Jul 25, 2010

On race and diversity in my workplace

It seems that at the end of every academic year, the tensions that are always, already present in the Department erupt to the surface. Students and faculty write, talk and attempt to communicate. And then the summer comes and de facto aids in the Department's "image and tension management." By the beginning of the new academic year, only whispers and rumors remain of what occurred only a few months ago.
What happened in April-May of 2009 was similar, and yet different. One of the two women faculty of color in the Department left her job. She was a smart and loving person who, during the six years she was visiting faculty in the IDCE Department, had worked hard to try to make it "put its money where its mouth is" regarding "diversity" and social change. It was an uphill climb and she was much-loved, especially by the students of color for her consistent climbs and for her solidarity and support of so many struggles. In 2009, she resigned in protest at what she saw (and I concur) as the Department's lack of commitment to its mission and its claims of social change. The resignation was seen as a bomb blast and there was a flurry of activity including several email exchanges among faculty and students (staff tend not to be put on the communication lists). Many alums wrote in to ask about what was going on, and many of us wrote yet again about the racism in the Department. Others wrote to denounce us. I cannot post all of those exchanges (though I circulated them among faculty, staff, students and alums in an attempt to keep a semblance of discussion alive). Needless to say the euphemism of "diversity" replaced any discussion of race and racism and by Fall 2010, the issue was considered dead as the Cold War after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Below I post what I wrote while on sabbatical in India. Perhaps a conversation may yet emerge....

------ Forwarded Message
From: Kiran/Asher
Date: Wed, 29 Apr 2009 16:56:21 +0530
Conversation: To IDCE students and alums
Subject: To IDCE students and alums

Dear IDCE students and alums

This is a “personal,” (in both senses of the term) message inspired by the message from current students and the one from alums, regarding Miriam Chion’s departure, and about the separate but related issue of “race” and “diversity” at IDCE and Clark.

Over a decade ago, as I was leaving graduate school someone gave me a button which read “Silence is the voice of complicity.” I’ve long lost the physical button, dull gray metal with the words in purple. However, the message though inscribed in my memory came home to me again on reading these exchanges. Thank you IDCE students for not being silent. Thank you for speaking thoughtfully, reflexively and respectfully. Thank you for asking questions so that others too may speak, and thus open possibility of hearing each other (however painful our messages). In short, thank you for communicating.

There is so much that is remarkable about your messages – that you organized collectively to bring together alums across time zones and programs, and current students who are surely in depths of trying to finish their first year or to graduate; that you do not assume that there aren’t differences between and among you; that you came out not only to show your love and respect for a beloved teacher and mentor but also to draw attention to the frightening four-word elephant in the room which includes the IDCE department, Clark University (indeed the country). Of course, these spaces are not unique in having “racial” issues among their/our midst. Given that “race” is one form of power, and power is exerted across history and space, this issue exists across the world. But it is not everywhere the same, nor is it necessarily manifested and dealt with in the same way everywhere, or ignored as it tends to be in our spaces. So what is remarkable is that you are trying to make that issue visible in those spaces so that “we” (here I mean ALL of us) can DO something about it in our spaces. I’m not sure that the “Undoing Racism” workshop is a good vehicle for such doing in a Department where “marked” bodies are such a small minority but who may be called on to make the “unmarked” bodies see what they don’t want to see. And the “unmarked” bodies feel resentful at having to be made to see. At the end of such exercises, I leave feeling more lacerated and more unsafe than at the start of these things. By this I don’t mean to say, “let’s not do anything,” rather I mean that this is addressing (undoing) power and privilege is tricky business and the burden of that trick should not fall on the minority.

That is, it will require speaking, hearing and communicating not by making power absent but by grappling with how shapes us and speaks us differently even as we try to speak against it. This message is already too long, too dense and possibly self indulgent. But as I sit alone in the sweltering heat of New Delhi on the last day of the longest trip “home” in two decades, the only thing that makes me want to get on that flight to the US is that I return to my compañero, friends, and the knowledge that I must take this opportunity (opened by Miriam and all of you students) to build a community-in-exile (and here I think we are all in exile from somewhere and someone).

Before this gets longer and denser let me end by saying that I am struggling to communicate with my colleagues and students. Communicate not in general, but specifically about the issue of race and power. This communication is hard for many many reasons not the least of which is that I find email to be an inadequate (though necessary) means of communication. Communication with my colleagues is hard because over the years we have a history of speaking, (non)hearing, and silence which means risking (more for some than others) the possibility of more misunderstanding and marginalization. I’ll risk making this already-long message longer and append (in blue) my part from an earlier exchanged inspired by a Clark faculty’s posting of Peggy McIntosh’s words (attached). Like most of my communiqués on the faculty list, this one met with silence (except from one self-described curmudgeon who is retired and responds to EVERY message on the faculty list). Communication with “students” is no less complicated as “power” in its myriad forms, including racial ones will crosscut both the form and contents of our conversation. No wonder we balk at tackling that elephant, or approach like the five blindfolded men of the children’s fable. But approach it we must – it’s the least IDCE and Clark can do to honor Miriam Chion’s work and time here.


