The theater of faculty diversification

12190_racism_lowresfTo most of my academic friends who are identified as “diverse” faculty, Yale University’s recent Report on Faculty Diversity and Inclusivity in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences” sounds pretty ho-hum.

The Yale Report reviewed numerous plans for diversification, focusing on hiring and promotion data. The Committee found Yale’s many such endeavors locked a “groundhog day” scenario, a “perpetual loop: Form a committee in reaction to a crisis, pledge to diversify the faculty, and then fail to follow through with action and resources needed to sustain progress” (Beth McMurtrie, “A ‘Devastating Account’ of Diversity at Yale,” May 25 2016, The Chronicle of Higher Education). 
In other words: organize a big party around Change, and simply continue with racist practices of hiring and promotion.

Most university communities take the critical plunge when trouble is breathing down their necks. Yale is no exception.The credit for pushing Yale University authorities to critically examine its poor record of diversity must go to Yale students and their anti-racist campus protests.

The Yale Report could probably be photocopied, with some use of Wite-out, and used for most universities and colleges. Certainly most of my previous employers and workplaces could easily adapt the findings to diagnose their issues with faculty diversification. I’d recommend another set of points that could be adapted by such universities:

  • Hire diverse faculty with great fanfare
  • haze them
  • isolate them in a variety of ways (McMurtrie says: “more than half of faculty members in underrepresented groups said they often or always felt excluded from informal networks, had to work harder to be seen as legitimate scholars, and had more service responsibilities”)
  • conceal information from them about how to effectively adapt their teaching to the local student culture
  • use students for politicking against diverse faculty (take every opportunity to chat up students about how much work the new faculty member demands and their “harsh” assessment – while tenured faculty distribute A’s like M&Ms)
  • restrict diverse faculty’s academic freedom in teaching, demanding they teach particular textbooks, using old syllabi and sets of assignments (while rarely offering any support as to how this model works in practice. This includes saying, “You’re on your own. We all suffered through and figured it out, now it’s your job to figure it out.”)
  • conceal information about department funding, research support, etc.
  • stick diverse faculty with the most demanding classes, the most controversial topics, and the worst time slots
  • punish them for not getting A++ student evaluations from White students
  • when they excel in scholarship, never acknowledge their work
  • Ultimately, when diverse faculty cut and run, lament the fact that diverse faculty won’t stick around
  • and then, proceed to hire White faculty to replace them, because of better ‘fit.’ 

At the time, most of my White colleagues professed themselves nonplussed as to my experiences. But everyone is so nice! Everyone is so supportive! they said. Maybe it was my “attitude,” they said. Maybe I needed to not be so “sensitive.”Racism

McMurtrie writes: “It is striking that the vast majority of male faculty perceived lack of diversity to be ‘not at all’ a problem or an occasional problem” in culture, reputation, and capacity, the report notes.” In other words: everything is fine, except YOU PEOPLE. 

One senior White colleague, who had offered a sympathetic ear for years, ended up on my promotion committee; under pressure from her department head (as I discovered later), she teamed up with her colleagues against me, claiming informal complaints for which there was no evidence. When I demanded evidence, she said, “Well, we know you,” the “we” being a clear flag of WE – a small number of tenured, long-standing local, White Christian faculty who will always stick together.

Fortunately the Faculty Council, reviewing evidence, struck down the promotion committee’s claims, though this did nothing to improve the program climate.

Even administrative staff are steeped in department politics. At another small regional university, the White department secretary seethed for months against me until one day she suddenly exploded with a foaming-at-the-mouth rant: “Why don’t you go back to Pakistan? Nobody likes you here.” (After a formal complaint, she received an official letter reprimanding her. But she is now a senior admin staff member at a University of Illinois department.)

At my tenure-track employment, graduate students entered my classes steeped in program politics. Students of color who had taken my classes before approached the administration, pleading with them to leave me alone, describing the quality of my teaching, amazed at the unprovoked disruptive rudeness of some White students in my class.

UntitledEventually I gave up, since I was unable to breathe in the toxic school climate. I took the first offer I got – from a fiscally unsound institution – simply in order to escape the dysfunctional climate. The program hired a White male to replace me.

Unhealthy and racist academic climates can always come up with a rationale about why diverse faculty do not join, do not get tenure, and do not remain long term. At the university I described earlier, the Women’s Studies director told me that they had a serious problem retaining Black faculty to teach African-American Literature. As she put it, the university “trotted out White lesbians” like herself to establish their diversity credentials, since it was such a “bloody racist” environment that they could not retain Black faculty.

