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Medieval Studies Since Charlottesville

As the field grapples with the past’s racial legacies, the rhetoric of academic freedom is being weaponized against those committed to making it more inclusive, writes Dorothy Kim.

August 30, 2018
 
 
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In August 2017, I published a guest post on In the Middle entitled “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy”: “Today, medievalists have to understand that the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists. The medieval Western European Christian past is being weaponized by white supremacist/white nationalist/KKK/Nazi extremist groups who also frequently happen to be college students.”

I wrote in direct response to the violence at Charlottesville, Va., where Heather Heyer was killed while counterprotesting. Many do not realize that my response left me similarly open to deadly violence.

Alt-right violence and rhetoric exist within medieval studies. My personal situation with Rachel Fulton Brown, a University of Chicago medieval historian, exemplifies how the alt-right manipulates the concept of free speech to operate as a dog whistle. She and I have never met or spoken in person. In January 2016, I found myself on her radar after writing a piece in response to her post “3 Cheers for White Men.” In February 2017, we were both interviewed about Milo Yiannopoulos for Pacific Standard. Otherwise, I have ignored her. She has blogged about me and talked about me in interviews since January 2016.

In September 2017, Fulton Brown responded to my “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy” with her post “How to Signal You Are Not a White Supremacist” before sharing it on Facebook and tagging Milo Yiannopoulos, whose relationship to the alt-right and their violence is well documented. A senior feminist media scholar who had written peer-reviewed articles about Milo Yiannopoulos explained to me that her post set up my picture as a “Wanted” poster using the same visual and rhetorical strategies deployed against Gamergate targets.

The next day, Yiannopoulos posted a piece on his website entitled “Lady With a Sword Beats Down Fake Scholar With Facts and Fury,” accompanied with a picture of a character from Game of Thrones holding a spiked club. The violent currency this image had was immediately apparent. In the following weeks, Fulton Brown wrote a number of blog posts about me and discussed me on several Facebook video live streams.

As my feminist technology colleagues have explained, to be a target of Milo Yiannopoulos and his followers is to be stalked forever. I could no longer ignore Rachel Fulton Brown. I received hate messages and threats against my body, as this image from a Breitbart comment thread shows.

Text of comment: Hey Dorothy Kim, why don't you and your genius feminists at Vassar make a list of all the world and life-changing inventions made by white men, and compare them to the list of those made by women. Why? Because you all know it will be an overwhelming slaughter. GFY you POS whore.Text of comment: I'd be willing to be Dorothy Kim there is Kim Jong Un in drag.Because the alt-right broadcast my office location, I had to secure my physical workspace. I had to explain the situation, request security and plan safety measures with my university administrators, campus security, family, academic collaborators and students. I had to lock down my digital presence and decide whether to do as Zoe Quinn did and file a police report. If I did, I would dox myself, and that would make my home location a public record. Or if I did not, I had to hope everything I had done would suffice to keep me and my family safe.

Updating the Medieval Studies Ethic of Care

One way to measure a field’s commitment to safeguarding BIWOC (black, indigenous, women of color) scholars is to look toward its conferences. This last year has shown that organizers of prominent Medieval studies conferences are often not prepared to keep their participants safe. At various events, Fulton Brown deployed another tactic from the alt-right playbook: intimidation at speaking events, such as the Medieval Academy of America in Atlanta in April and the International Congress for Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Mich., in May. Her actions can be interpreted as harassment and a bid to create a hostile environment for medievalists of color discussing diversity and inclusion.

At Kalamazoo, I requested security for the Whiteness in Medieval Studies 2.0 workshop that I was scheduled to lead. According to Seeta Chaganti, a professor of English at the University of California, Davis, and the session organizer, ICMS leadership cited “academic and intellectual freedom” to explain why they would not ask Rachel Fulton Brown not to attend the session. Chaganti wrote in a subsequent post how “academic freedom,” like “free speech,” has been weaponized for white supremacy.

At the Leeds International Medieval Congress in July 2018, I had also asked for security, and, following the conference’s policies, session organizers specifically banned any taping, recording or tweeting during the session. Yet references to recordings of my session appeared in Milo Yiannopoulos’s recent 13,000-word piece that defends the alt-medieval.

The same concerns about the alt-right apply to digital spaces. Recent examples include racist and transphobic online harassment; the labeling by alt-right supporters of medievalists of color as “fascists, Red Guard, Maoists”; the presence of a racist quote from Uncle Tom’s Cabin on one medieval Facebook group page; and the sharing of information among alt-right actors. The rhetoric of “academic freedom” is weaponized against those committed to an inclusive medieval studies. The alt-right makes only insincere claims to value free speech and academic freedom. Instead, those terms serve as means to engage in violence and harassment against a woman of color, undermining my ability to speak without fear.

These events demonstrate a clear pattern of reprisal. This is the alt-medieval. They use the same logics, tactics and playbook of the alt-right to fight against what they see as an encroachment on their turf, their place in the field, their expected accolades and stature. They blame medievalists of color for taking things that should have belonged to the alt-medieval instead. Medievalists of color make up less than an estimated 1 percent of the field of Medieval studies, a blip in a sea of whiteness. Yet so much backlash, aggression and violence are aimed at us because we have asked for acknowledgment and inclusion.

Looking Back/Looking Away

The Medieval Academy of America recently launched the Belle da Costa Greene fund, named for the person who became the first Pierpont Morgan Library manuscript librarian in 1904 and then its director in 1924. Da Costa Greene was African American New Yorker who passed as white from 1905 to 1948 in order to work as a medievalist. This fund endows a fellowship to support the research of medievalists of color.

At the 2018 International Congress for Medieval Studies, the fund’s organizers received an anonymous donation of $350 collected from several donors. The note that was included claimed the fund’s premise was “downright offensive” and “racist” since it sought to benefit medievalists of color specifically: “Despite admiring the work of Belle Dacosta [sic] Greene and recognizing the challenges facing scholars from nontraditional backgrounds one cannot in good conscience support the fund established in her honor. She deserves better.”

Even as da Costa Greene is, at surface, praised in the anonymous letter, she again cannot be acknowledged by a roomful of medievalists as a black woman -- raced and intersectional, who lived a life under the constant strain of being only conditionally accepted in her field. White medievalists feel they have the hegemonic privilege to decide that “she deserves better” and that continuing to erase her race -- a form of epistemic racial violence -- is the best path.

To honor da Costa Greene and do reparative justice by acknowledging her intersectional identity is a litmus test to medievalists now. It is about what the field’s future is, whether that is a fabricated white Middle Ages, or if we can finally address our medieval pasts and predecessors. Will Medieval studies only ever conditionally accept medievalists of color, requiring we erase our race, hide our backgrounds, pass as white? We are a field grappling with the past’s racial legacies. What we do now will decide the field’s future legacy.

Bio

Dorothy Kim is assistant professor of English at Brandeis University.

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