The Futility of Civility (Particularly for Women of Color)

Powerful image from the borderlands feminist blog of Risa Cantu C’DeBaca.

Powerful image from the borderlands feminist blog of Risa Cantu C’DeBaca.

September 10, 2014

A CFP that Makes You Wonder “WTF?”

That nationwide “¿Qué chingados es esto?” that you heard last week? That was hundreds of Chicana/o Studies scholars expressing communal dismay as they read the newly-issued call for papers (CFP) from NACCS, aka the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies. A CFP provides the theme for an academic conference, and scholars are encouraged to present their latest research in a way that contributes to and explores the chosen theme. Many eagerly awaited this year’s NACCS theme, as the conference will be held in San Francisco, and there are a lot of us who don’t need much of an excuse to visit that fun and beautiful city.

So why were many upset and angered by a little ol’ academic CFP? Well, the first problem was the title: “Exploring Civility within the Chicana & Chicano Studies Discipline.” This is not the typical NACCS conference theme, which usually is along the lines of community empowerment, social justice, transnational scholarship, etc. You know, the kinds of things that led us into Chicana/o Studies in the first place. “Exploring Civility” left many of us scratching our heads.

The head scratch quickly turned to feelings of full-blown asco as one read the description of this theme. It read in part:

The contours of global order are being impacted by the increase of lack of civility at a global and local scale. We are living in a society which is imploding and disintegrating into an uncivil and divisive relationship in our politics and discourse at the community, state and national level. The scarcity of civility spells disaster and stifles growth as we increasingly devolve into a total lack of empathy—a trait that makes human beings unique from animals. . . .

The term “ser educado” in Spanish means being well-behaved, cultured, refined, enlightened, polite, and developed. Unfortunately, our political leadership and public behavior promotes the opposite of civility. As a result, this country is in a deep crisis at a social and economic level that reverses democracy which only works when there is compromise and a balance of power shared by the legislative, the judicial, and the executive branches. Inability to compromise has deadlocked our political system in a way to make it impossible for passage of key pieces of legislation and disables our democratic process altogether. A study entitled Civility in America reiterates the fact “that incivility is ubiquitous; no area of American society is untouched. Eroding civility is harmful to our country’s future and takes a toll on how we interact with the people and institutions around us.” Secondly, disrespect for authority has decreased the ability of individuals to follow laws. Thirdly, an overgrown sense of self-importance and blurring between actions and consequences further inculcate lack of civility and the breakup of any social order. All these sentiments are applicable to a sense of individuality and social consciousness in Chicanos/Latinos. [emphasis added]

Read in the most charitable way, the CFP is a poorly worded attempt to draw attention to how US politicians—and xenophobic, illiterate locals—have engaged in despicable fear-mongering and spiteful, inhumane treatment of the Central American women and children who desperately have sought refuge at our southern borders in recent months. Have you seen the heartbreaking photos of the hundreds of caged children, huddled on the floor, trying to find warmth under those foil blankets? Or the wide-eyed eight-year-old boy showing his documents to a Border Patrol agent?

We should definitely keep the asylum seekers in the national spotlight and not let President Obama and the Democratic Party get away with betraying our communities on the issue of immigration yet again. Yet, as fierce feminist scholar Sandra Soto explains, in an open letter to NACCS leadership, “the CFP makes it clear that the theme is not only promoting civility, but that it is blaming human suffering, greed, union busting, and other forms of oppression on a general sense of incvility, rather than say…capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, genocide.” In other words, the issue is not that our conservative congressional representatives lack a civil tone in how they discuss immigration issues and scapegoat immigrants. Rather, the issue is that from their racist perspective, asylum seekers—innocent women and children fleeing violence that is in part a result of American dominance and foreign intervention—are not “refined” and “developed” enough to be worthy of shelter in the US.

