Chapter Eight

“Slipping into Something More (Un)comfortable”: Untangling Identity, Unsettling Community

I. “A form of thinking unfettered from its own intentions”

“You should be aware that failure is a distinct possibility.”

That was so freeing

–Benjamin Wallace-Wells,”The Hard Truths of Ta-Nehisi Coates”

Yesterday, “Confederate flag wavers greeted President Obama in Oklahoma.”1Arlette Saenz, “Confederate Flag Wavers Greeted President Obama in Oklahoma,” Good Morning America (July 16, 2015), accessed July 17, 2015


Today, as I take my usual morning walk — several miles looping out of the farm and back again — I, too, am “greeted” by three new displays of the stars and bars.


Later, driving into town, I see three more.


I was raised in the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia. I have been a college teacher in the Philadelphia suburbs for more than thirty years, but I still spend many weekends, and most of my semester breaks, in the South. I return, too, for several months each summer.

Writing now from this site, I am trying to puzzle through what has changed (or not), both in this rural southern county, and on my suburban northeast campus, since I first crossed the Mason-Dixon line, which I naively thought separated one from the other. In doing so, I find myself tracing a variety of ways in which institutionalizing diversity generates a backlash, as deliberate moves to create inclusive structures provoke pronounced displays of further exclusion — sometimes conscious, sometimes very much not so. Alexis de Tocqueville famously signaled the former, when he observed that “inequality is enshrined in mores as it disappears from laws.”2Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve (1831; rpt. Gutenburg EBook, 2013), accessed July 17, 2015 His focus, in 1835, was on the ways in which customs and conventions slow the pace of legal change, making abolition more difficult. I focus here on a second, often unconscious, form of resistance that I’m calling “slippage”: a process that may be more iterative, more complicated — and potentially more hopeful — in its effects than the one Tocqueville described. I imagine the ways in which, if such “slipping” is endemic to learning structures, like my college, it might also be generative of their evolution. Such imaginings lead me to query a range of concepts often advanced in diversity work: those of “restoration” and “repair,” of offering “hospitality” to “strangers.” I ask also about the dangers of anonymity and privacy, about the counter-need and concomitant dangers of transparency and disclosure. The process I trace is an unending one, very much dependent on the unexpected.

Focusing in particular on what it means to engage in such actions in the “contact zones”3Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Profession (1991): 33-40. that are intentional communities, I juxtapose the small town where I grew up with two institutions in the northeast: the small women’s college in the Philadelphia suburbs where I teach, and a nearby land-based village designed around the needs of adults with developmental disabilities. Last fall, some my students got to know some of the residents here, by joining them for a week of work, and also by engaging in “the act of slow looking” needed to compose visual portraits of their lives.

The college and the village each seeks “to sustain a community diverse in nature and democratic in practice,4Bryn Mawr College Mission” (1998); accessed July 17, 2015 but each is certainly challenged by the difficulties of doing so. At each — in the terms supplied by Sarah Ahmed, in her study of racism and diversity in institutional life — a “holding pattern” has become “intrinsic.”5Sarah Ahmed, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 185-186. With the help both of Ahmed and Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose rising voice charts his “sense of the futility of individuals confronting the structure of white supremacy,his “pessimism about what can be changed,his doubt thatthe future will be better than the past,I acknowledge the strength of what he calls “the long arc of history.”6Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “The Hard Truths of Ta-Nehisi Coates,” New York Magazine, July 12, 2015 (9:00 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015 But I testify also to the inevitability of its constant disruption.

It is precisely such unpredictability, and its surprising lessons, which catch me off-guard again and again; it is also such unpredictability that reminds me of the possibility of undirected change. In the village, “slippage” is inevitable because of the developmental disabilities of community members, and the lack of acquired “filters” that these entail. In the rigorous academic community that is Bryn Mawr, “slippage” is just as inevitable, but often unnoticed; its potential has certainly been little unexplored.

These possibilities, as others explored in this project, are well characterized as a form of “ecological” thinking. In How Forests Think, Eduardo Kohn describes his own learning, in an Amazon forest,

to become aware of … associative chains of thought … and then … to learn something about the inner forests these thoughts explore as they resonate through the psyche. Freud, of course, wanted to tame this kind of thinking …. But … there is another way …. we might see these associations as thoughts in the world — exemplars of a kind of worldly thinking, undomesticated … by a particular human mind and her particular ends …. the semiotics of dreaming … involves these spontaneous, self-organizing … associations in ways that can dissolve some of the boundaries we usually recognize between inside and outsides …. when the conscious, purposive daytime work of discerning difference is relaxed, when we no longer ask thought for a ‘return’ …. Dreaming may well be … a sort of thought run wild — a human form of thinking that goes well beyond the human … a sort of ‘pensée sauvage‘; a form of thinking unfettered from its own intentions and therefore susceptible to the play of forms in which it has become immersed.7Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 177, 185, 188.

It is precisely the payoff, for institutional structures, of such “undomesticated” “dreaming,” of the associative sort of thinking that isn’t seeking a particular end, that I highlight here.

II. “Feminism Unbound”

“… poststructuralist feminism’s appreciation of the psychic coordinates and repetitions constitutive of gender

locates much of its production in social norms and deep processes of identifications and repudiations only intermittently knowable to its subjects, even less often graspable,

and thus unsuited to a paradigm of transformation premised upon seizing and eliminating the conditions producing and reproducing gender …

conditions that are no longer posited as outside of its subjects … are not ours to mastermind but at best only to resist or negotiate”

–Wendy Brown, “Feminism Unbound: Revolution, Mourning, Politics”

I re-start my story (where I start most of them): in a classroom, in the recent past. In Fall 2013, I offer (as I have several times before) an introductory course at Bryn Mawr College called “Critical Feminist Studies.”8Critical Feminist Studies” (a course offered at Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2013), accessed July 17, 2015 This is an English class, which focuses on questions of representation, and queries what it might mean to “unbind” feminism from what Wendy Brown calls “the big bang theory of social change,” an unbinding which she also offers as an “opening of possiblity to live and think differently.”9Wendy Brown, “Feminism Unbound: Revolution, Mourning, Politics,” Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005), 115.

