The Unbearable Whiteness of Being (in Comics Academia)

June 2015. The run-up to my first conference abroad as an official comics scholar — and I don’t want to go.

I’m panic-crying after reading a chain of emails which, on the face of it, have little to do with me.

Short background: we were supposed to have a panel on Charlie Hebdo. A month before the conference, it got canceled due to safety concerns from the British Council, since the conference was taking place on the premises of one of their international schools. So no panel.

Some delegates made some vague sounds of complaint about “freedom of speech.” Some even wrote an open communique expressing their disagreement with the British Council’s decision. One delegate started a conference email chain that got very ugly very fast.

Sarcastic comments about whether we should wear bulletproof vests, whether we were even allowed to say the words “Charlie Hebdo,” etc began crowding my inbox. Said delegate even shared excerpts from private correspondence between her and another scholar, who it seemed had not given her approval to share his message with the group.

I will note that the emailer had known some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who were murdered — not well, but at least on a for-research, first-name basis — and being confronted with death like that often makes us unreasonable. Still, the lack of visible intervention from the conference organizers didn’t give me much hope (although several other delegates did ask her on the group email thread to stop, and a friend and I floated the idea of a response email that consisted solely of reaction GIFs).

I emailed one of the organizers to express my misgivings about even attending the conference. Given that none of them had clearly intervened in the situation, and given the general failure to acknowledge the around-300% rise in Islamophobic and racist attacks following the controversy regarding everyone’s favorite magazine, I had doubts as to whether my views and personhood, and those of other scholars of color, would be respected and treated with equality at the conference. The response I received stated that “her point of view is only as valid as everyone else’s.” Granted, a conference organizer can’t just come out swinging against a delegate, but the noncommittal tone of the response and deferral of future responsibility on the part of the organizers also didn’t give me much hope.

To the delegate herself, though — I didn’t speak up. I was too afraid.

When I say I was afraid, I wasn’t just afraid of what would happen at the conference. I was already laboring under the ongoing fear that everything I had built up for myself in Britain could suddenly be taken away, as though it was going to be objectively decided that I didn’t deserve it. Somehow, in defiance of the depression, the anxiety, the neuroatypicality that may or may not be/have been autism (no diagnosis yet either way; updates as events warrant), not to mention an immigration system that was and is growing steadily more racist, I was living a life that I never thought I’d be able to. I was even moving towards what could be considered thriving.

I feared that anything at any point could bring it all crashing down. Every time a potential change to immigration law was announced, I felt like I was looking over my shoulder. Every racist, xenophobic attack in the press or on public social media said this country is rejecting you like a bad organ transplant, adding more shit to an already mountainous, putrid heap.

In that email to the conference organizer, I asked for respect. I asked for equality. It was the only way I could word it in language that got within a hundred yards of professionalism. What was the alternative? To ask for her to make it stop? To say I can’t do this anymore?

God, no. You can never show weakness. Any crack can be exploited to prove that not only do you not belong, but that you will never have the ability to be equal to your (white) colleagues.

Instead you panic alone, wishing that like them you had the option to completely turn your back.

The above is a personal story, but the personal never exists in a vacuum, and people of color often become painfully aware of this by the time they reach adulthood.

I could tell you about other conferences which were far less hostile, but at which I was the only visibly non-white person in attendance; or conferences where I was challenged by a white man on the racism of an Asian female character’s portrayal (“isn’t the racism…ironic?” “NO.”). I’m not going into detail on these, because there isn’t much more to tell. I was alone, physically, ideologically, painfully aware of and at the same time trying to run from my unwanted status as default representative.

These and the popularity of Charlie Hebdo among Western comics academics are symptoms of the same malaise: the predominance of a white-privileged point of view which seeks to erase ideological dissent in the name of advancing the discourse.

Implicit in this mindset is the backwardness of any fundamental opposition; people of color, especially women of color, are incapable of the levels of enlightened reasoning in which white scholars engage, so we must defer to their superior understanding of issues such as freedom of speech. Any arguments relating to our personal experience — or, to put it in more academic terms, firsthand knowledge — are dismissed as anecdotal or subjective, even if we have statistics, studies and the link to back them up. The fact that whatever personal stakes we may have in these situations are enforced by the very sociopolitical structure that such scholars perpetuate is conveniently ignored.

