When our children were small, I always used to say, “Days are long, but time flies.” When I teach about cultural differences, we discuss how people in a new culture adjust to the schedule (when you eat, sleep, work, and play). As I think about social and political change, I watch people experiencing time in different ways. For example, since the events of Charlottesville, more white people are “woke,” but I don’t think many more white people are moving more quickly to upend racist institutions. They’re/We’re absorbing the images of what we saw and examining the undeniable and unfair realities for African American people across the United States. We do need to keep absorbing and examining, but we also need to act. Charlottesville opened Pandora’s box, and we have been stung by the moths of turmoil and death. Instead of slamming the lid shut, we can deal with the evils, make reparations, and create new signs and symbols that represent us and don’t oppress. It is time to make some progress. In the case of racial justice, and social justice more broadly writ, impatience is a virtue, or, at the very least, a necessary bedfellow of patience.
Over the past week or so the English department at my university has come under fire for making what seems to many a bold statement about the events of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia and how they are related to what we live here in Lexington. (*See this August 20, 2017, Gender Shrapnel Blog piece, “Charlottesville (and Lexington),” for more information.) Several other departments and programs are drafting statements, a challenging task for groups of people who don’t always share core values or modes of expression. Washington and Lee Rhodes Scholar Paqui Toscano (Class of 2017) had two thoughtful and beautifully-written op-eds (on disability and on Confederate legacies) published this summer in The New York Times. Some universities would feature this front and center on the website, maybe with a headline like: “Recent Grad and Rhodes Scholar featured again in The New York Times.” I understand the politics of patience in the university’s choice not to publish a piece that accelerates questioning of names and monuments. Nevertheless, I wish the choice were to share this piece–to announce and embrace that our graduates are successful critical thinkers and public intellectuals.
The backlash against the English Department statement and the hush-hush of the op-ed remind me again of what I always say about a racist or sexist status quo—that some people believe that challenging the status quo is more brutal than the racism or sexism itself. How are we so easily shocked by mild protest based in historical fact?
This week a group of people at the University of Virginia put a shroud over a statue of Thomas Jefferson. University President Teresa Sullivan expressed strong disagreement with the covering of the statue and the signs that called Jefferson a racist and rapist. She reiterated that the University has acknowledged its slave-owning past and is working towards healing the wounds of the August 11th weekend. Virginia Republican Party Chairman John Whitbeck referred to the actions (in the same piece from The Washington Post) as “vandalism.” The actions of the student protesters, as far as I can tell from the reports and photos I’ve seen, don’t seem to constitute vandalism in that the statue itself was neither destroyed nor defaced. In fact, this kind of symbolic protest (a shroud, some signs) seems about as respectful as it can be, unless we are still not supposed to acknowledge either racism or rape. The over-protection of Jefferson’s image seems to imply an under-protection of those who have suffered from his legacy.
Years ago, a colleague and friend said to me, “The best way for an administrator to slow something down is to create a committee.” With a hot-button topic, like, say, Confederate monuments and celebrated Confederate generals, or, maybe, sexual assault, a committee can be appointed to study the topic and issue a report a year or so down the line. Many constituencies are then convinced the issue is being addressed, and then high-level folks can convince big-money folks that nothing has changed, that the status quo can still be embraced, and that the coffers are still open. I believe that these committees can do good work and actually do good work, and I appreciate the generosity of time and expertise of committee members. I appreciate the generosity of time and money of philanthropists as well. But I also believe that the work of these committees should be accompanied by shorter-term actions that ask difficult questions and seek necessary change sooner. My own impatience has me ask—what are we waiting for? The time to stop celebrating structural racism and idolizing Confederate heroes is…now!
We all live and experience both ambiguity and hypocrisy. This is part of being human. When we don’t recognize these experiences, however, we diminish our ability to assess our condition and change it for the better. In my current state of hypocrisy, I occupy a newly renovated office which is quite palatial. The office is in the last building of Washington and Lee’s historic colonnade to be renovated, and this renovation was funded in large part by a billionaire who, at a Wall Street fraternity induction event several years ago, dressed in drag (a fine thing to do, generally, but in this case the action seems to mock women and of course signals the small number of women at the exclusive fraternity event) and wore a Confederate flag on his head. I don’t know this person, but I cannot condone or celebrate these actions, nor do I think they are counteracted very well by major philanthropy or good intentions in other arenas. If I were to don a Confederate flag and then go teach a class, I might expect people to condemn my action. If the individual or the University had ever explained or apologized for the message sent by this person’s actions, I wouldn’t feel as impatient as I do today. I confront this hypocrisy (criticizing the actions of the person who paid for the fancy office I inhabit) here in this blog, usually read by no more than 350 people in a week. I wish we as individuals and as parts of institutions could name the hypocrisies we live, critique them more soundly, and work to overcome them. Ardent defense of these actions has a chilling effect for those who prefer that African Americans not be threatened and women not be mocked.
My frequent use of passive voice in this post reveals some of my own cowardice. I may well be hiding behind language so as not to call people out directly or simply to protect myself. Confronting specific events and people and asking for change challenge us. While many people will read this post and find it too harsh, others will read it and find it too forgiving. Despite the different ways in which we measure time and societal change, I’m still advocating for picking up our pace. Last night I attended Dr. Wornie Reed’s excellent presentation on race, racism, and civil discourse. Reed strongly stated that racial justice must come from gathering data about the policies, practices, and procedures of our institutions, confronting the data, and recommending change based on the information. Dr. Reed specifically mentioned employment, medical care, housing, and law enforcement as institutional zones that need our attention. Although I don’t collect data for a living, I try to understand published data that inform policy decisions. As a humanist, I listen to language and observe signs and symbols in order to interpret messages and understand how, when, and why they are sent. The language, signs, and symbols are my version of data, and we need to understand them as well to make informed recommendations for change.