Among the twenty-five students enrolled is a queer woman from Texas who writes, early on,

nia.pikeI honestly grew up in a box. It was a box with walls of expectations. I was never comfortable in that box. Yet it was not until I was old enough to think for and make significant decisions by myself that I began to question and tear apart my box. I wish I had begun this process earlier because I know now how much of an impact those walls had on me as a person. Our childhood molds us, but it does not make us who we are.10nia.pike, “Breaking Down Boxes,” September 7, 2013 ( accessed July 17, 2017

… my previous name was too identifiable as me …. the distance is necessary because I do not perform … the same for everyone because I am afraid of the conservative, close-minded society I come from …. I do not want my resignification … to be revealed preemptively. I am not ready to face the music if certain people happen upon this forum ….I would rather do it in my own way and in my own time.11nia.pike, “Avatar Name Change,” October 6, 2013 (9:04 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2017

I’ve moved around quite a bit during my 20+ years. I never felt connected enough to a place to call it home, I also never trusted a place enough to call it home.12nia.pike, “What is home?” November 6, 2013 (12:41 a.m.), accessed July 17, 2017

As we transition into the second half of the semester, the syllabus shifts from “engendering ourselves” to “engendering our institutions,” and Nia re-directs her focus from her own emerging identity to that of the college:

nia.pike… there are many cases where Bryn Mawr with its “progressive” and “open-mindedness” has stifled the cultural identities of students …. The student body at Bryn Mawr has become a close-minded place, focused on the advancement of certain cultural identities. Bryn Mawr like any other cultural hub has norms: white, queer, upper middle class, atheist, liberal, etc. If one does not conform to these norms, they are looked down upon, there exists societal pressure to conform to the cultural identity of Bryn Mawr …. Bryn Mawr is above all else a sisterhood, a home, a community, and we must foster this sense of togetherness, by coming together and not isolating and discrimination against the variety of cultural identities which exist on our campus.13nia.pike, “Web event #2: Bryn Mawr: Community? Empowered? Sisterhood?” November 14, 2013 (), accessed July 17, 2017

I propose a mandatory seminar for first years … important for fostering inclusion, and will open dialogue within the community ….14nia.pike, “Final Web Event – Addressing Exclusiveness at Home at Bryn Mawr: A Seminar,” December 18, 2013 (), accessed July 17, 2017

She closes the semester with a prediction of individual change that will have implications for the college:


Nia’s banner image from her end of semester portfolio

I will never hide behind the expectations of others again …. I take from this class I greater understanding of myself …. accepting, and being proud of who I am ….This semester I unbound myself … just as the flowers use the wire as vines to grow up, I am going to use the bounds that once held me to blossom.15nia.pike, “Unbinding Myself to Blossom,”

Two semesters later, Nia and her roommate, who is from Georgia, hang a rainbow flag out of one of their dorm windows, and also display a Confederate flag, first in the hallway and then, after efforts to seek its removal, from their second window. They also lay a line of duct tape labeled “Mason-Dixon Line” in the passageway leading to their room.

Multiple dialogues — as well as lots of protesting, and lots of posturing — ensue. The media — first local, then national — picks up this story.16Students Rally After Confederate Flag Display,” (September 19, 2014), Dave Huber, “Confederate Flag at Bryn Mawr College Dorm Causes Uproar,” The College Fix (October 5, 2014), Susan Snyder, “Confederate Flag in Dorm Roils Bryn Mawr Campus,” Philadelphia Inquirer (October 6, 2014), Katilin Mulhere, “A Flag and Race at Bryn Mawr,” Inside Higher Ed (October 6, 2014), Andy Thomason, “Confederate Flag Raises Controversy at Bryn Mawr College,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (October 6, 2014), Steven Conn, “Callous or Callow: Waving the Confederate Flag at Bryn Mawr College,” The Huffington Post (October 7, 2014), Eric Owens, “Tolerance and Diversity Cause FREAKOUT Over Confederate Flag at Fancypants Womens College,” The Daily Caller (October 6, 2014), Nicole Lopez, et. al, “Petitioning Bryn Mawr College: Take the Necessary Actions as Requested by Current Students to Confront Issues of Institutional Racism on Campus, and to Create an Environment Safe for All Students” (October 8, 2014), Jennifer Wilks, “Lessons of a Flag Flap,” Philadelphia Inquirer (October 12, 2014),

Sara Ahmed writes, “The media is crucial … as the interface between an organization and its publics.”17Sara Ahmed, On Being Included, 143.

How much of what happens is the result of this interface? How might we speak to one another, in ways that are not driven by the framing of the news stories? How to make sense of the many narratives being generated, off-campus, on, and in-between?

What do they call for, by way of response, continued dialogue and learning? And what are the sites where such conversations might be most productive?

An unlikely space for any sort of important-or-productive speaking is the monthly Bryn Mawr faculty meeting. And yet, in mid-September, as the president is describing various interventions — she proposes, for instance, that we devote one day during the spring semester to “campus professional development” — I find myself on my feet, trying to puzzle through, in public, some of my most pressing private questions. In the company of more than a hundred colleagues, I ask how much power I-and-we have to direct the course of action here:

Anne DalkeI was raised in the rural South, and have long quipped that the longest trip I ever took was crossing the Mason-Dixon line.

This week I have been thinking that I hadn’t gone far enough.

Several of the student leaders are in my classes, and I have been spending lots of time, in class and outside, dealing with what has happened here. Colleagues and I have been talking about our role as faculty, thinking together about curricular changes that might address some of the gaps in our students’ education, how we might have failed to teach them ….