This is why this post is titled “The theater of faculty diversification.” Theater is busy work. It looks good. It is a lot of talk, a lot of lip-service. Hire a woman of color whose research focuses on underrepresented communities, and then put her through the wringer. Not only do you get points for hiring her, but you get rid of her long-term. And bonus points for putting a black mark on her long-term career by marking her as a “bad fit,” a turnover risk.

It took me many years to gain the ability to actually speak about these experiences publicly. Early on, I was socialized – by senior colleagues – into the art of sucking it up and never complaining. Because, I was told, if you complain, you are marked as a complainer, a whiner, a poor fit. In at least two litigation-worthy employment experiences, I was persuaded not to pursue litigation. Why? Because who wants to hire someone who sued their former employer?

So you continue as a Tribute, hoping that the Capitol will accept your service, that you will be that one Tribute you will not lose everything to the pursuit of a successful career.

Community activism: The endless tussle between criticality and canon

Dear community public opinion leaders, organizers, creators of public space, academics, scholarly king-makers:

If you always feature the same voices & faces, you’ve got a problem.

To challenge an elite inner circle … you’ve created an elite inner circle.

And critical spaces cannot survive & flourish this way.

The dais where the same bodies occupy center stage over and over; when the same – or the same kind of faces – reappear: it isn’t a happening place.

It’s a closed system, endlessly recycling the same resources.

It’s a choir, attending to a choir. Applauding a choir. Applauding each other.

When you never listen to invisible workers, and you never stop listening to celebrity heroes and heroines, dynamic critical thought is dead.

And when celebrity hero worship is the main event of every main event, well, congratulations: another canon is mummified & put on display.

The original turd

There are days when you think you’re going to relax. You’re going to breathe anxiety and pain away.

And then a host of new anxieties and heartache and alonenesses (yes, I’ve decided it’s a word) come and settle all over you like locusts. Until you don’t really know what to breathe away and what to rest off. Perhaps this is new cloud of locusts is a mercy. Now you have so much OTHER shit to wade through that the original turd is lost in the larger, smellier pile. So thank goodness for enormous piles of shit that bury you so effectively you can’t even breathe good enough to think of pain and mortality.

So …. What’s YOUR original turd and your heaping pile?

Khwaja Haider Ali Aatish and the futility of translation

haidar-ali-aatishKhwaja Haider Ali Aatish (1764-1846) of Lucknow is one of the most famed Urdu poets of his time. A man of independence who steered clear of state patronage, he wrote in the ghazal (غزل) genre, avoiding over-elaborate linguistic exercises and writing mostly of love and mysticism.

I struggle to find Urdu poetry that is not transliterated into English. I understand the need, but as someone who grew up functioning in Urdu (and English), I read Urdu best in the Urdu Shahmukhi script. Here, for your reading pleasure, is a famous ghazal from Aatish, rendered (via google input tools, which doesn’t render the ‘hamzah’ properly, despite my attempts) in Urdu and with its English translation. I’ve done my best to do an idiomatic translation; feel free to offer feedback and corrections. I also had to keep stopping myself from slipping into “He” and “Him,” where the Urdu original offers no clue to gender, whether for the Lover or the Beloved in تو (you) and وہ (he/she/it).

Unfortunately, this exercise in translation feels less like a linguistic or literary exercise than a frustrating, rather pointless cultural one. How to translate the loving, voluntary self-surrender (the سپردگی) of “سر تسلیم خم ہے جو مزاج یار میں آے ” without it becoming a humiliating, groveling self-debasement of an abused individual lacking in self-esteem? How to bring the Unity of me-and-Thou into the binary thought of modern English? How to translate into English the agitation of overwhelming devotional Love that cares not for Retribution? How to translate the mystical and literary trope of the Beloved’s “eyebrow” into English? This I cannot do. You are immersed in it, or you are not. You don’t get it in a translation.

As I’ve said before at this blog (I can’t recall which post, help me out here), I do believe people feel emotions in fundamentally different ways. I do believe language is not ultimately translatable, and I don’t believe language is transferable intact from one cultural setting to the other. Literature, when read in translation, is something different from its origins. When I visit Lahore, I find some college students educated in private schools struggle to read Urdu in Shahmukhi, and transliterate words into English. Perhaps English is the mushroom cloud that reduces all languages under it to shriveled skeletons. We can speak Urdu in bursts only, punctuated by the endless onslaught of English words or Anglicized Urdu. Perhaps, in many ways, it is culturally an inevitable shift where Urdu becomes something else entirely, something that Aatish would not recognize.

