Discussion of Dissolution of the WSA
For some time, the officers and board of the Whedon Studies Association have been discussing the possible dissolution of the organization, questioning whether an association named for Joss Whedon is appropriate in the contemporary landscape. (The editors of the Slayage journal, which was started before the WSA, have been discussing a possible revision of the journal’s purview, as the recent Call for Papers for a School of Whedon issue indicates.) In 2020, some officers and board members wished to dissolve the organization without a vote of the membership; others wished to have the decision made by a vote of the membership, and to have that vote made during a time of less worldwide stress. Three officers resigned in 2020; President Lorna Jowett and Vice-President/President-Elect Kristopher Woofter (in collaboration with Cofounder, Board Member, and Treasurer Tanya Cochran) gave particular emphasis to anti-racism in their joint letter of resignation. It was determined that the membership needed to decide on any proposal to dissolve the organization, and the officers and board forebore to make such a proposal, choosing to wait for less oppressively difficult times to ask members to confront a painful choice.
The world is still in serious stress, but with a bit more hope in sight. Recent reports about Joss Whedon's conduct have also added significant issues to consideration of the questions: Should the WSA be dissolved? Should it be re-envisioned and re-named to indicate a different focus?
The officers and board wish to provide further information relating to their earlier deliberations (text and PDF versions of relevant communications are provided below, including Jowett and Woofter’s resignation letter and Mary Ellen Iatropoulos and Samira Nadkarni’s open letter to the WSA). A week subsequently, a questionnaire will be sent to survey views about the organization’s fate.
Thank you for your serious consideration of these matters, and thank you for your years of thoughtful engagement.
WSA Officers and Board Members
WSA Dissolution Deliberations: Two Excerpts from WSA Board Members' and Officers' Correspondence, October 2020
Emailed comments from Board Member Stacey Abbott:
The thought that keeps coming back to me is that I am unclear what the purpose of the organization is now. Not only in the light of these complaints and fraught discussions (an understatement I know but I can’t begin to articulate how to describe this situation) but in the light of what we discussed. The world of television and popular culture was a very different place when we started the organization and the WSA came to represent a place in which to talk about seemingly cutting edge work that was, perhaps, not recognised in other academic venues. The work of Whedon (by him and his collaborators) stood out as distinct and innovative. But as we noted last week he has not produced anything new and, even more importantly, the landscape of television and popular culture has changed so much that what seemed innovative now seems standard. As important, an organization founded on the work/named for a white cisgendered man does now seem anachronistic.
Emailed comments from Past President Cynthia Burkhead, responding, in italics, to words of other officers, in quotations:
“The officers concluded that disbanding the organization and discontinuing the Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses responsibly and with the appropriate support to bring closure for members, is the only response by the WSA leadership that would do justice to the statement made by Samira and Mary Ellen that the WSA and its public-facing scholarly efforts in their current form, create an unsafe and unsupportive environment for minorities and people of color.”
This seems to be like an either/or position rooted in an idea that the WSA either can’t be better or doesn’t want to be better, and I disagree. Responses by our members to the various emails and social media posts this summer indicate a desire and willingness to work toward all of the goals brought forth from the Samira and Mary Ellen’s statement. To not acknowledge that desire and willingness, to not give people an opportunity to demonstrate growth in anti-racist scholarship and minority support, reads to me like an statement on the part of the WSA Leadership that it doesn’t believe it’s members are capable of that growth. The officers’ letter speaks of the mentorship role of the WSA over the years; if we really believe that to be the case, then that mentorship must extend to the whole scholar. Other scholarly groups have faced the same ethical and moral dilemmas, those focusing on white Medieval, Renaissance, and Victorian authors come to mind, but I have seen through my own faculty’s scholarly involvement in those groups the kind of work being done that we would all like to see happen in the WSA. I know from my own experience administering a large endowment for Shakespeare events that a major part of that scholarly community is working specifically on issues of race – 5 of the last 6 invited lectures we have hosted by major scholars have focused on some aspect of race or other minority representation in Shakespeare. These lectures have given our undergraduate and graduate students an interest in investigating these issues, which seems to be what we would like to see in WSA scholarship, it seem disingenuous to say that is the work folks should be doing but then say that closing that space is the only way to deal with the issues.