But this morning I learned that one of the students who displayed the flag had taken my introductory course in Critical Feminist Studies. I spent this afternoon re-reading her papers, and I began to see how the ideas of identity, intersectionality, representation and signifying, which I had been talking about in that class, might been taken up very differently than I intended; the uptake was quite other than what I meant.

And so — as we plan these educational interventions, and I am all for them — I also want to add a note of humility: we do not know how our students will make use of what we give them. The gap between intention and uptake can be huge — as they struggle to make sense of their identities … and as we struggle to make sense of ours.

Afterwards there are hugs from half-a-dozen colleagues, notes and verbal affirmations from a dozen others, and an emotional testimony from the president, who thanks me for what I said: “It’s something I will carry with me forever….”

I am more interested in how to carry this idea forward institutionally, in how to incorporate such awareness into the structures in which we teach. The wise advice of the educational theorist Elizabeth Ellsworth, regarding the unpredictable “uptake” of our “teaching positions,” is not to try and control the responses they evoke, but rather to activate, explore, even celebrate the multiple subject positions that are called into play in such pedagogical exchange. It is an ongoing challenge for me to join Ellsworth in embracing varied uptakes, as palpable spaces of diversity, unruliness, and fertility where the “monstrous” can enter (and leave!) the classroom, in the guise of hunger, desire, fear, “ignor-ance” — and so be taken up, perhaps revised.18Elizabeth Ellsworth, Teaching Positions: Difference, Pedagogy, and the Power of Address (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997), accessed July 17, 2015

III. “The act of slow looking”

Seated in the center of this photo — of a garden of herbs, and of blue and orange flowers — is a person, back to us, wearing a broad-rimmed hat, an orange shirt, and blue pants and scarf, who appears to be weeding. We catch only a glimpse of the side of their face, as they look down at their task.

Monstrosity, of course, is not confined to the classroom. In this intolerable season, not only has the Confederate flag been on display on the Bryn Mawr campus, but non-indictments have been handed down in both Missouri and New York.19Ryan Grim, Matt Sledge and Mariah Stewart, “From Daniel Pantaleo To Darren Wilson, Police Are Almost Never Indicted,” Huffington Post, December 3, 2014 (5:15 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015 College administrators begin to organize a Community Day of Learning, “designed to illuminate and consider the benefits and challenges of living and learning in a diverse community.”20Campus Comes Together for Community Day of Learning,” March 20th, 2015 (1:06 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015. As I participate in the planning, I am feeling troubled by Sara Ahmed’s observations that “diversity management” might function as a way of “containing conflict or dissent,” “a discourse of “benign variation” that “bypasses power as well as history.” I recognize how easily the language of diversity can be “mobilized as a defense of reputation,” “a means of maintaining privilege.” “The discourse of diversity,” Ahmed prods, “is one of respectable differences …. used not only to displace attention from material inequalities but also to aestheticize equality.”21Sara Ahmed, On Being Included, 13,151.

My education into the residue of history, of its continuing action in the dynamics of power, continues unabated as Fall 2014 unfolds.

This semester, along with colleagues in Disability Studies and the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, I have co-designed a cluster of courses modeled on an intersectional approach to identity.22Identity Matters: Being, Belonging, Becoming” (a cluster of courses at Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2014), accessed July 17, 2015. Focusing, in particular, on those identity categories of “humans being” that may seem non-normative, we read, view and create a range of representations, asking what stories we tell, and what images we construct, about ourselves and others — and how we might revise them. What are the possibilities, what the limits, and what roles might others play in these re-imaginings?

A central event in this work is a co-curricular project conceptualized and led by artist and curator Riva Lehrer.23Riva Lehrer,” accessed July 17, 2015 During an extended stay at the nearby intentional community that includes adults with intellectual disabilities, our students participate in villagers’ work assignments, eat meals in their homes, and are welcomed into many aspects of their daily lives. Each also works closely with a village partner to create a portrait that represents them both realistically and symbolically. Villagers, in turn, complete drawings and portraits of their college partners. At semester’s end, our villager partners visit Bryn Mawr, where they tour the campus, see their partners’ rooms, share a meal, and exchange completed drawings and portraits.

At least that’s the plan.

The reality — of an active world, shaping and being shaped by active subjects — turns out to a be considerably more complicated.

Tobin Seibers describes disability as a “body of knowledge.”24Tobin Siebers, “Returning the Social to the Social Model” (paper presented at the annual conference of the Society of Disability Studies, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 13, 2014) His concept of the interactively constructed self helps to highlight one very challenging dimension of our experiences at this dynamic farming, gardening, and handcrafting community, which is spread across hundreds of acres of farm, gardens, and woodlands. The bucolic site offers a local model for intentional, ecological living; it is filled with the pleasures of easy access to the natural world, and fueled by sustainable human actions, such as dairy farming, fruit and vegetable gardening, weaving, pottery-making, bread- and cookie-baking.

There is much here to enjoy and admire in this community; Riva compares, for instance, of the sensory deprivation of being hospitalized with the multiple pleasures offered by the village.

Displayed here is a photo of a living room highlighted in red and blue. A circular table sits in the center, on a braided rug; three chairs surround the table, each with a braided cushion. There is an upright piano on the left; sunlight enters through two windows in the center; a sideboard on the right is covered with games.

Here “invisible people” are accepted as “social refugees,” made visible and useful. And yet, as one of the long-term householders also explained to us, “this is a community place, not a people place”; that is, individual empowerment is valued less than communal harmony — and such harmony comes at a number of costs, including those of diversity of race, class and ability. The community does not, in fact, offer a political or empowerment model of disability. It is insular, and strikes us, when we visit, as largely unaffected by time, modern technologies, and the demand of creating access for villagers whose families cannot afford the substantial fees for living here.

