When sitting it out is an act of white privilege


When I first learned of the concept of white privilege, it seemed perfectly plausible to me, but it also seemed kind of abstract and vague. Because I am white, and male, and well off by local standards, there are lots of worries other people have that I don’t have. But I would have been hard pressed to think of a specific, concrete example of white privilege in my life that felt convincing and ‘real’ — though what I mean by ‘real’ here is unclear, unless it’s just another word for ‘concrete and specific’. (“WHEN did you not have those worries, Michael? Concretely?” “Well, I never had them.” “I’m not asking you when you HAD them, white boy. I’m asking you when you DIDN’T have them!” ” Well, sir, I always didn’t have those worries.”)

But now I can say what at least one concrete example of white male middle-class privilege looks like, up close and personal. It looks like this: when someone posted a racist message on the Humanist mailing list, I took one look at it, wrinkled my nose, and said “I want no part of this discussion”. Then I moved on to the next message in my inbox.

Why that moment now looks to me like an instance of white privilege is the topic of this piece.

[Note for those inclined to outrage on behalf of the poster whose message I am describing: the text above reads “a racist message”, not “a racist’s message”. I do not know the poster and make no claims about them; the message, on the other hand, I do call racist — it was nothing but a small collection of racist tropes centered around the idea that white people are under attack, victims of a newly normalized bigotry against them. A fuller discussion of the post can be found in an earlier blog post.]

Having scanned some messages from Humanist and ignored most of the rest of my inbox, I spent pretty much the rest of the week thinking about context-free grammars. It was hard work, but I have the sensation (possibly, of course, illusory) of having understood better than before how to do certain things with them and how to describe the effect of those operations to basic theorems about context-free languages, like the pumping lemma.

Now, though it was very pleasurable, it was in some ways inconvenient, almost alarming: every time I wanted to break for lunch or turn to the paying work on my to-do list, it seemed a new question would pop into my head that demanded to be written down, or a conjecture about an approach to some earlier question, or a counter-example to a generalization I had relied on the day before, and while I was writing down the question or conjecture or counter-example, something else would occur to me, and by the time I got enough of it in writing for it to be safe to leave my desk, I would find myself breaking for lunch at 5 pm. The thinking process felt exhilarating but almost out of control; I was not in charge, the thoughts were. Was I thinking them, or were they thinking me?

Also, I have mixed feelings about having spent the week that way, because of that paying project I have been neglecting.

But the primary reason I have mixed feelings about the week is that while I was reasoning feverishly through algorithms for operations on grammars, it turns out I was at the same time letting some people down. I was needed elsewhere, and I wasn’t there.

The failure to be where I was needed makes me think badly of myself, and this post is an attempt at coming to grips with that sense of failure. Readers who find it tedious and meandering have my permission to skim, but yes, it will be on the exam.

Humanist and me

Some background may be in order.

The first thing to say is that I have been a subscriber to the Humanist mailing list on the topic of digital humanities for a long time. In the 1987 conference on computers in the humanities in Columbia, South Carolina, I was in the room when Willard McCarty first raised the idea of a mailing list for people like him and me. In the first years of the list, I was a prolific contributor. When Willard wanted software to allow the construction of hand-curated digests, I wrote that software (long since replaced and re-implemented several times over). When a long concatenation of events led to what appeared to be the death of Humanist, I was one of the group Willard consulted about the steps he might take to resurrect it. (The Mothers of Humanist, he likes to call that group.)

I have wanted Humanist to thrive, because I wanted people interested in what is now called the digital humanities to have a home on the net.

Because of this history, Humanist is intimately bound up with my identity as a digital humanist. But over the years, Humanist and I have grown apart in some ways. It has been a long time since I read every new Humanist mail as eagerly as I did in 1987, and recently I have been selective even in choosing which issues to scan, let alone read in full.

Reasons for sitting it out

So it was not out of character for me to look briefly at Humanist 34.220, see what it contained, and decide to let the ensuing discussion take its course without me. I do that for most Humanist mail.

After some introspection, I think I can identify three factors in my decision to ignore issue 34.220. One is specific to Humanist and me, the others more general.

1 Shut up and let someone else have a chance for a change.

During the first year of the Humanist mailing list, I was easily one of the most frequent contributors to the list, if not the most frequent. (Frequency of contributions often follows a Zipfian distribution, like word frequency — I was one of the high-frequency data points in the upper left part of the curve.)

When the list reached its first anniversary, someone did some rudimentary statistics on the postings to the list: number of posts, number of posters, countries represented (as far as revealed by email addresses), etc. They observed the Zipfian distribution of frequency of posts, and characterized it as a case of some posters drowning out all the others and silencing other voices. As a high frequency poster, the bit about silencing other voices struck me as unfair, since the number of posts to a list like Humanist was not a tightly constrained resource and I not only had not said anything to make others feel unwelcome, I was quite happy when others joined in. I sulked over the unfairness for a while, until my wife asked “So, no one has said anything directly to you, but you have somehow been made to feel that your contributions are unwelcome?” Yes, exactly. “So, it IS possible, then, to be made to feel unwelcome, even without anyone saying anything overtly unwelcoming?”