“I am unclear what the purpose of the organisation is now. [...] The world of television and popular culture was a very different place when we started the organisation and the WSA came to represent a place in which to talk about seemingly cutting edge work that was, perhaps, not recognised in other academic venues. The work of Whedon (by him and his collaborators) stood out as distinct and innovative. But as we noted last week he has not produced anything new and, even more importantly, the landscape of television and popular culture has changed so much that what [then] seemed innovative now seems standard.”
Admittedly, Whedon has not produced anything in a while, but we know he has projects in the works. More significantly, we seem to be highlighting the need for a very particular area of Whedon scholarship, that which takes on issues of representation. Additionally, we know that with other authors, time provides an opportunity to discover “stages” of an author’s work (for instance, Yeats’ three very distinct stages), and even if we only look at problems with minority representation, we see an evolution from BtVS to Firefly/Serenity. Do we know that we won’t see further evolution and even innovation in “Nevers”? And I go back to our literature colleagues as comparison to say that at some point Jane Austen may have been innovative, but that certainly stopped, yet scholars still find interesting things to say about her work. To not see a potential for the same from Whedon seems to reduce our work of the last 20 years to a question of overall worthiness.
“Leaving aside the scholarly relevance of a focus on “Joss Whedon,” this name itself centers whiteness, white artists, and mainstream television production that continually excludes people of color behind and in front of the camera, or features them as token presences to supplement a narrative and thematic focus on white protagonists, perspectives, and realities, thus perpetuating white supremacy in the media industry and in its representations.”
Yes, it does, but in my opinion if the only folks taking this into consideration are the producers (with dollars as the end game), then nothing will every change. The WSA can’t contribute as a voice for change if it doesn’t exist.
“This last point above raises the question of ethically doing anti-racist work in an organization that is made up of, and run by, an overwhelmingly white group of scholars.”
By this logic, then any American university (I can’t speak for schools in other countries) that is not an HBC should not ethically be taking up the work of anti-racisim???? And by this logic, then there is an ethical problem with doing feminism in any organization (school, corporation, government) primarily made up and run by white males????
“We must acknowledge that the ‘sense of chosen family and community’ frequently offered as a reason to keep the WSA going is not inclusive, despite what efforts we have made, and also, significantly, despite critical comments over the years upon which we have failed to act. Regardless of the genuine desire to create a welcoming ethos, the WSA family has not been welcoming and comfortable for the members who need this feeling of welcome the most.”
Perhaps the problem rests with those of us who have been in leadership, then, and I will take my own responsibility here? There is an alternative to disbanding; we invite our scholars of color to assume the leadership positions (I don’t mean nominations and a vote, I mean ask them to take the positions and hand them the mantles of leadership).
“Yet, we believe that the only appropriate way to acknowledge that the organization is literally stilled by these accusations as it is currently structured, by a centralized administration of white scholars devoted to study of a white artist, is to disband.”
Please see above. I don’t see this as an either/or proposition.
“As elected representatives of the organization, we believe that the decisions we make in discussion with the WSA Board Members will be respected by the organization, as long as proper context, clarity, and support are offered to the organization’s members in the wake of a decision to disband.”
Perhaps the decisions will be respected, but I’m not confident that disbanding without a vote of the members is ethical. I’m personally terrified of any action taken by elected representatives without considering the will of the electorate.
“Many members have and likely will express their feelings of camaraderie and chosen family as a reason to continue the organization, but the “we” of Whedon Studies, as Samira and Mary Ellen have pointed out so strikingly, is not inclusive of all members. In other words, the familial bonding experienced by many members of the organization has not extended to every member, particularly those of color, but also potentially members with disabilities, gender non-binary members, and neurodiverse members, among others.”
This is true, but again, I am having trouble understanding how we can create a space for current or potential members of color, with disabilities, who are gender non-binary, or neurodiverse if we erase the space. To admit that we have not been as welcoming as we should be is to admit that there are scholars wanting to engage in Whedon Studies who have not been welcomed in the way they should be. To disband, it seems to me, ignores their scholarly desires and is akin to saying, “we can’t figure out a way to build a wheelchair ramp, so you’ll have to take your scholarship elsewhere.” Instead, we should be fighting to get that ramp built.
“We think it important to offer a chance for members to celebrate what was good, but also to acknowledge what was not, and to consider how to move forward in their research and communities as active anti-racist allies of people of color and other marginalized groups.”