Pictured now is a large, open field. At the center is a piece of farm equipment, which is distinctive in having two seats; the sky, which is filled with lowering clouds, takes up half the picture.

The three evocative photographs above were taken at the community by Rebecca,25rebeccamec, “Fall Break Photos,” December 2, 2014 (19:19 p.m.), accessed July 19, 2015 one of the students in our course cluster.

Her role in capturing these images is a reminder that there is always someone behind the camera.

There is also an artist embedded in each portrait created in the village. And in each portrait, further complexities: both a portrayal “of” the village and an “art of resistance” to it, to what it “means” and stands for. Consider, for example, this self-portrait of Nkechi,26nkechi, “Self Portrait,” December 18, 2014 (00:22 a.m.), accessed July 29, 2015, another student in our course cluster:

It is a line drawing of her torso, cut out and pasted on a collage of red, orange and white posters reading “Black Lives Matter.” Nkechi’s hair is braided, and she wears a single hoop on her left ear. In the center of her shirt, which is composed of newspaper articles about Ferguson, Missouri, is a bright red female symbol with a fist. Nkechi’s image of herself is entangled, bound, woven, composed of newspaper articles and protest signs.

In mid-October, when Nkechi arrives at the village along with the rest of our students in our cluster, she is exhausted. She is the president of the Bryn Mawr dorm where two white Southern students put a Confederate flag on public display, and has been embroiled in the aftermath of this event, disheartened by its profound challenge to community making on campus, a disturbance reinforced by the refusals to indict elsewhere in the country.

Nkechi is assigned to shadow a villager who tells her that she doesn’t like to be with “people who look like you”; she hears another (white) villager call one of her (black) classmates “my chocolate.” At the end of our first day, Nkechi decides to leave, and so does not have the chance to experience Riva’s vision: how we “build the project around the concept of portraiture as relationship,” how “the act of slow looking fosters encounters that unfolded differently from, or raised productive difficulties about, standard power relationships … of age, race, gender, and able-bodied and impaired.”27Riva Lehrer, “Consent to Be Seen” (proposal for a panel on “The Ethics of Representation: How Context Matters,” to be presented at the Society of Disability Studies, Atlanta, Georgia, June 12, 2015).

Nkechi has no opportunity to learn from such experiences, because those “standard power relationships” — especially those of race, class and ability — have foreclosed her engagement in the first place. Many of the villagers lack the social filters which conventionally hide such differences.

To explain why Nkechi’s departure is not accidental, but rather insistently over-determined, I draw on an essay by Eli Clare, who visits my class on “Ecological Imaginings”28Ecological Imaginings” (course offered at Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2014), accessed July 17, 2015 at Bryn Mawr the following semester. We read and discuss Eli’s “Meditations on Disabled Bodies, Natural Worlds, and a Politics of Cure,” which begins with a walk through a restored tall-grass prairie, and invites us to think from that place about the concept of “restoration,” of “undoing harm,” rebuilding a system that has been broken. It is an action that — while acknowledging that such a return will always be incomplete — is rooted in the belief that the original state was better than what is current.29Eli Clare, “Meditations on Disabled Bodies, Natural Worlds, and a Politics of Cure,” 21, accessed July 17, 2015

Eli argues that this metaphor (like all metaphors) falls short, as a means of thinking through the concept of “cure,” if we imagine it as a mandate of return to a former, non-disabled state of the individual body. The desire for restoration is bound to loss, to yearning for what was thought to have been — but sometimes such restoration is not possible. In Eli’s story, as in many others, the original non-disabled body has never existed; such an account arises from imagining what the (normal, natural) body should be.

During our discussion about the limitations of this concept for those who are disabled, Nkechi says,

I also resist the desire for restoration, which seems to me to come from a place of privilege. For some of us, this is the best time ever. There is no time we want to go back to, no historical period we want ‘restored,’ no era when people who look like me weren’t devalued even more than we are now.

Her comment echoes for me, deeply entangled with Eli’s essay, as a critique of the “restored” and “restorative” world of the village community, and of the limitations placed on the possibilities of our engagement there. Eli says to us that “disabled bodies, like restored prairies, resist the impulse … toward monoculture.”30—–, “Meditations,” 19. In the creation of retreats for disabled bodies and minds, we need also find a way towards more varied arts of resistance to the monocultural.

For starters: markedly absent in my account so far has been any elaboration of the experience of the villager whose “unfiltered” dismissal of Nkechi was, if not mean-spirited, still prejudiced and misguided.



Nkechi’s departure from the village is necessary for her well-being. It also causes distress to her professors and peers — perhaps to none more so than Amelia, who replaces Nkechi as her villager’s partner for the remainder of the week. The villager’s immediate liking for her makes Amelia feel a little guilty, but over the course of the week, the two of them are able to share a number of meaningful interactions. Ethical portraiture, as Riva explained, involves attending carefully to one another. Such attention seems to be very much in evidence in each of these photographic portraits, in which Nkechi and the villager entirely fill the frame. Each is smiling at Rebecca, who is again the photographer. But both Nkechi and the villager have been subject to forms of oppression that disallow them from seeing past a whole range of conventional stereotypes; these historical and structural barriers to acknowledging one another prove insurmountable to their forming a working relationship, much less a friendship.


