Racism invades the Humanist mailing list

[18 August 2020]

Earlier in August, in Humanist 34.215, my friend Willard McCarty posted without comment a quotation from an essay “This vast conspiracy of memory“, by Khalid Warsame, which I reproduce:

Google has this handy and terrifying feature called Timeline, which shows you everywhere you’ve ever been, how many times you’ve been there, and how long you’ve been there each time. It collects data from your phone, constantly if you have an Android, and if you have an iPhone, it logs your location every time you open the Google Maps app. Nothing disappears: your every movement is a collection of data points, fed into algorithms that use this information to do everything from alert you to traffic jams in your area to notify you when you’re running low on nappies for your newborn.

But here is what I know: there are some things that I remember and some things that I do not, and time as I experience it is not the same as time as it happened: I’ve shed far too many cells and memories and gained nothing in return for it except for some fading memories. Perhaps that’s what is so obscene to me about the idea of an app or website telling me things about myself that I know to be true.

I didn’t have anything useful to say to that, so I closed the mail and moved on.

(I mean, yes, the feature is terrifying, and I suppose that in some circumstances it might be handy — a participant in the TEI once sent me mail asking for a list of the overseas trips for which the TEI had reimbursed them, since they were applying for a security clearance and needed a list, and they figured the TEI’s records were probably more organized than their own. But part of me wants to ask how anyone can be terrified, in 2020, to discover that Google has been — gasp! — gathering information about them and their whereabouts for the past couple of decades. You don’t pay for Android, and you don’t pay for Google Maps. Has no one ever explained to you that that means you are not the customer but the product? How can it happen that you find it terrifying now that Google knows too much about you, but you didn’t find it terrifying when you were choosing your phone or your map application? [It should be noted that while these remarks seem a fair comment on the extract Willard posted, they completely ignore the function within Warsame’s essay of the reference to Google’s app, where the important point is the persistence of hidden traces of past events, which can be brought back to visibility in ways perhaps best described as uncanny.])

Other people apparently also found this post hard to relate to. (It happens in any seminar: you throw things out to spark a discussion, some of them work and some don’t.) There were no responses.

Except one.

A few days later came Humanist 34.220, with a response by Gabriel Egan, a professor at De Montfort university, whom for brevity I will refer to in what follows as GE. I will not reproduce his message in full, because the first paragraph and the beginning of the third suffice to give a sense of its tone and content:

A new kind of bigotry is being normalized in literary culture. In the essay “This Vast Conspiracy of Memory” by Khalid Warsame that Willard points us to, the author remarks “Think of Western civilisation: 500 years of war-making and theft and murder and for what? A barren hothouse of a planet to show for it”.

But the really objectionable part of Warsame’s essay is its casual anti-white racism. He describes the phrase “sites of significance” as “a white phrase–it reeks of detachment, a heinous dodge”.

When I scanned this post, I remember thinking that once again, there was no useful response for me to make, and I moved on. I may possibly have paused long enough to think “Oh, peachy. Another aggrieved white man of a certain age who is outraged by the fact that the odds of success in academic life are now stacked in favor of white males of a certain age, against (say) BAME females of a younger age by a factor of, what is it now? A mere 340:1, instead of the 1573:1 which white males of a certain age and a certain geographic disposition were brought up to expect. Tragic. Yawn.”

I do remember thinking “This will not end well. I want no part of any discussion this post starts.”

For reasons I will examine in more detail elsewhere, in retrospect I find this reaction completely understandable, and wrong. Among those who made me rethink my reaction, I should name Bethan Tovey-Walsh and Rianna Walcott, who (among others) posted trenchant responses to GE (see various blog posts and also Humanist 34.224, which includes some but not all of the responses to GE and some email objecting to Willard’s initial plan of suppressing the entire discussion in a vain attempt to bury and forget the entire embarrassing mistake of having published GE’s remarks in the first place), including in the latter’s case a quiet but devastating critique of those like me who, although in perfectly safe situations, decided to sit this one out instead of challenging the racist content of GE’s posting. My thanks to them for calling me out, and I’m sorry I’m late.

So although I am late to the party, I would like to comment on GE’s comment on Warsame’s comments on … things.

Having now read Warsame’s essay, what strikes me most forcibly about GE’s remarks is that they are tone-deaf and inattentive in ways that ought to be surprising in a professor whose job includes the close reading of texts with attention to nuance. He ignores the slightly ironic context in which the remark about western civilization is made — and even if it were un-ironic, who here can raise a hand to say they have never thought anything similar? (Those with your hands up, homework for next time: essay on the civilizing effects of the inquisition, with special attention to the Albigensian crusade and the benefits it brought Europe. Yes, you may count Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie as a benefit if you wish, but I wouldn’t if I were you.)

