How do our respectability politics undermine us? I've been repeatedly confronted with this question over the summer. As I officially enter graduate school, I find myself alone – the only person of color in my classes for the first time since high school.
After the Inclusion Roundtable discussion at NCPH 2017, I was inspired to start the Graduate Students of Color Association (GSCA). By taking an interdisciplinary approach to finding support, I hoped to recapture the sense of camaraderie I found with other POC during my undergraduate career.
This afternoon, our Facebook page received this private message (twice):
"How Racist can you get? Non whites only!!!! If the roll [sic] was reversed there would be protests all over Temple University. what would happen if we started GSWO Gradiate [sic] students WHITE ONLY!!!"
Rather than dignifying this individual's accusations of "reverse racism" (something that does not exist), I would like to take this opportunity to clarify why we need to continue to create environments exclusively reserved for people of color (POC).
I was/am angry, but not just about this particular incident. I'm frustrated by what it represents. The irony was that this online harasser wasn't just some random person who happened upon our page. This person was a relative of one of my white classmates. As such, I find myself less interested in our messager, and more preoccupied with the paradox of the well-intentioned white ally (especially in academia). Why are those who would decry the explicit biases expressed in this message more interested in proclaiming they aren't racist than in actually trying to prevent this harassment from happening again? Why do they find it necessary to inform their colleagues and students of color of how critical our work is at this particular political moment? Our work has always been critical – especially for POC. Only when things like white supremacy are made glaringly obvious for white people do they recognize the power and productivity of our efforts. Even once they see the value of our work, they often appropriate our emotional/intellectual labor as their own. Public history, for instance, was originated by POC – grassroots history-making that engaged the needs of the community. But it has since been co-opted and "professionalized" by the white middle-class.
Even in the fallout of the Charlottesville march this past weekend, I find my white colleagues proclaiming their "surprise." But racism is not some distant specter. It has, and continues to affect us all. I'm the only POC in Temple's public history program. What if this message had actually come from my classmate? Would our department, our university stand behind our organization? Or would it just be dismissed as another "isolated incident?" Would I still be forced to attend classes with this person?
So, what will our white colleagues do about these things? Will they redress both the "microaggressive" and blatantly racist sentiments that both they and their relatives, roommates, coworkers and friends hold dear? Or will they continue to leave POC to clean up the mess, tend to our wounded, while simultaneously decrying the exclusivity of our spaces? How does (white) lip service impact our work? How do we confront it – militantly, diplomatically, or both?