“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.1

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.2

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”3 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.4 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.5

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.6

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?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.”7

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

Ahmed again: “solutions to problems are the problems given new form.”8

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?9

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.10 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.11

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.”12

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.13 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.14

Coates: “America begins in black plunder and white democracy, two features that are not contradictory but complementary.”15

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,16 and from Joanna Macy’s reflections on World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal.17 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.18

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.19

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”20 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.

  1. Monica 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
  2. Sara Ahmed, On Being Included, 164.
  3. Big Books of American Literature” (course offered at Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2003), accessed July 17, 2015
  4. Marguerite Rigoglioso, “Unconscious Racial Stereotypes Can Be Reversible,” Insights by Stanford Business (January 1, 2008), accessed July 17, 2015
  5. Emily 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).
  6. Ahmed, 43.
  7. “Ecological Imaginings.”
  8. Ahmed, 143.
  9. I 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.

  10. Terry Tempest Williams, An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field (New York: Vintage, 1994).
  11. Caleb Eckert, “Earthquake Aftermath,” April 17, 2015 (8:05 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015
  12. joni sky, “consent/consensus,” April 22, 2015 (10:22 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015
  13. Purple Finch, “Teach in Thoughts,” April 17, 2015 (0:52 a.m.), accessed July 17, 2015
  14. Linda-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
  15. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic (June 2014), accessed July 17, 2015
  16. Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014).
  17. Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal (Berkeley, California: Parallax Press, 2007).
  18. Caleb Eckert, “Manifesto for Environmental Studies,” May 13, 2015 (6:45 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015
  19. Ahmed, 175-177.
  20. The Unknown, “Class Observation/Notes,” April 24, 2015 (12:53 a.m.), accessed July 17, 2015