Mal educados”: Ferguson and Salaita

So even if NACCS leadership meant well by this theme, they unfortunately went about it in an astoundingly bone-headed way that engages in the long, ugly history around the word educado: a term long used by the upper class folks of Latin America to distinguish themselves from people who are considered mal educado: badly behaved, unrefined, uneducated, impolite, less developed . . . to be, in fact, como un indio. Throughout Latin American history, to be Indian meant that you are dark-skinned, indigenous, “uncivilized,” and unfit for citizenship—in short, not human and capable of reasoning, i.e. an “animal.” These long-held racist beliefs have worked their way in to the language we use; for example, “naco” is Mexican slang equivalent for “white trash.” Not surprisingly, it derives from Totonac, indigenous peoples from central Mexico. [Random note: I distinctly recall showing up to church one Sunday, around the age of ten, only to have my mom yell at me for not changing into nicer clothes and running a comb through my hair. Embarrassed by my appearance, she muttered, “Ugh, you look like a wild Indian!” Between the tone of her voice and her scornful face, I knew that I was supposed to feel ashamed of myself. Lesson learned: to be Indian is to be “bad.”]

Even worse, the NACCS’ CFP is woefully ill-timed and inexcusably oblivious to two major events that took place last month. First was the senseless execution of college-bound African American teen Michael Brown by the white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri—an event that has sparked weeks of outraged protests by community members and their allies around the nation against this horrible injustice (catch up on helpful reads at the Atlantic). Another young, unarmed, innocent black man killed for no reason other than his race and the increasingly militarization of police officers who are all too eager to show off their power and use weapons meant not to protect communities, but instead to wage international wars. Ferguson protestors faced scathing criticism in the mainstream news outlets for their supposed lack of respect for authority during the initial days of protests . . . but how civil towards authority figures can one be while you are running away from tear gas, rubber bullets, and officers who look and act like the Terminator? Nevertheless, for news pundits, protestors clearly were not “well behaved” enough for to have their outrage taken seriously.

Second, the CFP is alarming tone-deaf to the unlawful firing of Professor Steven Salaita, a prolific scholar and respected educator actively recruited to the University of Illinois for a tenured appointment in the Native American Studies Department. Salaita’s innovative research compares the disenfranchisement and genocide of native peoples in the US with the treatment of Palestinians by the state of Israel. During Israel’s recent assault on Gaza, which killed 1500 Palestinian adults and 500 children, Salaita shared impassioned posts to his private (i.e. not university- or teaching-affiliated) Twitter account, calling out Israel’s barbarism and hypocrisy. Cowardly caving into pressure from outside groups, Chancellor Phyllis Wise terminated Salaita’s contract, citing concern about his “uncivil” tone. So much for the free speech promised in the First Amendment and the academic protections offered by tenure.

In light of these (and many similar events), one feels the urge to grab the NACCS board members by their collective lapels and shout, “What the f*ck are you thinking?!” Civility is an increasingly dangerous concept that is a weapon used to silence and discredit voices of dissent. Ideas that challenge the mainstream, that purposely unsettle our students so that they question the status quo, can now be dismissed as being “uncivil,” antithetical to “polite” conversation–and therefore not worthy of consideration. “Civility” is a term none too useful for Chicana/o Studies scholars who labor in a field that was established only when civil rights activists took it upon themselves to impolitely demand recognition and legitimacy as a field of scholarship. And Chicana/o Studies has only grown stronger and better thanks to those within our ranks who refuse to conform and behave “civilly.” Again, to draw from the powerful words of Soto,

Two years after my first NACCS conference, I worked alongside Deb Vargas, Emma Pérez, Deena González, and Rosalia Solorzano to co-found the Lesbian Caucus (now the Lesbian, Transgender and Bisexual Mujeres Caucus) at the Albuquerque meetings. If Deb, Emma, Deena, Rosalia and I had given in to the cult of true womanhood (a highly gendered and colonialist ideology promoting civility), then we would have never found the determination and strength to go up against the incredible machista homphobia and pushback we faced in Albuquerque. If we had been good girls, or—to use the language of the NACCS CFP—if we had been “well-behaved, cultured, refined, enlightened, polite, and developed” (ser educado)—we probably wouldn’t even have had the audacity to be out lesbians much less angry Chicana dykes demanding of space. Thankfully we didn’t give into that ideology then. And I certainly don’t want to now.

