is currently pursuing a pilot oral history project with Bryn Mawr’s Black Alumnae Leadership Circle and intends to incorporate it into her upper-level history course on Race, Gender, and Campus Memory in Spring 2016.


My point, I suppose, is that it’s not like we weren’t planning ahead; these things just take time, and we hadn’t put all the pieces together by the second week of the fall semester when your class took the tour (how could we possibly?).



I want to take a moment to address the specific claim that Black students were unaware of the project until it was finished. This statement surprises both Emma and me. Emma reached out to members of the Sisterhood and NAACP in September 2014 to gauge their interest in doing this project with her, but didn’t get an enthusiastic response. (Monica and I are big public history/archives/digital humanities nerds, so when Emma proposed a historical walking tour we were both 100% on board. We didn’t decide to pursue it as a Praxis III Independent Study course immediately, however -- that was a joint decision Emma and I made after taking stock of the College Archives and estimating how much work it would be/ discussing how much time we could reasonably devote to research if we did it as an academic course vs. as a volunteer project/ thinking about the kinds of professional support, guidance, and structure we wanted to have. The idea of taking on a research project, especially one of this magnitude, without the promise of pay or academic credit may have been significantly less enticing to some folks -- see my above point about compensation.) The project was designed to culminate in the walking tours, which took months of meticulous research, planning, and organizing; this may have been the reason that some students didn’t know about the project until we debuted the tours in April 2015. Still, more than 1,300 people followed our research blog even before we debuted the tours, and our presentation at the March 2014 Community Day of Learning (Race and Ethnicity at Bryn Mawr and Beyond) was one of the day’s best-attended events, so hearing people say “nobody asked us, we never knew about it” puzzles us. During the course of the project we built and sustained mutually supportive relationships with the Africana Studies department, the Relaunching Perry House Committee, and the Black Alumnae Leadership Circle, sent special invitations to campus affinity groups, and collected feedback on every tour. The project has always welcomed constructive feedback, so if people felt hurt they weren’t asked to join the team, there was always an avenue by which they could have communicated that to us. I don’t mean to imply that the claim that some Black students were unaware of the project is untrue, nor is it my intention to dismiss this concern; but I don’t think the fact that we’re only hearing about this now, and only through the grapevine to boot, reflects a lack of transparency or a lack of effort on our part to solicit student input or build relationships with key constituents.  


I also gather from students’ responses that there is some misunderstanding of how historical research works, which contributes to their feeling that the tour failed to meet their expectations. We couldn’t, for example, interview students who organized demonstrations, marches, and protests without IRB approval, which, as I’ve mentioned before, simply wasn’t an option for us given the short timeframe we had to plan the project last fall. Nor would this have been something we necessarily wanted to do, given that it would have been a significant demand for emotional and intellectual labor that Black students were already performing -- labor that current students could (and still can) readily access either by doing a quick online search or by attending events hosted by Sisterhood, Mujeres, BaCASO, the Enid Cook ‘31 Center, etc., where student organizing in response to the Confederate flag was (and remains) an integral part of many conversations. Instead, the Black at Bryn Mawr project critiques how coverage of student organizing has been archived by the College in the past and encourages students to reassert control over the College’s historical record by saving photographs, pamphlets, meeting minutes, and other documentation of their work to be archived for future community members. It’s the same situation with College staff, except that there’s an additional risk attached -- for people currently employed by the College, sharing negative experiences they’ve had on the job could potentially compromise their employment status, and it seems insensitive/unfair for students to ask staff to put themselves in that situation.



But more saliently, I object to the expectation -- no matter who voices it -- that Emma should have channeled her scholarship or activism through any form of identity politics (though it seems especially strange for someone to demand that a person conform to their preference for political expression vis-a-vis identity politics when they don’t personally identify as a fellow member of that person’s group.) It’s one thing to say, “I only want to hear about Black histories from Black people because my experience of conversations about anti-Black racism with white people (and/or people who aren’t Black) have uniformly been (or have a tendency to be) unproductive and frustrating”; I respect and affirm that this is a real need for some people, and I acknowledge that I have no authority/no right to police this, because I should not get to decide which experiences are hurtful or traumatic enough for other people to “deserve” my respect for their boundaries. If this is what happened, I definitely apologize. If there was a way (or ways) I could have been more proactive about supporting students’ well-being, e.g. by letting Anne and Jody know that I am white and asking them to relay that information to your class ahead of time so that no one would feel caught off-guard or coerced by this experience, I’d appreciate that input so that this issue can be addressed in a way that best suits people’s needs.  


