Current students at my alma mater are asking for a decolonized education. The push back and sleight-of-hand based on fear, ignorance, and adherence to harmful ideologies really really upset me. I wrote a letter supporting the students and explaining just how baked in and pervasive white supremacy is. If you’re not aware that everything in US culture is based on white supremacy, then you’re supporting it, even if you’re the type of person who wouldn’t want to. I know because having been against racism my entire life, and yet, I recently started educating myself more and have seen everything I got wrong in the past, all the ways I reinforced white supremacy through ignorance and fear.
So I invite everyone else to join me in decolonizing, in learning things we didn’t already know, and fighting back against degrading systems.
It turns out the link is dead now, so here’s the complete text (I now use they/them pronouns):
Subject: I Stand With the Students
Dear TKS and Everyone at Knox,
Harmony here, class of 2001, writing to support students at Knox in their endeavors to have a non-oppressive, decolonized education.
I am genderqueer white trash, and I’m here to say that I received a white supremacist, patriarchal, imperialist education at Knox College. I’ve been working to decolonize myself and learn more truthful information about history and literature and art and science and governance. Last July, in lieu of my annual cash donation, I sent the English Department books:
How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ
To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction by Joanna Russ
Silences by Tillie Olsen
Interestingly enough, I remembered sending This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa instead of To Write Like a Woman by Russ. Memory sure does like to conform to current visions of self. In July, when I made the donations, I’d barely begun my work to decolonize myself and clearly made a classic white feminist, white supremacist mistake of privileging the voices of white women over other voices.
This year, I will definitely send the English Department This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa and An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, both vital texts in general, with much that is specific to a more accurate understanding of English literature and creative writing and the roles they’ve played (and continue to play) in perpetuating genocide, white supremacy, and patriarchy.
Why did I send texts in lieu of cash? Because the vast majority of texts assigned to me as an English Writing major were by white men, as if they’re the only people who ever wrote anything important. The vast majority of those texts were racist, misogynistic, classist, and/or imperialistic. I’ve come to see that instead of bugs, to be glossed over with vague “they didn’t know better back then” and “that’s not the important part of the work” assertions, the racism, misogyny, and imperialistic worldviews are FEATURES of these works. They’re part of why they were and remain popular, because they reinforce white supremacy, patriarchy, classism, and imperialism.
I took a Hemingway seminar at Knox. When I dared try to raise the issue of the blatant misogyny in the texts assigned, I was quickly beaten down by my vast-majority-male classmates and received no help from my male professor. I, like any woman who speaks up in a Hemingway novel, was being an insane Bitch. Since then, I found Hemingway explicitly said what is implied in so much of his work:
“A woman ruined Scott [Fitzgerald]. It wasn’t just Scott ruining himself. But why couldn’t he have told her to go to hell? Because she was sick. It’s being sick makes them act so bloody awful usually and it’s because they’re sick you can’t treat them as you should. The first great gift for a man is to be healthy and the second, maybe greater, is to fall [in] with healthy women. You can always trade one healthy woman in on another. But start with a sick woman and see where you get. Sick in the head or sick anywhere. But sick anywhere and in a little while they are sick in the head. If they locked up all the women who were crazy—but why speculate—I’ve known goddamned good ones; but take as good a woman as Pauline—a hell of a wonderful woman—and once she turns mean. Although, of course, it is your own actions that turn her mean. Mine I mean. Not yours. Anyway let’s leave the subject. If you leave a woman, though, you probably ought to shoot her. It would save enough trouble in the end even if they hanged you.”
—1943 letter to Maxwell Perkins
My first year at Knox, my best friend was murdered by a man who took Hemingway’s advice (more or less: he killed her for daring to leave him, just as there was also a Knox student murdered on campus my first year for leaving a man, just as there is a woman being murdered for leaving a man as you read my words). Peoples’ lives are at stake, and yet, so many refuse to see all the ways they are complicit, to consider what they could do better.
On November 29th, 2016, I posted an Open Letter to the Literary Community reflecting on all the ways we (writers and writing programs) are complicit in systems of oppression and in fact, reinforce them. I directly sent the letter to my former professors and colleagues across three Creative Writing programs, including to the chair of the English Department at Knox. I received no replies from any of the people I directly contacted.