Amelia’s pastel drawing of the villager captures her at work in the pottery studio: she has one hand on a vase she is making, while she looks up at the viewer, as if, in the midst of her work, she has been called out by another — called, perhaps, into relationship.31abradycole, “Villager Portrait,” December 14, 2014 (11:25 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015

The photos Amelia selects to figure her relationship with the villager are even more interactive: the two are seated close to one another, both smiling broadly. Amelia’s text — which is illustrated with colorful images of the natural world, of people and food — also witnesses to the pleasures of time “slowing down,” of “calm, comfortable” days when the only expectations are “being present and getting to know one another.”32abradycole, “Zine Page,” December 18, 2014 (10:29 a.m.), accessed July 17, 2015

But perhaps the most profound image of such knowing is the doubled portrait of Amelia and herself that the villager creates.33abradycole, “Drawing,” December 14, 2014 (11:26 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015 It pictures two figures, one in a dress, one in pants, who seem together to be carrying a bag; pants, dress and bag are all colored the same shade of blue. Behind the shorter figure is the ghost of an earlier sketch; the artist seems to have changed her mind about how tall she wants that figure to be ….


I now imagine that ghostly figure as Nkechi, who — due to a whole panoply of larger dynamics — is excluded from, and yet continues to haunt, this pair. Her relationship with the villager is built — not entirely deterministically, but not incidentally, either — of a range of larger structures. In the village, which is intentionally shielded from the outside world, Nkechi and the villager are unable to come to know one another as I and my co-teachers hoped they might do. The villager is direct about her disinclination to work with Nkechi. And although there may be some complicated answers to the question of what it means for an adult with intellectual disabilities to make these statements, Nkechi hears them, quite simply, as a conduit for prejudicial feeling and racist discourse. As a result, the villager sees Nkechi heading out, refusing to submit to what would have been a highly unpredictable and likely exhausting relation.

Of course — even as I bring into view her photograph, her portrait, and one of the images she created — the villager herself also remains something of a ghostly figure in my account. Given the complexities of access in this process, what has happened to our collective project of “ethical portraiture”? How is it possible for me to provide an ethical account of what happened among us?

Eli Clare ends his own meditations on “disabled bodies and natural worlds” with a return to the tall-grass prairie, not “a retreat but the ground upon which we ask all these questions.”34Eli Clare, “Meditations,” 24. I, too, have a range of related questions about the complex valuing of difference as a form of both cultural and ecological diversity, and about how we might make such difference palpable and available.

Do we need to return to the village, either with these students, or with another class, to keep on working through our partnership? Are different sorts of relationships possible among us?

Might a more active politics of difference enable us to move beyond our desires for restoration — of impairment, of a relationship, of a community, of a campus, of an eco-system?


IV. “Taking Up Residence”

… if diversity is to remain a question, it is not one that can be solved

–Sara Ahmed, On Being Included

… how can I, can we, stay with the trouble…?

–Donna Haraway, “”When Species Meet”

The structures I want to alter, the silences I want to break, have been a long time a-building — not only at the village, but also at Bryn Mawr, where I have little interest in restoring the college’s history. Describing institutions like Bryn Mawr as “political projects,” and the questions of “who gets to learn, and what they learn there,” as “deeply political questions,” Monica Mercado decries the founding of influential universities as part of the larger colonial project of unsettling Native Americans, clearing the land of people who lived there, replacing them with white settlers — who, in turn, founded institutions of study, “not for the enslaved or the replaced,” but for white men. Colleges such as these, Monica maintains, are “part of the arsenal of European imperialism”; all the leading universities promoted and profited from slavery, racism, and coloniaism. The earliest of these were playgrounds for wealthy boys, where ideas about race were “made and taught.” Created as “bastions of white upper class women,” the Seven Sisters Colleges followed this model, denying to African Americans the education they made available only to “a certain kind of women.” The histories of elite institutions like Bryn Mawr are histories of intense privilege and wealth, and of the hierarchies they create and maintain.35Monica Mercado, “A (Short, Incomplete, and Often Invisible) History of Race and Higher Education” (paper presented at the Bryn Mawr Teach-In on Race, Higher Education, Rights and Responsibilities, Bryn Mawr College, November 18, 2014), accessed July 17, 2015

Racism remains insistently present-and-active at the College, as it does elsewhere in the country. And much of our current work to unseat such campus hierarchies seems to me problematic, paradoxical, enacting the dream of restoration, grasping for a time that never was, and never can be. Sara Ahmed, once again, is prescient here, cautioning both that diversity can be offered as a narrative of repair, as what allows us to”‘recover” from racism. She cautions that such recovery is not possible:

Diversity is often imagined as … a way of mending or fixing histories of being broken …. diversity enters institutional discourse as a language of reparation; as a way of imagining that those who are divided can work together; a way of assuming that ‘to get along’ is to right a wrong. Not to be excluded becomes not simply an account of the present … but also a way of relating to the past. Racism is framed as a memory of what is no longer.36Sara Ahmed, On Being Included, 164.

Searching for an alternative to “restoration,” “repair,” and “recovery” — seeking for a way, in other words, to “stay with the trouble,” while not settling for-or-in it — I find myself recognizing a messy, slow — indeed, inevitable and unending — process that I first heard formulated by a student nearly ten years before; it was she who supplied my keynote of “slipping.” Emily Elstad, who studied “Big Books of American Literature”37Big Books of American Literature” (course offered at Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2003), accessed July 17, 2015 with me in Spring 2003, wrote at the conclusion of that semester about the importance of attending to the gaps that open up when we mis-step or mis-speak. Emily’s essay, entitled “Slipping into Something More Comfortable: Huckleberry Finn and the Discourse of ‘Nigger,'” anticipated much of the current discourse about embracing difference, acknowledging a “racial unconscious” that needs to be — indeed, cannot avoid being — brought into the open, in order to be addressed.38Marguerite Rigoglioso, “Unconscious Racial Stereotypes Can Be Reversible,” Insights by Stanford Business (January 1, 2008), accessed July 17, 2015 Beginning with an explanation offered by a local congressman, of a “slip” made by the mayor of Philadelphia, in addressing the NAACP —

“The Brothers and Sisters are running this city! Don’t let nobody fool you: we are in charge of the city of Brotherly Love. We are in charge! We are in charge!”