Yes, we should, but disbanding would eliminate one community in which members could move forward as “active anti-racist allies of people of color and other marginalized groups”
“Accordingly, we propose the idea of reconceiving SCW9 as a time to process and debrief, guided by supportive anti-racist activist-scholars, through a variety of workshops, training, and discussions on antiracist organizing, pedagogy, scholarship. Beyond the opportunity for debriefing, such activity might inspire new projects, and new collective efforts.”
Yes, but this sounds very much like “we’re going to train you to be better people, but your collective efforts will need to happen elsewhere.”
I hope my responses haven’t sounded too rigid, but I have been in battle mode since August. I’ve had as many as four contingent faculty members in quarantine at a time, with some eventually testing positive for COVID, and my efforts to redress some of the problems are often met by administrators above me with “we just don’t see how we can fix it.” This not reaching for potential fixes is, for me, the most problematic, and that may be reflected in many of my responses above. My own history, which some of you may or may not know of, is one in which reaching for change is the only reason I am here today. And I’m sharing only to put my position here into context. Before John (who is truly a saint), I had been in three very abusive relationships. Not only was I convinced that things couldn’t change, but my “community,” including religious leaders, military superiors, and friends, reinforced that idea tied to the very patriarchal constructs in which it was rooted. My only model of any salvation came from media, where in the 70s and 80s, television was beginning to tackle domestic abuse in its programming. I eventually was able to envision something different for myself, and it was somewhat like clawing my way out the grave. And while it is sorely deficient in representation of race, etc., and often wrong when it does represent, and while I was by that time “safe,” Whedon’s work became a lesson book of sorts to help understand what I had experienced and how I could continue to grow going forward. I know the “Buffy strong female model” discussion seems old to many of us because we’ve lived with it in our research for so long, but in addition to considering the potential for good the WSA may hold for scholars from other marginalized groups if we were to go forward thoughtfully and intentionally, I think we need to continue thinking about the those for whom the “strong female” is perhaps still only a novelty. We cannot and shouldn’t discount now those “testimonials” from our members over the years about how these shows and this community of scholars have helped them in their own personal journeys. There aren’t many Shakespeare or Austen scholars making that claim.
Resignation Letter, Jowett and Woofter, 19 October 2020
Lorna Jowett, WSA President and Kristopher Woofter, WSA Vice-President/President-Elect
WSA Board Members, Stacey Abbott, Tanya Cochran, Rhonda Wilcox
Resignation and Support of WSA Dissolution in Light of Structural White Supremacy and Racism/Marginalizing Acts in/by the WSA
Dear WSA Board Members:
We write this statement to respectfully tender our resignation as officers of the Whedon Studies Association (WSA). As you know, this decision follows a WSA Officers’ meeting on Sunday, 18 October, 2020, with WSA Board Members present to address our recommendation that the Whedon Studies Association consider dissolution in light of two recent open letters from WSA members, one by Samira Nadkarni and Mary Ellen Iatropoulos (25 June, 2020), and the second—an email response—by Samira Nadkarni (29 June, 2020), both detailing the structural white supremacy and racism that marginalize WSA members of colour.
In what follows, we outline in some detail our support for dissolution of the WSA, as this issue lies at the crux of our decision to resign. Most of this explanation duplicates the content of our letter to WSA Board Members regarding our position on dissolution of the WSA, and we feel WSA members should have access to our reasoning.
We called the meeting of Sunday, 18 October, 2020, to address whether the Whedon Studies Association, devoted as it is to a sole auteur, could do the work of anti-racist restructuring, particularly given that Whedon is a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual male whose output and influence have shifted over the years from trailblazer to a role far better characterized as mainstream and institutional.
We brought to this meeting a statement (the text that follows) indicating that we find it necessary to reassess the relevance of, and need for, the WSA in the current field of television scholarship; to consider the responsibility of the organization to respond with action to the open letters by Samira and Mary Ellen and the ethics of doing anti-racist (along with anti-ableist, feminist, and queer studies) work with Joss Whedon as the focus of the organization. Our guiding question was: what can we in good conscience do in light of serious charges that the WSA is undergirded by racist structures that affect members of colour profoundly in ways that contradict our goals of inclusivity?
