First thoughts in response to discrimination at a conference.
During the conference we have heard comments from the organisers about the need to challenge populism and the rise of the far right across Europe. Being British, I am witnessing first hand the divisive and destructive effects of political discourse shaped by politicians that call for curbs on immigration, vote against equality for LGBT people and disparage EU improvements regarding maternity leave. We live in strange and worrying times, and as scholars we experience both the neo-liberalisation of the academy and increasing institutional pressures to curb our political impulses in the classroom. In this context, our roles as cultural analysts in observing, critiquing and challenging the world that we see around us take on increased significance.
Today, we were given a stark reminder about how the ideologies that we distance ourselves from and try to fight actually seep into our offices and onto our campuses. In the morning’s keynote, we learned about the racism and nationalism that dogged Münsterberg in the US and led to warm greetings turning to curt nods – or no acknowledgment at all. We heard about how he suppressed his Jewish identity to assimilate and how his German ancestry still cast him as an outsider. However, contrary to our false and bourgeois perceptions of discrimination, he wasn’t being othered by the working-class or the uneducated but by the ‘smart’ people within the university system. I was struck by the parallels with the current situation in post-Brexit Britain, where racist attacks have surged across the country and where Vice Chancellors are making lists of scholars with ‘foreign-sounding names’ to send passive-aggressive emails about people’s statuses as employees and citizens.
The keynote’s contention that Münsterberg’s Jewishness underpinned The Photoplay caused me to reflect on something that bothered me throughout the conference. That concerned subjectivity. For when we talk about spectators in The Photoplay, to whom do we refer? Who is the imagined spectator that inhabits the auditorium? What is the spectator’s experience and how does that inform their understanding of moving images? Many presenters supposed that the spectator was a theoretical, figurative and all-encompassing cipher. But as a film and cultural historian, as an intersectional feminist, I do not recognise a universal spectator that embodies all identities. My approach insists that the spectator be specifically, culturally, and historically located. We can never know the identity of Münsterberg’s imagined spectator. That said, I am confident that the spectator does not represent a woman. The spectator is not black. The spectator is not Muslim. And ignoring the general tendency in history to prioritise narratives about white men, in a society that is a long way off post-racial or post-feminist is, I argue, a problem.
Indeed, for me, the privileging of white men’s experiences has permeated the conference in an unpleasant way. For example, senior male participants advised me not to draw attention to sexist comments during the peer-review process to protect me from being deemed ‘hysterical’ by journal editors. Apparently ignoring misogyny will serve my career better than calling it out, and the men in a position to help change that culture instead decide to perpetuate it. I was told that to deal with sexism I should ‘grow a thicker skin’; the man advising me was unable to comprehend that as a feminist scholar I can take criticism while also recognising negatively gendered commentary. The implication is that because I am a woman I cannot cope with criticism, which ignores the fact that I have had to take more criticism, deal with gendered bullying and fight harder to achieve an academic career because I am not a man.
Moreover, one male conference participant disdainfully questioned what I would hypothetically do at a US job interview if I were asked ‘how to deal with students from non-traditional backgrounds’. The question was geared to undermine my feminism by tripping me up on race, and he made it clear that he expected me to fail when answering. I asked for clarification about what the term meant and the scholar uncomfortably and with contempt sought to explain that it was about race - although he had to resort to euphemism, and ableist language, because he could not bring himself to verbally acknowledge black students or other students of colour. He did eventually land on Hispanic, though even this made him uncomfortable. I responded without discomfort because I aim to make my teaching and mentoring inclusive and ensure that ALL students, whatever their colour, gender identity, sexuality, or physical ability, can access the support they need. I don’t claim to get this right all the time or to be outside criticism in how I understand intersectional experiences. Nevertheless, inclusivity is part of my everyday vocabulary and trying to enact equality is one of the few ways I can make a meaningful difference as an academic.
Of course, it is naïve to assume that is the case for all scholars. Another man at the conference proclaimed he would never give ‘non-traditional students’ who have language difficulties the kind of assistance I offered. Together, the two men were perturbed at my response and suggested that I would be more likely to get a job (they were presuming that I don’t already have one) than the more junior of the two of them because I care about supporting my students. I inferred that this was a Bad Thing, and I have never felt more alienated from academic colleagues than at that moment. When the younger scholar implied that I got my new lecturing post because I was prepared to be different and ‘break the mould’ by making what he considered inflammatory statements (aka being feminist), rather than through hard work and academic achievement, I found it hard to believe what I was hearing. When the pair continued by telling three feminist scholars that women would find it easier to get jobs than men, and that men experienced sexual discrimination on the job market, their rewriting of the hierarchies of gender and race in the academy was complete. And there are other examples of their privileged world view that are too numerous to elaborate here.
The men in question hold positions of responsibility within our academic community and yet show disdain for their students and for their colleagues experiencing discrimination.
Let me make this clear: we have colleagues at the conference arguing that white men are the victims in patriarchal and imperialist Western culture. I do not seek to undermine the work done by any of my male colleagues but one glance around a lecture room at the conference proves otherwise (and see below for some hastily assembled statistics refuting their claim). Let us also recognise, all of us, the whiteness that permeates our offices and affords us platforms and positions of power denied to others. Let us not accept discriminatory comments or ideology and let us create a fairer, more equal environment. If we do not talk about subjectivity, if we ignore the divergent experiences affected by race, gender, gender identity, class, sexuality, education, language, physical ability, then we will fail in that endeavour.
We should pay attention to our differences not only to call out inequality and suffering, but also to learn about, celebrate and understand one another’s encounters with the world, and to empathise and to fight for equality.
I am not looking forward to returning to the UK tomorrow as once I’m home the consequences of Brexit will become all too real. But for the first time I am glad to leave a conference and distance myself from what has been a revealing and entirely saddening insight into the insidious nature of white male privilege.
I recognise that the views of individuals do not represent the host institutions. But racism, misogyny and other forms of discrimination exist within our specific organisations and our broader academic community, and we must re-evaluate the structures that not only protect such views, but also make speaking out so difficult for those affected by them. If we are to avoid the nationalism and racism that affected Münsterberg a century ago, if we are to have any real impact resisting inequality in the wider world, we must look inward as well as out.
We must act.
The examples of inequality below are quickly assembled with bad web access in a hotel – the list is (sadly) not representative of the all various forms of discrimination experienced in Higher Education.
Only 85 of the UK’s 18,500 professors are black, and only 17 are black women (source)
There is only 1 university course in the UK specifically exploring black histories and cultures (source)
Under a quarter of professors in the UK are women (source)
On average, women academics earn £6,103 per year less than their male counterparts (source)
Differently abled students are not always supported enough at university, causing them to drop out (source)
Sara Ahmed’s blog about her experiences in Higher Education and resignation
Media Diversified’s site dedicated to exposing racism in all its forms