Kiran Asher
Associate Professor of Int'l Dev't & Social Change (IDSC) and Women's Studies

Spring 2010 Sabbatical fun!

Spring 2010, the second semester of my sabbatical was fun and busy. Here are some of the things I was doing.

April 14-18, 2010. Gender and Environment: Critical Tradition and New Challenges (Panelist), and ‘What do we mean by ‘critical’? “Critical Geographies of Latin America and the Caribbean, Part 3 (Discussant). Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG). Washington DC.

April 10, 2010. “Ethics and Ontologies of Gender Research, Locating the Researcher.” Panelist and workshop leader at conference Rethinking Gender, Power, and Resistance in Latin America and Asia. University of Pittsburg, Pittsburgh, PA.

April 2-3, 2010. “Reading Black/Afro-descendant feminisms: Notes for a Latin American Postcolonial Politics of Difference.” Paper presented at the Symposium on Black/Afro-descendant feminisms in the Americas. University of Massachusetts (UMASS), Amherst, MA

Mar 13, 2010. “Thinking across Borders: A Disciplinary Nomad’s Reflections on Ecology and Society.” Invited Keynote address at the Uppsala-New Delhi Ecology and Society Network’s workshop, Understanding Global Environmental Change: The South Asian Challenge. Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, India.

Mar 3-5, 2010. “Are Disciplines masculine? Some reflections on methods, geography and gender.” Plenary address at conference Contextualising Geographical Approaches to Studying Gender In Asia. University of Delhi, New Delhi.

Feb 25, 2010. (with Mónica Amador). “Rethinking Latin America Beyond the Romance of Resistance.” Invited talk for the Open Thinkers Forum, JNU, New Delhi.

February 17, 2010. “W(h)ither Progress and Development?: Some postcolonial reflections on Science and Social Change.” Invited talk at the Center for the Study of Science Policy Colloquium. JNU, New Delhi.

Jul 23, 2010

On power and privilege at Clark University

Clark is a classic liberal arts college community in New England. There is a faculty listserv for discussions. But few discussions happen online and when they do, it is usually the same three or four male faculty who talk to each other. Every once in a while something comes up -- like a discussion in 2007 about marriage (gay and straight), and something led me to think about power and privklege. And so I posted what I share below on that listserv. I used to lament the absence of dialogues and discussions online. But having seen and experienced the ones that occur, I'm disgusted and silent as I trying to find what lies beyond the binaries of silent complicity and pointless babble, between the personal and the political. My favorite social theorist and the one I consider my mentor would say "aporias"...

----- Original Message -----
From: Kiran Asher
Sent: 4/14/2007 9:04:18 AM
Subject: A message with ...

Dear xxxxx:

Thank you so very much for both your contributions. I was going to thank you in a private email. But since the early exchanges around this discussion of “marriage” sounded very much like a private conversation being had in public, I thank you in public/private. The ambiguous boundaries between those categories serves to remind me of my conversations with feminist mothers and sisters. What I do hope unambiguously is that these exchanges generated a good audience for the panel that NK organized, especially among those of us who were deeply invested in the conversations.


xxxx’s message below also helps me establish another partial connection with the previous thread. Power and privilege do not disappear √ not in the world and not at Clark. They take different forms and often become “invisibilized.” I am glad that folks at Clark are not called “*%&^” to their faces for their race, gender, sexual orientation, political beliefs, nationality, or religion (or lack thereof). But the question is how many people think it and more importantly WHY? As a daughter of Marx and Freud, I would ask how those thoughts and fears get manifested and are part of structured inequalities? As a daughter of Foucault and Spivak, I would ask what doesn’t get noticed and what are the effects of that invisibility? [Yes, I have been reading Haraway recently-- the Companion Species Manifesto --which has much to teach us about love and compassion]. So my contribution to the conversation is to ask those ≥meta questions≈ (I≠m not sure that that is the correct analytical term but I am sure that one of you will correct me). Let us not delude ourselves into believing the myths of liberal equality or denying that masculinist, heterosexist, white, liberal logic prevails in our hallowed halls. Or rather I cannot delude myself into believing the myths of liberal equality.

I end with ... more ≥appendages≈ - a poem by Audre Lorde you≠ll see how it fits with the discussion of privilege, and the other poem ...(omitted here).



Audre Lorde (1970)

There are so many roots to the tree of anger
that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.

Sitting in Nedicks
the women rally before they march
discussing the problematic girls
they hire to make them free.
An almost white counterman passes
a waiting brother to serve them first
and the ladies neither notice nor reject
the slighter pleasures of their slavery.

But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see cause in color
as well as sex.

and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.