The Work,2021-2022

It starts with a comparison to the Language of the Body, in which Kathy Acker tries to describe the missing language that dictates movement, relation, between self and body. Rather than dive into dichotomies of self and body, I want to focus on the heavy, underexamined reality of the unnamed language that exists individually within us. As Acker writes, it is not the verbalization of action that propels the body through strenuous movement, but counting, the breath, an intuitive action rather than a tethered expression of will.[1] It seems apt to say that there are languages beyond our bodies that exist, unclassified and unaddressed, that could be invoked to produce clarity-to exhibit motion. I sometimes think I am talking about magic, but that too has been named and captured. (And invalidated). I think what I am describing most accurately is potential. The instinctual turn of muscle into action.

It is language that I am rubbing against uncomfortably, finding the need to use the terms given to me already as a member of academia- plastered in emails and across websites and letters addressing the racialized murder that the population is forced to examine. Diversity. Inclusion. Racial equality. Policy. Commitment. It is the summer of 2021 and I am looking for jobs and part of my search has become reading the diversity statements, the letters addressing student bodies of hiring art departments. I could wonder about or research who wrote them but in my short experience I know it is either a group of well-meaning people/ a person with training, expertise, language, who was nominated or volunteered to take on the task. (Another loaded, political move inside the institution in any situation-but we have to move past that in this moment). Why are these statements sometimes uncredited?

Overthinking has often been an issue of mine. This is also linked to the problem I am trying to address. I overthink my place in this conversation, having been taught to [overthink] and respecting the enormity of the issue I am trying to understand/learn and critique all at the same time. It’s my knee jerk reaction to link my inability to “do the work” with lack of experience, lack of training, not yet enough guidance. Being 29 and green in my field diminishes my clout to those who have lived and studied these topics the majority of their lives. A fact I am reminded of in worst case scenarios when trying to engage with seasoned professors regarding “the issues” and being met with a type of knowledge gatekeeping/preliminary reading list that must be achieved before speaking further. This is part of a larger problem of academia, part of the framework for diversity work, that and the lack of follow through in pointed questions or requests for meetings. But, stepping back, the issue really does appear to be that any form of evaluation of the language, the tools, the policy regarding racial diversity, leads to unsolvable problems or circles of questions: Where do we start? What do we do? Is it useful? What’s the point?

In a paper published in 2007 by Sarah Ahmed, a small localized study of UK University racial equality policy writers reveals (in typed, concise, academic language) what most people already know in their hearts (but why is it so good to read it from someone else who has “done the work?”): writing policy on race is a method of “changing perception of whiteness [in a university] rather than changing the whiteness of organizations”.[2] The paper goes on further to negotiate a university’s perception of diversity as a marketable quality or human resource to the institution rather than what it is (and I should come back to fully defining diversity, but on what authority do I have to do so?).[3]

The paper touches upon topics that I am already interested in. The role of documentation as evidence against lived experience, unpacking “diversity” and the critique of language that I’m engaging in as I navigate finding that real language, or at the very least, the real action. I am already fascinated with documentation to begin with; the steady and reassuring allure of *the document* that smooths out the complexity of human experience or topic. In terms of the diversity policy document, it becomes all at once entirely consumable and yet unwanted/unnoticed by the public. Ahmed writes about the very nature of introducing, advertising and sharing this type of document as detrimental to the policy being effective with the task it is assigned or attributed to; anti-racism, racial diversity, etc.[4] Inside the language of diversity policy lies the language that has existed and thrived on the orientation of power that positions the university as “a great benefactor”.[5] The idea of the benefactor, the powerholder, the oppressor, is ever present in discussions of race and race theory (a topic I cannot claim authority over, and I find it important to stress this for reasons to be discussed) and it really is a constraining lens to operate solely from.

I am thinking of a personal story; entering graduate school ready to take on a topic that had been alluding me most of my life; evaluating my experience as an adopted person of color. My responsibility to the topic. I was in a similar situation as I am now, grasping at intuition and resources and feeling unsure of how to make this meaningful work (“do the work”!). What became reassuring in this process were the papers, the essays, the shallow dive into academic essays about immigration that were finally speaking my language; describing the gaps in my feelings regarding home, laying validation to the invisible line between me and my place of origin. Highlighting and naming my lacking. It is comforting to fall back into the arms of academia. I’m doing it now to the best of my ability at 4am 4:30am 5:18am.

But, and this is just another point that has been made by those with more credibility than me, the role and experience of a person of color goes far beyond the linear chain of oppression. Beyond the narrative of loss or lacking. I certainly feel it, but now there is something unnatural about it being my only avenue of understanding myself and the only way that diversity policy is structured. When we speak about, write about, talk about marginalized experiences the overreaching lens to view people of color is to center their existence around oppressor history. I am by no means trying to minimize or deny the effect of this history across groups of people, but rather highlight that beyond their relationship with this history, marginalized people exist beyond the understanding of themselves as *just* oppressed. So as good as it is/was to read my negative experience put into words, to find validation in academia, I now want to face it and ask what else is there? What else is missing? Rather than asking how can I find personal vindication in a predetermined language; I want to ask where does language turn to action?

Revisiting the paper by Sarah Ahmed, in note 7, Ahmed notates that a practitioner described the body of the diversity document (of the university they served) was made up of other university documents, composed to make the document more accessible. “The documents can authorize a specific institutional policy by copying other documents, creating a circular or self-referential chain of documents which point to each other.”[6] This is citation in a manner of speaking. This is validation. This is academia. But you already recognize my investment in using academic writing as a method of communication.