Perhaps this is an argument for the preservation of languages, so that – for example – Pakistani youth have the freedom, the option, to grow up thinking and feeling in English. Is this possible today? To what extent? I don’t know. As with diversity cultures – where Whiteness functions as the setting, the background, and the foreground, where samosas and pagodas and manga decorate and enhance Whiteness for better marketability – globalized cultures are inherently a death knell for local cultures and languages. Perhaps private spaces, protected – nay, even insulated – from the onslaught of English and Whiteness are the only hope for such cultures and languages. Maybe they must fade and reborn. What do I know.

I don’t know. @HumzaYousaf just took his oath in the Scottish parliament in Urdu. I believe it works, despite the insertion of the English “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth” (how about ملکہ عالیہ الزبتھ  maybe?) Anyway, here is Aatish, his words alive to me at least, almost 180 years since he wrote this ghazal, at a very different time, when Humza Yousaf’s ancestors and mine were watching in bewilderment as the East India Company drove its tentacles into India.

Enjoy. Or try to.

عدم سے جانب ہستی تلاش یار میں آے
کھلی آنکھیں تو دیکھا، وادی پرخار میں آے

یقیں ہے کچھ نہ کچھ رحمت مزاج یار میں آے
ادب سے ہاتھ باندھے ہم تیرے دربار میں آے

اگر بخشے زہے رحمت ، نہ بخشے تو شکایت کیا
سر تسلیم خم ہے جو مزاج یار میں آے

نہ پوچھو اہل محشر ہم سے دیوانہ کی بیتابی
یہاں مجمع سنا، یاں بھی تلاش یار میں آے

عدم کے جانے والو بزم جاناں تک اگر پہنچو
ہمیں بھی یاد رکھنا ذکر جو دربار میں آے

نہ مانگو بوسہ اے آتش بگاڑے منہ وہ بیٹھے ہیں
قیامت ہے اگر بل ابروے خمدار میں آے

From nothingness, we came into existence, in search of the Beloved.
But when we opened our eyes, we found ourselves in a valley of thorns.

Surely the Beloved will tend toward mercy;
We enter Your audience, hands folded in reverence.

If the Beloved should pardon me, how fortunate I am! If not, I have no complaints.
My head inclines in acceptance and submission, whatever the Beloved wishes with me.

O you gathered for Judgement Day, ask not of the impatient Lover’s madness.
He heard people gathering, and here too he rushes in search of the Beloved.

O you departing for the other world, if you should reach the Beloved’s assembly,
don’t forget me, if I happen to be mentioned in the Beloved’s presence.

Don’t beg for a kiss, O Aatish, for the Beloved frowns in anger.
If the Beloved’s crescent eyebrows should crease, it is as Doomsday has arrived.

Gender and religion. Sigh.

Today we discussed Dr. Amina Wadud’s work. It always blows my mind how otherwise critical, reflective, meta-aware, culturally ecumenical religious folks dig their in heels & resort to hadith-hurling to shut down conversations – when it comes to .

For instance, the discussion about Amina Wadud keeps returning to her female body in a state of prayer leadership, as well as the gendered bodies in the congregation. I remember a woman exclaiming: “Why is she there in front of men raising her bottom?” In one fell swoop, Wadud’s extensive scholarship is forgotten. She becomes just a woman with a bottom. This problem is not exclusive to Amina Wadud. Her reminders – that women are not just biology -are poignantly valuable when it comes to the reception of her own work.

One should ask oneself:

Is my position on gender markedly different from (& far more strict, inflexible and conservative than) my religious reflections in other areas? Do I tend to be more innovative, creative, and flexible in other areas? Do I enter a state of anxiety when it comes to the development of religious law around issues of gender? Am I anxious that any change (or diversity) in how my co-religionists approach gender will result in a total loss of identity, a complete rupture with the past, utter chaos? Because modernity and postmodernity are already here, and gender is not the only area they impact.

Modernity renders religious folks a bit anxious. And gender is the greatest stumbling block for such anxious types.

I often hear, “But we are in state of crisis! Why raise other fitnahs! Why bring up new questions that shake our certainty?” Dude, I ask: is there ever a CONVENIENT time to interrogate ? And as for certainty, uniformity, homogeneity, lack of diversity: what are you talking about? Why must gender be the one area you lack questions, diversity, complexity? Why must singular textual references shut down all discussion when it comes to gender, alone?

My daughter is not habituated to segregated and unequal spaces. She believes she can do anything she wants. She does not understand why women must always listen to khutbahs delivered by men. She does not understand why her body is the one that must be restricted and obsessively covered.

Our children will not be satisfied by our responses about “fitnah” and “crisis”. When they are told our religion is about equality and justice, they will ask, “Great. Where is all this equality though?” And then they are told men and women are equal in theory, they are equal in the possibility of salvation: that equality applies to their lives after death, not to these lives on earth.