— John Street (Spring 2002)

“You’re speaking your mind and sometimes you slip. We all slip.”

— Lucien Blackwell, in response to Street’s comment

— Emily went on to draw on a range of classroom experiences, in order to argue that

political correctness, or our fear of ‘mis’understandings, anticipates offenses that can never be predicted, and that if we do not allow ourselves to ‘slip,’ we cannot learn the truth about what we think or the truth about how others feel about what we think. ‘Slip’ can mean ‘to slide or glide, esp. on a smooth or slippery surface; to lose one’s foothold’ or ‘to break or escape’ — a person, the tongue, lips.’ These definitions imply that what we bring to verbal ‘slippage’ is involuntary, which suggests that in ‘slipping’ somehow we access our unconscious, or what we ‘really mean.’ Other definitions of ‘slip’ include ‘to fall away from a standard; to lose one’s command of things,’ and ‘to pass out of, escape from, the mind or memory.’ These notions of ‘slip’ posit a new state emerging from the act of slipping, a temporary loss of control that yields both a personal, subjective truth and a changed state that has moved away from ‘a standard’ and into new thought and order. Instead of chastising people for ‘slipping,’ for describing the way in which they honestly think about the world, perhaps we should consider the meaning behind words spoken in moments of ‘slipping’ and really think about how they speak to our world. Thinking metaphorically, sometimes only by slipping and falling to the floor do we notice that there is something down there that needs to be cleaned up.39Emily Elstad, “Slipping into Something More Comfortable: Huckleberry Finn and the Discourse of ‘Nigger'” (paper written for English 207: Big Books of American Literature, Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2003).

Re-reading Emily’s essay, I now recognize that the sort of “slippage” about racial difference we encountered at the village is not confined to those with intellectual disabilities. It happens all the time, everywhere — including at communities like Bryn Mawr, where many members have been identified as “intellectually gifted.” More importantly, Emily suggests that such “slips” offer the college a way to move beyond old forms of failed engagement, in which those of us who “belong” welcome (or refuse welcome to) those of us who have more newly arrived.

As we construct and re-construct ourselves during our college years (and for decades thereafter), as we construct and re-construct the institutions within which we live and work, the differences within-and-among us are always in motion. Ahmed is once again helpful here, calling out how each act of inclusion, each gesture of hospitality, re-figures an old — and yet somehow always new-and-surprising — exclusion:

To be welcomed is to be positioned as the one who is not at home … treated as guests, temporary residents …. welcomed on condition they return that hospitality by integrating into a common organizational culture, or by ‘being’ diverse, and allowing institutions to celebrate their diversity …. this very structural position of being the guest, or the stranger, the one who receives hospitality, allows an act of inclusion to maintain the form of exclusion.40Ahmed, 43.

If each new inclusion reactivates old exclusions, how to speak with one another about such divergences? Is it possible to construct a classroom space, a campus, a county or a country, which can hold them all?

I get a chance to work through these questions the next semester, when I offer “Ecological Imaginings,” a course structured around the premise that “the real, material ecological crisis … is also a crisis of representation … a failure of narrative.”41“Ecological Imaginings.”

Not so surprisingly, the narrative that holds this course together falters.

Ahmed again: “solutions to problems are the problems given new form.”42Ahmed, 143.

One of my experiments here is to ask each student to take a turn at selecting our class site. I hope this will result in our meeting outside more often, and so engaging with a range of interesting eco-pedagogical questions: how attentive should we be to the distractions of wind, sun, rain, birdsong, and the voices of others nearby? How much space and time should we give to those interruptions not on the course agenda?43I take my inspiration from a student who enrolled in the first version of “Ecological Imaginings,” and challenged me to “expand the net of attention” in class. Sara Gladwin asked if it were

sara.gladwin“ecologically literate” to teach and condition children to filter out divergent thinking, [to teach them] not to pay attention to their surroundings, to let the environment fade into the background …. maybe the environment would be better protected …if instead of reprimanding the student whose eye has been caught by whatever can be seen from a classroom window, we were to give that student the opportunity to go outside, to broaden their thinking horizons. Maybe we would be able to expand our concept of importance, give focus to what has been consistently pushed into the backgrounds of our imaginations.

The weather is pretty miserable in the Philadelphia area this winter and spring, so we don’t get out too much.

But we do relocate, twice a week, in various buildings around campus.

On April 21, we gather in the common room of Radnor dormitory, which was the site of the stand-off around the Confederate flag. Radnor has also long been the site of the biggest party of the school year (and, as a result, also the site of occasional shutdowns, and fairly frequent disciplinary action); in short, it is the dorm that students, faculty and administrators are least likely to associate with schoolwork. Nkechi, who selects the location, describes the common room as her “living room,” and expects that her classmates will find it particularly “homey,” because it has been well decorated, with lots of Christmas, Halloween, and flower lights hanging at the entrance, above the fireplace, along all the walls.

The week before, we read Terry Tempest Williams’ memoir, An Unspoken Hunger.44Terry Tempest Williams, An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field (New York: Vintage, 1994). In its aftermath, Caleb Eckert, another member of this class, writes,

caleb.eckertour classes in academic institutions feel a little like going to church on Sundays: there are so many powerful, moving, ecological thoughts, but in the end we all leave the building and go home …. There isn’t much space made for intellectual thought to be brought into tangible practice. It’s not just the question of how we can effectively educate people, but also the question of how we can provide spaces and practices that embody thinking in doing …. It is scary to be vulnerable and honest with ourselves and each other …. Because in doing so, we realize that we have so much to sacrifice and let go of.45Caleb Eckert, “Earthquake Aftermath,” April 17, 2015 (8:05 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015

Sitting in a circle in the Radnor common room, I ask class members to take turns reading aloud what Caleb has written. Midway through the course of this exercise, one of his classmates looks around the room, and says suddenly that the lights make her uncomfortable, because they remind her of Christmas — and she is not Christian. Nkechi is stunned — ashamed, she says later — that her attempt to create a welcoming space has made one of her classmates feel so unwelcome. She immediately offers to turn off the lights. When she does this, the others seem to me disappointed, but — glad not to have to negotiate this division, which has caught me off-guard — I quickly re-direct our attention back to the text at hand.

