Academic talk is not racial justice

by Luis Menéndez-Antuña

Last May the topic of “racial talk” wreaked havoc on the Philosophy guild. Hypatia, a leading international journal in Feminist and Gender Studies, published an article authored by Rebecca Tuvel called “In defense of trans-racialism.” Immediately after the publication, a letter signed by hundreds of academics demanded a retraction of the article because they considered it to be damaging and unaware of the scholarship of people of color (here). Another group of academics and administrators followed suit and expressed their concerns at the policing of racial and gender discourse. This time the demand was aimed at administrators not to pay heed to such policing and silencing (here).

In the midst of such crossfire, hundreds of posts on social media argued not so much about Tuvel’s arguments, but about the call for retraction, about whiteness and privilege in academia, and about the status of who made those claims. Regarding this latter topic, social media witnessed dozens of personal attacks on Tuvel, racial slurs, and raging fire against a white privileged cis woman who dared to talk about racial and transgender identities without paying heed to the lived experiences of people of color and transgender people.

The debacle was of bigger proportions including a crossfire between the journal’s editor and the editorial board, and several op-ed pieces on national newspapers that fanned the flames, shifting the debate from the relatively circumscribed circle of philosophical academic discussion into the agora of public ideas (here). The reader unfamiliar with the controversy might wonder about the claims of such a contested article. Briefly put, “In defense of transracialism” explores the argumentative logic behind stances in favor or against transracialism (using Rachel Dolezal’s and Catilyn Jenner’s cases). The author, who comes out in full support of transgender rights and who criticizes a number of arguments in favor of “transracialism,” argues that some arguments that support the legitimacy of transgender identities, following a parallel logic, also apply to transracial examples.

My purpose here is not to delve into the moral legitimacy or argumentative validity of Tuvel’s contribution. For one, I am in substantial disagreement with some of her conclusions and with the way the article works with analytical frameworks to the exclusion of philosophical trends attentive to contextuality and embodiment. She herself admitted that much (here). What made me very uncomfortable during the war that academics ferociously waged against each other over “the Tuvel affair” was, among many other things, the rhetoric about academia as a place committed to racial equality and full inclusion.

We know that academia and academic discourse is no utopian place. Academia is a caste system. Anyone (regardless of identitarian categories) who has stepped foot into the waters of Masters and Doctoral degree programs experiences at best, and suffers at worst, that Higher Education is a very privileged space, a minefield if you will, a pyramid with clearly defined strata where all sorts of titles are displayed following very defined procedures. Graduate students, Adjuncts, Assistant and Associate Professors, Chairs, Distinguished Professors, Emeriti, and everything in between. The argument that we inhabit a democratic, inclusive space, and that our scholarship models an ethos of inclusivity claims a moral high ground that papers over the bleak reality that we are part of—with different degrees of complicity—a deeply racialized, classist, homophobe, transphobic system. Minoritized students and faculty carry a heavy burden that does not end with graduating or with getting tenure. If you are lucky enough to land a job, and if your scholarship exposes the ideological missteps of mainstream academic culture, be ready to come undone. I believe this is even truer in the field of Biblical studies and Theology than it is in Philosophy.

Academic discourse is painfully coming to terms with this reality. The hubs of academic knowledge production are looking into the mirror and seeing “white Anglo-Saxon culture” written all over the glass. Understandably, such a realization creates a series of knee-jerk anxious reactions that are unhelpful and misguided. The Tuvel affair is a case in point. The reaction was unhelpful because the letter calling for retraction of the article, ironically enough, erased the same voices it claimed to speak for: it cited no one, it misrepresented the arguments, it lumped together under one monolithic stance a diversity of transgender-and-people-of-color voices, and it triggered a series of cyber-shaming and personal insults on social media that would make Ann Coulter’s slurs pale in comparison. It was misguided because, well, racial justice, although I do not claim to know how to achieve it, has to go beyond addressing epistemic violence.

As a foreigner routinely misracialized who has come to identify with some of the racial and sexual labels constantly put on me, I believe that the plasticity of ethnic and racial identifications is worth exploring. And as an “alien” in this country who witnesses U.S. academic discussions about race as a game in “oppression Olympics,” I believe that academia must explore how its rhetoric skips its own complicities in the unequal redistribution of power. In the Hypathia debacle, for example, it is very unlikely that the same finger-pointing, cyber-shaming, racial slurs, and calls for retraction would have happened to a Distinguished Professor.

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Luis Menéndez-Antuña is Assistant Professor of New Testament at California Lutheran University/Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. His current research explores the queer and postcolonial afterlives of the biblical texts. He has published his research in journals such as Biblical InterpretationJournal of Religious Ethics, and Early Christianity. His book on Revelation, Thinking Sex with the Great Whore: Deviant Sexualities and Empire in the Book of Revelation is published by Routledge.

One response to “Academic talk is not racial justice

  1. Pingback: Theology & Racial In/Justice: Introducing Shark Week XII | Daily Theology·

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