Debacle over review reveals racism in academy (opinion)

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When medievalist Mary Rambaran-Olm wrote about having her book review “torpedoed” for not being “more generous” to the book’s authors, no one could have expected that this would send shock waves across the academic community in what became an online maelstrom revealing the extent of white academic gatekeeping, ally performativity and blatant racism. For those of us who work on decentering whiteness in premodern fields such as classics, medieval/early modern studies, archaeology and in or on the Global South, this latest attack targeting a scholar of color exposed what many of us have been trying to draw attention to for years—that racism is deep and pernicious in the so-called liberal and woke academy.

Rambaran-Olm was commissioned to review The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe (HarperCollins) for the Los Angeles Review of Books because of her expertise in early English medieval literature and history, and because she is one of the leading scholars challenging the field’s Eurocentric, Christological and white supremacist biases. Things quickly deteriorated, however, when it became clear that Rambaran-Olm was not going to offer the book her uncritical stamp of approval. Because the review pointed out many of the book’s problems, which included its centering of whiteness when its ostensible raison d’être was the opposite, the editors refused to publish it as written. Specifically, Rambaran-Olm wrote that she was asked to cut several sections dealing with race and—more generally—“much of the more ‘negative’ parts of the review.”

Rambaran-Olm was willing to streamline her review but balked at softening her legitimate evaluation. The editors rejected the edits Rambaran-Olm offered, and so everyone parted ways and moved on. LARB then published another review by a white medievalist who had already written a glowing review for Slate. This questionable practice led to Rambaran-Olm calling out LARB on Twitter, which resulted in racist backlash against her—two scholars went so far as to question her race, suggesting that as a mixed-race person she was not Black—as well as against other Black, Indigenous and other people of color who demanded explanations and accountability from LARB, the editors and authors. LARB, troublingly, gave two contradictory timelines of how the second review was commissioned. When another writer of color asked the publication to affirm its support of antiracism over concern about what happened to Rambaran-Olm, it declined and lost his forthcoming article.

The attacks against Rambaran-Olm and her supporters—most of whom are also women of color and precarious or contingent members of the academy—illustrate the enduring power of misogynoir in academia. A theoretical framework developed by communications scholar Moya Bailey, misogynoir is a concept that records the particular valences of anti-Black misogyny. In the case of Rambaran-Olm, the editors rejected her review because they perceived her as not “generous” and claimed she was “accusing” the book’s white male authors of using their white male privilege, a rehearsal of the stereotypical “angry Black woman” trope.

The online misogynoir directed at Rambaran-Olm took another tack, by questioning her credibility and her credentials. Critics examined her previous publications in order to discredit her expertise and to label her scholarship as lacking rigor. Such tactics, employed against one of the only mixed-race Black women scholars of early English literature, are intended to undermine her scholarly standing. They further expose a broader trend: hostility against scholars of color within these fields, particularly if their work challenges the white cultural shibboleths upon which the premodern as a field of scholarly inquiry and as a cultural object has been built.

Linked to the concept of misogynoir is that of hypervisibility. The hypervisibility of people of color, especially Black people, within white-dominant societies is a product of the unraced ways in which whiteness functions. As many race scholars and whiteness studies scholars have theorized, whiteness accrues its power by circulating as the “norm” of humanity, and so its power and dominance often go unnoticed because it is not racialized in the same ways as nonwhiteness. The hypervisibility of nonwhite scholars, both in their institutions and online, means that their bodies and conduct are heavily monitored and policed. As author Samira Nadkarni summarized in a Twitter thread about the racist backlash directed at Rambaran-Olm, the assumption is that scholars of color are “seeking clout” through online advocacy, which is characterized as controversy, because these situations make them highly visible. Nadkarni points out that such constructions mistake “hypervisibility as power.” As she elaborates, “the assumption here is that by creating visibility she has more power than anyone else involved despite how untrue this is in terms of the most basic of conditions: institutional access, comfort within these spaces, ability to NOT be a target, ability to not experience misogynoir.”