You can read my letter here: https://harmonyisawitch.com/2016/11/29/an-open-letter-to-the-literary-community/
Dear “besieged” faculty:
This country is white supremacist and patriarchal through and through and has been from go. This country was founded on genocide and war and oppressing and enslaving anyone who wasn’t a white man with money. It’s harmful to not know or to pretend that isn’t our history and to not know or pretend that ideology isn’t reflected in our art and literature and social sciences and hard sciences. Women, LGBTQ+ persons, and people of color have always been clapping back, having always been stepping up and speaking out; I promise, you won’t have nothing left to teach if you acknowledge these truths.
I was so offended by Emily Anderson’s letter that I almost went blind. I second everything Ren Barkey said and applaud them for putting it so clearly and compassionately. I was particularly bothered by the rhetorical device Anderson used of asking if people really want to be the sort of person who hasn’t read X.
I would like to clearly and plainly reply: YES, Emily Anderson, I deeply wish I was the sort of person who hadn’t read all sorts of horrific, demeaning “art” that harms people and poisons everyone. I also deeply wish that I’d been assigned any number of texts that I instead had to search for on my own.
I don’t want to be the kind of person who hasn’t read This Bridge Called My Back, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, The Fifth Season, How to Suppress Women’s Writing, So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy, Through the Eyes of the Deer, Sister Outsider, etc. I read all of those texts on my own time after going on extensive searches looking for voices I knew must exist, even though they’ve been suppressed, even though they were never mentioned to me during my education at Knox or the University of Illinois.
I don’t want to be the type of person who thinks I already know everything I need to know, who harms others with their ignorance. I have pledged to decolonize myself and my pedagogy and my writing, and my work to do so never ends.
And yes, it turns out I have a colleague who teaches Wide Sargasso Sea without teaching Jane Eyre. I guess it’s not impossible.
The real issue here is that Knox, as an institution, needs to decolonize itself.
I was heartened to see the letter by the faculty who are pledging to decolonize themselves. That was exactly what I thought needed to be done upon hearing about the first incident with the Brecht play. I was appalled that only FIVE faculty members signed the letter.
I’ve mostly seen people complaining about the cancellation of the Brecht play as a form of ignorant mob rule, thought policing, or gross censorship. The people claiming as much tend to stop there and refuse to consider any other aspects of what’s happening because they’ve already taken the moral high ground, so they think, so I want to address this bizarre and inaccurate position.
Again: I went to Knox. I know from experience that it’s white supremacist and classist and patriarchal. It ain’t changed much in the intervening 17 years. Before I sent the books last year, I looked at the current requirements for creative writing majors, in hopes that I’d find things much improved. Not really. There is a crystal clear path of white supremacy to be taken by any Hemingway-like students who don’t want to deign to read the works of women or people or color, you know, those special “separate” writers outside the main canon. The department offers more courses that include and/or focus on women and people of color and LGBTQ+ persons, but those are simple to bypass in favor of a Eurocentric education in white supremacy and patriarchy. That is not okay. It’s harmful and damaging to everyone, and I do not buy into arguments that you MUST drink the poison from the well of history or else you won’t be educated or cultured or intellectual enough. That is a white supremacist, patriarchal position to take.
Who decides which works are GREAT and get canonized? The white supremacist patriarchs do! There is SO MUCH out there that women and people of color have been saying and writing and discovering and creating that is not included. Why isn’t it included? Because that space is reserved for white men. Because including those voices brings into question the ideologies presented by those oh so important white men. Because any serious attempt to decolonize education requires a massive and thorough restructuring and requires professors to educate themselves out of their own white supremacist, patriarchal, imperialist indoctrination.
It seems like most faculty energy is reserved for screaming all the reasons that students must take their medicine and listen to white people speak. I have seen no suggestions to put on plays written by people of color because white people have already decided they prefer the plays by white people and are using twisted logic and trying to shift the focus of the conversation to double down on a bad position for why it is actually good to be white supremacist and bad and ignorant and shameful to question white supremacy. Because white people are deciding what is and isn’t racist. Because white people are continuing to tell people of color that only white voices matter and anyone who disagrees is wrong and worthy of derision. That is white supremacy!
If Knox wasn’t racist, students wouldn’t be protesting and none of this would be happening. But Knox is racist and showing just how deeply racist it is in the ways many professors are talking about what’s happening. Only five professors signed a letter pledging to take people of color seriously and do better. The rest were too busy heaping derision on the students, essentially declaring ALL LIVES MATTER while they congratulate themselves for being smarter and more cultured than everyone else. It is white supremacist to frame the entire conversation about the rightness or wrongness of cancelling the play while not discussing ways to prevent play cancellations that aren’t solely the students taking their medicine and listening to their intellectual white professors who know better than the students do.
