Lost in Our Field: Racism and the International Congress on Medieval Studies

Nahir I. Otaño Gracia, Assistant Professor of Early British Literature, Beloit College

My first time at the International Congress on Medieval Studies (ICMS), Kalamazoo, was bittersweet. I had been told about the book exhibits and what to do to reserve the books I wanted. I had been told about the dance and how fun it would be. I was told about the singing and drinking and of ducklings walking around campus, but I was not prepared for the racism. I was not prepared to be constantly asked why I was at the conference, why I studied Icelandic literature when I was Puerto Rican. I was not prepared to tell a stranger that there was no need to congratulate me for being the first Puerto Rican medievalist because I was 100% sure I was not. I was not prepared to be the only person of color in every single panel I attended. I remember recounting my experience to one of my professors and wondering out loud if I was meant to be a medievalist. It seemed to me that the attendees at ICMS were not convinced that I should. My professor gave me the best answer for me at that moment. “Fuck them and do what you want, you don’t owe them anything.”

It’s been over a decade since my first Kzoo, but the congress continues to be a hostile environment for marginalized academics. I would like to ask what many medievalists of color have been asking our colleagues and the institutions that represent us. What has academia lost? What have we lost by allowing racism to hurt people of color? How many talented professionals in various fields have we lost because of racism, sexism, xenophobia, ableism, etc.? For one, we lose the scholarship of those who never return, as Dr. Mary Rambaran-Olm’s essay “Anglo-Saxon Studies, Academia and White Supremacy” demonstrates. Imagine how many gifted but marginalized scholars have fallen to the wayside.

ICMS in particular has now lost a valuable scholar, Dr. Seeta Chaganti, who will not return to the conference and has written a strong statement about her experience. Her account offers some examples of how ICMS has chosen to support whiteness and white supremacy. She argues that choosing panels proposed by white scholars over similar panels proposed by medievalists of color reinforces our societal bias in favor of white candidates over a minority.And while ICMS has recently offered to revisit the issue of panel selection process, I believe a deeper problem persists in what Dr. Chaganti calls their “miscomprehension of academic freedom,” which “has enabled white supremacy.” Dr. Chaganti’s statement and Dr. Rambaran-Olm’s essay compel me to share my own experiences at the congress and why I stopped attending as a grad student. I share my experiences to add another voice to the conversation.

ICMS’s choices have not only affected the field from an institutional level; they have also affected countless individuals who experience harm at ICMS. I have experienced racist incidents every single time I have attended (2007, 2008, 2015 and 2017). Although ICMS is not the only medieval studies conference in which I have experienced racism, it is the site of the most egregious examples of it. It was the conference most in my mind when I wrote briefly about my negative experiences at medieval conferences in a post on why I wanted to open up medieval studies to be more inclusive. The post had the unexpected outcome that young colleagues of color – and not just medievalists – reached out to me with their own stories, expressing that they feel similarly. These young scholars are not interested in leaving the field, they are not going anywhere, but they too want change and accountability from the institutions that represent us as academics. I have heard so many stories from colleagues of color who have been betrayed by academia in general and medieval studies in particular; my story is just one of many. This is what I want to emphasize: my story is just one drop in a sea of racist experiences at ICMS. And my story is not just about experiencing racism but also about being rendered invisible.

I began my essay with my first experiences at ICMS; I would like to continue that story. I did not attend ICMS from 2009 to 2015; during that time, I did try to return. In 2011, I had several e-mail conversations asking ICMS to consider an abstract for the general sessions. In those conversations I was misgendered multiple times by two different medievalists associated with the conference. The exchange ended with my not being officially informed of my rejection. In our correspondence, I was misgendered even after I had mentioned I was a woman and even after I had alerted the Director of the Medieval Institute of the way ICMS representatives had treated me by email. In my communications to the Director, I connected the misgendering to my previous experiences of racism at the conference. My correspondence emphasized the harassment I received as a medievalist of color, and their responses simply ignored my comments — not once did they ask about my well-being or for further details. It seems that for them, the various forms of bias I experienced did not constitute evidence of a problematic conference climate in need of examination by its leadership. ICMS failed to acknowledge my concerns. When I tell most white medievalists about these incidents, I find them dismissed once again. I am assured by them that it was all a big misunderstanding, and that I should give ICMS a chance and go back to the conference.

I am not sure that white medievalists understand what they ask of me and other medievalists of color in making this suggestion. ICMS and other medieval conferences are usually so emotionally and psychologically draining for many of us people of color that we figure out ways to navigate them that will limit the prejudicial experiences we may encounter. Like others, I am an infrequent conference attendee and limit the panels I attend to minimize the racist encounters I experience. Regarding ICMS, I attend the conference only with trusted colleagues. Medievalists of color should not have to go through all this just to keep ourselves emotionally healthy, especially at a congress claiming to “encourag[e] an inclusive and intellectually safe environment that welcomes diverse perspectives.”

