preface OR white tenured professor mourns an imagined bygone era
A few months ago, I had a conversation with a professor in my department. It was one of those long meetings where we ended up discussing just about everything. This particular professor enjoys a prestige and esteem most would find enviable. And he wielded his status like a weapon, in the ways professors of such clout typically do. As we were chatting, I began to unfold my aspirations and my fears for the coming years. As I feel like everyone knows at this point, I am planning to take the next two years to study for my dissertation, conduct some archival research and write my dissertation, presumably and preferably away from campus. I’ve thus been in the process of applying for grants to fund these two years of travel and study and was asking this professor for advice. Interweaved into this conversation were my inevitably legible trepidations about my job prospects. Comp Lit at Yale has a decent hiring record, but the lack of any semblance of institutional support for my research project and the rather vague and open-ended image of my dissertation committee has left me with a feeling of insecurity I’m sure won’t go away until I’ve accepted a job offer somewhere.
As we chatted, the professor made a perhaps unanticipated move. Reading my discomfort, which had been considerably reined in over my two years here, he made this statement: “You see, Xavier, you don’t have to worry as much as other students. There are plenty of programs and departments looking for precocious African-American applicants.” This isn’t the entirety of his little discourse, but I’ll stop the playback here just to make a not-so-quick, passing comment. There is indeed an anxiety for humanists in the University. Having a PhD from Yale, arguably the best graduate school in the country, will not guarantee you a job at any university or college. There are indeed Yale PhDs stuck in the infinite loop of adjuncting at several different colleges and universities, hoping to scrape together the time to get that article out or finish those edits on that dissertation chapter or get their Ford Foundation postdoc application sent off. And while our university enjoys the fact that the pool of people doomed to this undesirable but not entirely terrible existence is markedly smaller than the pools of “lesser” schools, one’s admission to Yale is not a first-class ticket to career success. I chose to come to Yale because I bore this fear inside of me before I even knew what grad school meant. I knew, two years ago, that I needed to have a job at the end of this journey, and that I would do everything possible to secure myself as a competitive candidate for postdocs and tenure-track positions at the end of this endless marathon. And I do not doubt that most of the Black and brown students I’ve had the fortune to befriend feel similarly. The academy for us is not so much a refuge as a site of what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call “theft;” you get in, you seize your information, reap the benefits, commit tremendous amounts of office pilfering and money grubbing, and make your way out. Or at least, this is the ideal relationship to an institution whose history is predicated on your nonparticipation, on the convenience of your controlled presence. I do not doubt that my blackness, this thing you push onto me, will curry favor with certain hiring committees. I do not doubt that my first or second jobs may be awarded to me based, perhaps, solely on the fact that I am a Black person well-versed in 20th century French continental philosophy, rather than a white guy with the same qualifications. And this does not bother me so much, if this happens in a way which is graceful. And by graceful, I mean, I must not know that the reason for being hired is because I am Black.
Resume transmission. “It’s almost a bit unfair actually. Yes, I think it’s important that we continue to diversify the professoriate and that we address some of the long-standing structures of injustice which have kept African Americans out of the academy. Yet, I worry that it sets a dangerous precedent concerning the actual labor of scholarship. I chaired a dissertation years ago by a white student who didn’t get any jobs. The dissertation was great, and I didn’t understand how he couldn’t have been considered anywhere. I can only assume it was because he was white.”
I feel the need to underline here that this transcription of my professor’s comments is, of course, paraphrased. My memory is not good enough to recall every noun and preposition of what he said to me, three or four months ago. Yet, the idea remains rather plain in what I’ve recreated (or reimagined). Even when swathed in the performative gestures of multiculti liberalism, the acknowledgements of the lacunas and structures of violence we call a history, the deferential and self-flagellating affect of white guilt, the sentiment remains crystal clear: you are stealing our jobs. You pose a threat.
Immediately, I made it clear that we do not know why this applicant didn’t get any of the jobs. I want to say that I said something along the lines of “Maybe he just sucked?” although I’m certain I didn’t. Yet, I did question whether the person did poorly in their interviews, or simply was not as brilliant and competitive as this professor had believed. The unspoken discourse of my professor’s words, spoken in a moment of honesty and frustration, and responding to a general disenchantment and future threat, was that things are getting harder for white people in the world, in the academy. There was, in his voice, on his brow, in his words, a fear of a brown future.
