Black, Female,Thinking Out Loud & #Twittergate

I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was 12 years old. I thought it was fiction because surely no real life could be that fantastical.

That the Autobiography of Malcolm X was one of thousands of books on the shelves, in boxes in the garage, and stacked on my mother’s night stand in my home should tell you about the intellectual history within which my self was initially and primarily formed.

We had the complete works of Shakespeare (two big books: the tragedies and the comedies) and an anthology of black literature from which I memorized “life for me ain’t been no crystal stair”. Surely there was some Anne Moody and Elaine Brown but it is fair to say that I grew up with a far greater grasp of black nationalism than I did feminism (or womanism; I won’t quibble on this).

I do not remember a single course on feminism at my historically black college in undergrad. We read plenty of black women – Zora, Alice, Toni – but we rarely read them as feminists.

I struggled for many years with the idea of white feminism and my place in two intellectual histories, both of which felt incomplete.

Then came graduate school. Never has my gendered form been more salient or sharply drawn than it has in academe. Never have I needed a grasp on intersectionality and multiple oppressions as I have needed them in academic discourse.

Last week, when a woman scholar took issue with tweeting conferences I did what I do on twitter: I engaged her ideas. I thought them interesting. I still do.

I read her criticisms — some fair, others far less so — as an interesting prism through which to explore who controls knowledge production, for what aims, and how capitalism, privilege, positionality of different groups to that process shapes our roles as thinkers, writers, and scholars.

The conversation on twitter grew to include regular engagement from four early career women scholars that I have engaged with online and off for an extended period of time.

And that is when the conversation took a left turn.

Inside Higher Ed played up the sensationalism of a profane response from the scholar who sparked the conversation. The writer frames the article as akin to a catfight worthy of the kind of language usually reserved for Yahoo Shine articles about Kim Kardashian (“twitterazi”). Comments to the story are initially snarky. But, then, a white male scholar injects a defense of one of the original tweeters and suddenly everyone thinks the conversation is serious.

Digital Humanities scholars said the debate was “dated”. The tone of posts and articles and tweets was decidedly condescending. The line went something like this: are these silly people talking about something I wrote about once TWO YEARS AGO?! The exchange has been characterized as both trivial and humorous.

To which I say: it must be nice to think power, privilege, privacy, status competition, and access are so damn funny.

Except, wait. It’s NOT funny when other people are talking about it.

@proflikesubstance thinks the tongue-in-cheek hashtag  is, like, soooo stupid. So stupid, in fact, that one need not engage the ideas being discussed in the conversation. Why bother when mocking is easier and when he offers such non-stupid shit to discuss on his blog like a graphic representation of what he hears on the radio:

And a detailed account of when he eats, walks, and breathes:

I mean, with that kind of focus on critical scholarship I can see why our discussion of the representation of marginalized publics in scholarship is so profane.

And then there’s the less snarky, but still problematic, characterization from Ernesto Priego as “dated”:

See, it’s old because they talked about this already. In 2009.

It’s the kind of arbitrary cannonical line common to “old” academe, supported by legitimate claims to define the line. Usually that line is defined by claims to institutional legitimacy. Here it’s a claim to digital humanities vanguard bona fides but the effect is the same.

But Ernesto doesn’t seem to think an analysis of 20th century novelist James Joyce (1882-1941) is particularly dated.

Serious digital humanities scholars found the subject interesting enough to justify blog posts and a twitter chat but still find it overblown:

And these are the people who supposedly want to re-imagine the future of academic scholarship.

I am not sure if the debate is so silly because it is happening outside the purview of the digital humanities elite or because it was being had by a group of women (most of them minorities), early career scholars. But, I suspect it is a combination of both.

I find it hard to imagine that a conversation about who gets to define the rights of an audience, or who gets to control the dissemination of publicly funded knowledge, or how ideas are weaponized against the very populations we use to justify and further our research would be taken so lightly had Nathan Jurgenson or Mark Sample or Cathy Davidson taken it up. That it was a group of minority women (without tenure, no less!) seemed to render the conversation less valuable.

There’s nothing new about that. However, if the proposal for a new academic publishing and tenure model is basically a replication of the same gendered, racialized power dynamic as the existing academic model why should I care about it?

More importantly, why should I contribute to its legitimacy by engaging the agenda it sets forth if it is so callously dismissive of the agenda I set forth?

Why should I exchange one master for another?

That’s a common discussion in the black feminist literature that I didn’t read closely until graduate school because I had never needed it so much until graduate school. It’s one I’ve actually discussed here in some detail: how this positionality to power warps professed ideals of equality of opportunity.

This experience of engaging the “new” guard of academe has felt decidedly dated (pun intended). It feels not at all unlike the argument of white women whose class position mediates their social distance from white male patriarchy and whose entire cause of “feminism” is rooted in wanting to to narrow that distance while ignoring the distance between themselves and non privileged class women. Is the new academic vanguard advocating for open access and dialogue or is it arguing to replace the existing elite with its own? It is a fair question, I think, but I will be sure to ask a white man to ask it so that I have a shot  at an answer. Because the answer matters more to some of us than to others.

Some can talk about discussions of privileged information with condescension.

I cannot.

I don’t have that privilege.

Who I am, in body and in ascribed status, is so entangled with these discussions of access and power that they cannot seem dated or humorous or inconsequential to me.

And if there is no room in digital humanities or open access or the new academic model to realize that, then I’m not interested.

I’d rather keep the master I do know than fight to legitimize one that I don’t, if you please.

3 thoughts on “Black, Female,Thinking Out Loud & #Twittergate

  1. “I am not sure if the debate is so silly because it is happening outside the purview of the digital humanities elite or because it was being had by a group of women (most of them minorities), early career scholars. But, I suspect it is a combination of both.”

    Thank you Tressie. This is important. Excellent post.

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