The Equity Trainees

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Unknown designer, “Equity vs Equality” diagram, c. 2020

We started out with ten, but now are down to four. Some quit from boredom. Others because they thought the monthly equity training sessions were intended to be punitive. They’re probably right:

About a year ago, graduate students began lodging complaints about the faculty and each other to the university offices of Institutional Equity and Title IX. We only found out about them through rumor and gossip – they were covered by confidentiality rules. By my count, Midwestern University has 12 confidentiality policies, though there are likely many more. They concern medical information, counseling (academic and psychological), technology transfer, sexual misconduct, data security, animal experimentation, volunteer programs, Institutional Review Boards, discrimination and equity, intellectual property, grading, and faculty evaluation. That’s not including the non-disclosure agreements that faculty and administrators have to sign. There is even a University Policy on Confidential Policies, but nobody knows what’s in it because it’s confidential. Anyway, after we heard about the charges against us, half the faculty lodged complaints against the graduate students, leading the other half to to file charges against them. What a mess!

Then last Fall, after the national civil rights protests following the George Floyd murder, the faculty and students joined forces to press the university to take a more progressive stance toward racial justice and police reform. Our Professor of Diasporic Literature, Darrel P., wrote a stringent letter to the university president protesting racial profiling by campus police and structural racism at MU. The faculty all signed the letter, and it was published in the student newspaper. That sealed our fates. Because MU administrators value tranquility and good public relations above all else, they evidently decided a strong dose of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (E.D. & I.) training was the best remedy for us. Six monthly sessions were prescribed. We had completed five.

As the number of trainees in our seminars declined, so did our level of engagement. Conversations about “departmental culture” and “conflict resolution” were spiritless. Provocative prompts from Mira, our “equity facilitator,” about “old, white men, dominating department meetings,” brought only confused shrugs. We didn’t bother to tell her we had no old, white men in the department, except Hugo, S. our Classicist, a youthful 75 years old. Because he is on the cusp of retirement, he’s excluded from decisions on tenure and promotion, and everything else of significance.

There was also the occasional act of rebellion. Our professor of Latin American Literature, Carmen R., declined to regularly meet with her assigned “accountability partner” outside of our monthly sessions. “No offense intended,” she emailed her proposed partner (cc’d to the rest of us):

“But my dance card is full. And in case anybody is wondering, I am not, as Mira suggests, ‘disengaging from the hard and painful work of grappling with my dominance.’ I’ve never dominated anybody, though I do sometimes like to wear leather and stiletto heels.”

By the third session, most of us were boycotting the “free writing” challenge at the beginning of our meetings, as well as the “single word summary” exercise at the end. When asked why we abstained, Darrell answered: “like Bartleby the Scrivener, we prefer not to.”

My own antipathy to equity training – this was not my first experience with it — is intellectual and political. I’m put off by its crude simplification of scholarly concepts like “colonial,” “subaltern,” “other,” “colonizing,” “identity,” and “subject.” Even worse, key terms in the history of American racism and the civil right movement, like “white supremacy,” “Jim Crow,” “segregation,” “privilege,” “equality” and “equity” are turned into slogans and memes or trivialized by repetition.

Take the term “white supremacy.” It first appeared in English abolitionist circles, according to the OED, in the early 19th century to describe the sovereignty planters exercised over enslaved persons in the West Indies. A few decades later, it was in the title of racist tract, White Supremacy and Negro Subordination, or, Negroes — a Subordinate Race by J.H. van Evrie.[1] The book is a sustained affirmation of racist “polygenesis,” the idea that humans are divided into biologically distinct lineages, resulting from separate acts of biblical creation. It was also a virulent attack upon post-Civil War Reconstruction, which the author described as “reconstructing American society on a mongrel basis.”

The phrase then found its way into American abolitionist tracts, and later the writing of critics and scholars of slavery and segregation. Historians today generally agree that what was remarkable about U.S. chattel slavery and the subsequent regime of Jim Crow, and why the phrase “white supremacy” is so powerful, was its absolutism – its reliance upon a doctrine of ineradicable racial difference that structured every manner of social and economic practice, from the highest to the most mundane.

However, the white supremacy described by E. D. & I. trainers is often indistinguishable from mere prejudice or bias. It’s a “culture”, characterized by among other things, “perfectionism,” “objectivity,” “worship of the written word”, “a sense of urgency” and “individualism.” Whether or not these ideas and behaviors constitute the culture of any class, sub-class or ethnicity, they have little to do with the brutal history of exclusion, deprivation and murder that marks the two centuries-long history of white supremacy in America. And what’s true of the term “white supremacy” – that it has been robbed of its historical specificity and political saliency — is true of many of the other shibboleths of equity training.

At least that’s what I think, and what I told my department colleagues following the last training session. Our professor of African American literature, Don J. objected:

“If it’s not ‘white supremacy’ today, what do you call it when Black wealth is a fraction of white wealth, Black students are shut out of the best universities, Black people die of Covid at a rate three times higher than whites, and Black life expectancy is five years lower than white? Isn’t that racial “absolutism”?

I had no answer to his excellent points. Other faculty then joined the conversation and we agreed to continue it next week in lieu of the final equity training seminar.