In a discussion on Wednesday, 15 July, 2020, we (Tanya Cochran, WSA Treasurer; Lorna Jowett, and Kristopher Woofter) agreed that to continue the organization under the current structures—which in addition to focusing study on a white artist, also center whiteness systemically in the WSA’s two public-facing outlets, the journal Slayage and the biennial Slayage conferences—would be irresponsible and potentially unethical. To put it differently, the very fact of focusing on a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual male artist means forever relegating queer, race, or feminist scholarship to the margins of critique rather than centering those perspectives. The officers present during this discussion concluded that dissolving the organization and discontinuing the Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses, responsibly and with the appropriate support to bring closure for members, is the only response by the WSA leadership that would do justice to the statement made by Samira and Mary Ellen that the WSA and its public-facing scholarly efforts in their current form create an unsafe and unsupportive environment for people of color and other marginalized folks. Because the journal Slayage operates independently as an adjunct to the organization, decisions about how it might move forward to address these concerns should, we felt, be left to its editors.
In what follows, we outline in more detail the reasoning behind our decision to resign as well as recommend dissolving the organization.
On the Current Relevance and Purpose of the WSA and “Whedon Studies”
The open letters by Samira and Mary Ellen have challenged us to evaluate the relevance of the WSA and the notion that "Whedon Studies" may now be an anachronism where it once was a radical and necessary force. Some of us have had conversations in recent years about whether the organization, conference, and journal focused on this single artist might have fulfilled their purpose.
It is clear to us (Lorna, Kristopher, and Tanya) that part of what we must reflect upon here is that our own relevance as an organization is tied up with Whedon’s potentially diminishing relevance as a creator as well as emerging allegations about his personal and professional conduct. Whedon’s texts themselves will echo forward, but the idea of “Joss Whedon” as an area of study has run its course. Leaving aside the scholarly relevance of a focus on “Joss Whedon,” this name itself centers whiteness, white artists, and mainstream television production that continually excludes people of color behind and in front of the camera or features them as token presences to supplement a narrative and thematic focus on white protagonists, perspectives, and realities, thus perpetuating whiteness and white supremacy in the media industry and in its representations.
The Ethics of Doing Anti-racist Work: Why a Name Change Isn’t Enough
This last point above raises the question of ethically doing anti-racist work in an organization that is made up of, and run by, an overwhelmingly white group of scholars. Many would say that the WSA has done admirable work in terms of feminist studies, but how many can say that “Joss Whedon” is a critical site for intersectional analyses of race, gender, and class? The open letter by Samira and Mary Ellen identifies ongoing harm caused by both our actions and inaction as an organization, in the journal, and at conferences. The “Sineya Awards”—sponsored and funded by Samira, and itself named for problematic representation of a token Black character who represents the “primitive” first Slayer—was created to address the WSA’s very palpable weaknesses in supporting scholars of color, not just financially, but also emotionally and intellectually. That there are two such awards every conference is a direct response to this centering of whiteness in the WSA, for example, in that it is based on the idea that no person of color should have to stand up on stage alone.
As Samira and Mary Ellen made plain in their original letter, and as Samira indicated in her response to the WSA’s egregious error of forwarding her a racist response to that original letter, the WSA participates not only in systemic racism as an organization, but also perpetuates racism in more direct forms. That these more direct forms were the result of ignorance or bad judgment on the part of the WSA leadership past and present make them no less unconscionable. While the WSA, its conferences, and its publication have always modeled themselves on principles of inclusion, and of encouraging scholarship on and by racialized minorities, we clearly have not done enough.
We must acknowledge that the WSA has always seen itself as inclusive, but that it has not effectively heard and uplifted voices of critique and dissent about the image the organization holds of itself. We must acknowledge that the “sense of chosen family and community” frequently offered as a reason to keep the WSA going is not always and not always felt as inclusive, despite what efforts we have made, and also, significantly, despite generous critical comments over the years upon which we have failed to thoroughly act. Regardless of the genuine desire to create a welcoming ethos, the WSA family has not always been welcoming and comfortable for the members who need this feeling of welcome the most.
It is possible that dissolving the organization might seem merely a grand, ceremonial gesture, at best—and a convenient and quick response by a leadership sitting uncomfortably with its white fragility and unwilling to do the work, at worst. Neither is the case from our perspective. We believe that the only appropriate way to acknowledge that the organization is literally stilled by these accusations as it is currently structured, by a centralized administration of white scholars devoted to study of a white artist, is to dissolve the WSA.