I don’t get the impression that this is what anyone is really arguing, though. Instead, the general consensus seems to be “white and/or non-Black people interpreting Black histories is bad politics/morally reprehensible because they don’t know what it’s like to be Black.” (I also think I’m hearing “who cares about/needs history?” from some folks, but I’ll address that separately in a minute.) This second argument -- that white and/or non-Black people interpreting Black histories is bad politics/morally reprehensible because they (we) don’t know what it’s like to be Black -- quickly veers into problematic territory because, generally speaking, insisting that only X people can talk about Y thing creates the impression that there is (or should be) a single X perspective on Y thing, and that’s never, ever true. While I’m sympathetic to the fact that it’s often easier/more expedient for some people to collapse the first argument into the second than it is to repeatedly put themselves in emotionally taxing situations where they are forced to defend their totally legitimate, no-ifs-or-buts-about-it boundaries by excavating deeply personal hurts for listeners already disinclined to believe them simply because they are X, the second argument is epistemic violence. False claims of uniformity don’t help anyone, and we don’t help anyone by acquiescing to them.


Allow me to insert multiple caveats here: I am not wholly or even mostly against identity politics; I acknowledge that identity formations have actual material instantiations, and that dismissing identity politics out of hand actively harms people by destroying the only avenue most people have to petition for reparations from the state; I believe that critiquing identity politics responsibly requires us to think seriously about what it would mean to fashion counter-hegemonies in, as, and around the relations of social difference and domination that identity politics reifies and incorporates; and furthermore, I’d concur with anyone who argued that a more obdurately radical politics doesn’t come about through ever more ingenious thinking (though the two aren’t unrelated) -- it comes about through smarter organizing, through the accretion of cultural and institutional spaces in which to imagine and begin to enact departures from current systems of racial capitalism, settler colonialism, and cisheteropatriarchy. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I think one of the most eminently sensible ways for those of us who are serious about redressing the underrepresentation of faculty of color at Bryn Mawr (and at institutions of higher learning generally) is to amplify the contributions of scholars of color by taking stock of our citation politics -- whose ideas do we cite and why?/who do we seek out for expertise?/to whom do we ascribe expertise?/who do we credit for influencing or being instrumental to our thinking?, etc. -- which is one obvious iteration of identity politics that has the potential to do enormous good when practiced in the aggregate. There are other ways to support and engage identity politics on a daily basis, such as making space for and engaging the contributions of students of color in class, amplifying their activism on social media and participating in demonstrations when asked (or after verifying that your presence is cool with the organizers, and always participating in appropriate ways, etc.), supporting their boundaries/needs for space (by respecting students’ requests not to take tours of the Enid Cook ‘31 Center uninvited, for example, but also by attending public events in that space, thereby supporting its longevity and asserting its value to the community), by going to events sponsored by affinity groups, and by making a concerted effort to show up to lectures, panels, and presentations when the speakers are people of color. The examples I’ve listed are but a few possibilities -- they obviously don’t even touch on specific ways to support faculty of color or housekeeping and dining services staff.


What’s unproductive and harmful, however, is distorting identity politics to frame contributions from scholars of color -- whether deliberately or unintentionally -- as worthy and valid only insofar as they are rooted in personal experience (or at least some type of close emotional connection to their topic -- “this isn’t me, but it could be me” kind of thing.) There’s a difference between saying, “hey, the perspectives of people of color are important and deserve to be heard; here’s what we can do to support them,” and *expecting* this kind of emotional labor/intimacy/vulnerability from people. If we frame the contributions of scholars of color as worthy and valuable only or primarily because their insights are steeped in personal pain (or some plausible personal connection to the topic, which causes them pain) then we create spaces that are 1) unsafe for people of color who *don’t want* to divulge or dissect their emotions in public; 2) absolutely toxic for people of color to debate differing ideas, because the chief evaluative criterion that they/we have for their ideas is how personal (and personally painful) they are; and 3) fundamentally distortive of the connection between personal experience and critical thinking, which engenders resistance to considering or engaging the experiences of people of color intellectually at all. All of these things *actively* make it *easier* for people to dismiss the contributions of scholars of color as “irrational” or “insufficiently abstract,” and they *strip* scholars of color of their agency by disallowing them the freedom to speak and be heard within the realm of accountable reason. For these reasons I think the only responsible reaction to this argument is resistance, even when challenging it is personally awkward.


