Your failure of imagination is not my problem

Your failure of imagination is not my problem

In November 2016, I flew to Zurich to deliver a talk on my work on Métis legal-ethical paradigms, prairie fish, and the Anthropocene. When we booked the tickets earlier that summer, it didn’t occur to me that I’d asked my hosts to book my travel for the night of the US Presidential election. So, as I set out from Ottawa, the Canadian capital, on the evening of November 8, I entered a strange and disorienting patch of space time that took me through multiple timezones, geographies, and national boundaries while the fate of American governance hung in the balance. At 6 PM, in the Ottawa airport, things still seemed hopeful. Maybe Trump wouldn’t win. Two delays later, I finally made it to Toronto. There, at our international departures gate, things were taking a turn for the grim. TV screens around us showed that Hillary was slipping, and Trump was gaining steam. I turned to a fellow passenger and said ‘wow, we might wake up to a Trump presidency’. Her face widened in horror: “don’t you dare say that!”.

As we boarded the plane, many of us realized there was no wifi onboard. There would be no obsessive refreshing of twitter feeds or CNN polls as we flew over the moonlit expanses of the Atlantic. We were locked in, for better or worse, for the next seven hours. As we flew up and over the eastern coast, over Newfoundland and out into the Atlantic, whatever was going on back in America was inaccessible to us.  When I awoke in the morning, we were readying to land at Heathrow. Just seconds before the tires touched the tarmac, I felt an overwhelming sense of nausea. I can’t explain it, but somehow I knew in those seconds when we came back into contact with the earth, that Trump had won. (The canny pilots waited until we were about to deplane to announce the election result, and the spirit of the entire economy section deflated, save for one man who shouted a muted ‘woohoo’ before reading the room and shutting the heck up).

This made for a dramatic backdrop for my first visit to Switzerland.

The evening of November 9th, strangers gathered in a large auditorium style classroom on the campus of ETH, the fabled Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics university in Zurich. My lovely hosts welcomed me, and I gave a talk on Métis law, watersheds, fish collapse, kinship, and oil and gas spills in my home province. At the end, the audience engaged in a deeply respectful way, asking questions about Indigenous theory, environmental issues, etc. However, the mic made its way to a young man who seemed to be somewhat agitated. He lobbed a softball question at me about spirits, I think. And then, his body language shifted. He had caught me in his snare! Aha! If I believed in spirits, then clearly this wasn’t science! I can’t remember the exact details of his next question, but it was not the words that mattered. It was the form, the energy, and the weaponization that mattered. He pounced on the mic — and launched into an accusation of my work being ‘anti-science’ (a sin to end all sins in a STEM institution).

I tried to answer, but he kept going, working himself into a froth. This clearly wasn’t about the content of my work, or even about ‘questions’. This was about the affront of my Indigenous presence in his rational space. How. Dare. I. Exist. In. Academia. 

My hosts grew concerned with his hostility, and he was eventually asked to leave. When he left, the audience erupted in spontaneous applause. And we continued on.

(They weren’t going to let a Trump win, or the emboldened rage of the right, stop them from being good hosts, from looking after their guest, or from enacting some basic forms of care for their invited speaker).

A little while later, I shared this experience with a mentor. I shared my account of being heckled by a member of the audience. She compassionately corrected me:

“You were attacked, Zoe. That is an attack.”

Since that conversation, I’ve reframed my understandings of my experiences of white hostility in the academy. They are many. They are sometimes hilarious (“he said what to you?” a colleague will laugh as we parse out the latest experience). They are often dispiriting (you can only put up with hostility from dominant society for so long before it starts to wear you down). They are monumental (‘a whole department behaved that way?” a friend will whisper in shock as I share a story over a long overdue lunch). They are sometimes mundane. I am not the first nor the last to write about this — so many brilliant BIPOC scholars have outlined their own stories of surviving white hostility in academia and beyond. Sara Ahmed (2018) draws on her work with interlocutors working in diversity policy contexts to demonstrate how refusal to absorb certain forms of hostility from dominant groups impacts those who speak up:

“Another practitioner describes: “you know, you go through that in these sorts of jobs where you go to say something and you can just see people going ‘oh here she goes.’”  We both laughed, recognising that each other recognised that scene. The feminist killjoy, that leaky container, comes up here; she comes up in what we hear. We hear each other in the wear and the tear of the words we share; we hear what it is like to come up against the same thing over and over again.  We imagine the eyes rolling as if to say: well she would say that.  It was from experiences like this that I developed my equation: rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy.”

In Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine (2015) states: “Because white men can’t/police their imagination/black men are dying.” (cited also by Kellaway in this interview with Claudia Rankine in the Guardian). White imagination is murderous.

