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Paul Gilroy in search of a not necessarily safe starting point…

Tuesday 31 May 2016


A conversation about university education today that rearranges some of the deckchairs on the Titanic.

Rosemary Bechler (RB): What is the relationship between the safe spaces furore in the States and the Rhodes furore and the South African furore… Are they linked? Are they part of one great global identity crisis? Or are they different in nature, with very different implications for social justice?

Paul Gilroy (PG): Of course, the African American campus eruptions, particularly at elite institutions; the things that are going on in Oxford with regard to the Rhodes statue and the process in South Africa – are linked.

The internet links them. A shared vocabulary links them. They all employ a constellation of concepts that has resonated differently in each location but is clearly another connecting factor: decolonization, privilege, safety. In different ways, all those examples betray the damage resulting from institutionalised racial hierarchy.

However, I would want to try and distinguish them. It is almost as though — epistemologically-speaking — the critique of the national state and the limitations of methodological nationalism have yielded an orphaned cosmopolitanism. We can drift back into the bad habit of imagining that the kind of analysis we articulate is good for everywhere and for always, or somehow floats innocently between those different locations.

RB: A bit like reductive readings of the Black Atlantic that talk about water and flows and such like? I found myself asking, ‘Surely there must be underlying all this an identity question in general?’ And then pulled myself up, thinking, ‘Well, what on earth is ‘an identity question in general’’? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?

Part of me wants to say that this is a new era, and part, that if you try to grasp any identity politics seriously you have to deal with that politics in its own terms, very precisely, in space and time.

PG: We have to be accountable for the way in which we gamble and try to put spaces and times together. It’s difficult for example to think through the three cases you raise without placing them in a temporal sequence: Africa behind, UK in the middle and the US ahead. I think that would be an error.

Let’s distinguish them, but acknowledge how they shape a common present — are part of the same historic moment or conjuncture. You’ve mentioned Black Atlantic. I don’t talk about that much nowadays, but I have always been quietly influenced, as many people have, particularly feminists, by Adrienne Rich, and her argument about the politics of location. It connects with the penumbra of discussions around the feminist re-writing of Gyorgi Lukacs, by people like Donna Haraway and Nancy Hartsock as well as the other voices involved in a conversation about “standpoint epistemology”.

For me, Black Atlantic was about trying to find some intermediate way of connecting places via water and transforming the understanding of culture accordingly, but at the same time having to acknowledge that translation, transmission and transformation were part of a systematic making of politics that couldn’t be flattened out too much.

Obviously language plays a part. I was looking at certain elements of European political culture connected to the history of slavery. So someone like Richard Wright, whose work was located at the meeting ground of Anglophone and Francophone politics, was a useful way of thinking about this. Du Bois’ relation with German thinkers could provide a second example.

However, Black Atlantic emerged from a firmly pre-internet way of approaching cultural flows and influences. The problem now is one of time — simultaneity — and the bad political habits that arise from the seductions of the immediacy that computer-mediated political communication affords you.

The appeal of generic identities is enhanced by those mediations. It’s easy to imagine, wrongly, that we all share a common location. So, for many of the young people at the college where I work, Beyoncé’s spectacular performance at the Superbowl provided a more vivid experience of black politics than a lot of the events that are evolving outside the windows of our institution. I was very struck how, in the aftermath of that moment (whatever one thinks of it) that young activists on Twitter said things like: “These photographs of our demonstration I’ve just uploaded remind me of Beyoncé at the Superbowl!” Obviously, the godlike image of a “black Bill Gates” is a very potent one at the moment.

Things become really scrambled in that virtual world, and certain illusions about the difference between a movement and a network are easy to hold onto. I think that is a significant loss. The pace of all this and the deadly pressure on language that results have to be taken into account.

I am not saying that Instagram and Black Twitter for example, aren’t important. They are extremely important, but not in terms of the investment they make in language. There are Haiku twitterers, I suppose, though not in a large number.

For me the pressure on language is a big part of the political signature of this time. By sharing a vocabulary and rehearsing it as if it can subordinate an unruly world, people do feel an immediacy that cuts into their loneliness, their isolation.

