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