As Ahmed references in her above mentioned 2018 piece, in his work in the UK with the UCL campaign “Why Isn’t My Professor Black?”, Dr. Nathaniel Adam Tobias C—- (2014) challenges the failure of the white british imagination to formulate the academy as one that includes Black professors:

These forms of white imagination, which inform violent white supremacist actions against Black people in America, the UK, and other white supremacist nations, are pervasive. I do not want to co-opt this work that Ahmed, Rankine, and C—- are doing, but rather to explain how it informs my own understandings of how white imagination operates to evacuate — sometimes very aggressively evacuate — Indigenous bodies and thinking from academic spaces.

Informed by this work, what I have come to realize is that many of the hostile encounters I have experienced in academia are, at least on some level, about failure of white people’s imagination. Failure to imagine Black, Indigenous and other racialized bodies in the hallways of academe. Failure to imagine epistemologies beyond those that fester in euro-western academic paradigms. Failure to imagine possibilities beyond jealously guarded white (often male) syndicates. Failure to imagine that white folks occupying space on stolen land ought to perhaps….ahem…tread a big more humbly. They are also about racism, white supremacy, sexism, classism, elitism, insecurity, jealousy, and greed.

But it is failure of (white settler) imagination that I can tackle the most directly with the energy and resources that I have at my disposal right now. (I keep doing my fallible best to disrupt white supremacy, sexism, and other forms of structural violence, but those are a much longer term struggle). When someone lashes out at me at an invited event for my use of Indigenous methodologies, Indigenous philosophy, Indigenous citational praxis — I reframe it for myself as their failure to imagine something bigger than they occupy. Through this framing, I am able to stop, or at least try to stop, taking these attacks personally. To mentally reframe these attacks in a way that doesn’t destroy me. I have to do this to survive. (I am not saying you have to do this. Everyone’s survival is multifaceted and complex).

But, I also want to address my white academic colleagues directly: this hostility is happening on your watch. When you invite Indigenous scholars into your colonial institutions, as guests, as colleagues, to share our knowledge on lands stolen and violated by the institutions you occupy and uphold, you have a duty to be good hosts and good colleagues. The toxicity or dysfunction of your department, the decades long disputes that shape your Faculty or Senate or tenure processes – these are not my problem. If these explode during my visit, you might want to, energetically speaking anyway, clean house a little. Because your guests aren’t consenting to travel hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles to be attacked or mocked. When you invite a guest into your space, there is an implicit expectation you will be on your best behaviour. In fact, visiting is one of the things that deeply informs Métis being. Hosting and being hosted is one of the ways we build up our nationhood, renew kinship obligations, and restore relationality. We take hosting, and being hosted, very seriously. 

This goes beyond visiting and hosting, though. It stretches into the very fabric of academia. To how we conceive of how to be and how to formulate knowledge. But the casual dismissal of pervasive white settler hostility in academe is conspicuous when juxtaposed with how frequently any form of refusal or accountability from Indigenous scholars (and BIPOC scholars) is immediately parsed as inexcusably hostile. Isn’t it a little rich for white scholars to be able to be dismissive, rude, to raise their voices, to shout, to bodily intimate people, to go out of their way to humiliate Indigenous and other scholars? But if we so much as firmly refuse this, let alone openly address it, we are unprofessional and shrill? Marked as ‘difficult’ and whispered about by the very people who take glee in ‘cutting us down a peg’ at any opportunity? 

A further concern: if you are a white scholar treating me, your peer and colleague, with hostility and contempt, it gives me a VERY good indication of how you treat Indigenous students. In 2004, Comanche scholar Joshua K. Mihesuah wrote about the reasons that Indigenous students drop out of school in the USA, and among the most significant reasons he lists are hostility in academic environments:

“Many dropouts and “stopouts” (those who leave for a while but return) choose not to conform to the values of the dominant society, and many remain frustrated because the academy does not meet their needs.” (Mihesuah 2004: 191)

“There still is a lack of respect among many university faculty, staff, and administrators for Native cultures. In Flagstaff, for example, despite the Navajo, Hopi, Walapai, Havasupai, and Yavapai Apache reservations’ geographic proximity to the border town (there are twenty-two tribes in Arizona), it is surprising to learn that few faculty have visited those communities. Insensitivity and stereotyping, both blatant and subtle, of Indigenous peoples are pervasive in classrooms. “Given” tribal names such as Papago, instead of the self-determined Tohono O’Odham are still used by professors; Squaw Peak and Squaw Peak Parkway are names that persist in Phoenix (although they have been renamed after fallen Hopi soldier Lori Piestewa); and despite Natives’ concerns about the ski resort on Natives’ sacred Mount Humphreys in Flagstaff, plans are in the making to expand the resort by using reclaimed water for snowmaking (which many Natives and environmentalists fear will increase the number of ski runs). New legislative and congressional lines have been drawn to include Flagstaff and large portions of the Navajo and Hopi reservations. Natives have high hopes for more political clout, but many non-Natives are concerned that Natives will get more than their share of funding, although there is no historical precedent for this concern. These topics are debated in classrooms, and quite often, Native students are too intimidated to speak up to express their views and stance about the ignorance of their instructors and classmates. Students continually fail Gateway courses (basic math, English, and science) because professors tend to have a “cut it or you’re out” attitude.” (Mihesuah 2004: 192-193)

Many of the behaviours Mihesuah details here are things that students have quietly brought to my attention that my own colleagues have perpetuated against them at myriad institutions across North America and Europe. So, again, if you can barely treat an Indigenous professor with respect, I can safely assume students are not being treated with respect either. So let’s cut the niceties and start addressing this white academic hostility directly.