To say that the students shouldn’t shut down plays, end of story, is white supremacist. There is a long history of people telling people who are fighting for their rights, for their very lives, that they are DOING IT WRONG and therefore, undeserving of assistance or compassion. There is a long history of painting people who are fighting for their rights as utterly preposterous and stupid, worthy only of derision.
If Knox wasn’t fundamentally racist and white supremacist, then there’s the very real possibility The Good Person could have been staged and discussed in a productive manner. But Knox is fundamentally racist and white supremacist, so that wasn’t possible. And I am extremely skeptical of why it’s so important that that particular play be produced and discussed. Why not other plays? That’s something that never seems to get brought up: all the other plays Knox could be producing, but chooses not to, because it is a fundamentally racist and white supremacist institution that privileges the thoughts and feelings and art of white people over anyone else.
I looked it up, and it turns out women of color have written many many plays that most Knox students would likely be more than happy to produce. Now you know, in case you were unaware. I know white people often assume that things they don’t want to pay attention to simply don’t exist. They do exist. You’re welcome!
If Brecht was half the decent person people seem to think he was, then I have a hard time believing he’d have a problem with his plays being retired. The play itself says it’s insufficient and there’s more work to be done. Am I really supposed to believe he thought his play should forever more take a prominent position in the dialogue? It seems more likely to me that he’d be happy to hear other people have taken up his challenge and moved forward in the conversation and would encourage people to listen to those new, updated, more informed, more thoughtful voices. Only a white supremacist would think that whatever work they did should necessarily continue to be highly valued after their death, given precedence over the very people their work (allegedly) hoped to help lift up.
Let me be clear: unless you take an actively anti-racist position, the default is white supremacist. The default for everything in our culture is white supremacist. I see that so clearly now and am aware that most people are unaware of how baked in and pervasive white supremacist ideology is. There is no “middle ground” in this issue because white supremacy is always the default, the baseline. Anyone who thinks they are in some sort of middle ground is actually siding with white supremacy, which is why we are where we are, with black, indigenous, and latinx people being lynched nonstop, because white supremacists mistakenly believe they aren’t participating in racism when they are. You don’t need a hood, friends. You can promote white supremacy using “not-racist” plays written by white people. I’m sorry you didn’t realize that.
The students are trying to educate their professors about just how baked in and pervasive white supremacist ideology is, that it is in fact the default, always, but the professors are refusing to listen, so certain they are that since Brecht’s play is not-racist to them (white people) it is necessarily not-racist to everyone (apparently not) and that THEY are in the position to decide what is and isn’t racist (as white people, which of course, is white supremacy), and they are confident that they are in no way racist or supporting racism even as they fall back on white supremacy, participate in white supremacy, and perpetuate white supremacy.
And let’s take a moment to consider ALL of the censorship issues at play here, since that’s where so many have staked their flags. White supremacy actively and passively censors all the voices it doesn’t want to hear. The intellectual academics want me to believe that it is very necessary for women and people of color to hear what white dudes have been saying, but where is the outrage that white dudes don’t listen to what we have to say? Where is the outrage that the voices of women and people of color are silenced, that their plays aren’t cancelled because no one could even be bothered to produce them? That their plays aren’t even written as often as they should be because our society does everything in its power to deter women and people of color and convince them they shouldn’t even try and sets up numerous obstacles to bar them?
Because that’s MY outrage. That I was cheated out of my own history. That I was cheated out of knowing anything true about my brothers and sisters and cousins. That I was force-fed white supremacist and patriarchal, imperialist hogwash and no one even hinted that there are other histories that are being left out, or that it might be valuable to listen to people talk about their own experiences instead of always listening to white people describe and explain “others.”
Let me be clear: it is CRUCIAL to listen to people describe themselves instead of prioritizing what the privileged few have to say about “others.”
We are being silenced. We are being censored, but it seems like the anti-censorship crowd doesn’t have a problem with that. Because we were given so little account that no one even tried to produce our works, it’s not a censorship issue? I think it is. I think it is THE censorship issue here. It’s the form of censorship the students are protesting and fighting against! The white faculty have most of the power. They want to be white supremacist (while not having to acknowledge that that is exactly how they are being). Other people want their realities acknowledged and voices heard and one of the few cards they had to play was protesting the play. So how is it that the oppressors are painting themselves as the oppressed and claiming the actually oppressed people are the ones with all this mighty power that they are carelessly and thoughtlessly wielding to ill effect?