Regarding the WSA as “Chosen Family”
We believe strongly that our conclusions about dissolution are informed and justified, and that 1) personal, emotional connections to the WSA community and 2) nostalgia regarding the support offered by that community are not sufficient reasons for us to continue the organization, even though they are reasons to continue our friendships. Many members have and likely will express their feelings of camaraderie and chosen family as a reason to continue the organization, but the “we” of Whedon Studies, as Samira and Mary Ellen have pointed out so strikingly, is not felt as inclusive of all members. In other words, the familial bonding experienced by many members of the organization has not extended to every member, particularly those of color, but also potentially members with disabilities, gender non-binary members, and neurodiverse members, among others.
We understand that many will feel that our thoughts do not represent their experience. However, the majority of members of the WSA are not representative of the members most harmed by our current organizational structure and practices. When members of the organization say “we,” we center whiteness, white experience, and white (“color-blind”) scholarship. In institutional terms, the WSA is white: centered upon a white artist, made up almost exclusively of white scholars, organized and run by white scholars, and largely publishing and presenting scholarship that fails to consistently investigate representations of race, whiteness, and white supremacy.
Many members also will cite the WSA as a source of mentorship for their scholarship, and they will be justified in doing so. We do not wish to minimize the important work the organization has done, including for ourselves and our own scholarship and careers. At the same time, this work is not a reason to continue the organization as it stands. Furthermore, as noted, this scholarship is traditionally a marker of centering and centered whiteness in academia and academic organizations. Globally, this historical moment demands that certain institutions and structures be dissolved so that together we can imagine and create new ones rooted from their inception in collective liberation.
It is for these reasons that we fundamentally disagree with a decision to continue the organization. We understand that our statement may alienate some members of the WSA. We respect these differences in perspective, even as we, Lorna and Kristopher, affirm our decision to resign. We have reached these conclusions and formed these suggestions after considerable thought, and out of respect for the organization’s years of commitment to scholarship and community.
Lorna Jowett, WSA President
Kristopher Woofter, WSA Vice-President/President-Elect
WSA Response to Open Letter from Iatropoulos and Nadkarni, 1 July 2020
Dear WSA Members,
Last week two long-time members of the Whedon Studies Association posted a letter detailing the ways in which they had witnessed or experienced the WSA participating and/or being complicit in systematic racism and white supremacy. The board and officers of the WSA acknowledge that as an academic institution the association is inevitably steeped in whiteness, white privilege, and white supremacy.
The WSA acknowledges and apologizes for the harm caused by the organization or its individual members through our silence, inattention, actions, or inaction. This includes the silence of our scholarship in not doing enough to foreground racism and other representational problems in the work of Joss Whedon. This includes not speaking loudly enough in support of those members who identify those silences. This includes not recognizing the harm and pain caused by operating within exclusive, white spaces (both physical and virtual) that are unsafe for members of colour but might be comfortable and friendly to white members. This includes mistakes made in how we have responded to the letter.
We commit to doing and being better. We are currently considering courses of action. Undoubtedly, we will make mistakes. Whatever the future holds for the WSA, it will be one determined by principles of inclusion and justice.
The WSA Officers and Board Members
Open Letter to the WSA, Iatropoulos and Nadkarni, 16 June 2020
Dear fellow members of the WSA,
In June of 2020, amidst global outrage over the murder of George Floyd and world- wide protests against racism and police brutality, the editors of the Slayage reached out to us wondering whether we might be interested in editing a special issue of the journal focusing on race and ethnicity. Specifically, we were asked two things: whether we thought such an issue might be a good idea, and whether we would want to be the editors.
Our response to those editors is the same as it is to you, our WSA community. With regards to the former question—whether we think that such an issue of Slayage is a good idea—this is part of a larger conversation the WSA should be not just having but centralizing. In keeping with the same spirit which prompts cities all around the world to be reconsidering statues, logos, and mascots, we want to use this as an opportunity to face some hard truths about how the WSA participates in systemic racism and white supremacy.
We would ask, what would the purpose of publishing a themed issue on race and ethnicity be? Would it be to show that the WSA cares about ending racism and white supremacy? Because if those are the goals, more needs to be done than publishing a single issue of an academic journal. We need to be asking why it might be that race and ethnicity is rarely addressed in the WSA’s work and why whiteness is somehow never positioned as raced. Ask why Slayage features so few rigorous discussions of interrogating white supremacy in Whedon’s works, and ask why Slayage has actively worked to uphold white supremacy in the recent past. Ask why there are so few BIPOC in attendance each Slayage. Ask why, of those few BIPOC who do attend, so few choose to attend more than once. There are reasons, and WSA leadership needs to pause to consider them.