I read this and want to chant, Chicano style, “Soto sí, CFP no!” For like Professor Soto, I don’t care to abide by notions of “ser educado” and “civility” that were not meant to be attained by someone of my skin color, body type, and gender. By the very definition of mainstream “civility,” some of us will forever be perceived as uncivil, no matter how we conduct ourselves.

The Inherent “Incivility” of Women of Color

Case in point: Professor Ursula Ore, another professor, besides Salaita, who was treated unjustly this summer and who had her rights trampled. Ore is an African American tenure-track faculty member of the English department at Arizona State. Heading home after teaching an evening course, Ore was walking on a street just outside of campus, when she was stopped by a police officer on the pretext of jaywalking. The interesting thing is that not only was the street closed to through-traffic due to construction (so the cop car was the only one headed towards her), but there were many other pedestrians crossing, just as she was. The only difference? They were all white.

Ore gently—civilly—questioned the officer why she was the only person to be stopped. He didn’t like being questioned, and, raising his voice, impatiently demanded to see her ID. Ore calmly—politely—asked why he was using such a harsh tone with her. In response, the copy only grew increasingly abusive, and began threatening her with arrest. Over her plaintive protests, he slammed Ore against the hood of the police car and even threw her to the ground, causing her skirt to fly up. Agonizingly, she cried for help from the bystanders. As the cop and his partner lifted her back to her feet, she instinctively kicked away the hand she felt reaching for her skirt. For that, she was charged with resisting arrest, assaulting an officer and taken into custody. The audio and video of the incident was recorded on camera; Ore’s “civil” voice stands in stark contrast to the brusque voice of the cop. Adding further insult, Arizona State officials issued a knee-jerk statement saying that as far as they were concerned, the officer hadn’t done anything wrong.

But it wasn’t Ore’s fault. No matter how soft her voice, no matter her profession and level of education, the officer could not see a black woman as someone “well-behaved, polite, developed,” etc. Some of us will always be uncivil, no matter how politely we respond.

Ore’s case brought back vivid memories of the first time I was arrested, at the age of seventeen. I was a senior in high school, working on a research paper for my AP English class. The topic: Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. My dilemma was that neither my school nor town’s public library had the high-quality literary criticism I was looking for (I was already a highfalutin literature nerd, but my scholarly pretensions didn’t stop me from citing Cliff’s Notes as a source in the final draft). My friend Kathy and I decided to go to the library at a local community college, renowned for its wealth and quality resources. We each found two books we needed and talked a college student into checking them out on our behalf.

We returned to class, bragging to two other friends, Megan and Nicole, about how awesome our final essays were going to be. Intrigued, they begged us to take them to the library so they could access to better resources, too. During this second trip, Megan and Nicole selected some books, and I found another helpful Madame Bovary book, so again we found a college student who was willing to check them out for us.

As we left the library, one of the detectors went off. The man at the checkout desk asked us to go through one-by-one. Kathy, Megan, and Nicole each walked through with no problem. But when it was my turn, the alarm sounded again.

The man asked to see my books and student ID. I stammered, “I don’t have it with me.”

He told me he could look me up in the system via my social security number, and I truthfully replied, “I don’t know it.”

The man immediately narrowed his eyes. “Something’s going on here. I’m going to call the cops!” I broke into a sweat and asked, “How about if I just leave the books here and you never see me again?”

“You better stay right there!” he warned, picking up the phone. The knot in my stomach grew larger when, moments later, two white police officers came running into the library, demanding, “What’s going on here?”

The librarian dramatically pointed to me with one hand and held aloft three volumes of Madame Bovary literary criticism in the other. “She’s trying to steal these books!”

The cops grabbed my arms and led me to their station, located on another floor of the building, for questioning. My friends, stunned and assuming they were also in trouble, tagged along and were told to wait in the hallway. The female officer sat me down and said, “Okay, tell me everything.”

