Separate but Equal at the MLA?

The Modern Language Association planned separate panels for scholars of color and their white colleagues.

March 4, 2020
 

The Modern Language Association clarified Tuesday that a pair of 2021 meeting panels “designated” for people of color and white people, respectively, are open to everyone.

“We shouldn't have used the word ‘designated’ and we'll revise the wording” of the calls for papers, said Paula Krebs, the MLA’s executive director. “All sessions at the convention are open to all members, of course.”

The roundtables in question, planned for next January, are both on decentering whiteness in academe. Whiteness studies examines topics such as structural racism and the white supremacist underpinnings of society.

“This session will acknowledge the role of and consider strategies and tactics to decenter whiteness and white supremacy in the university,” reads one of the MLA’s calls for papers. “This space is designated for scholars of color to speak with each other.”

The second session’s call says essentially the same but notes, “This space is designated for white scholars to do the work of decentering whiteness.”

The new session descriptions will say they aim "to bring together scholars of color to acknowledge the role of and consider strategies and tactics to decenter whiteness and white supremacy in the university," and "to bring together white scholars" to do the same.

Krebs said she hadn’t heard direct criticism of the panels. But they did attract the attention of some association members.

Peter Herman, professor of literature at San Diego State University, called the sessions as first proposed “racial segregation. It’s restricting the panel to one ethnic group. I thought we were all against that.”

Herman said he’d been a member for MLA for 30 years and had “never seen anything like this before.”

Krebs explained that the association was trying to accommodate members who have expressed “how important it is for them to be able to gather together to address issues they might be confronting as scholars of color specifically, and how important it is when associations like the MLA make that type of gathering possible.”

Herman said he understood that motivation but the MLA should have told members that it can't “bar people on the basis of race from attending or speaking at any session. That’s what they could have done.”

Designating space for someone or some group doesn’t mean that others will be blocked from it. But Herman said the call for papers read as a restriction on certain groups all the same.

Roopika Risam, an associate professor of education and English at Salem State University, is helping the MLA gather papers for the scholars of color panel. She said white scholars frequently “center themselves in conversations about white supremacy.” And so the roundtable is intended to “center the voices and lived experiences of scholars of color.”

What Risam described might be called "whitesplaining," similar to "mansplaining." Even well-intentioned allies are capable of it. And the work of decentering whiteness is arguably different based on who you are. The slight wording differences in the two calls for papers hint at this: scholars of color are invited to speak with each other, and white scholars are invited to "do" this work.

Some student activists have held similarly exclusive gatherings during their protests, to privilege nonwhite voices in campus cultures that historically privilege white ones. The tactic is sometimes criticized.

Other academics, including some who study whiteness, argue that what’s been called “reverse racism” isn’t a real thing, because white people still enjoy race-based privileges even if they stand individually against racism.

There is some precedent for identity-based gatherings at disciplinary meetings (including the act of meeting as a discipline). Krebs noted that the MLA dedicates certain events to department chairs, for example, but that these sessions are still open to anyone.

Groups such as the American Historical Association also offer meeting receptions for scholars who identify as LGBTQ or as minorities, among other groups. These are understood to be social events, however, and all are welcome to attend.

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