If I’m missing some nuance or misinterpreting the argument I think people are making, please don’t hesitate to correct me. What I think I’m hearing, though, is that I failed to develop a rapport with the group during the tour because my presentation of our research findings (body language? tone? etc.) didn’t resonate with people on an emotional level, that the emotional distance people sensed between me and my research was attributed to my being white, and that this issue could be resolved if I were Black (or if a Black student gave the tour.) If we set aside the potential issues with this argument I’ve outlined above, and set aside for a moment that the proposed solution is already problematic because it doesn’t take into account the distinction between Black people who are *marginalized* at Bryn Mawr (students) and Black people who are, and always have been, *excluded* from the College’s intellectual community (housekeeping/maintenance/dining services staff), and even set aside the assumption some people seem to have made based on this premise that, if I were Black or if a Black student were giving the tour, the content of the tour would be fundamentally different/have an alternate focus (which I would go pretty far to assert isn’t true, given that a historical tour was Emma’s idea in the first place, that my involvement was contingent on the skillset I had as a history major with public history/archives/digital humanities experience, that Emma has intellectual co-ownership of the tour’s design and content, and that I don’t change or alter the tour except to add things I’ve researched on my own since May 2015 out of respect for her and her work), there are still a few things about this argument that I feel need to be addressed. First, yes, it is fair to assume that the emotional distance people detect between me and my research is because I am white, and I have reflected on this dynamic here and here. But it’s also something I do deliberately. I strive to support all the claims I make on tours with as many examples as possible and to be as careful and specific about presenting our findings as I am able, which may make me come across as emotionally distant, because I *know* that white supremacy actively seeks to discredit and destroy projects like these, and I am aware that even one factual inaccuracy, no matter how small, can jeopardize the project’s reputation and compromise its mission, perhaps irreparably.


And so -- please don’t think that I’m trying to be mean, but it’s difficult for me to overcome my personal frustration with this -- 1) it really surprises me that people are aggrieved by this, and that some have gone so far as to insinuate that I mock the experiences of Black people by presenting our research findings in an informational tone; 2) it troubles me that I encouraged students to ask questions and share their thoughts during the tour and no one brought this up; and 3) I have a hard time feeling like my intellect and integrity weren’t called into question when people chose to publish their criticisms (many of which were aimed at me personally, some of which seemed unaware of or indifferent to the degree of emotional havoc they could wreak, all of which were published under anonymous usernames) to a public forum without factoring my response into the picture. There is a difference between the kind of writing-in-public that we do for the Black at Bryn Mawr project and the kind of writing-in-public that students do for class, but we all write as part of an intellectual community, and the Honor Code still applies. For example, responding to my comment on Anne’s essay by saying that my amended response to the question someone asked during the tour about why Perry House was taken offline in 2012 was what they expected my answer to be in the first place (I had originally said Perry House was taken offline because it had fallen into disrepair, and that the reason it had fallen into disrepair was because repairs on other dormitories -- which housed more students -- were assigned priority, but in my comment on Anne’s essay I amended this answer to suggest that we may find that different stakes are raised around the issue when we take into consideration how the College has been racially engineered in such a way that it has enrolled fewer Black students than white students since its founding), my reaction is to wonder why, if someone expected my original answer to be different than the one I gave, didn’t they say anything? What about my presentation of the tour, specifically, made people feel as though they couldn’t speak (or perhaps more accurately, couldn’t say certain things, since your class was a wonderfully talkative group otherwise?) Regardless of whether someone took my amended answer and pretended it was their own idea in order to undermine me or genuinely thought of it before I did and just didn’t share it with the group, this kind of behavior is uncharitable at best, manipulative/condescending at worst. I assume good intent on the part of everyone involved, but I don’t get the impression that anyone stopped to ask, “I wonder how I would feel if twenty-six people published anonymous criticisms of me to a relatively well-trafficked community forum on the internet; would that affect me in any way? Could it potentially negatively affect another individual? What is the hoped-for outcome in this situation? What power dynamics are at play? Would the harm my actions might inflict be justified? How do I make that call? What’s the protocol for handling conflict in our community? Am I being fair?”   