That shared poetics helps them to constitute a virtual community which may be widely dispersed — inside and beyond the citadels of over-development. There is an almost theological aspect to it too. It is almost a sacred phenomenon because there are doxa, iterations, responses, and if you are lucky, probably a bit of transubstantiation will happen!

I’m really aware of the impact of this on imaginative thinking. They don’t talk about racism any more, they talk about anti-Blackness, the ‘black body’, and they borrow a bit from Dorothy Roberts or from Lewis Gordon. It contributes to the pot-pourri of new age confectionary.

RB: Todd Gitlin contrasts the outrage felt by students of colour on campus in the States and the feelings of discomfort they have there for good reason, with the predicament of the black poor being killed by the police in American cities, which led to rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. He would want the one instance not to be “flattened out” by equation with the other. Would that be a fair use of your term?

PG: I don’t think of Todd Gitlin as an antiracist activist. Without that kind of serious commitment, one has to be hesitant about the authority that is inevitably bound up in that kind of diagnosis.

But it’s a good example to think through. When Princeton professor Imani Perry got picked up by the police for her parking tickets and they handcuffed her, this became a powerful example of how these things can meet. Of course, one has sympathy with her situation, but the position of black middle class in the USA is not consistently and automatically interchangeable with the intractable predicament of the black poor.

Of course, there is a way of thinking about racial identity which makes African Americans in this sort of instance absolutely interchangeable with one another. Hierarchy and contempt are institutionalised and the result is violence. But everyone is not vulnerable to the same degree all the time.

The Ground Zero of this approach used to be the idea that black americans couldn’t catch a taxicab. I always thought that was a bit ridiculous. But it is interesting how it was staged by different writers, different thinkers, until the fact that you couldn’t catch a taxi because people drove past became a core manifestation of structural racism.

One night years ago, I was going to a big meeting in Harlem with various black political luminaries. We were downtown and all the taxis were driving past us. So the least “visibly black” among us stood at the kerb while the rest of us hid behind the parked cars. When a taxi slowed and stopped, we jumped out merrily and got in. It was a black taxi driver. He said, “You’ve got me. I don’t want to go to Harlem, but I’ll take you up there because you tricked me!” The structures are complex. There were black cops involved in killing some of those black people and in covering up the crimes. The world doesn’t conform to our Manichaean fantasies.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. Vulnerability to the arbitrary violence of trigger-happy police is a real risk and a grasp of that vulnerability is a far better staging of the tense moment when racism enters than the old kerbside tableau. But . . . I don’t think that all people of colour are always equally at risk from the historic forms of violence associated with a deeply and brutally segregated society. To simplify things that much is unhelpful. Hackney is not Brooklyn. London is not New York. New York is not Chicago, St. Louis or Birmingham, Alabama. We need a really good new map of the political geography involved.

RB: You make the point that these are élite universities we are talking about in the States and in Britain.

PG: Yes, élite universities which have all followed a certain strategy with regard to diversity management. Diversity management means, for example, that the main burden of offering your diverse student body a sense of safety and security and recognition of your worth and cultural value is not actually a result of the curriculum or as a result of teaching. Academic issues are in some ways secondary. Meeting the needs of the black and brown students is really something that happens in the pastoral environment. In the case of Yale — the case I know best — it was managed outside of the residential requirements of the student body. The great US pentagram of racial identity: black, white, native American, Asian, Hispanic was reproduced in the institutional form of cultural houses provided for the support, nurturance and care of under-represented minorities.

In those spaces, appropriate events would be put on and bonding and connection could be established between the different yearly intakes of students. They would revel in that supportive commonality. So for example, when the students graduated, alongside the official graduation ceremony there would be another, second graduation for people of colour and their families. I don’t know if this practice continues, but I discovered it because a student I had been teaching invited me and said “I know you aren’t keen on identity-talk, but you were my teacher and I’d like to honour you. Will you please just come and take part and receive my symbolic gift of Kente cloth.” I was touched by his request and said, “of course I’ll do that”. I sat there for hours while various people received their Kente cloth from the appreciative graduating students. The audience burst into tears and clapped with pride. They sang the African American national anthem, ‘Lift every voice and sing’, which is quite a challenge if you don’t know the meandering tune. As the happy spectacle unfolded, these young people’s fantastic achievements would be announced and lauded. Some would be heading off to do law at Harvard or Genomics in Stanford, going off to medical school etc.