I calmly—and as politely as possible—told her “everything,” starting way back on the day my teacher distributed the essay assignment. I explained that two college students had checked out books for all of us. The cop remained expressionless as she listened, but when I concluded my story, she scornfully huffed, “Why are you lying to me?”

“I’m not lying to you,” I protested. “I have no reason to lie to you.”

“Well your story doesn’t make sense. We’re going to charge you with possession of stolen books.” And with that, she handcuffed me and led me into another room, where I had my mug shots and fingerprints taken.

As she rolled my index finger on the black ink pad, the officer looked me up and down, then spat, “Where are you from, anyway?” Clearly, she expected the reply to be a Speedy Gonzalez-accented, “Make-sick-oh.” I received her message loud and clear: You could not possibly be from here.

The ordeal finally ended when I was released with papers stating that I had stolen $1700 worth of books from the college library, as well as a bond stating that if I didn’t show up on my court date, I would be sent to prison. I assumed that, if my crime were having library books that I technically was not supposed to have, surely my three friends would be arrested next. But that didn’t happen. In fact, the two officers didn’t ask them a single question (i.e. “investigate” my story) or check whether they also were in possession of library books.

I’m sure that you don’t need me to tell you that Kathy, Megan, and Nicole were all white.

I never had felt so powerless in my life. Hadn’t I done everything right? Hadn’t I told the truth? Hadn’t I been respectful and polite towards the officers? Until that point, I had never been in trouble for anything in my life except for that one time in seventh grade when I was put in detention for chewing gum in gym class. I was a stellar student, beloved by teachers, in the top ten percent of my graduating class, enrolled in the honors program and AP classes, involved in many extracurricular activities, still celebrating my recent news that I’d been awarded a full ride scholarship to an elite university. I was preppy and never even had a sip of alcohol. I was an aspiring novelist and–based on the “A” I assumed I would earn on my English assignment–clearly an emerging expert on Madame Bovary.

I was all those things . . . but I was also a brown-skinned, black-haired Mexican American girl trying to navigate a predominantly white suburban context. Which sometimes, inevitably, automatically marked—and continues to mark—me as suspicious. Poorly behaved. Uncultured. Unrefined. Unenlightened. Impolite. Undeveloped.

Mal educada. “Where are you from, anyway?”

It Hurts When Your Own People Don’t Get It

Clearly, my experience is not unique. Many shared the same concerns, and the outcry against the NACCS CFP was swift. The organization’s leadership took down the description and promised to rethink the approach. Cries of “¡Órale!” we heard around the world (well, okay, around facebook).

However, something tells me that they just don’t get it. Here is what they have stated in the meantime:

The Board thanks the membership for the feedback of the recent CFP. After deliberation and feedback from Board Members, a CFP revision will be released on September 12, 2015. The Board feels that the idea of “civility” is important to engage in its different forms, in its various meanings, and in its numerous consequences. We look forward to the continued discussion of these ideas in our forthcoming conference.

So we come back to this question: What use is “civility” to people of color in general, and to Chicana/o Studies in particular? Just look at our long history of being marked with the label mal educados, of being placed outside eligibility for citizenship, of our struggles to find a place in academia for who we are and what and how we want to educate our youth.

If civility is going to be the principle for engagement, then I want out. It’s kind of a moot point, anyway. My brown-woman’s body and existence are uncivil enough as it is.

P.S. In case you were wondering, that stupid librarian looked up the history of the books I’d “stolen” and discovered that one simply had not been demagnetized. Also, the police discovered that they’re not supposed to arrest a minor without notifying the parents. The officers called my home later that day and said we could tear up the arrest papers and “all would be forgotten.” Instead, we showed up to their office with a lawyer (my cousin’s husband, who handles tax appeals . . . but a lawyer nonetheless). And that’s the only reason why I went on to college with a clean record. The whole incident was a buncha bullsh*t!

via Daily Chicana

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