Posting on Humanist (or any other list) didn’t feel quite so simple after that, and I began to try to limit my Humanist contributions to cases where a question or comment seemed to be aimed at me or where it seemed I had information others did not have and could provide a perspective others could not provide.

2 Pick your battles.

Life is too short to argue with everyone who says something wrong in my hearing, or to call out everyone who seems to me to be saying something that needs to be called out. I have things I need to do, things I would like to read, things I would like to write, while I can still read and write. Time and energy taken to try to instruct someone who does not wish to be instructed by me are time and energy taken away from tasks where they might be put to better use.

It is sometimes said that silence in the presence of any act entails complicity in that act. I don’t know how to rebut that principle, though I think there would be practical difficulties if I tried to speak out against every thing in this world in which I do not wish to be complicit, since I doubt that that set is finite.

So even if I wish to accept the principle, I will want to haggle a bit over what exactly counts as being “in the presence of” the act. The more narrowly I can define “presence”, the more readily I can avoid battles I do not want to spend time fighting. Is this a flimsy, transparent excuse for cowardice and going-along? Or is it a necessary survival tactic in a world full of battles and other people who think that we should be fighting those battles? I fear that the answer is “yes”.

3 Don’t feed the trolls.

In netnews groups and on mailing lists, I learned long ago that some people will give voice to views they know or think will be objectionable to readers of the group or list, not because they hold those views but because they are amused by the heated responses they can generate. A successful troll can suck up all the oxygen in a discussion group and produce a protracted flame war that distracts the group from the topics it was created to discuss.

In public groups like those on netnews, where it is not feasible to restrict anyone’s ability to post, the control method most often advised (and, probably, the one most often followed, though not as often as it was advised) was the simple rule: do not feed the trolls. When you see a provocative message from a troll, do not respond. If you see a provocative message that looks as if it MIGHT have come from a troll, do not respond. It only encourages them. If the trolls cannot elicit an outraged response, they will get bored and go away. (This often worked with human trolls; it was less successful with the automated trolls which were used by some people to lay waste to some netnews groups and effectively prevent any public discussion of certain topics.)

This principle seems to me in general a good one. Silence may sometimes be complicity, but it is also an important part of effective ostracism.

Reasons not to sit it out

Although all three of these principles seem to me plausible enough, and usually benign, it seems to me that they did not really apply to the case at hand, and that they led me astray.

It is true that I don’t have more insight into questions of race than anyone else, so I was not singularly called to respond to the racist posting in Humanist 34.220. But those who care most about a discussion list — and I guess a thirty-three year subscription, going on thirty-four, qualifies — do have a heightened responsibility to encourage good behavior on the list and to make clear, when views are aired that will make some members of the community feel unwelcome, that those views are those of an individual and not of the community as a body. And the rule against feeding trolls does not apply here — certainly, the post in question had its trollish properties and seemed likely to lead to a discussion with more heat than light. But a short, sharp rebuke can be written (though not always by me) without inviting or engaging in a flame war.

The Humanist contributor Jim Rovira provided a nice example in his response to the racist message. He was terse and to the point:

Critique of colonialism and its legacy isn’t “bigotry,” Gabriel. You should look up the word.

(He sent me his response offline, at my request; I reproduce it here on the theory that since he sent it to Humanist, he intended it to be public.)

So, yes, I had good reasons for looking at the post in Humanist 34.220, shaking my head, and moving on. And none of them were good enough.

I should have spoken up.

Yes, it’s true that when senior academics in Britain or elsewhere start making themselves mouthpieces for racist rhetoric, it’s not peculiarly my problem. It’s not usually a problem for me at all: they can cause very little inconvenience to me, beyond wasting space in my inbox and lowering the signal/noise ratio on Humanist or other lists.

But that, dear reader, is precisely why, in this case, I should have spoken up. For some readers of Humanist, racist attitudes and rhetoric are not a distant and uninteresting problem but an unpleasant part of the reality they inhabit. Those readers who occupy what Rianna Walcott’s response called precarious academic positions did not, last week, have the privilege of ignoring the racist post on Humanist; I did. They risk alienating people they need for their professional life; I am in the utterly impregnable situation of not having an academic job and not having to give a feathered flamingo what any academic search committee in the world (or, with rare exceptions, anyone else) thinks of anything I say.

White middle-class privilege, up close and personal

So my decision to set out the discussion that might be started by Humanist 34.220 was, it now seems to me, a perfectly clear example of white middle-class privilege.