It reminded me heavily of A Call to Action by Elena FitzPatrick and Ananda Cohen-Aponte, in which they describe “reevaluating your citational footprint” as a method of teaching from an anti-racist perspective. The phrase they are invoking, “citational footprint”, is credited to Ella Maria Diaz as a method of “protecting the historiographical impact of Chicana, indigenous and Afro-Latina scholars.”[7] In this paper, they describe the political nature and impact of citation on who is recognized in academia. So, in essence, being aware of and citing from overlooked presences in academia ensures that the work is recognized and named.

 FitzPatrick and Cohen-Aponte also name the potentiality of non-conforming research to be rejected or whitewashed by peer review and editorial processes.[8] They also confront the whiteness (privilege) of the English language as a “steamroller” to “subaltern and marginalized schools of thought outside the Global North”, describing the power given to traditional “western” modes of communication that can exclude spoken tradition as well.[9]  What I’m confronted with again is the vicious loop of a certain type of language that pacifies those who benefit from it and gatekeeps those wishing to enter or alter conversations; the language setting has been set already. The canon, the history, the methods by which you are evaluated. The same can easily be applied to the academia fueled institutions that attempt to write diversity policy. The policies have been written not in the language of those affected by the lack of inaction in diversity work, but in the self-referential and dominantly white language.

I write in the margins of these printed articles what I think diversity (and at this point I hate this word, but I can’t describe this thought or feeling without it) action can look like in a university. The first set of things I write I label afterwards, underwhelmed, “DISCIPLINARY”. I can’t apply more force into this. Force is part of the issue I am detecting. Yet I can’t add another reading material to a list. Diversity work in this form has already been tainted, even for those who are wanting to engage, by the sheer compliance of the creation of whichever diversity document (Excel sheet) has been written.[10] Passivity is also another part of this issue. If the language of action is going to happen it has to breathe, untethered, and intuitive. It has to be a language that coexists in relation to failure, imperfection. (Thanks again, to Kathy Acker).

All of this to say is that inside of this framework, inside of this particular language, my questions are not easily answered. In looking for a word to inspire action I am staring at immovable defined presences, a feeling validated to me by academic articles on the subject and the half-hearted echo of writing these thoughts into a diversity statement inside a job application. How can I ever express what diversity documents deny? What action committees supposedly prevent? How can I stop fearing further marginalization, dismissal, frustration, by discussing these matters?

In 2020 I taught many empty zoom screens as an adjunct. We were taught to respect this boundary as part of online teaching training (but where was the “diversity” training for adjuncts during the Black Lives Matter protests? Action amidst the surface acknowledgement of the issue?). I was talking to a muted camera student about the vagueness of their paper on Black Lives Matter. As they struggled to articulate their frustration with white people (a term they avoided) in “polite” words, I understood their position immediately. I told them I would never grade them poorly or interrogate them for critiquing white culture or white people. The zoom camera flicked on mid-sentence as I empathized with their hesitation. Mutual scrutiny. Relief. Validation of the uneasy spaces that students occupy under academia, under faculty who may not be in the mood to or be able to “do the work” in these moments. Is just being present as myself in academia “doing the work”? We faced each other in recognition. How do you write about having a shared vocabulary of white appealing words in a diversity statement for a job application? Where is that present or acknowledged in the veneer of a university’s commitment to racial equality?

I recall very vividly a sense of anger and hopelessness as I’m asked to rephrase my frustration with diversity training into a calmer, more consumable manner over a desperate phone call. You can’t cry about it. You can’t yell about it. Wasn’t there anyone in my department I could talk to about this? Where was my professionalism in this critical moment? That is not the nature of this experience. This is not about lack.

I want to take the first messy breaths outward. What are the rude, unreviewed, unpolished words that can propel movement towards action? A language that breathes outside of the self-referential, that takes up arms against the whiteness of English and perfectly articulated papers. One interconnected with other dialects, cultures, methods and a stranger to the smothering of human experience. One coexisting with failure in search for some potential I know exists unnamed.

I feel it in small involuntary movements and moments.

With inhalation and exhalation.

Without force of will or incongruent language.[11][12]

[1] Kathy Acker, “Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body”, The Last Sex: Feminism and Outlaw Bodies, (Basingstoke:Macmillan, 1993), 25-26

[2]  Sarah Ahmed, “’You end up doing the document rather than doing the doing’: Diversity, race equality and the politics of documentation”, Ethnic and Racial Studies 30, no. 4, (2007):605

[3] Ibid. 596

[4] Ibid. 594

[5] Ibid. 605

[6] Ibid. 608

[7] Elena FitzPatrick Sifford and Ananda Cohen-Aponte, “A Call to Action”, Art Journal 78, no.4, (2019): 118

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. 119

[10] Sarah Ahmed, “’You end up doing the document rather than doing the doing’: Diversity, race equality and the politics of documentation”, Ethnic and Racial Studies 30, no. 4, (2007):595

[11] Many words died in the multiple edits of this document. Some of them were probably meaningful.

[12] Special thanks to Dr. Kirstin Ringelberg, who has always helped me “do the work”. Thank you for giving me the PDFs that turned into this insomniac project.