aapi, asian american, cinema and media studies, TV

white liberals and white academics are a let down

I went and had lunch with some colleagues to just wrap up the end of the quarter yesterday and felt pretty annoyed with the whole experience. It’s been bothering me all day and still this morning so I’ll just blog about it. What else is the internet good for….

The course we all taught is an American television history course, and when the lecturer asked for feedback, mine was immediately that the course was too white, and while there were a couple of weeks dedicated to black history and media, not enough material to barely at all was dedicated to Asian, Latinx and indigenous American history/media. The lecturer immediately said, “Well, there was Ugly Betty.” And another colleague said, “There was Master of None.” Both of these shows were shown on the last week of the quarter, and without sufficient readings that offer historical contexts for Latinx and Indian American history vis a vis media and culture.

I was pretty annoyed by both of these remarks because they were reactionary and defensive in response to the feedback that was requested, which is that the course is too white, and there’s not enough effort put into diversity and inclusion in the syllabus. All of my colleagues in this course was white, and nobody else appeared to have sensed this but me, which is a huge problem since, again, here are white liberals making the job of complaint about the lack of diversity mine–a person of color. And in the moment when I brought up these things, there was only silence or excuses: “There’s not enough media content. There’s not enough readings. I don’t know of any related to that group.”

But they never bothered to ask. When I said that it always takes more work to find media and readings related to minorities (because minorities are marginal in society as bodies so how could they not be in the media and academic literature?!), I got back another defensive/aggressive remark: “Well, give me some examples then.”

When I named them, I heard back, “I don’t know what that is.”

Again, here’s an example of a white academic putting the job of diversity work onto an academic of color, telling me to name some examples. And in the moment, as I did name them, I felt fucking humiliated, like I was naming things I was a fan of and not a scholar of, and like I was just pushing for things that I identify with, and not a legitimate source of academic scholarship. It was a fucking nightmare, and I fucking regret answering him.

Such remarks, “I can’t find any media content on that. I can’t find any readings related to that content,”–these are excuses that white people give when they don’t want to do the extra work. No, not even that they don’t want to. They never had to bother to do that kind of work because that’s what privilege is, and they don’t want to move beyond their comfort zone and do the extra work.

But for someone like me, doing the extra task, seeking creative loopholes to find content, going way out of my way to request books from librarians that specialize in my field from other institutions, or article recommendations from scholars I meet at conferences is just business as usual since all my work is marginal.

Then the white colleagues moved on from their discomfort without fully addressing what transpired, and talked about inane things for the rest of lunch, so I mentally checked out until everyone left. And before I left, one of the white colleagues pulled me aside to tell me that she’d like to include more media and texts related to diversity and inclusion in the next course we taught together. This moment irritated me even further. Does she think she can be rescued from being considered an unhelpful white liberal by doing this right now? By pulling me aside and whispering her intentions? Why didn’t she declare them openly and confidently in the line of fire when she and the rest of the white academics sat there being unhelpful during the heat of the conversation? When a white male lecturer was reacting defensively and unwilling to accept constructive feedback–feedback he’d requested? Where were her good intentions when I was the one made out to be the person of color who had to speak up on the lack of diversity–right, roll your eyes now, yet again, for all the white people in the room to listen to, right, roll your eyes again now, yet again?

This action on her part was even more hostile in my opinion, because it is deviance wrapped up as kindness; it’s a continuation of the white defensiveness that I was met with earlier, and it’s a selfish means of covering one’s own ass so that her relationship to this person of color isn’t strained, or that she doesn’t appear to be an unhelpful white liberal. But in her very actions, she proved herself to be so.

What made this experience even worse is that the white cis-male professor sent an email to everyone who attended the lunch thanking me and apologizing to me for his defensiveness while copying in everyone else who attended that lunch. As someone who felt marginalized by his words and actions that day, along with everyone else’s silence, this email is just rubbing salt in the wounds.

“What is an apology?” Eve Ensler asks in The Apology. Then she answers, “It is a humbling. It is an admission of wrongdoings and a surrender. It is an act of intimacy and connection which requires great self-knowledge and insight” (9).

To me, this email from this professor is a form of posturing. It is a performance, and there to display good intentions and excuses for his actions. In his email, he even cited a fellow academic who works in Indigenous media and said they had put together a folder for other TAs regarding diversity and inclusion to, again, show that he is “woke,” and therefore not to be misconstrued as anything but.

And despite having my contact (email and phone number), I never heard from this person offering to talk this issue further, or offer a real person-to-person apology. He sent out a mass email to everyone in the group that was addressed primarily to me, but to show everyone who was there that he was, in fact, a good white guy after all. 

White liberals are a let down because they don’t even recognize what a let down they are. When they are confronted about how they let us down, they react defensively because they still lack the tools to listen and make note rather than tossing excuses out of white guilt and white defensiveness. Maybe the lecturer wanted only positive feedback–feedback that would say, “You did a great job as a white hetero cis-male academic.” Maybe he didn’t want to hear actual feedback that I want to see result in change, even though this is the hard work!–when a person takes on the extra task, and the punches, to actually produce change. I thought that the microaggressions I sensed throughout the course as the only person of color were just in my head–perhaps I was being overly sensitive, or having a bad day, or just overthinking it, but yesterday’s lunch proved to me that it wasn’t any of those things. White academics will only mirror one another, and feel comfort with one another. White academics are just still very inadequate, and they have miles to go before I can comfortably rely on them as fellow colleagues and allies. Until they realize that, and learn on their own what efforts they need to make to improve themselves so that people of color don’t sense these aggressions both micro and macro, I’ll just keep blogging about them because what the fuck else is the internet good for….

More reading:

“dear white academics” 

Ethnic minority academics earn less than white colleagues.

How Free Speech Works for White Academics

White Men of Academia Have an Objectivity Problem

White Professors Can Help Uproot Racism

White academics should not shy away from the debate on race (locked)

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