Although limiting conference participation can protect medievalists of color emotionally, it can also be detrimental to us professionally. Like other marginalized academics in medieval studies, I closed myself off from the field; I failed to make connections with senior medievalists in my area of expertise and to meet allies who would make medieval studies more welcoming. I lost valuable feedback that would improve my work, and the opportunities to enhance my standing in the field, lowering my chances to succeed in a hostile academic environment. I continued to be a medievalist, but I left medieval studies. Academics of color are vastly underrepresented in tenured and tenure track faculty positions. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) points out that “in fall 2015, of all full-time faculty at degree-granting postsecondary institutions, 42 percent were White males, 35 percent were White females, 6 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander males, 4 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander females, 3 percent each were Black females and Black males, and 2 percent each were Hispanic males and Hispanic females.”Native Americans made up less than one percent. The numbers are even more dismal for full time professors. For me, it took a Postdoctoral Fellowship with the University of Pennsylvania, my involvement with the Fellowship of Medievalists of Color, and the mentorship of senior medievalists of color to get me back on track. Furthermore, without the Postdoctoral Fellowship, which enhanced my standing within academia and afforded me time to publish, it would have been impossible even to try to integrate, let alone succeed (I begin a tenure track position this August). The reality is that most young scholars of color will not have the opportunities I was afforded. The very real need to protect ourselves from racism by withdrawing from spaces where the potential for harm is high hinders our chances for success. Because of this, in Medieval Studies, ICMS has been at the forefront of limiting the odds of medievalists of color to succeed.

Dr. Chaganti’s bravery as well as the mentorship of many colleagues of color have given me the courage to be part of the field and therefore I can no longer stay silent. I hope that other medievalists of color speak out about their experiences at ICMS so that the Medieval Institute cannot deny the ways that their actions and their inaction have made it harder for medievalists of color to thrive as medievalists. ICMS’s response to BABEL’s letter of concern proposes a working group that “represents the full breadth of the international community of medievalists” in order to make changes to the congress’ selection process. I also hope that ICMS’s leadership will use this working group to help them describe the concrete steps they are planning to take to ensure medievalists in marginalized positions are not harmed by that very community that ICMS represents. I will ask again, what have ICMS and medieval studies lost because of racism? They have lost an immeasurable amount of research that would have made the field better. They have lost scholars of color who will not return to the field. They have also lost the confidence of countless medievalists such as myself who cannot trust ICMS to hold to their own stated commitments to inclusivity, intellectual freedom, and a safe environment for all their attendees.

The data on discrimination against people of color within a working environment is staggering. Here are but a few articles, including academic studies, on the topic: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/09/11/1706255114.full, http://www.nber.org/digest/sep03/w9873.html, http://www.nber.org/papers/w21612, https://hbr.org/2014/06/does-race-or-gender-matter-more-to-your-paycheck, https://www.forbes.com/sites/hbsworkingknowledge/2017/05/17/minorities-who-whiten-resumes-get-more-job-interviews/#1bd5f65f7b74,

I think it is important to point out that the data cited above includes “professors, associate professors, assistant professors, instructors, lecturers, assisting professors, adjunct professors, and interim professors” in full time positions not just academics in tenure track positions.

Statement Regarding ICMS Kalamazoo

The following is an open statement written by Seeta Chaganti, Professor of English at UC Davis. Please take a moment to read this important statement on academic freedom and racial justice.

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I can no longer participate in nor support the International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo. While performing a seemingly virtuous commitment to academic freedom, the actions of this organization’s leadership not only silence marginalized voices but also enable racially-based harassment. More than one organization whose intellectual profile reflects a commitment to politically progressive critical theory along with social and racial justice has found its voice minimized in the planning for next year’s conference. In what follows, I address this issue regarding one such organization. But I additionally point out that an environment permitting such minimization also facilitates harassment and potential harm. It is an environment entirely inimical to genuine academic freedom.

“Academic freedom” is a complicated term, in part for its ambiguous relationship to free speech. We have become increasingly willing to acknowledge that the white nationalist right exploits free speech principles to shield their destructive and murderous ideology. In other words, we are a long way from unequivocally admiring the ACLU’s defense of Nazi marchers in Skokie, IL, 1978 – as is the ACLU itself. Invoking the work of Jelani Cobb, Alex Blasdel describes an emerging recognition that “the abstract discussion of first-amendment principles can itself seem like a tactic to shift the conversation away from pervasive injustice.” The very principles underlying free speech guarantee that right more effectively to some people than to others. In academic and public spheres, there exists alongside this conversation one concerning academic freedom. As Farhana Sultana observes, their deliberate conflation has precipitated “a crisis currently facing universities and academia…where all opinions are seen as equivalent when they are evidently not.” Academic freedom is vulnerable to the misguided perceptions not only that all ideas have equal legitimacy but also that all ideas have equal access to freedom in the first place.