And he appears not to have understood what Warsame actually says about the phrase “sites of significance”. The phrase is used several times in the essay before it is examined, laid aside, and then interrogated again. At one point the essayist writes:

I told Izzy that I was trying to write an essay about the relationship between place and my body, and she asked me why I chose the phrase ‘Sites of Significance’. I thought about it for a moment. I can’t remember. It’s a very clinical term, and perhaps that’s what drew me to it in the first place. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. She then explained to me how the phrase is most commonly used in a very specific way by the government to denote places that are historically or spiritually important to Indigenous people with the aim of identifying and preserving them.

Identification and preservation of locations of particular importance to a community seems, in general, like a good idea to me; why run a freeway through a sacred site when you can just as easily bypass it? But it should not take superhuman efforts of interpretation to realize that lists identifying locations to be treated with particular reverence (or at least care) also serve to identify (by their absence from the list) locations in which special care is not needed. In any context, lists of special cases are often made in order to make the handling of other cases simpler, faster, more routine. Where I live we have zoning rules to indicate the circumstances under which the planning and zoning commission has to take particular care over issuing a building permit (for example, certain uses of the property are not allowed in close proximity to a school), and what they need to do specially in those cases. This simplifies cases where the special circumstances do not arise, and makes it easier to issue the building permit. It is not hard to see — I would have said it is very hard NOT to see — that a category like “sites of significance”, as Warsame explains it, intrinsically carries within it the point of view of the provincial government, or of the planning and zoning commission. A reader need not find the idea heinous in order to agree that it does suggest detachment and a view from outside. And in Australia, that view is, well, white.

Deplorable though it of course is, inattentive reading is in itself not a particularly unusual occurrence, even among posters to Humanist. Nor are badly misjudged formulations of one’s thought, badly thought-out thoughts, or just plain bad days. It happens.

What is perhaps more interesting about GE’s post is the double bind it shows in operation when discussions of race are considered. (My apologies in advance to the large number of people who know all of what follows much better than I do. I am still trying to explain things to myself. You know how some people are; don’t know what they think until they hear themselves explaining it to somebody.)

When societies create race as a cultural category and build complicated structures to confine some members of the society and draw boundaries between a dominant group and subordinate groups, then race becomes an inescapable category in the lives of members of subordinate groups defined by the larger culture in that way. Readers who need examples of how this works may be directed to Countee Cullen’s short poem “Incident”, or, James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time”. (But a warning is in order; you will not escape unscathed from either text.) I suspect that the same would also be true for any other cultural construct used to distinguish powerful groups from powerless groups. (Hmm. Gender? Check. Minority religious affiliation, especially in a state with an established church? Check. … “Suspect” may be an instance of litotes, the rhetorical figure of understatement.) But I am not a social scientist and this is not sociological advice. Readers with questions in this area are encouraged to consult a qualified anthropologist or sociologist and not a bloviating digital humanist of a certain age and complexion who is fatally inclined to mansplaining.

No one reading this is likely to need me to point out that race has no particularly firm grounding in biological facts (but here it is, just in case: race is to biology roughly as sorting books by size is to comparative literary history), and if it did, the cultural rules for classification of mixed-race people would in any case soon separate the cultural construct from any moorings it might once have had in something more or less kind of like biology.

Now, since race has been and is still used in some countries (including mine) as the basis for invidious discrimination, there is a certain desire among those who dislike invidious discrimination to downplay or even eliminate race as a category. So there are people (including me) whose instinct is to treat it as a taboo subject, to be treated with care if mentioned at all, and better avoided entirely. A bit like the fact that the family fortune was made by a swindler who successfully evaded prosecution. Dirty laundry. This is, I willingly admit, not always a healthy or helpful attitude. For example, it makes it indelicate to point out that George Washington claimed the right to own other human beings, or to point out that a number of U.S. military bases are named for men who committed treason against the U.S. But experience has taught me, or so I think, that if a white person brings up race, in a conversation that is not already about race, the odds are good that I am going to find the ensuing conversation excruciatingly unpleasant, and that my interlocutor is going to turn out to be either an unapologetic overt racist, an unacknowledged racist who wants to persuade me that birtherism was not motivated by racism but by an honest concern over the archival document retention policies of the state of Hawaii, or some other kind of racist (but I am losing interest in this classification). There are doubtless exceptions. But if someone offers you an even-money bet that the next white person who brings race up will turn out to be a racist, reader, where I come from that would be a good bet.