Immediately after class, however, Joni writes in our course forum:

joni sky

“I do want everyone to feel comfortable [and safe] in all of the spaces we share …. i think it’s important for every member of a community to be heard. so i’m also uncomfortable with a majority giving in to the wishes of a minority. every voice is not heard and respected in that situation either. consensus based decision making seems impossible on the scale of this entire campus, and too time consuming for our classroom, but i wonder if we can make a little more space for it in our lives.”46joni sky, “consent/consensus,” April 22, 2015 (10:22 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015

Recognizing this as a call to “make a little more space” in our class, I start our next session with the observation of yet another student, Purple Finch, that “thinking ecologically” has ceased, for her, to be about the environment, and more about collaborative and interactive process.47Purple Finch, “Teach in Thoughts,” April 17, 2015 (0:52 a.m.), accessed July 17, 2015 Following her lead, I say, we need to talk about our interactions, about how, in particular, we might adjudicate differences such as these that have arisen among us. The Unknown says the lights are an explicit reminder of “Christians killing Jews”; one person’s “Christmas” lights have become another’s “Holocaust.” Joni says that she, too, is Jewish, but finds the lights a comfort; they make her feel that she belongs at Bryn Mawr. Marian observes that seeking “consensus” among these views might limit the range of our knowing. I posit that this tension is one we’d also seen in the fall, when the display of a Confederate flag by two Southern students — declared by them a sign of “home” — was read by most others on campus as an unequivocal symbol of racist segregation.

I don’t mention it then, but I can see clearly now how Nkechi, who had been so affronted in the fall by the display of that flag, has now, in turn, affronted another student with her own light-filled display of “home.”


She may have slipped.


We all do.

The structures with which we surround ourselves are slipping, too.

As Monica’s “(Short, Incomplete, and Often Invisible) History of Race and Higher Education” makes clear, these institutional structures are actually built on slippages.

The incorporation of racial diversity was not part of the original vision of Bryn Mawr; the views of its second president, M. Carey Thomas, who re-designed and re-directed the college’s mission, were both “exclusionary” and “supremacist.” According to research conducted by my colleague Linda-Susan Beard, Thomas’s letters and speeches entwined “feminist ideology with talk of racial hierarchies,” her “views about Negroes and Jews” particularly discriminatory.48Linda-Susan Beard. “The Other Bryn Mawr History: The M. Carey Thomas Legacy” (paper presented at The Community Day of Learning: Race and Ethnicity at Bryn Mawr and Beyond. March 18, 2014), accessed July 17, 2015

Coates: “America begins in black plunder and white democracy, two features that are not contradictory but complementary.”49Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic (June 2014), accessed July 17, 2015

It takes most of our class time that day, but the students eventually arrive at a quantitative judgment: that one student’s pain outweighs the slight loss of pleasure experienced by the others.

I am very glad that we have this conversation. In directing the students outside the classroom, I had asked how much space and time we should give to interruptions not on the course agenda. Instead of the distractions I’d anticipated — “of wind, sun, rain, birdsong, and the voices of others nearby” — we have been brought back inside, to attend more directly to our interactions with one another.

Of course I also have the contradictory thought (which may well have occurred to you while reading this account) that, in focusing on how we handle differences among ourselves, we very well might be deflecting the even more overwhelming questions raised by the texts I assign for discussion this week: excerpts from Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate,50Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014). and from Joanna Macy’s reflections on World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal.51Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal (Berkeley, California: Parallax Press, 2007). These books ask us to reflect, respectively, on the mounting dangers of climate change, and of the storage of nuclear waste. We set these reflections aside, in order to talk about community making.

And yet. The two projects may be closely related. As Caleb writes in the manifesto he crafts at the end of the semester,

caleb.eckertThe slow, amorphous, complex entities of climate change and environmental disaster upend conventional ways of teaching and learning. To grow empowered and thoughtful students, environmental education needs to provide shovels for us to dig deep into the way systems are set up, the way we live, as well as to inculcate a rich ethic of stewardship based on empathetic, compassionate encounter with both world and self.52Caleb Eckert, “Manifesto for Environmental Studies,” May 13, 2015 (6:45 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015

As I and my students stumble and slip, re-framing, re-shaping and unsettling the systems in which we operate, I hear our work well described, once again, by Sara Ahmed:

We come up against the force and weight of something when we attempt to alter the conditions of an existence …. when we do not ‘quite’ inhabit the norms of an institution …. When we are … held up by how we inhabit what we inhabit, then the terms of habitation are revealed to us. We need to rewrite the world from the experience … of ‘being stopped’ …from the point of view of those who do not flow into it …. Diversity work … can describe the effects of inhabiting institutional spaces that do not give you residence …. being made into a stranger … not being at home in a category that gives residence to others.53Ahmed, 175-177.

The Unknown, who felt “stopped” by those Christmas lights, which “made her into a stranger” at Bryn Mawr, writes up what has happened. In doing so, she records what we said in class not as statements made by individuals, but as “a collective undertaking”: not assigning “opinions and emotions to people,” but instead portraying our conflict “as a joint issue/problem that… we all must confront.” I find what she calls her “political, social, racial, gender writing experiment”54The Unknown, “Class Observation/Notes,” April 24, 2015 (12:53 a.m.), accessed July 17, 2015 a wonderful, concrete example of using language to reflect a more interactive and collaborative way of thinking-and-enacting, one in which each of us assumes a role, not of insider or out, familiar or strange, but all co-habiting, re-shaping our institutional “residence” as we do so.