To be clear, the way many of you are discussing and not discussing all of the issues at stake strike me as harmful and white supremacist. I think there are ways you could express concerns about censorship that aren’t white supremacist and harmful, but that isn’t what I’ve seen. I’ve seen the good white faulty and alumni of Knox defending white supremacy under the guise of free speech while trying to shut up students who are desperately speaking out as if their lives depend on it, because, in fact, their lives do depend on it.
So why shouldn’t the faculty put all your considerable intellect to the task of decolonizing in a public and useful way? Why don’t the rest of you sign that letter or write your own? The fact that there aren’t more letters of support, whatever individual points of disagreement there may be, tells me that most faculty are indeed against the students, against introspection, and for maintaining a white supremacist, colonial institution.
I know decolonizing isn’t easy, but what’s right is rarely easy. I know it will require most, if not all of you to realize that you’ve been complicit in systems of oppression, that the price of admission to the “intellectual, academic community” is often capitulation to and complacency with reinforcing white supremacy, patriarchy, and imperialism.
Your hands are dirty.
I give you all the benefit of the doubt that you too have been bamboozled by your white supremacist, patriarchal, imperialist educations. I know you’ve been warped by the system some of us are trying to change so it will stop warping people! I like to believe that once you stop and decolonize yourselves, that you’ll be sorry for the parts you’ve played in oppressing people and creating this toxic culture that is US culture, quickly becoming world culture, that you’ll apologize and do better, as I and others have done.
Joanna Russ said, “To act in a way both sexist and racist, to maintain one’s class privilege, it is only necessary to act in the customary, ordinary, usual, even polite manner.”
Joanna Russ was a white woman who made many classic white feminist mistakes in her early works. When those were pointed out to her, she got defensive for a minute, but she cared more about truth and equality and liberation than claiming to already know everything she needed to know, already being a “good” person. She thought about the criticisms. She educated herself. She apologized and promised to do better. You can see her apology and initial attempt in the back of the copy of How to Suppress Women’s Writing that I sent to the English Department (I’ve been assured it’s being made available to faculty and students who want to read it).
You can read Joanna Russ’s later What Are We Fighting For? Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism and see all the ways she made good on her promises, and all the ways she still came up short. She was a TERF, which is awful. I’m pretty sure had she lived longer, she would have apologized for that bad, harmful, murderous position too. But there is no universe in which I would explain-away or downplay the wrongness of being trans-exclusionary.
And seeing how someone I otherwise admire and think is mostly correct could be so wrong and harmful compelled me to double down on making sure I’m decolonizing on all fronts, that I am reading what people have to say about themselves, not what other people have to say about them! Liberation never comes from oppressing someone else.
Russ is an example of how white people can actually listen and do better, and an example of how you can still come up very short. How to Suppress Women’s Writing also shows every single faculty member what you are doing in your white supremacist, patriarchal courses, why, and why all your reasons for continuing to do so are wrong and harmful and intellectually bankrupt. The book isn’t just about literature, but art and film and philosophy and applies across disciplines.
I implore all of the faculty and administrators at Knox to stop and consider that maybe you are in the wrong, that maybe there are things you need to learn and unlearn, and that definitely there are ways to work WITH the students instead of against them that will bring about respect, security, and a better learning environment for all.
If you can see any merit in their arguments, requests, and/or demands, then you should start there and work WITH students instead of hanging on your criticisms and using those as a shield against introspection and actually doing better. We all deserve better. Your white supremacy is hurting you too. Your anxiety and sleepless nights and malaise and cognitive dissonance are making you ill. I implore you to stop and think and educate yourselves and stop misdirecting your anger at the people you should be supporting and fighting with. There are monsters out there who prefer all the misery and degradation that is our lives: who will quite consciously and actively support white supremacy, patriarchy, and imperialism. We need you with us, not against us: us, the least among us. Us, the people who are murdered for being female, for being queer, for being trans, for not being white. Us, the people who in higher proportion murder ourselves when we just can’t take it anymore.
Won’t you listen? Won’t you join us in trying to remake the world into a place that promotes human flourishing instead of misery? What do you have to lose?
In Love & Solidarity,
Class of 2001