The truth is, the WSA has a whiteness problem that can’t be properly addressed through a special issue alone, and while such an issue would raise discussions worth having, the underlying cultural issues would still be there. The problems lie not only with the whiteness of Whedon’s works, but also with the whiteness of Whedon Studies, whether its members or its publications. It lies in the processes of whiteness that invisibilise itself—from the keynote speakers hired, to editorial processes of the journal, to the membership of the WSA, to the topics discussed, to the tone of the discussions.
The following pages frame specific WSA events and our lived experiences that we can draw from as upholding white supremacy. While we are aware that this might be hurtful to hear, we hope that the questions that follow lead all of us to pause and confront the ways in which the WSA is not separate from these systems, and is, in fact, deeply enmeshed in them.
* * *
Many of these issues are ones we have raised previously with the WSA, though we have struggled to have them noticed. Much as we care for the community itself, the
WSA is exclusionary, and it is something we have both struggled to reconcile ourselves with as we see the toll it takes on certain members. Before we see more people fall away, or before we fall away ourselves, we ask once more for this reckoning.
It is important to note that there is a difference in naming problems in Whedon's work (which may sometimes be an issue in itself) and problems within the WSA. On the one hand, the WSA names itself as committed to change, but on the other, it often reproduces the structures it intends to critique. Many of us have been the target of enough overt or unintentional micro-aggression that we know this is a more systemic problem than any single individual.
An easy example of this is the WSA’s emphasis on kindness. Kindness has long been weaponised as a system of tone policing for people of colour, and it is telling
that during several discussions of race and racism, the WSA’s emphasis on kindness has been one that penalises those that need this kindness most. Often this is bookended in how one is simply taking something "the wrong way" or “bless your heart” when oppression is named. On the one hand, scholars of colour face this in almost any academic circles of this nature; at the same time, it is deliberately pushing them out the door, whether this is intended or not.
By insisting that everyone be “nice” and constructive with criticism, the WSA fails to leave open space for anger from anyone marginalised whose humanity is being called into question as though it is up for debate. For example, at Slayage in California in 2014, more than one person asked Samira why she was so opposed to reading the Hulk (a white man coded with anger issues) as a person of colour and how his presence in a Kolkata Indian slum (incredibly falsely depicted) wasn't hugely problematic from a cultural/ national/ racial hierarchy perspective. During the same conference, a white woman in the audience asked if people of colour shouldn’t be grateful that they were now included in Hollywood, that she saw nothing wrong in most people of colour being demonised by these productions. At each stage it is impossible not to note that the context of politeness within the WSA does not position the racist remark as an infraction, but rather positions the naming of racism as impolite.
During EuroSlayage in 2016, we sat through a paper that compared Nikki Wood's coat to the skin Hercules took from a lion. And when placed in those situations, people of colour have to so carefully frame their responses so as to educate but not offend. Samira noted that it was impossible not to be conscious that she wasn't allowed to be obviously angry, even though we had to sit through hearing that, because Whedon Studies prides itself on being nice no matter what. She wasn’t allowed to be angry, to be genuinely and visibly hurt by the idea of a Black woman dehumanised in this manner. But that sort of niceness also allowed those concerns to be dismissed, and the conversion became about the politics of civility in audience comments rather than the racism of equating Black characters with animals and rejoicing in their demise.
When the early draft of the conference report for EuroSlayage was being framed, those issues or the discussion that followed weren't mentioned, despite the provision of a summary of the paper. It did not mention audience pushback at all, nor did it reckon with the racist content of the presentations. Instead it normalised the argument's racism by not finding it worth comment at all. The implicit message communicated by this action was that safe spaces would tolerate racism and never name it as such.
Samira knows this, as she acted as a stand-by reporter to fill in (and therefore was on the email chain before it was published) and had to bring it up again. When pushing back against the erasure of naming racist content, she offered the fact that any young academics reading the WSA conference report to discover if Slayage is a safe space for them may see the unchecked racism being touted as scholarship and conclude it is not a safe space for them. However, what went unnamed was her own hurt and anger at racist scholarship being enabled yet again alongside of the erasure of her labour—moreover, labour she had provided “nicely” under trying circumstances. Yet again, she had to be constructive when explaining why the dehumanisation of Black women could not be allowed to stand without response, while wondering herself why those that had so willingly admitted that it was wrong would not only dismiss this knowledge, but enable its propagation.
