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The Emperor’s New Clothes: Exposure and Vulnerability in Academe

Published on October 11, 2012, in Fall 2012.

SADIE DONOVAN  load pdf

As a white, female, aspiring anti-racist researcher and scholar, issues of power and whiteness are never resolved. I must continually disrupt and be disrupted by the source of my social capital, never finding comfort in the assumption that ‘I’ know what it means to be a critical white anti-racist scholar. This realization has not been an easy one to come by. In the past, I had trusted my ability to think critically about my own privilege, and that trust betrayed me (Thompson 2003). The heightened awareness of my own ignore-ance came from a reading of Thompson’s (2003) ‘Tiffany, Friend of People of Color’, where she cautions against the dangers of white investments in anti-racism¹. For me, that was a critical uncomfortable, disruptive moment whereby I realized the dangers of my previously felt confidence. This paper, then, is a product of the renewed disruption caused by Thompson’s article. In it, I attempt to work through the paralysis I initially felt in my first reading by examining the continued issues of power that are embedded in white anti-racist scholarship and how we may work through them, in spite of their continued existence.

To begin to dismantle these issues, I revisit Thompson’s article in greater detail, elaborating on the points that caused me to become disrupted. I then utilize literary symbols from the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes,’ as a way to aid us in an examination of our white privilege. Through the medium of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, I attempt to critique how white power within academia is maintained. From there, I argue that we must expose regardless, in order to work towards social justice. Once we, that is, white, anti-racist scholars, are disrupted, it is essential that we continue to stay within the disruption, and to accept being naked and vulnerable as part of our growth as progressive individuals.However, we must first turn to the source of my disruption. The next section introduces the reader toThompson to uncover what prompted my strong reactions in the first place.

 

Tiffany, Friend of People of Color’: An Investigation into Thompson’s Pinnacle Work

As mentioned in the introduction, the article that primarily caused such intense disruption for me was Thompson’s (2003) ‘Tiffany, Friend of People of Color: White Investments in Antiracism’. In this paper, Thompson examines the different ways in which ‘antiracist whites’ position themselves within the discourses as ‘good’, thereby keeping our authority and whiteness at the center of antiracist studies. According to Thompson, “The desire to be and to be known as a good white person stems from the recognition that our whiteness is problematic, a recognition that we try to escape by being demonstrably different from other, racist whites” (p.9). As a result, white faculty and advanced white graduate students self-aggrandize and self-congratulate themselves on their anti-racist credentials, believing that ‘we know better’. The problem with this outlook, says Thompson, is that it conceals “white academics’ desire for unproblematic solidarity with people of color – people with other kinds of anti-racist commitments” (p.10). Instead, ‘academic business as usual’ carries forth, as white academics ‘mine’ the work of scholars of color to appropriate those ideas which will bolster our own, simultaneously bestowing upon us the credit for the work in addition to the superficial appearance of solidarity that we have made with minoritized scholars. In essence, “whiteness theory nevertheless seems to be ‘ours.’ The very acknowledgement of our racism and privilege can be turned to our advantage” (p.12). According to Thompson, this model is based on helping individuals to “feel good about being white in nonracist ways” (p.15). As a result, white identity theories keep whiteness at the center of antiracism. “White guilt is too paralyzing to be productive, white identity theorists argue. Since whites cannot help being white, they need to find good ways to be white” (ibid.). Thompson argues that in order to effectively pursue social justice, whiteness must be decentered. The maintenance of whiteness at the center of anti-racist research problematizes the way that we as white academics engage with nonwhite others: “We may listen, but how do we listen? What are we listening for when we attend to the situations and experiences of those who are not white?” (p.17).

As per Thompson’s intentions, this article left me jarred, uncomfortable, and self-conscious about my situatedness in anti-racist studies. As the target audience, I identified with a lot of the ‘retreats’ that Thompson discussed. I had grown confident and comfortable in my position as a developing white anti-racist scholar. I was convinced that I knew all of the pitfalls and how to avoid them. Thompson’s article startled me awake and renewed my insecurities. What disrupted me the most from this reading was the discomforting realization that our power as white scholars was inevitable. No matter how much we as progressive white scholars resist against it, the palpability and influence of our own whiteness is very real. Even after continued re-readings, I struggled with how to prevent this realization from inhibiting me in moving forward. Interestingly enough, I found solace in an unlikely source; Hans Christen Andersen’s fairytale, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’.

