Written by Patrick Lee.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.
My perception of academia coming into college was that of an exuberant idea factory, pumping out world-changing publications and smart people capable of ethically advancing the human base of knowledge. But, as in many cases, the appearance of things has the effect of masking its truer form. To this day I still believe academia exerts a significant role in knowledge production, but I no longer conceive of it as a rosy space where virtuous and moral intellect reigns supreme over the condemnable forces of ignorance, exclusion, and domination. I want to talk about the obstructive role that the norm of civility plays in insulating whiteness from critique and contestation, and in the process stifling the revolutionary and inclusionary potential that academies embody. A large number of Americans venerate civility as if it were the highest-order virtue and they ruthlessly apply civility to demonize those who resist domination by unjust power systems and relations. We witness this phenomenon on Fox News where Black Lives Matter is condemned as an uncivil terrorist group, and in the halls of Congress when Ilhan Omar receives death threats for acting “boisterous.”
The academy is no exemption from this suffocating insistence upon civility as a necessary, sacrosanct precondition to legitimate discourse; in navigating the turbulent seas of a predominantly white, male academia, people of color encounter the patronizing limitations of anodyne civility that have the pernicious effect of reproducing unjust relations of power. To be civil is to behave and speak in such a way that does not radically destabilize the smooth functioning of the status quo. It is to take extra caution as to not risk offending white sensibilities, white egos, and white fragility. POC raise genuine concerns that are routinely dismissed as irrational, caricatured as angry and uninformed, and snubbed as rude or too loud. Instead of attempting to initiate a conversation with POC to understand in good faith the origin and scope of their concerns, our academy reveals its foremost commitment to white comfortability by delegitimizing concerns by evoking the abstract, arbitrary, and self-serving pretense of civility.
I want to tell a story from my friend, a former graduate student who shall remain nameless, and her experience as a woman of color navigating the academy and its auxiliary obligations—attending class, publishing papers, conducting research, networking with professors, etc. She was a teaching assistant for her professor when one day in class he explicitly said the n-word multiple times. He expressed confusion over whether or not saying n****r was permissible if done while listening to rap music. When she objected to his use by attempting to explain the violent legacy embodied in that word, from its historical weaponization as a bludgeon against black folks to the problematic aspects of white men utilizing the word for instruction material, he condescendingly dismissed her objection as an unproductive, uncivil point of discussion. He offered no apology, no attempt to reflect upon the implications of his behavior, no effort to speak to her personally after class or in office hours. Her classmates, a white majority contingent, stayed silent and chose to opt out of what could have been a potentially illuminating, productive point of racial dialogue—in other words, they remained civil instead of supporting a person of color’s protest against a perceived injustice. When she complained to the department, they took no further action beyond a meek apology; the professor was not reprimanded in any way and continues to teach to this day. Here she encountered the all too familiar expectation of civility that we non-white academics inevitably confront in the academy: the impetus to remain “civil” in the face of injustice, to quietly direct anger inwards, to not rock the boat too much.
Navigating academia as a person of color necessitates a daily confrontation with the unstated norms that uphold white civility. To be nonwhite in a white academy means that one’s concerns and values remain secondary to the demands of civility. This demand is an institutional, cultural product tempered by a discriminatory history that must be vigilantly contested whenever possible because the concerns of those historically dispossessed matter; the silent anger of those abandoned by institutions matter; the objections of those discriminated against matter. People of color are resilient and arbitrary expectations that violently mandate they perform civility will continue to be refused in our attempt to reclaim academia as an inclusive space that listens, cares for, and acknowledges that what we have to say matters.