Conversations continue afterwards among pairs of students. Some of the differences among us get smoothed over during final collaborative projects; others are exacerbated, as classmates recognize how much their interests diverge, and they choose not to work together.

V. “Staying with the Trouble”


Diversity would be institutionalized … when it ceases to cause trouble

–Sara Ahmed, On Being Included

In early December, I join a march that begins on campus, centers on a “die-in” in the center of town, and continues to the Haverford College campus, a mile away.

Although most of the media coverage, this time, is local, not national,55TBC:Pete Bannan, “All Black Lives Matter ‘Die In’ Held in Bryn Mawr During Evening Rush Hour,” Main Line Media News(December 8, 2014), accessed July 17, 2015; David Chang, “Protesters for Mike Brown, Eric Garner March Through Main Line,” (December 8, 2014), accessed July 17, 2015; Justin Finch, “College Students Join Together for ‘Die-In’ Demonstration on the Main Line,” CBS Philly(December 8, 2014), accessed July 17, 2015; Kenneth Moton, “Die-In Protest Reaches the Main Line,” ABC Action News(December 9, 2015), accessed July 17, 2015 I am heartened to be there.

At the faculty meeting the following week, I stand again, to say how glad I was to join so many of my colleagues in the demonstration; of how, during my thirty-three years at the College, I’ve never participated in an action that left campus to take a stand, as this one did; of how proud I am of our student organizers, of their professional demeanor ….

and that I’ve also been distressed to hear of an interaction, over the weekend, between a white member of our Campus Safety staff, and several black students, both residents and guests. I understand that the encounter involved racial profiling. I have questions about valorizing confidentiality, both in this incident, and in the procedures that were followed in the confrontation over the Confederate Flag.

When sanctions are not made public, I say, the public story becomes one of non-action.

This time, rather than receiving hugs and affirmations, I am told, by both president and provost, that these are “personnel issues,” not public matters.

I recall C. Wright Mills’ definition of “the sociological imagination,” “the vivid awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society.”56C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (London: Oxford University Press, 1959). I want to shout about the ways in which “personnel” issues are always structural, about how institutional racism enables and covers personal assault, about the danger and downside of anonymity and privacy, about the counter-need for transparency and disclosure.

Instead, I send the provost an article about the “fateful pairing” of rape and anonymity, in which Geneva Overholser asks,

How do you size up a problem that’s largely hidden? …. Without data and transparency, the issue has … a hard time gaining footing …. When the crime is not reported, and no one is named, how do you get the data? …. anonymity … prevents the public from fully engaging with the problem. 57Geneva Overholser, “Rape and Anonymity: A Fateful Pairing,” December 11, 2014, accessed July 17, 2015

I pair this with two testimonies to institutional racism, recently posted by black members of the Vassar faculty, Kiese Laymon’s “My Vassar College Faculty ID Makes Everything OK,”58Kiese Laymon, “My Vassar College Faculty ID Makes Everything OK,” November 29, 2014 (1:56 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015 and Eve Dunbar’s “Who Really Burns: Quitting a Deans’ Job in the Age of Mike Brown.”59Eve Dunbar, “Who Really Burns: Quitting a Deans’ Job in the Age of Mike Brown,” December 2, 2014 (12:10 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015

Several months later, I meet with the provost and several other faculty leaders; we plan for on-going diversity training of faculty members. This summer, I again mentor Nkechi, who is designing these workshops, which may unsettle new members of the community, may further unsettle the community itself.

This makes me hopeful.

At the same time, back in Virginia, the local paper is running an article about the “sudden visibility of Confederate flags,” “long scorned as a symbol of racism and hatred,” now “enjoying a resurgence of popularity … in Shenandoah County,” “festooning … front porches and pickup trucks as never before.”60Keith Stickley, “Confederate Flag: Heritage or Hate? Old South Symbol Gains Popularity Here,” The Free Press (July 30, 2015), accessed August 10, 2015


I can’t leave the farm without noticing a pair of walkers, each toting a flag; a biker towing an over-sized one; many trucks with six or more a-flying. Driving a few miles south, I enter one festooned neighborhood; a few miles north, another.


In intentional sites like Bryn Mawr, where many members have made a deliberate commitment to create an inclusive community, I’m learning how an unintentional “slip” might function, as Emily explained, to remind us that “there is something down there that needs to be cleaned up.” Of course this making of messes, and then cleaning them up, never ends, but I also see how this process can function as an ongoing impetus not to settle in, a noting and questioning that can precipitate action, and change.

And now I wonder: in communities formed less intentionally, like the one in which I was raised, and to which I repeatedly return, what other opportunites for renewal might exist, what slips between intent and action, between action and reaction?”The sociologist travels at home,” Peter Berger quipped, “debunking” and “unmasking” — “with shocking results.”61Peter Berger, Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1963), accessed July 17, 2015

Pushed, I acknowledge that there may be some resemblance between the orientation of those who fly Confederate flags, and my own attitude, in faculty meetings and classrooms up North: feeling a compulsion to ask my questions aloud, refusing to accept what I read, or to settle for what I’m told, feeling pressed to share these refusals, to speak out, and so to push others …

“Don’t tread on me.”

Don’t tell me what to think.

And I begin to imagine what dreams might lie behind these flags.

In the rural South, as in the suburban North, there are desires for restoration.

But there are also, surely, other forms of dreaming that are “undomesticated,” the associative sort of thinking Eduardo Kohn described, which isn’t seeking a particular end.

“Things are not what they seem,” Berger advises, “Social reality turns out to have many layers of meaning. The discovery of each new layer changes the perception of the whole,” can “fly in the face of what is taken for granted.”62Peter Berger, Invitation to Sociology.

Might I here, too, seek out an active politics of difference, make it palpable and available?

Footnotes   [ + ]