Fear of a brown future OR critique of white mediocrity
I’ll make an audacious statement: most of the white people I’ve met at Yale and Swarthmore have been mediocre. Before you jump down my throat, calling me all sorts of potentially not untrue things, I’d like to underline what I mean by this. By mediocre, I am not passing a subjective comment on the quality of their work or the acuity of their investigative skills. Who am I, really, to pass judgment on people, when I know so little about their work or their inner lives, their motivations, their frustrations? At the same time, the source of their mediocrity is not their ontology as white people. There is nothing fundamentally mediocre about white people, nor is there anything fundamentally superior or brilliant about Black people, be them in graduate school or delivering pizza, or both. What I mean by this statement is far more disenchanting. There is an adage which Black parents often tell their young children as they indoctrinate them into the cult of nonbeing we call race-consciousness: “When you’re Black, you have to work twice as hard to get half as far.” At first glance, this statement is a racial cliché and a technology of self-denial. It underlines the imposition of unfairness as a kind of lived experience for Black people as something which must be endured, while deliberately omitting the ways that whiteness requires the Black subject toil twice as hard, only to be denied access to spaces in which white mediocrity is the norm.. While this quote illuminates the means of “survival” in a hostile world on phenomenological grounds, this quote nevertheless tells us something about the subject which remains offstage: the white person to whom this adage does not apply. The Black girl must toil and labor to get into the AP class, not because she must overcome the intellectual handicaps inherent to her Black atavistic body, but because the world has set her apart from white people of equal intelligence, has told her that her intelligence is lesser by devising exams designed for her to perform well (because she is bright), but not as well as the white boy (because she is Black). Yet, race cannot be really understood in a vacuum, for race is but one means of categorizing the human, and all humans bear multiple competing and complementary categories. The Black girl studying to pass her AP entrance exam does so because she is likely poorer that the white boy of equal intelligence, and thus cannot afford the Spanish tutor / MA student at Rutgers, and cannot afford the textbook that the Spanish tutor / MA student at Rutgers has selected for his tutee, the perhaps rich but definitely not poor white boy. The Black girl has to make do by talking to the Dominican laundress at the end of her hallway, by watching telenovelas on channel 6 and listening to bachata on Spotify while she does chores. Both pass the exam, but the white boy seems to have a much more solid grasp of the grammar of the language. He can spit out conjugations and tell you how to use relative pronouns and can even read novels in Spanish. And while the Black girl can hold a conversation in Spanish better than the Black boy, can understand almost everything her Spanish teacher says to her, rather than gather the gist of what is being communicated, she nevertheless performs worse than her peer. The reason for her poorer performance is not because her skills are not useful; reading, writing, listening and speaking are all essential tools to really using a language, and everyone who learns a language is familiar with their weaker areas. She performs poorer than the white boy because her knowledge of the language, her relationship to Spanish, is not translatable to the exams her teachers give her, or the AP exam looming on the horizon. Despite being comparable in their prowess, the Black girl must push forth and learn all the skills the white boy knows in addition to mastering the skills she has already gleaned but which hold no strategic value. When the exam arrives, both of them take the exam, and both of them in the coming weeks receive their 5s. But the white boy has had a tutor the entire time, speaking a pristine pedagogical, perhaps even Castilian Spanish, and homegirl has been virtually teaching herself.
This scenario may seem contrived, but this is invariably the situation under which Black and brown people blessed with a love of learning and a natural bookishness yet cursed with an insurmountable otherness live their lives. White people are allowed to be mediocre, not because mediocrity is endemic to white people as an ontology, but because being mediocre and white has often been sufficient enough to guarantee a job for which a more qualified and better equipped Black or brown candidate is considered undesirable. White people have created a system in which white mediocrity qualifies them more for a position than industrious, self-motivated and hard-working people of color. And in so doing, they have programmed mediocrity as a kind of universal proof. The white PhD student can continue to produce scholarship of little interest to the people outside their very narrow field of interlocuters and secure a job. And when this student is denied a job, he views it an upheaval in the system, as Black and brown people stealing jobs from him. He does not consider his own lack of qualifications for the job, the ways that he flubbed his interview or seemed pompous and entitled in his emails. He does not consider that he is indeed mediocre and, in the unspoken twittering acknowledgement of his mediocrity, that the Black and brown students stealing jobs from him are indeed more qualified, more brilliant, than him. Perhaps this an idea which whiteness prohibits. And perhaps it inhibits the formation of this idea because of the affect of terror which it poses to the fragile white psyche. I can never really know how white minds work, even if in many ways I am expected to know the inner workings of their minds and my own, all at once.
I’m not of the opinion that I am more intelligent than anyone else, or that I am better equipped to succeed in the University than a white person. My understanding of race eschews ontology (the beingness, and thus realness, of race) and thinks about race along performative, sociopolitical and phenomenological lines. It is the latter, the phenomenology of race, which fascinates me, particularly when we think about whiteness. We tend to think that white people have no racial awareness of themselves as white, and that the white people who do are the ones who aren’t bothered by being called things like “racist” or “Nazi.” Yet, this is not true. Every white person who has ever given you that pitiful glance as they hear you talk about your research project studying Native reservations in Arizona or public school lunch programs in Compton bears a racial consciousness, understands, even if they cannot express it, the architecture of their whiteness. What makes white people white is not that they refuse to acknowledge that they are white (their whiteness is actually a precious commodity they are willing to defend, even if they do not know what it is that they are defending) but that their whiteness is predicated on a kind of self-denial. That whiteness is unpronounceable yet structural in their lives is in fact programmatic.