It is perhaps this fact that leads GE to the erroneous conclusion that when Warsame talks about race, it is a signal of “anti-white racism”. Not so fast, GE. I think it would be more accurate to say that when society has made race an inescapable category in someone’s life, then when that person tries to understand their life as it exists, race is — how shall I put this? — likely to come up. When an Australian of Somali descent is talking about life and brings up race, it is not a signal that they are a racist; it is more likely a signal that they have a functioning cerebral cortex.

It may not be comfortable for readers who belong to a dominant category to be reminded of the way society’s categories for the world interact with each other, and the way categories like race can turn up in places where we might prefer not to find them. (But — as you, o reader, are perhaps beginning to suspect — I do not believe the comfort of the reader is always the summum bonum of essay writing.) In any case, pointing out instances of those interactions is not anti-white racism: it’s just attempting to understand a world so much of which is explicable only by considering its origins, and whose origins are so tightly inter-connected with race and in particular with — sorry to be the bearer of unwelcome tidings — white racism.

For what it’s worth, this reader saw no racism at all in Warsame’s mostly thoughtful, often self-ironic essay. GE thinks that Warsame is being inconsistent, not ironic, in following his remark about western civilization with an anecdote that takes place in an airplane. Really, Dr. Egan? No irony there? Really? Try again!

Well, if as they say no text is complete until the reader completes it, then it seems to be true that in this case GE and I have not read, and cannot read, the same essay by Khalid Warsame, because the words turn into one thing in GE, and into an apparently rather different thing in me.

In members of the dominant group, as I said a moment ago, mentioning race when it has not already come up is often a troubling sign. In members of a non-dominant group, not so much. If we generalize from “white people who bring race up are disproportionately often racists” to the same proposition applied to people in general, we risk missing an important distinction (N.B. ‘risk’ here is litotes — again), and we also make it harder for members of disadvantaged groups to talk about and understand life. That would be a good way to ensure (and litotes yet again) that racial categories cannot be discussed and understood and that invidious racial discrimination will remain in force. And it is for that reason (if for no others) that raising accusations of “anti-white racism” whenever someone observes that a phrase like “sites of significance” is a “white phrase” will itself be taken by some to be a racist act, as well as a hostile one.

And that is why I have overcome my initial reluctance to dignify GE’s post with a reply.

Normally, I don’t feel that dyspeptic British academics of a certain gender and age who think the world is filling up with anti-white bigotry are my problem. Their animus will not make my life worse in any measurable way, unless I manage to get trapped in an elevator with them, and I can usually avoid that by taking the stairs.

But the Humanist list is one of the first places I ever felt at home on the net as a humanist (and, in particular, as a humanist who had no tenure-track position but served as a member of the professional technical staff) who was also interested in the use of computers not just as consumer tools but as instruments for humanistic research. I have wanted Humanist to thrive because I want people who share that combination of interests to have a place to feel at home, intellectually. I wanted that for all humanists interested in computing and was even broad-minded enough to counsel Willard to allow full professors and heads of humanities computer centers to subscribe if they wanted to, instead of limiting it to those in what Rianna Walcott’s post calls precarious academic positions, which was Willard’s original plan.

And I fear that there is a risk that if careless accusations of bigotry and “anti-white racism” are leveled on Humanist against anyone who describes their attempts to come to terms with a world shaped by European colonialism, and no one objects, then some of those who should feel welcome on Humanist will not feel welcome. (Again, there’s that bad habit of litotes. There is no ‘risk’ that some people ‘might’ not feel welcome. There is a direct causal connection. The postings in 34.224 contain documentation of specific cases.)

So let me say it loud and clear, from someone who was in the room when the idea of Humanist was born, who is a charter subscriber, who many systems back wrote the first version of the digest-curation software Willard McCarty uses: postings like that in Humanist 34.220 are not welcome. Not just because they exhibit tonedeaf reading, bad thinking, and hyperbolic writing, but because they do so in a way that is actively hostile to the people for whom Humanist was created.

The graduate students whose complaints appeared in Humanist 34.224, and the silent nameless others similarly situated, are the people for whom Humanist was created. They made me think that this discussion was not, after all, one I could afford to sit out.

If the Humanist list has to choose between the full professors and the graduate students, then I say we choose the graduate students. They are in any case a lot more fun to hang around with.