Finally, I want to briefly address the “why history?” sentiment that seems to be shared by some people. I worry that this argument isn’t so much an argument as it is an anti-intellectual attitude, a reflection of a lack of understanding disguised as unwillingness to understand -- or perhaps (even more uncomfortably) as knowledge. Even if we don’t personally comprehend the appeal of a particular scholarly discipline, that doesn’t give us carte blanche to reject it as a tool for understanding the world. Political and cultural power is defined, to a large extent, by the ability to control social memory, to dictate which narratives represent truth and which narratives are false, unreliable, secondary, or unimportant. Taking a historical approach to Black experiences at Bryn Mawr casts into relief the ways in which the institution itself functions as a political project, one built on the labor of Black women for the benefit of white ones. The historical narrative we produced contextualizes Black students’ organizing efforts in response to the Confederate flag as onestoryamongmany in a long history of Black students’ resistance to the College’s white supremacist foundations. And as a metanarrative, it complicates and subverts Bryn Mawr’s portrayal of itself as a historic bastion of empowerment “for all [emphasis added] women of intellect and imagination.”  


In short, the Black at Bryn Mawr project makes an argument about the College as an institution. The hanging of a Confederate flag in a campus dormitory provoked outrage at 1) the symbol of the Confederate flag itself and 2) the students who displayed it for their perceived transgression of community values, but the incident wasn’t a “scandal” in the Baudrillardian sense because -- as Black students have long intuited -- peeling back the layers of Bryn Mawr’s history reveals that these community values *never existed in the first place.* M. Carey Thomas, Bryn Mawr’s second president from 1894-1922 and the College’s primary architect, envisioned the institution as a place where white women could be groomed to inherit a role long occupied exclusively by white men: ruling over men and women of color. Having an all-Black and predominantly female domestic staff served to reinforce and amplify students’ status-markers of wealth and whiteness, and even Thomas’ successors found that recruiting students from elite white families in New York and the South, and subsequently catering to their prejudices (and their expectations for a certain kind of lifestyle, sustained by Black women’s domestic labor), proved essential to securing and maintaining the College’s financial stability. What the Black at Bryn Mawr project strives to do is to expose the simulacrum, to show that the Confederate flag doesn’t represent an aberration from the norm, but is instead *just one of many plausible manifestations of the norm.* It’s like the proverbial village where everyone who drinks water from the well gets terribly sick -- we can either develop treatments for people’s symptoms, quarantine people we think are infected/who we think are spreading the disease, do our best to manage the epidemic and minimize its harm, or we can all walk over to the well and ask “what the heck is in this water???”.


To this point, the project does not purport to “tell the whole story” -- which historians recognize as necessarily impossible -- but makes an argument about *why* certain stories have been left out/marginalized within the (capital S) Story the College tells about itself, and discusses what those absences/peripheries reflect about the institution’s priorities. Similarly, it does not aim to “speak for” Black students, faculty, or staff, but asks the community to listen to and actively support them. Contextualizing Black students’ organizing in response to the Confederate flag incident within this larger history isn’t a maneuver to distract people from the present moment, but a strategy to amplify, buttress, and sustain their organizing by bringing the full weight of the institution’s history to bear on the community’s response to their cries for justice. Nor does the tour usurp their air-time, unless we treat space for Black voices on campus as a finite resource (which hopefully people who take the tour are *less* likely to do.



The full title for the Praxis course we proposed was “BLACK AT BRYN MAWR: Past as Legacy and Project: Re-Remembering Black Experiences at Bryn Mawr College,” which I think was a pretty prescient choice for what we hoped to accomplish. Ultimately, our hoped-for outcome from the tours is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” and we hope our research findings help people to see the College as both a legacy and a project of which we are all -- wittingly or unwittingly -- a part. We do this work with the faith that, by sharing this history, we may encourage ourselves and others to think about how we are interpellated/roped into spontaneous consent by these matrices of domination and inequality, and work from there to unravel them for future generations.


Again, if you have any questions, thoughts, etc., please feel free to share them. I wish you all a happy new year and the very best of luck in the spring semester and beyond.

Grace Pusey, BMC ‘15