In this life, my daughter cannot lead the prayer, cannot speak at the Friday sermon, and is told, in fact – as I was reminded today, and as is popularly believed: Don’t prevent women from attending the mosque, but it is better for them to pray at home. I will not get into the context and asnad of that hadith report, but I will say this: in the way men wield the hadith, ultimately it does call for blocking women from the mosque. The theoretical freedom to attend mosques is negated by a moral exhortation to stay away from mosques. Theoretical physical freedom is negated by a moral restriction.

In this version of theology, a woman’s body and voice are rendered invisible. Forget prayer leadership: she cannot even step out of doors without hemorrhaging piety. Theoretical equality, theoretical justice, theoretical pluralism. Show me the money, I say. Show me the justice and equality here, now. Would you accept a theoretical equality that says, I accept the equality of your soul with mine, but I do not accept you have the right to occupy public space as I do? I accept you are equal to me in who you are, but you do not have the right to equal voice in prayer spaces?

Must classical era interpretations of mobility and physicality apply to us today? The warriors of the field of ijtihad range far and wide, but when it comes to gender, they double down, they stamp their feet, and say, “What ijtihad? Remember that one hadith reported from the 7th century in tribal Arabia?”

My mind is a heart

There’s a diagnosis for that thing where your brain is just a big overstuffed heart and it won’t work like a brain anymore, right?

Because I’ve got that. I put in my requests for information processing. Instead of working like a computer, my mind is a paper shredder. Everything comes out scrambled, in long thin bits. It all looks sort of recognizable, but it isn’t.

0420_WorkSo I sit on the couch and wait. Netflix runs in the background. I can think even less than before. I think, I really need to get back on that book review. What will the editor think of me?

Then a student emails to say, hey, you didn’t post the assignment. I check. I did post the assignment. My mind is derailed from its original pursuits again. Except this time, it is reassuring. Even in this state, I am in better shape than some. Phew. Everything’s relative.

I recall, those original pursuits I had from the day before mean I have Tasks to do. People to call. State offices to contact, and then to be sent off on a loop. I am sitting on a couch when Tasks need to be done.

Then someone reaches out to me, and without warning, I feel my cheeks wet. I can’t really think about being sad or upset. I just know that the clouds are congested, and the air is humid with unresolved issues. I’
m worried that if I keep doing this, and this ERROR message keeps appearing, I will lose those people. They will stop reaching out because, let’s face it, all of us have struggles and tasks, long lists of tasks. Is there a person out there whose job it is to shepherd those of us staggering out of life with no purpose and with congested hearts instead of minds.

Marginalized people need to support each other

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One of the effects of internalized racism is that marginalized people sometimes avoid the marginalized members of their own communities. “If I avoid my people and their subordination, maybe the dominant cultural powers will raise me up, and will become the Chosen One – the single token minority person who achieves success.” I say Chosen One because we’re afraid that the hegemon selects only some of our people as representatives: the idea is that marginalized communities – supposedly as monoliths – require only a small number of Representatives. They are all alike. They all look alike. They could all stand in place of each other, right? These communities are assumed to be not complex enough to require diverse representation: this is the root of the problem.

This is to be seen in many areas – how minority people patronize businesses, what their cultural consumption practices are, what they read, and – in the case of academics, scholars, and activists – whom they cite.

I have observed with sorrow and disappointment that even Muslim American scholars have a tendency to cite and support their claims relying primarily on White, non-Muslim scholars and cultural workers. Even in egregious cases, where their work intersects with the work of fellow-Muslims and non-Whites, they sometimes take great pains to avoid reliance on these community members. I will call such people DTPs (Dissers of Their People). There is apparently a feeling among DTPs that to cite and acknowledge their people somehow reduces them, and somehow deprives them of credibility. The manifestation of such internalized racism and internalized Islamophobia is often a source of sadness for me, and I have been wrestling with it for some years now. I want my Muslim American DTP colleagues (especially those who are critical scholars) to realize that by avoiding and dissing their fellow Muslim American colleagues they damage the cause of community uplift to which they claim to subscribe.

Such is the terror of being called “ghettoized” or “balkanized”, such is the desire to be embraced as the almost-White de-raced liberal subject, that minority persons frequently – without even realizing it – avoid standing too close to their people.

In the individualistic climate of tokenistic diversity and this economic recession, by elbowing aside their Muslim colleagues, DTPs may indeed nab that one award, that one job, that one speaking engagement, that one grant available to a Muslim. But when they are being elbowed aside by other minoritized persons, it’s going to hurt.

As with unions, ultimately, we all benefit from standing together and not selling each other out for a piece of the pie. We all benefit from demanding a different pie. A bigger pie that everyone can share.