I’ll close on the fleeting point I made about knowledge. Knowledge of one’s otherness, knowledge of one’s whiteness. Knowledge of what these things mean not in abstraction, but in the concrete ways we treat one another and ourselves. If I get the prestigious postdoc position or the tenure-track position because I am in fact a much-desired African American applicant in a pool of white faces, great. But I don’t want to know that the reason for my selection was my blackness. After this conversation with this professor, I posted a poll on Instagram about the predicament of the “diversity hire” and I was stunned by the number of my brown and Black friends who voted that they would not mind being a “diversity hire” (someone hired to fill a “diversity quota,” to occupy the role of the token). Some of my more precocious friends probed my reasoning for my staunch position against being a diversity hire. I explained my reasoning as such: the Black person who is hired to a position because of their Blackness, rather than because of their qualifications, is indeed expendable and replaceable with any other Black person. They are not being hired because of who they are and what they’ve done, but because of what they are to the hiring committee. Diversity hires are often admitted or hired into workplaces structurally and socially ill-equipped to attend to their needs as people who not only bear otherness but are not expected to represent the admissible genre of otherness we now call diversity. That the diversity hire in the English department is now expected to speak to the entire project of postcolonial literature in the world, and feels compelled to advise projects by students who feel equally alienated in the department because of their own otherness, even if they don’t know anything about the Pakistani novel, is a problem born from the diversity hire as a structure of the failures of multiculturalism and the dire straits of the academic job market. And I don’t have an issue advising the graduate student studying the Pakistani novel, but our being bound to one another (the literary theorist of the Black Atlantic, and the South Asian literary scholar) is the product not of chance or providence, but of social engineering. That this student is likely brown, and that I am black, and that we both bear the stigma of an otherness we can no longer name, is engrained into the intellectual environment in which we seek an impossible refuge.
In the process of making the academy a more accommodating space, I fear we are actually doubling down on the unique and unspeakable pressures which Black and brown people endure. And a big part of this problem, although not the entire issue itself, is because white mediocrity has been acceptable for so long, and that Black and brown hyperproduction, in the face of such mediocrity, has become our dominant mode of production.
The future towards which we are marching is one where Black and brown academics seem to occupy more positions of power. They are the named faculty, the deans of colleges, the vice provosts of universities. When the 50th and 75th anniversaries roll by at universities, these administrators will find themselves speaking to crowds of people who have never associated their almae matres with brown immigrant faces and untenably pronounced accents. And in many ways, the University is at odds with what to do with these hyperproducing brown and Black faces who offset the very standards upon which the University derives its abstract notion of “prestige.” And even if the tests do not reflect Black and brown excellence, and thus Black and brown excellence is relegated to the realm of suspicion and superstition, nearly every nonwhite person I have met has experienced and has been disturbed by the distances produced by class, race and ethnicity as they move through the minefield we call the University and the mediocrity of many of the people they call peers.
postface OR white Jewish girl sings the blues because a black girl robbed her of her spot at Columbia
I’ve been face to face with white mediocrity for a very longtime. I can remember the terrible season of college applications, when the fat acceptance packets and skinny rejection letters were beginning to trickle in. There were whispers in Mrs. Martling’s AP English Literature class that the Black girl, an incredibly talented artist, or that the Black boy taking college-level calculus classes, had only gotten into top programs because they were Black. This incensed me, not only because the comment was unwittingly disparaging and dismissive, but because these students refused to acknowledge the possibility that they didn’t get into Cornell or UChicago because they were white and mediocre. If I got into Swarthmore because I’m Black, the obvious flipside is that you did not get in because you are white. Yet my understanding of Western history and its failings underlines this observation: no one anywhere has ever been rejected admission to a prestigious university, institution, or even public space, because they are white. Who would have thought that there were Abigail Fishers living in Maplewood, NJ, claiming that they were rejected from Columbia so some darky with bad test scores and a mongrel brain could take her spot? The three Black students in that AP English Literature class were, to be frank, smarter than the white students. Yet, our intelligence didn’t stem from our biological superiority, the inherent greater number of synapses in our Negroid brains: the shadow white fear. Rather, the sociological impositions which gave rise to the three Black kids in that class, the tremendous pressure and expectation to succeed not only for family, but for the Race, compelled us all to overperform, even when we, too, were only taking the class for AP credit.
The shadow fear of whiteness, the red herring, is that there is indeed a biological truth to Black and brown hyperproduction, and that the imposition of standardized tests, housing policies, etc., can keep white spaces white with only a controllable and negligible nonwhite population. The displaced terror, though, is that the system of social values which white people have produced to keep their spaces white, to keep their world white, are being undone by their own colonial machinations to uplift, diversify, and equalize. This produces a crisis, for how can you maintain the significance of whiteness when the very metrics which the white world has invented to distinguish the white from the nonwhite are increasingly being infiltrated by an unwanted presence? The result is not that Black and brown people will rule the world, but that the architecture of whiteness will shift to accommodate new white people.
Perhaps this is what the white genocide fanatics fear most. Not that the white race will disappear, but that whiteness will no longer be the much-coveted and prized possession of those people we call white.