(January 12 edit: for an article that explores what happens when white hostility is formalized into a wholesale dismissal of a discipline, please see Dr. Robert Alexander Innes’ piece “Introduction: Native Studies and Native Cultural Preservation, Revitalization, and Persistence” in American Indian Culture and Research Journal 34:2 (2010) 1-9. In this piece, he articulates how a white political science scholar in Canada elevates a misinformed understanding of Indigenous scholarship to dismiss the entire field of Indigenous Studies. Hostility indeed.)

Ultimately, I hope that white settler scholars will step up and do the labour necessary to address the way that their peers lash out at Indigenous scholars and other marginalized communities. I hope that my white peers will pay attention to the tone their peers use when they don’t understand an Indigenous philosophical approach, or how they respond when they feel threatened by Indigenous law and praxis. I hope they will challenge their colleagues when they, unabashedly and unapologetically, attack that which challenges their very ontological claims to knowing and being. I hope they will take note of the ways that BIPOC scholars are policed for their tone, language, wording, bodies, and being but white scholars are often allowed to be inexcusably hostile and violent.

You can take a cue from my colleagues in Switzerland, who kindly told their peer to find a way to engage respectfully or to leave. I mean, if you are hosting a guest or building any kind of collective, why would you allow your community to treat someone disrespectfully? It’s really that simple. 

Works Cited:

Ahmed, Sara. 2018. Refusal, resignation, and complaint. Feminist Killjoys blog.

C——, Nathanial Adam Tobias. 2014. “Why Isn’t My Professor Black?”.

Mihesuah, Joshua K. 2004. “11. Graduating Indigenous Students by Confronting the Academic Environment”, pp. 191-199 in Indigenizing the Academy, Devon Abbott Mihesuah and Angela Cavender Wilson, editors. University of Nebraska Press.

Rankine, Claudia. 2015. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf Press.

4 Replies to “Your failure of imagination is not my problem”

  1. It’s not just a failure of imagination, I would venture to say that the attack by the audience member reflects an arrogance that goes against what true science is all about/ and what a true scientist should be. Humility is critical in the search for truth, and an openness to try different methodologies should be something to strive for. His mocking of the idea of “spirit” is like insisting that one should measure height with a scale (which obviously is not the appropriate tool), or taste food with one’s ears instead of one’s fully understand spirit, one must use different methodologies. Here, Indigenous & and I would add Islamic epistemologies offer answers and methodologies.

  2. Thank you so much for this. One attitude I have encountered with self-identifying progressive scientists is their equivocation of Western science with progress and rationality, despite the fact that many supposedly scientific Western beliefs have no empirical or evidence-driven basis, particularly in my field, which is brain sciences. I like to talk about the many examples of Indigenous knowledge and practice that long predate and anticipate what the rest of the scientific community is only now beginning to discover (thanks largely to data-driven, and not Western philosophy-driven, theory generation).

  3. Zoe, I agree 100% with the final sentence in this essay,

    “You can take a cue from my colleagues in Switzerland, who kindly told their peer to find a way to engage respectfully or to leave. I mean, if you are hosting a guest or building any kind of collective, why would you allow your community to treat someone disrespectfully? It’s really that simple. ”

    I almost didn’t read it. Why? The title “Your failure of imagination is not my problem” raised both personal and professional hackles.

    First, the personal: As a child, parent and grandparent, I have been on both sides of conversations that ended when one of the parties angrily said something along the lines of “You don’t love me. You don’t understand me. It’s all your fault.” Never worked for me, on either side of the argument, not even once.

    Second, the professional. I worked for over a decade as a copywriter in an advertising agency. When I was hired, a senior writer, a woman named Alice Buzzarte, took me aside and said, “John, to succeed in this business you will need a thick skin. At least three out of four of your brilliant ideas are going straight into the trash can.” That statement was optimistic. If I wrote something and nobody liked it, I couldn’t blame their failure of imagination. I had to come up with something else.

    I think a lot about that because, to be frank, when I think of the places I’ve hung out online to discuss anthropology, the old, now defunct Ning version of OAC, the Open Anthropology Cooperative and Ethnographers Facebook pages, and, yes, Anthro {dendum], everywhere the conversation has died. Why is that? Is it because the hundreds, sometimes thousands of individuals who visit these sites all suffer from a collective failure of imagination? What else could be going on?