Our Exquisitely Sensitive Academic Culture

Mind your Ps and Qs,” Wikipedia tells us, “is an English expression meaning ‘mind your manners,’ ‘mind your language,’ ‘be on your best behavior.’” Recent advice provided in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that academic conference goers also need to mind their PC.

The Chronicle’s July 7 “Daily Briefing” to subscribers links to two “Talkers” who draw, unintentionally I am sure, a chilling picture of how brittle and thin-skinned academic culture has become. In one, “April Hathcock, a librarian at New York University, writes about race fatigue after attending an academic conference,” and in the other “Lucy Allen, an English professor at the University of Cambridge, argues in her blog that you shouldn’t fall back on the common question ‘Where are you from, originally?’”

In “‘Otherness’ and Conference Advice,” Professor Allen rejects the advice given in another recent Chronicle piece, Robin Bernstein’s “How to Talk to Famous Professors.” One example Bernstein suggested was “the old standby: Where are you from originally?” I suspect that what Bernstein had in mind — certainly what she could have had in mind — was that a nervous junior convention goer could reasonably assume that famous Professor Whatshisname from the University of Virginia lives in Charlottesville, and thus asking, “Where are you from, originally?” is a perfectly natural, neutral, unloaded conversation silence filler.

Professor Allen, however, no doubt ever attuned to dog whistles, hears something sinister: “There are many ways,” she warns, “to put your foot in it at conferences. But I’m fairly sure that using a phrase that’s stereotypically associated with ingrained racism/xenophobia is one of the more easily avoided ones.”

Just as everything looks like a nail if all you have is a hammer, so, too, everything can look like a micro- or even a macro-aggression if much of your personal and professional life is spent inhaling a miasma of race, gender, and ethnicity. Thus, after spending five days at the American Library Association convention in Chicago, New York University librarian April Hathcock writes, “Race fatigue is a real physical, mental, and emotional condition that people of color experience after spending a considerable amount of time dealing with the micro- and macro-aggressions that inevitably occur when in the presence of white people. The more white people, the longer the time period, the more intense the race fatigue.”

Ms. Hathcock is tired “of being tone-policed and condescended to and ’splained to.” She’s tired “of listening to white men librarians complain about being a ‘minority’ in this 88% white profession – where they consistently hold higher positions with higher pay – because they don’t understand the basics of systemic oppression.”

They’re librarian, she adds disdainfully, “You’d think they’d know how to find and read a sociology reference, but whatever.” She’s tired, in short, of white people, even “well-meaning white people” who want to “‘hear more’ about the microaggressions you’ve suffered and witnessed, not because they want to check in on your fatigue, but because they take a weird pleasure in hearing the horror stories and feeling superior to their ‘less woke’ racial compatriots.”

But “Don’t get me wrong,” she concludes. It wasn’t all bad. “I caught up with friends and colleagues of color and met new ones. These moments kept me going. And I did have some moments of rest with a few absolutely invaluable and genuine white allies.” Who knows? Maybe even some of her best friends are white, though it sounds like whites are at best allies in “this racial battle called life.”

How sad … and depressing since her sentiments are no doubt not unique.

One thought on “Our Exquisitely Sensitive Academic Culture”

  1. Along the same lines: the American Bar Association has just published this account, in the online supplement to its magazine, the ABA Journal, concerning a reprimand given recently to a professor at Howard Law School.

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