The day after that discussion, our department chair, Rod W. – a specialist in Spanish literature of the Golden Age – called a meeting to address an email he just received from the Provost, whom he affectionately refers to as Torquemada. He attached the letter, which read in part:

“It has come to our attention that voluntary attendance at the required Equity Training course has in recent weeks declined. All department faculty are therefore kindly asked to attend the sixth and final session scheduled for next week. Violation of this request will have the unfortunate effect of elevating the numerous, prior faculty and student Title IX and Equity complaints to the Faculty/University Committee on Cause (FUCC) for adjudication and possible sanctions.”

We all sat in stony silence. Clearly, this was serious; we would have to attend the last training session, or we’d all be stitched up by FUCC. After a few minutes of general discussion, I raised my hand to make a “point of order.” Several of my colleagues leaned back in their chairs and closed their eyes while others looked down at their phones. I continued anyway:

“We all agree that structural racism at the university is historic and ongoing: that generation upon generation of white students at MU are granted preferential admission – so-called ‘legacy admits’; that enrollment of Black and Native American students is pathetically low; that investment of endowment funds in extractive industries – especially oil and gas — has caused colossal suffering to Black, Latinx, and Native American communities; that payment of multi-million dollar salaries to coaches and administrators is obscene when so many of the colleges that educate the poorest and most historically marginalized students are nearly broke.”

Caroline (Russian and Soviet Literature) leaned forward and opened one eye to look at me; several other colleagues looked up from their phones. I concluded:

“So, why don’t we all go to the final equity training session and tell the truth! Why don’t we openly recount the charges we have brought against each other and try to resolve them? And why don’t we also protest that the university’s focus on microaggressions and its devotion to E. D. & I as a remedy is hypocritical when the institution itself practices the grossest of macro-aggressions!”

When I was done, there was a brief silence followed by some vague nodding and shaking of heads. Rod broke the silence: “Do I hear a motion to adjourn?” “Second”? “All those in favor?” “Meeting adjourned.”

Our final equity training session began with a brief warm-up that required each of us to say what we had done over the weekend to relax. When nobody said “drink”, I despaired that my earlier plea for frankness would be ignored. But then Caroline changed the direction of the discussion. She volunteered that she had lodged a complaint against me with the Title IX office for once greeting her by kissing her on the mouth instead of both cheeks:

“Really, I kissed you on the mouth?”

“Well, close. If I hadn’t at the last moment swerved a few inches to the right.”

“How do you know I wasn’t at the last moment going to swerve to the left?”

Tovarish, don’t insult me.”

“I’m sorry I almost kissed you on the mouth. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“University policy says I can’t – to protect your privacy.”

Then Hannah, who teaches Hebrew and Arab literature, admitted to Rod that she had complained to the Office of Equity about him for two alleged violations. Rob was shocked:

“What did I do?”

“You once said in front of me that the Palestinians should have the right of return. That was anti-Semitic.”

“Ok, so that’s one violation. What was the second?”

“You said the Jews had a right to their own state. That was anti-Arab.”

“Oops, sorry about that. Why didn’t you tell me rather than take it to the equity police?”

“To ensure confidentiality, of course!”

Then it was my turn to tell Hannah that I had reported her for failing to correct a student who committed a micro-aggression against another student. She raised her eyebrows:

Then I’m not guilty. That was only a “meta micro-aggression.”

Metas count! Read the new Interim Policy on Micro-aggressions.

Oh yeah, I forgot. But how did you know what happened? Were you there?

No, I heard about it from another student.

Then you have no standing to complain. It was only a “meta-micro aggression by proxy.”

You’re right! My mistake, I’m sorry.

Why didn’t you just say something at the time? Oh, never mind!

As we continued our discussion, it became clear that everyone in the department had charged somebody in the department with at least one violation, some as many as five.

We decided to clear the deck by drafting a letter to the provost, indicating that we were withdrawing our i charges against each other. We asked for all the records to be expunged, and FUCC to be informed that the cases were now closed. And we requested a meeting with the provost to discuss admissions policy, social equity, structural racism, and white supremacy at MU.

After a few days the Provost replied:

Thank you for your letter. This is to inform you that an action has been taken, but in keeping with the University Policy on Confidential Policies, we cannot tell you what it is. However, we can inform you that we have requested the Office of Equity to arrange a suite of six, E. D. & I. sessions to be held jointly between members of your department and the Office of the Provost. Your voluntary participation is required.

Notes.

1) The doctrine of white supremacy found in van Evrie’s noxious book, and many others like it, guided the Democratic Party during the post-Civil War period, dooming Republican efforts at Reconstruction. The Republicans at that time had ardent civil rights champions like Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Rep. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania. (How times have changed!) White supremacy was enshrined in law by the Supreme Court in the notorious Dred Scott (1857) and Plessy v Fergusson (1896) decisions, affirming in the one case the property-status of black people, and in the other, de jure segregation. And it was made operational by the KKK and other terrorist groups in the early 20th Century. D.W. Griffith’s epic film, Birth of a Nation (1916, originally titled The Clansman), celebrated white supremacy, and enabled the rebirth of the Klan. Even today, there are hate groups – white nationalist and others — who openly proclaim white supremacy, deny the validity of constitutional protections, and who would if they could, establish an ethno-nationalist state with Blacks, other non-whites, and non-Christians (especially Jews) sent into exile, or subjected to imprisonment or servitude. Our last president buoyed such groups.

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), and The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) among other books. His American Fascism Now, with Sue Coe, has just been published by Rotland Press. Eisenman is also co-founder of the non-profit, Anthropocene Alliance.

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