We have to wonder what else might have been allowed to pass had we not been present—in the conference, in the email chain, in this space. Within the WSA, niceness, constructive criticism, and a woman of colour teaching a white woman—all of these failed to account for the woman of colour herself. The person writing up the report within these contexts understood that in that situation, a priority was not to hurt the white presenter's feelings and their learning, but it took no account or priority of the fact that at least three scholars of colour were in the audience of that panel, that people of colour might read this report and be hurt as well, or that they were part of a process of actively erasing the work of a woman of colour defending against the dehumanisation of Black womanhood. Intentional or not, this is white supremacy.
This wasn't facilitating learning; it was being nice to a presenter by dismissing a very carefully framed and non-aggressive point made about their paper using racist comparisons. The question of who people are being nice to within these structures and hierarchies is integral to this. This is the difference for us as well between the single person (the presenter), the group (the audience who did not point this out until a woman of colour hurt by this ideation had to), and the institutional power of the WSA (who were putting out the report while erasing or defanging that objection). It also made clear who this report was for, and it was not for everyone: it was for white people.
The same panel included a paper on Drusilla and queerness that did not account for how this theorisation of white queerness as described included an extended section on the killing of Kendra, one of the few Black women on the show. Samira noted during the panel that any discussion of this scene solely as empowering erased the racial undertones present (on which there is pre-existing work by Lynne Edwards) and refused to consider the realities of how white queerness in that scene preyed on Black womanhood. She noted that the paper’s reading, framed as it was, refused to acknowledge its own raced bias towards whiteness.
At the time, she was assured by both the panelist and those that knew them that this was something they would reconsider. The paper has since been published in Slayage without the reconsideration of this aspect, despite both editor and author present at the time having specifically assured Samira that they would take account of her note (an assurance which never resulted in action). In the erasure of work that calls out the dehumanisation of Black women in particular (and people of colour more broadly), in the refusal to reconsider even within the preconditions of “niceness” and constructive criticism, is this not, inevitably, the systems of white supremacy? As the very basic labour of naming racism is erased, at what point could antiracism even begin? How are scholars of colour in these contexts expected to trust that their labour will not be wasted, leading them to acknowledge that the space does not want them, is actively not listening while providing a performance of acknowledgement? Is this not making clear that this space is not for them: a space that does not care that they named dehumanisation and chose to proceed regardless?
We must pause to question: how many people did that paper go through who either did not see this or chose not to address it? How many of them were in that room when racism was named? How many felt like this was something that didn’t matter because they had the privilege for this not to impact them personally? Ask as well, what happens when people of colour no longer bother to name these incidents because they number too many and nothing has changed, when they decide they should reserve their strength for somewhere they can be heard, when they choose instead to leave, exhausted and resigned. This is a reality the WSA has to acknowledge and grapple with if it truly plans to engage with the realities of Juneteenth or #BlackLivesMatter, or systemic whiteness.
This is not a single incident. Samira has noted numerous incidents wherein she has pointed out places in papers that require racial analysis during requested peer review, only to have few—if any—of these comments addressed in the final copy. When questioning this, she has been told that it wasn’t seen as essential to the paper in its current form. Again, intentional or not, this is the work of white supremacy. Whiteness is not named in those papers, but exists in its every space: from its contents, to the systems of its production and publication.
We know full well that a defensive response to this will suggest that Samira (or indeed, any scholar of colour) will use this to insist her ideas are added to everything; our response is that this, too is white supremacy in action. There is the implication that her unpaid labour in carefully laying out the very basics of postcolonialism or critical race theory—fields that are vast, complex, and well established—being seen as no more than a mobilisation of her identity rather than a learned and honed academic skill. There is the implication that her unpaid labour in an anonymous peer review that earns her no public acknowledgement can be dismissed simply by the claim of identity. Whether acknowledged or not, this is white supremacy in action. If defensive readers cry reverse racism, we would note that this is not only a false myth but a refusal to see how deeply a refusal to name race is entrenched in white world views. If defensive readers fear this is making things “political,” then we would point out that everything is always already political.
