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When I was a graduate student at Emory University in 2018, the law school suspended a professor, Paul Zwier, for using the N-word in class. Zwier’s response to the suspension was strange. Inside Higher Ed reported on a letter in which he said, “I’m not sure whether I used the ‘N-word’ because I don’t remember consciously choosing to use the word.” Above the Law also reported that the N-word was used in another Emory class on Federal Indian Law. More recently, at the end of May 2020, Stanford law professor Michael McConnell read a quotation containing the N-word in a course on the U.S. Constitution. As in the Emory example, this was not an isolated incident. In November 2019, a guest lecturer had used the N-word in a torts class at Stanford, the Washington Post story went on to say. And like Zwier’s strange response, McConnell noted in an email that he used the word “with good will.”
I’m not interested here in whether the professors were justified in their actions, even though I don’t see an argument in their favor. What I want to highlight is that prominent news outlets considered these incidents newsworthy. Yet, when a law professor writes a letter of introduction or recommendation, or serves as a reference for a student who wants a job at a big law firm that defends banks that fund oil pipelines that cross and contaminate Indigenous and Black communities, the same outlets remain silent. In those cases, there is no disciplinary action on behalf of the law school. On the contrary: everyone seems to know that supporting corporate colonization is part of the law professor’s service on his way to tenure.
One sign that we are beginning to understand structural racism in this country will be that we become as upset about a professor’s letter of recommendation to colonial institutions as we are about the words he reads from documents in his classes.
For many news outlets and other academics, condemning Zwier and McConnell functions like a bumper sticker in a faculty parking lot. It builds a sense of belonging or community without really addressing the underlying structural problem. Just as a Love Trumps Hate sticker signals that you condemn hate speech, noting the problems with Zwier’s and McConnell’s claims signals that you don’t think this is actually a “free speech” issue.
But, just as most people with environmentalist bumper stickers continue to drive their cars, many people who rightly condemn the high-profile actions of Zwier and McConnell still work in ways that maintain structural inequalities. Both Zwier and McConnell can count among their critics former students who now work at corporate defense firms, notorious for undermining union rights, as well as faculty members who refuse to support graduate student and university employee unionization in any active or substantial way. Their criticism signals to the world that they are not racist. However, their daily practices maintain patterns of labor along oppressive racialized lines.
My sense is that part of why a professor saying certain words is condemned while writing recommendation letters is not, is that the general understanding of political belonging in the U.S. has become increasingly individualized. In her book Comrade: An Essay on Political Belonging, Jodi Dean challenges the contemporary political imaginary among the U.S. Left. “Under conditions where political change seems completely out of reach,” she laments, “we might imagine political work as self-transformation. At the very least, we can work on ourselves.”
Indeed, one popular response to contradictions in the lives of elite progressives is a call for self-reflection. When I was drafting this essay, White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, was the #4 bestselling book on Amazon (it has since dropped out of the top ten). White Fragility frames problems of racism as problems of individual comfort. It is hard, the subtitle says, for white people to talk about racism. Discussions are needed to cultivate white progressives’ reflexivity, a combination of self-awareness and education in a process of moving through defensiveness.
In an interview with the Guardian, DiAngelo explained how white fragility reinforces racism: “Our voices have been missing from the table for far too long.” She is talking about white people. The table here is one where there is a discussion about race. I think she misses the larger point: white voices have dominated the table for far too long. We talk about the cars and homes we buy. We talk about our 401Ks. We talk about where we send our kids to school. We might not say the N-word, but we have been talking about race.
Through the pedagogy of white fragility, racism becomes understood as a personal, psychic problem. In practice, despite White Fragility’s emphasis on racism’s not being limited to individual acts, follow-through on becoming an anti-racist looks like poring over manuals and attending self-improvement workshops or dinners, even to the tune of thousands of dollars.
A critique of class is often lost in these classrooms. To tarry with one’s race in a perpetual examination of one’s inner life can permit harmful or oppressive practices in one’s daily life. This brand of anti-racist still wears his expensive sweater (sewed where and by whom?), buys his coffee with an American Express card, or condemns whiteness from his condo in Vail, to cite examples I have witnessed in academic, organizing, and church groups.
Too often, the end of this inquiry is the admission of guilt and complicity, which should instead be a starting point for action. Increasing one’s own guilt or that of others should not be worn as a badge of honor. There are more, and politically better, options than self-flagellation or calling out. The worthwhile move is from confessional and even critical statements to actions that challenge dominant institutions, to use the terms of Barnor Hesse’s framework.
But, white fragility never breaks. Reflection on whiteness rarely causes the anti-racist to break with his professional associations or property holdings. Whiteness remains fragile but doesn’t break because its framing of the problem itself leads to individual signals more than shared struggles. The lens of whiteness focuses on “positionality” and privilege, not political participation and demonstrated commitment. Canceling and calling out is much easier than building collective political bonds and making sacrifices with a view toward a different order.
A different book for our times—currently number #6,415 on Amazon—provides an alternative understanding of race, labor, class, and the environment. In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon writes, “For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.” Not increased guilt, not the paternalistic amplification of marginalized voices—land.
I bet settler South Dakotans would feel uncomfortable repatriating the Black Hills. So too would the Emory and Stanford professors in repatriating their property on Indigenous land.
As I write now from St. Louis, the Jesuits of St. Louis University are seeking the descendants of those their university enslaved. Their goal appears to be reconciliation without rectification. “If the conversation doesn’t include renaming buildings and reparations,” Rep. Raychel Proudie responded to receiving a letter from S.L.U., “I am not really sure what there is to discuss.” If it is getting easier to talk about race in higher education, it remains hard to talk about racism in terms of labor and land.