Thus Charlie Hebdo is a boon to white Western comics academia, because a) it can be artificially distilled down to a single human right and b) any challenges to this premise on our part prove that we primitive melanin-havers can’t understand freedom like the superior whites, so they have to keep us in line for our own good. I frequently use the publication as a sort of shorthand, since it encapsulates this mindset so neatly.

Am I oversimplifying? No more than much of the actual academic discourse surrounding the issue (and in my own defense, I know I’m oversimplifying, so that might put me a little ahead. Maybe).

But white academics do have something we don’t: the luxury of abstraction, a space where the political doesn’t automatically become personal.

But white academics do have something we don’t: the luxury of abstraction, a space where the political doesn’t automatically become personal. In this space, a magazine cover mocking a child whose life was cut short during his family’s pursuit of a safer, better life is fair game for objective dissection and, more hurtfully, for justification. How does the portrayal of a dead three-year-old as a “greedy, gluttonous child” reaching out for Happy Meal coupons or a potential rapist further the cause of freedom of speech? No, really, they’re asking because it’s a major issue for discussion in an official symposium where we’re all supposed to convince each other it’s fine.

Are you against open contempt for the life of a child of color? Are you offended? Does it wound you? Are you worried about how this will affect minority populations and communities of color in Europe and the West as a whole? Does it evoke traumatic memories for you or those close to you?

Well, fuck you.

You should have done more research. Like your superiors.

White privilege and racism are a real problem in most of Western academia, particularly in the humanities.

In the world of comics scholarship, they’re driven home with both words and pictures. We’re either invisible or subjects of derision in our research material, so why should I be surprised to see that reflected in daily life?

I continue to argue that we don’t have to make the same mistakes as the comics we read. It took me a while to figure out that some scholars don’t really see them as mistakes.

I keep coming back to Charlie Hebdo; for comics academia — and a lot of comics as a whole — it was when the lines were drawn between Us and Them. The nuance of academic discourse went out the window in favor of insisting that everyone had to choose between upholding “satire” in the name of white supremacy, or being anti-freedom and pro-murder. Scholars of color didn’t have to be humored with the pretense of respect for their views, since how could we, in our latest installment of centuries-old fear and suffering, possibly have the requisite objectivity to talk about an issue that we’d studied for ages, often out of pure necessity, because it directly affected so many of us?

(Would the #JeSuisCharlie academics be digging their heels in so much if the murders had been committed by, say, neo-Nazis? They’d probably say they would, but I have doubts.)

For a dispiriting proportion of the field, it’s always been up to white scholars to serve as the final word of authority: “take up the white scholar’s burden. It’s for you to explain why the primitives in your field aren’t entitled to their pain,” and so on. Without an excuse to openly do so, this had to be cloaked in a series of credentials so we’d buy into it.

Since January 2015, however, the veneer has worn thin. What happened that morning was twisted into a confirmation of the old impulses to insist upon the superior capacity of our white colleagues to engage in intellectually based analysis. Our anger was dismissed with something beyond the usual disregard, something just under the surface that whispered You see? This is what happens when the brown races don’t like your comics or challenge your critique. They get hysterical. They will take your freedoms and slaughter you where you stand.

Don’t listen to them.

Don’t let them speak.

Academia is a battle for pretty much anyone. You’re continuously defending your arguments against opposition, justifying your reasoning, proving that your sources and methods are valid, and then you go to other cities and countries to do it all again.

Scholars of color have all that plus a bonus struggle. From the moment each of us becomes aware of the existence of white supremacy and its perpetual effort to oppress us mentally, physically, financially and legally, we’re fighting to stay alive. We justify ourselves to a hostile society every day. Pile the battles of academia on top of that, and it’s difficult some days just to stand.

So when we share panel space with our white colleagues at conferences, when we publish articles, deliver talks, or make any kind of academic argument for an audience, think of that extra weight. Think of what it means for us to be speaking, writing — standing before — in this kind of world.

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Kelly Kanayama

Kelly Kanayama

Staff Writer Kelly was born and raised in Honolulu but now lives in Scotland. She has has an MA with Distinction in Creative Writing, and is currently pursuing a PhD (look! There it goes!) on transatlantic narratives in contemporary comics. As a half-Japanese, half-Filipina woman, she believes that white vinegar is the answer to most of life's problems.

2 thoughts on “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being (in Comics Academia)

  1. Great piece. The je suis crowd seemed to practically revel in the tragedy because of how it served their existing narrative. I didn’t realize this extended outside of hashtag activism and into academia, nor its impact on academics of color.

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