Ask again, how many other authors, peer reviewers, and editors are contextualising race in papers seen as not explicitly about race? How many papers refer to feminism without acknowledging that it’s white feminism being discussed? If we are in a moment acknowledging how deeply race is enmeshed in our everyday, does this not cause us to pause and reconsider?
These are a few examples. We have many. Too many, in fact, for us to easily dismiss as just a single person or a single event. We are entrenched in it, and addressing this entrenchment isn’t easy. And even there, we can see white supremacy at work. Was it not, for a while at least, an inside joke of sorts that “Samira is so cute when she’s angry?” As a result, when Samira has been publicly angry and ranted, people have positioned this as entertaining rather than contextually defensive: a way to articulate hurt while preserving herself within spaces of systemic whiteness. We ask that you pause and consider how often this is something that people of colour have had to do to ensure their inclusion and survival. We ask that you pause and consider how often this notion of entertainment has been used to dismiss the underlying anger and hurt, leaving only the performance for consumption.
As we push for scholars of colour to join the WSA, we need to engage with the realities of what this space means for those people. We are asking younger, less established and less connected scholars to occupy a space wherein speaking up against the status quo carries a variety of punitive measures. We are asking them to shoulder a burden alongside all the other concerns they have. Scholars of colour across a range of fields have noted that speaking against racism has seen them labelled “difficult”, their work less recognised or dismissed, their ability to make and use academic contacts at conferences diminished, and potentially their own academic joy diminished as well. Forcing oneself through the constant crisis management of white anxiety masquerading as objectivity is exhausting, and it affects academic output. All of these are facts.
It is actively harmful to ask people of colour, or those marginalised in a variety of ways, to have to do the equivalent of education, or of displaying their metaphorical wounds over and over to make evident that these are truths, and many may feel discomfort at the idea of having to do this publicly only to be dismissed or condescended to—which is what has been the majority result so far. Those who do want to change will have to reckon with this as well—that to stand with people of colour, and Black people of marginalised genders in particular, will require that they educate themselves rather than assume that someone hurt by inaction will trust them to address it. This trust is earned, and currently the WSA does not have it.
We raise these issues not only so more people become aware of them, but because we are deeply indebted to and invested in these communities. These are our friends, our peers, and our spaces. We put in the very best parts of ourselves in the hope that we enrich these. But we cannot pretend anymore that these spaces are not harmful and hurtful. It is telling that much of this letter comes from an email that Samira wrote in 2017, tired and willing to accept the destruction of these personal and professional relationships if only to finally name racism and have this pain and anger acknowledged. It is 2020. So little has changed that the email still stands.
The reason we have struggled to articulate this here is not because we do not think people want to be inclusive or that the WSA isn't trying to do the work—quite the opposite—but that inclusivity at the WSA requires work that needs to be a community commitment rather than an opt-in. And as Mary Ellen has worked so hard to point out, even this requires the constant self-conscious work of refusing to frame oneself as a white saviour.
It is hard for us to discuss our experiences of the WSA as a non-inclusive space as this may not necessarily be the case for many, but the many conversations we have had over the years with other members who are variously people of colour, visibly and/ or invisibly disabled, and/ or of marginalised genders, suggest that in fact, we are not alone in feeling this way. We are welcome, yet only to a point, and only insofar as we are willing to conform to the existing exclusionary systems. To have our lives and our needs positioned as optional or the site of a problem is dehumanising. How long can we love a space that won’t love us back in our entireties, or does not see our inclusion as necessary?
Though this letter comes only from the two of us, we carry the complexities of our communities with us. Any inclusion of people of colour cannot only open the door to cis abled people of colour of a particular academic background; it must include disabled people of colour, people of colour of marginalised genders, queer people of colour, poor people of colour, and more. It must include a refusal of anti-blackness at every stage, even within marginalised global communities, and it must contain an acknowledgement of hierarchical complexities within communities of colour (such as caste and indigeneity). It must acknowledge that even people of colour can internalise and propagate oppression, and that their identities do not absolve them of this either. Our work both within and outside of the WSA has always been towards this purpose.
Ignorance in these matters cannot be equated with innocence, just as acknowledging privilege is not the work of addressing inequality. Ignorance is not innocence; ignorance is complicity that has not yet been reckoned with. These are only beginnings. The rest is the work.
Mary Ellen Iatropoulos and Samira Nadkarni