The following sections apply the symbolism of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ to our struggles with power as progressive, white academics. Robbins (2003) interestingly notes that the tale remains essentially unexamined by scholars, despite its applicability to current post-modern quarrels over the nature of truth, speech, nakedness, and disclosure. What I find useful about the text is its potency in undressing crises of power in a productive, non-paralyzing way. This lesson, as well as others to be discussed in the following sections, is useful for anti-racist scholars working to come to terms with their own whiteness.

 

Fitness for Office” – An Examination of White Privilege

Robbins (2003) argues that the central ruse of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ is based upon the notion of ‘fitness for office’ (p.661). In the story, swindling weavers exploit the vanity and administrative insecurity of both the Emperor and his court by suggesting that those who cannot see the cloth that they are weaving are ‘simpletons’ and are unfit for their positions. Ironically, the Emperor sees this as an opportunity to distinguish between the competent and incompetent of his court, exclaiming “If I wore something like that, I would be able to tell which men were unfit for their posts, and I would also be able to distinguish the smart ones from the stupid ones.”² The tale continues with the Emperor sending his most respected ministers to inspect the cloth and to report on its progress. However, the Ministers are unable to see any cloth and fear the implications that this might have on the security of their positions. Not wanting to appear unfit for office, the Ministers each report to the Emperor that the cloth is magnificent, not letting on that they cannot see anything at all. The Emperor, after hearing such glorious reviews of the cloth, wants to see the weaving for himself. However, upon visiting the swindling weavers, the Emperor realizes that he cannot see anything either: “‘What on earth!’ Thought the Emperor. ‘I can’t see a thing! This is appalling! Am I stupid? Am I unfit to be Emperor? This is the most horrible thing that I can imagine happening to me!’” Nevertheless, the Emperor gives his approval on the cloth, not wanting, like his Ministers, to appear unfit for his post. The Ministers, who had accompanied the Emperor, again give glowing reviews:

They all said exactly what the Emperor had said: ‘Oh, it’s very beautiful!’ They advised [the Emperor] to wear his splendid cloths for the first time in the grand parade that was about to take place. ‘It’s magnifique!’ ‘Exquisite!’ ‘Superb!’… Everyone was really pleased with the weaving. The Emperor knighted each of the two swindlers and gave them medals… along with the title Imperial Weaver.

For white anti-racist educators, the story of the Emperor provides insight into how our own investments in our positions as ‘good white people’ and experts on whiteness and racism can get us into trouble. Thompson (2003) cautions that, “As teachers and students, we are seduced by our certainty in our own abilities to think critically and to get it right… We trust profoundly in our ability to think critically and responsibly about things, and it is this very trust that betrays us” (p.19). Part of this certainty, I would argue, stems from our underlying insecurities about being ‘fit’ for our academic ‘offices’, and by extension, our authority as ‘experts’ on anti-racist issues.

As ‘emperors’ of academe, we have our ‘court’ of academic peers to support and bolster our self-congratulatory assumptions that we ‘know’ what it means to be a good white person. However, on an individual basis, we also recognize that our whiteness is problematic. This individual recognition leads to an underlying insecurity about whether or not we are ‘fit for our offices’ as anti-racist authorities. At the same time, we enjoy the benefits that our power as authorities accords us over the rest of the scholarly world. As a result, we are reluctant to admit that we ‘see’ this discrepancy, as we fear what the implications of such an acknowledgement might be. We remain ‘cloistered in our closets’, warm and secure in the shrouds of our own privilege because ultimately, we enjoy it (Robbins 2003 p. 662).

In this instance, the warning that we must heed as progressive white anti-racist academics is that social discretion can engender solidarity. If we cloister around other academics worried about the maintenance of their power in their field, the milieu can become one where the underlying social conventions that support us go unquestioned. We remain so fixated on appearing qualified for our position as academic authorities that we overlook and fail to trouble the obvious; the complexities and contradictions inherent in our white privilege. In the next section, I argue for the necessity for exposing and problematizing our identities despite the initial, potentially disabling, realization that our power still remains intact.

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¹ I borrow the play on ‘ignore-ance’ from Ellsworth (1997, p.259). I like the term because it holds us accountable for what we do not know, or choose not to know. Hence, the emphasis on ‘ignore’.

² All excerpts of Andersen’s story are taken from M. Tatar, (Ed.), (2008) The Annotated Hans Christen Andersen, New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

 

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