Coming to Terms with Complicity

As I am putting finishing touches on my syllabi for the coming semester a pair of readings that I regularly assign has been sticking in my mind — Harlon Dalton’s “Failing to See” [1] and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism without Racists [2]. I use these two readings together to encourage my White students (and to remind myself) to think critically about what privileges White people do not recognize that we receive by virtue of our whiteness on a daily basis, and what racial injustices we are oblivious to (or “fail to see”) even when they occur in the open. These readings hit especially close to home when I think about them in terms of gender and place them in the context of my own experiences working with Michael Kimmel.

Michael Kimmel’s writing on men and masculinities have shaped my thinking since I was an undergraduate student. I used his writings and clips from interviews with him in workshops as I did work to engage men in the prevention of sexual violence with a non-profit for two years after undergrad and then I applied to Stony Brook University’s Sociology Department specifically to work with him. All through graduate school I worked very closely with Michael Kimmel. We published together. I worked for him through both his Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities and through the journal Men and Masculinities. He was my dissertation advisor as well as a mentor.

While my time working with Michael was not perfect I would say that I had a mostly positive experience. But, as has been made clear in recent days, many people experienced Michael very differently.

On August 1, the news broke that Michael has allegedly engaged in sexual harassment. A few days later, Bethany Coston, shared their experience of working with Michael as a graduate student which included accounts of questionable to exploitative labor practices, inappropriate sexual comments and conversation, discriminatory treatment of graduate students which favored cisgender men, and transphobic commentary in personal and professional spaces.

Over the last two weeks I have been contacted numerous times by both media and colleagues asking me if these accounts are true, if I saw any warning signs, and if I am surprised to hear about the allegations. I have been tempted to speak about my good experiences working with Michael because that was the majority of my experience with him. But, frankly, that I had a mostly positive experience working with Michael is, and should be, irrelevant to any consideration of the veracity of the accounts now being shared.

What I will say is this: Much of Bethany’s narrative resonates with some of the experiences that I had with Michael. I cannot speak to everything Bethany shared or to the allegations of sexual harassment discussed in the Chronicle of Higher Education because those were not my experiences. But, most importantly, just because I had not heard about or seen some of the conduct that has been alleged, does not mean it is not true.

Indeed, that sexual harassment and discrimination may have been occurring all around me and benefitting me during my time at Stony Brook without me recognizing it is exactly how privilege works. This is what keeps bringing me back to Dalton and Bonilla-Silva’s work. They each argue that the privilege of not experiencing the negative effects of injustices can prevent us from recognizing those injustices even when we are confronted with them head on. To be clear, I experience privilege as a man, as a person who is cisgender, and as a person who is White (among many others). Since the first news broke of allegations about Michael’s conduct, I have not stopped thinking about what I might have been “failing to see” all those years. I have been thinking about how my various privileges may have shielded me from experiencing or prevented me from recognizing the things that others are now reporting about Michael while I experienced the personal and professional benefits of my privilege.

It is tempting when thinking about my own obliviousness to injustice to think of that obliviousness as something passive that happened. I want to be unequivocally clear — being unaware of injustices around us is not a passive act. We (meaning myself and others who benefit from inequalities) may ignore warning signs, may choose not to follow up on addressing injustices and indignities that we deign to consider “minor”, or may simply choose not to examine those systems and dynamics that most directly benefit us.

I have no doubt that I did some of these things while working with/for Michael and that I benefited from doing so. I can think of no better descriptor for that behavior than complicity. Today I choose to name myself as complicit and begin a process of being held accountable and making amends to those whose harm may have been enabled by my complicity.

As a part of that process I commit to doing and being better in the future. Doing and being better means working with those close to me to ensure I am held accountable in the future. Doing and being better means working with the organizations I am a part of to put in place and refine existing systems of accountability. I don’t have all of the answers for what that accountability can and should look like so I invite dialogue and challenges to my own practice (and the practices of organizations) on this matter. One thing I do know is that for too long feedback and accountability have been things that I have accepted but not sought out — that must, and will, change. Following feedback from colleagues, this process will, at the very least, include explicit invitations to my students to hold me accountable to feminist and anti-racist practice as well as the strengthening of statements in my syllabi which indicate multiple potential avenues for reporting and addressing any perceived misconduct or bias on my part.

Doing and being better also means encouraging those who share my privileges to join me in this process. It is my hope that the men in my networks heed this call and take seriously the need for us to actively engage and reinvigorate conversations about both individual and organizational accountability.

Thank you to Bethany and others who are coming forward. I cannot fathom your courage in this moment and we all owe you a debt of gratitude for speaking your truth.

To those of you whose harm my complicity enabled: I know that I am not aware of the full extent of the harm that was done and to whom so I invite those who experienced harm to reach out to me when/if you desire accountability and/or amends from me.

1. Dalton, H., Failing to see. White privilege: Essential readings on the other side of racism, 2008: p. 15–18.

2. Bonilla-Silva, E., Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. 2006, Lanham,MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.