Hypervisibility in academia is another way white supremacy articulates itself, because it allows the collective power of the white majority to go unnoticed. It allows for all those who sought to silence and then attack Rambaran-Olm (and other scholars of color) to escape the racial frame. Their collective whiteness, their white silence, their positions of power within the academy or as public intellectuals remained unnoticed and racially unmarked. Hypervisibility also caused Rambaran-Olm to be marked as singular and alone in her critique, erasing the huge number of BIPOC intellectuals who spoke out. Presenting Rambaran-Olm as a lone voice allowed critics to dismiss her concerns as a case of sour grapes and clout chasing, rather than as an analysis shared by a vast group of BIPOC voices.

Among the many people who weighed in were horrified BIPOC scholars and graduate students who witnessed a public spectacle of academic white fragility and anti-Blackness against a scholar of color who dared to challenge the systemic white supremacy in the institutions that commissioned her work. This ongoing display of white violence and gatekeeping has drawn commentary from BIPOC scholars and intellectuals far outside medieval studies. BIPOC scholars recognized the dynamics at work here and have named them.

Postcolonialist and public intellectual Priyamvada Gopal spoke on the Anglophone review sphere’s “appalling clique culture enabled by silence & complicity.” Astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein named the white supremacy and race science at work in the claims that questioned Rambaran-Olm’s race, and premodern critical race studies scholar Margo Hendricks wrote an open letter on the “white supremacist thinking about race” underlying those attacks. Physician and activist scholar Amy Tan noted that academia needed better systems of accountability for racial justice. Germanicist Tiffany N. Florvil reflected on the silence of white people who claimed to be antiracists. Countless others voiced their concern over this overt display of racism in the academy, including theologian Sid Sudiacal, who created the hashtag #BrightAgesSoWhite to document the fallout from Rambaran-Olm’s pulled review.

The fact that this latest round of academic racism and gatekeeping occurred in the context of a review of a book purporting to diversify the Middle Ages is not surprising. As an academic discipline and a cultural fetish object, medieval studies and the Middle Ages as they are represented in popular culture have a well-documented racism problem. In the context of medieval studies as a field, its racism resides both in how it is presented as a discipline and who represents it. A growing number of scholars of color and white accomplices have joined Rambaran-Olm in challenging the field’s overwhelming and normative whiteness. A reaction to these Sisyphean efforts has been various (mostly white) scholars painting antiracist scholars like Rambaran-Olm as radicals and bullies, claims seized on by right-wing news sources like Breitbart. In the wake of the controversy, several medievalists gave quotes to journalists that repeated right-wing talking points about the “radical left” and the supposedly “religious” ideology of critical race theory. When journalist Jesse Singal (whose views on trans people have been heavily criticized) dedicated a podcast to the controversy, medievalists wrote in to rail against Rambaran-Olm. This is the company that some medievalists opposed to Rambaran-Olm and other antiracists choose to keep.

Rambaran-Olm’s pulled book review may have been just one more incident of white supremacy in the academy, but it became a flashpoint highlighting how institutions, organizations and individual scholars have deep investments in their own whiteness and in preserving the status quo of systemic white supremacy. The online furor has reminded marginalized scholars about the conditions that are attached to their inclusion in the academy. It has highlighted what scholar Koritha Mitchell has identified as “know your place aggression,” which is the “backlash of violence” against minoritized people for not showing proper appreciation, gratitude or deference for being allowed into the academy or other professional spaces. Finally, this moment has uncovered the hollowness and careerism of academic allyship. Many white academics have easily claimed solidarity with marginalized scholars, yet when it has been time to act, to repair the harm they have caused or to actually practice the antiracist commitments they espouse in their diversity statements and online bios, there has only been loud, white silence.


EDITOR’S NOTE: The Los Angeles Review of Books did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In an article in The New York Times, the LARB’s editor in chief, Boris Dralyuk, is quoted saying that editors of different sections of LARB operate independently and that the other, published review of The Bright Ages was commissioned a week before Rambaran-Olm’s, by a different set of editors, and was not intended as a replacement. The New York Times article also describes disagreements over proposed edits to Rambaran-Olm’s review and an editorial back-and-forth over matters related to evidence, length and structure in the days leading to the decision not to publish it. Rambaran-Olm has since published her review on Medium.



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