Instead of reacting to the racism that had unexpectedly invaded Humanist, I spent the week thinking about context-free grammars, producing some interim results and a line of further work I’m rather happy about. An imaginary non-white version of me might conceivably have found it easy to laugh off the tone-deaf reading and bad logic of Humanist 34.220, and move on, and spend the week as I did. Or maybe not. Things like that mount up and have a way of overshadowing other things. As the speaker of Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident” says of the racist incident: “Of all I saw in Baltimore, that’s all that I remember.” At the very least, for a non-white me reminders of racism would be a constant distraction. (A bit, I suppose, like the constant reminders that many digital humanists build important digital resources in proprietary formats destined to disintegrate in years, only certainly much much worse.)

Would a non-white me have managed to be receptive to those furious thoughts about the regular approximation of context-free languages? Or would I have been consumed by furious thoughts of a rather different character? If the two of us were competing for some job somewhere, wouldn’t the white me have the unfair advantage of not having been distracted from context-free grammars by constant nudges from the culture at large, even in the professionally important context of the Humanist mailing list?

People in the gig economy who are in urgent need of money, meanwhile, didn’t have the privilege of ignoring their gigs and doing something fun instead. I did — the work I neglected does need to be done, soon, but it did not absolutely positively have to done by last Friday. (On the other hand, if it’s not done tomorrow, my head is gonna roll.) In that respect, the privilege I unconsciously exercised that morning is not just white privilege but white middle-class privilege.

Thank you, Rianna Walcott and Bethan Tovey-Walsh

A few days further on, as it happens, I lost my white middle-class privilege of ignoring that message.

A friend of mine (and in this case a mentor), Bethan Tovey-Walsh, called my attention to the fracas on Humanist. What had happened there, while I was busy with other things, is that Willard had realized, some time after hitting Send on issue 34.220, that it was a Molotov cocktail and had every likelihood of starting a worse flame war than Humanist had ever seen. He had therefore written privately to some of those who responded to the post in 34.220, saying he proposed not to post their responses lest Humanist go down in flames.

Unsurprisingly, they objected. Blog posts were written; tweets were tweeted; as Matthew Kirschenbaum later pointed out, Willard’s attempt to suppress the discussion had called more attention to the matter than it would otherwise have had, thus providing a textbook example of the so-called Streisand effect.

Recalled to his senses, or feeling his back to the wall, Willard posted Humanist 34.224, with an apology and at least some of the posts that had come in in response to Humanist 34.220 — not all, since in at least two cases what appears in Humanist 34.224 is not the author’s response to 34.220 but their response to the private mail in which Willard told them he would not post their response. Some of the missing responses have been posted in public elsewhere.

It is the response from Rianna Walcott, a doctoral student at King’s College London, that has (temporarily at least) deprived me of my white male middle-class privilege to ignore this entire discussion. She explains some of what is wrong in the message contained in Humanist 34.220, and she concludes with these words:

The tone here was alarming, and only reinforces the alienation I’ve felt since I set foot in the university. The chasm between myself and senior white academics widens, rather than closes. As a Black PhD student I felt moved to respond, and I must say I wish someone more senior, in a less precarious academic position, had felt moved to respond before I did.

When I read this, I lost the ability to think that this was a discussion I could legitimately sit out.

As a graduate student, as someone suspended delicately between the worlds of academic humanities fields and the worlds of computing and information / communications technology, trying to pursue the connection between them without a secure academic position, Rianna Walcott is one of the people for whom Humanist was originally created, one of the people Willard and the others and I wanted to feel at home on Humanist.

And what her closing paragraph showed me is that when I exercised my privilege of moving on from that post in Humanist 34.220 to think about other things, I let her down — her, and an unknown number of other people in precarious positions, who may never say anything, but who watch and who draw their own conclusions about what Humanist is about and whom Humanist is for. And who may now have learned that when full professors send racist diatribes to Humanist, many of the senior members of the digital humanities tribe see no reason to intervene.

I could and should have used my privilege to speak up in this case.

To those whom I let down by my omission, I’m sorry, and I’ll try to do better next time. I do not volunteer to police the internet for objectionable behavior, because I do still have a lot of other work I want to do. But in venues I value because I have been able to feel at home in them, I will try not to let things slide quite so readily.


This blog is called Messages in a Bottle because I have sometimes wondered whether by our own efforts we can ever reach the people we want to talk to, and I have often felt that even if we sometimes can, the effort involved may be so great that we no longer have any energy left to say whatever it was we wanted to say. I started this worklog as a place to write down things that I wanted to say to someone, when I didn’t know who that someone was or how to reach them. If my message reaches an audience, it’s an accident, like a message in a bottle thrown into the sea reaching someone who can understand it.

If you are still reading this post now, dear reader, then accident or fate has made you my audience. Listen. This message is for you. There will be an exam. Sooner or later, life will give you a clear test: someone will say or do something wrong, and you can either speak up and insert yourself into what is guaranteed to be an uncomfortable situation and almost guaranteed to take time away from other things you would rather be doing. Or you can exercise the privilege of moving on. There will be people you do not know, but whom at least in the abstract you say you care about, who do not have the privilege of moving on. Some of them will be ill positioned to speak up for themselves. You can speak up, or you can leave them in the lurch.

Do better on that test than I did. Reader, listen to me. This message is for you.

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