Power, Dominance & Acquiescence

I often wish that I could be faster and more critical in how I respond to oppressive circumstances in my everyday life.  I admit that there are times when I am simply dumbstruck when I should be expecting foolishness and should, therefore, be able to respond much more quickly.  Instead, I just sit there stupidly wondering: what is goin on up in here?  I can forgive myself for being slow on the uptake, but I am beginning to question how many times I am not counter-acting/counter-thinking at all.

For some reason, today, my mind goes back to a professional conference that I attended at least three years ago now.  The panel discussion that I attended was designed to be a conversation about various issues related to the labor and organization of prominent college writing programs. It should go without saying, given the trends of this particular conference/ field, that the panel was all-white and predominantly male.  Like I said, I am used to those trends so this alone was not what bothered me.  One of the panelists, a well-regarded white male scholar/administrator (at least by some), who I will here call New Henrickson, rightly problematized the ways in which the teaching of writing in his program was gendered as female labor, a trend that scholars have shown to be dominant when looking at contingent/part-time labor in colleges today, especially when it comes to the teaching of college writing.  Then the scholar went on, in what he thought was a clever quip, to say that he felt like the main character from the HBO series, Big Love, Bill Henrickson (hence, the inspiration for my re-naming here).  The audience chuckled… but my jaw almost dropped to the bottom of my chair.  Did he really just say that? Does he NOT know that he is talking out loud and that, hence, people can HEAR him?  I never said anything to anyone, just sat there, with the violence of this discourse hanging over me.

I have never actually watched Big Love— I just know it was about a Fundamentalist Mormon polygamist and Republican senator in Utah and his many wives. Supposedly, there is good social commentary about male dominance and patriarchy in the series but I never sat through it long enough to find out.  The one and only conversation that I have ever had about New Henrickson’s comment at this conference was with another male scholar in the audience. This scholar was perturbed by the comment but mostly because his program was not given an award for its innovation the way that New Henrickson’s program had been.   It wasn’t a conversation that I could really relate to: such an award is not something I would ever covet if it is offered to white men who metaphor-ize themselves as polygamist heads-of-households in relation to the underpaid/under-valued women who do the bulk of the work in the U.S. of teaching college writing.  I am reminded here of Marc Bousquet’s work:

As for gender, the rendering of faculty positions to the extreme of economic irrationality (six courses a year for $15,000, eg)  assigns them disproportionately to women, especially persons–whether male or female–married to professionals and managers. The other, primary wage earner supports the economically irrational partner, a person teaching for what used to be called pin money. This structural feminizing of the job was traditionally associated with converting the positions formerly held by men (such as secretarial positions, once a high-status job) to those held increasingly by women… a “pyramid scheme” especially for women faculty.

Broadly speaking across many disciplines and institution types women still tend to disproportionately hold low-paying, low-status, insecure teaching-only or teaching-intensive jobs while men continue to disproportionately hold high-paying, high-status, secure research-intensive and top administrative positions.

When I look at Bousquet’s work, I begin to think New Henrickson’s quip— with all its attending meanings related to race, capitalism, and gender— may have been a soberly, accurate portrayal of the academy and the field.

So how did I handle this moment?  I stayed quiet and then always steered clear of New Henrickson, his mentees, and all of his homies.  All well and good, maybe, except that this is beginning to feel like selling out.  At what point does silence become the co-signing of hegemony? And at what point do women trade in this silence in order to acquire a kind of professional comfort and ease in their disciplines, even if it means they do so at the expense of their own bodies and minds?  New Henrickson is not of my generation but his misogyny is not done, especially in this world where it is rewarded (the award his program received is an accolade that surely fared him well in the institutional hierarchy in which he can now insert himself at his college campus.)  And while women of color may be reluctant to publicly critique male scholars of color for fear of the violent, black-on-black intra-fratricidal display it will offer to white audiences, women of color are not publicly criticizing New Henrickson either and it’s not always clear where the private critiques of his male comrades of color are.   Racial respect/nonviolence in white spaces is not the sole issue here.

I am not saying that I should have jumped up and slapped this fool in the mouth– either with my hands or with my words. Like I said, I am not quick enough for that anyway.   But it does seem that if I want to claim radical anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist, anti-consumerist work, I need to reach a more definitive point where I say something, counter-theorize these very real and very everyday moments of epistemic violence, and/or set up intellectual-political shop elsewhere to really do the work that is needed.  That’s the best plan that I have for the present and future as of right now.  I am working on it!