Staying with the Trouble

Bryn-Mawr-Die-In

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,1 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.”2 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.3

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,”4 and Eve Dunbar’s “Who Really Burns: Quitting a Deans’ Job in the Age of Mike Brown.”5

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.”6


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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.


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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.”7

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.

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 surely also–and simultaneously–other forms of dreaming that are less “domesticated,” an associative sort of thinking that isn’t seeking to reprise what was, or any other particular end. In How Forests Think, Eduardo Kohn describes his own learning, in an Amazon forest, in these terms:

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.8

In Kohn’s formulation, such an “unfettered” form of thinking is the activity of an individual, relaxing into an awareness of her web of connections with the world. I am suggesting here that such kinds of associative thinking might operate as well, and well, on a group–even on an institutional–level.

“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.”9

How might the college, as institution, dig into these layers of meaning, seek out an active politics of difference based on what is found there, make it palpable and available?How might the college, as institution, dig into these layers of meaning, seek out an active politics of difference based on what is found there, make it palpable and available? What political motions might unsettle the established structures, keep them ever off balance, ever renewing and renewable?10

  1. TBC: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,” NBC10.com (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
  2. C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (London: Oxford University Press, 1959).
  3. Geneva Overholser, “Rape and Anonymity: A Fateful Pairing,” December 11, 2014, accessed July 17, 2015
  4. Kiese Laymon, “My Vassar College Faculty ID Makes Everything OK,” November 29, 2014 (1:56 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015
  5. Eve 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
  6. Keith Stickley, “Confederate Flag: Heritage or Hate? Old South Symbol Gains Popularity Here,” The Free Press (July 30, 2015), accessed August 10, 2015
  7. Peter Berger, Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1963), accessed July 17, 2015
  8. Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 177, 185, 188.
  9. Peter Berger, Invitation to Sociology.
  10. Cf. Sheldon S. Wolin, “Norm and Form: The Constitutionalizing of Democracy.” Athenian Political Thought and the Reconstruction of American Democracy (1994): 29-58.