In May 2018, I organized a session at ICMS, entitled “Whiteness in Medieval Studies 2.0,” which included Dr. Dorothy Kim. Attending the conference was a scholar who had, in 2017, drawn Dr. Kim to the attention of Milo Yiannopoulos, an act that perpetuated the racially-based harassment of Dr. Kim. Concerned for Dr. Kim’s ability to speak her opinions with freedom in the possible presence of this colleague, I asked the conference leadership to communicate to the latter that her presence was not welcome at the session. I deemed this request necessary due in large measure to the imbalance of power implicit in a dynamic of harasser and harassed. The latter’s sense that they might express themselves unfettered rarely equals the former’s. ICMS leadership refused my request to exclude a conference registrant from a session on the grounds of “academic and intellectual freedom.”

This decision allowed a false conception of academic freedom to undermine true academic freedom. The conference leadership displayed an inaccurately absolutist understanding of academic freedom, and that inaccuracy created a space to accommodate the harm and silencing of scholars of color. The space of conferences has come to include not only the physical setting of the gathering but also the social media sites that house ancillary activity (hence ICMS’ extensive social media guidelines). In this larger space, specifically on the scholar’s Facebook page, racist harassment of the panelists and me occurred. One might argue that ICMS’ inaction regarding the conference site itself bears no relationship to the scholar’s online activities. I would submit, however, that the conference’s indifference to this scholar’s history of enabling and stoking harassment encouraged the continuation of such behavior without fear of consequence. After the conference, pictures of the session appeared online inadvertently (later removed, with apologies, by the original photographers). The scholar in question reposted these images knowing, I would contend, their power to incite certain followers to make disparaging remarks. Even if one finds the comments themselves trivial, this scholar’s use of her online space to make us vulnerable to that attention is not. Her connection to Yiannopoulos (in addition to her tagging him, he thanks her in his unpublished book acknowledgments) suggests that the images and rhetoric appearing on this Facebook page could have become available to an online community not merely derisive but angry and violent in its racism. She and her followers freely expressed themselves while the panelists and I read racialized reactions to images of our faces and bodies with mounting apprehension. After this experience, I do not consider the conference sufficiently free of the threat of harm to speak at it. True academic freedom cannot exist where such threat lies.

In the wake of the 2018 conference, developments pertaining to ICMS 2019 increased my concern regarding the conference’s occlusion of marginalized voices through an inaction construed as neutrality. The organization Medievalists of Color (MOC) sponsored one proposed session – a continuation of the whiteness workshop – and co-sponsored four others. The workshop, a service to the medieval studies community as a whole, was accepted. The four co-sponsored sessions, on specialized topics concerning the interests and expertise of medievalists of color and their organizational collaborators, were rejected. Sessions on similar topics proposed by majority white organizations were accepted, and individual scholars of color might surely participate in those organizations’ panels and have their viewpoints represented that way: the organization MOC does not monopolize critical conversations about race. But MOC co-sponsorship formalizes the intellectual guidance provided by scholars of color in a field where we remain extremely underrepresented. The rejection pattern minimizes that intellectual guidance at ICMS.

I worry that ICMS’ misprision of academic freedom overlaps with an unexamined understanding of “fairness” (a term appearing in the online account of the congress committee’s role). Presumably, according to this stance, no organization should dominate a conversation that others also wish to join. I suggest, however, that as with the academic freedom argument above, we are not dealing with a neutral situation where all voices have always received equal privilege and protection. ICMS’ choices trouble me not only for their impact but also for the possibility that they were made without critical thought to what a space of real academic and intellectual freedom would look like. Such a space would acknowledge the necessity of actively seeking out and dismantling those structures by which “tradition” (also invoked in their account and potentially applicable to both content and selection process) camouflages white supremacy’s particular forms of repression. The formula that their account describes – “a balance between respecting tradition and encouraging innovation” – cannot suffice to ensure academic freedom because it does not aggressively interrogate the meanings of either “tradition” or “innovation.”

In more than one way, ICMS’ miscomprehension of academic freedom has enabled white supremacy. I shall not return to ICMS because its understanding of academic freedom cannot accommodate appropriate response to white supremacist actions and structures. I make my statement individually for two reasons. First, I aim to draw attention specifically to the academic freedom issue at stake. Second, while other letters might express demands that could be met within the current structure, I do not make such demands. I stand in solidarity with those other letters and actions: we all represent different points along a spectrum of agitation for change. But when I say “dismantle,” I advocate a radically different alternative to ICMS that would fulfill this conference’s important functions while also committing to antiracist practices and values.