All of this was rapturously received as it should be. But as it unfolded, I began to realise that I didn’t know many of the people we were cheering. I was Chair of African American Studies. Few of these high achievers had come anywhere near our department. Almost none of them, I began to realise, would dare to sully their precious transcript with the idea that they had actually taken a class in our academic area.

I suspect that Jim Sleeper is probably onto something in the way he sets the discussion up about safe spaces, by looking at the institutional dynamics. Robin Kelley has also made a point about the limitations of approaching the university as a dwelling or home. African American studies, Native American studies, ethnicity, race and immigration, these are all routinely departmentalised in the élite universities. However, the registration for those classes is not something that “minorities” want to do — I haven’t seen the figures for a few years, so I don’t know for sure. But my hunch is that among that élite, the way that they connect with these issues is not through their actual education at all. There are always a few exceptions, but the vast majority look at African American Studies the way those people who will evaluate them look at African American Studies — as a luxury item at best, and as a distraction and a fraud at worst. That was a shock actually — a bit of a discovery to realise that this emergent black elite, (of which President Obama is the supreme representative) had such a distance from those critical forms of knowledge.

RB: I missed that point. I thought that Jim was saying that these students were trying to set up ‘culturally-based’ sorority houses as ‘safe spaces’ in reaction to their feelings of neglect by the mainstream.

PG: Outside the élite places, they are doing that. But what I’m saying is that in the US, the elite universities accepted and endorsed those very expectations as a means to keep their minority students comfortable if not content.

As things unfold, I’m sure some good things will have come out of all the anger at Yale. It was shocking to listen to friends who have taught there a long time saying, ‘My years of humiliation at the hands of the university have finally found a voice..’. It had obviously touched something in them, and while I don’t believe you can resolve all the questions being raised by this movement through the appointment of a more diverse faculty who are expected to mirror the experiences of the student body, I think there have been real injuries.

I recall a kind of quiet racism in the meetings of the Yale Professoriat where nobody would speak to me and many looked at me — even in my best suit — as if I had come in there on the bottom of somebody’s shoe. So I know that injury can build up over time and people get understandably bitter about it. Of course, these are not only US problems. In many ways, my own experience in UK universities was worse. But they are still nominally public bodies and the impact of diversity management is obviously very different here in the UK.

RB: Diversifying faculty properly — whatever that would mean — doesn’t really get us very far away from the in loco parentis problem does it? — the infantilising nature of these protests, which always seem to be appealing to a Mum or Dad who is behaving badly and from whom one wishes for more attention.

What about a recognition of the power relations involved? Take the piece we published about what was going on at Oxford by Jörg Friedrichs and Ryan Berg. They argue that we need to adjust the forms of humiliation so that everyone can reconcile themselves to them more easily — like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. But at no stage is there a recognition that a very reprehensible form of unequal power relation underpins the whole history, and that these student protests might actually be aimed — wittingly or not — at changing those power relations.

PG: I have a “methodological” question about where we should start this part of our conversation. I don’t think there’s much to be gained (outside of Oxbridge) by yielding to an Oxford-centred discussion. That isn’t the right place to begin. Nor, actually, is the Yale campus. It seems to me, that we should also ditch the assumption that these problems can be fixed by appointing more black professors. What are those lucky appointees going to do? How are they supposed to rise differently to today’s challenges?

I have been a university teacher for more than thirty years. When I started out, working in what was considered to be a very lowly place, I discovered that it was a wonderful place, the best and most rewarding that I’ve ever taught in. Initially, the black students related to me pretty ambiguously. I think that they saw the fact that they had a black teacher as a kind of confirmation of their own secondariness. I had to work very hard to disaggregate that assumption so that we could learn together. I will always remember how upsetting that was. It was really complicated.

My value to them changed once they saw me on television or heard me on the radio.

The experience of diversity in education extends beyond a “safe space” or loco parentis thing. That only applies strongly in élite universities where students live together, bond for life and join the same secret societies and march as a single cohort into the fortified bunkers of the 1%.

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