An open letter to the CCCC Executive Committee, RE: CCCC 2018 in Kansas City
Dear CCCC Executive Committee,
I write today to request that you strongly consider cancelling the 2018 event in Kansas City, Missouri. At the very least, you must move the event. If the venue of the event isn’t changed, I formally withdraw my proposal from consideration as I will not attend the event. I also will not renew my membership to your organization or spend money on anything NCTE or CCCC related, including cancelling my subscriptions to your print journals.
The reasoning behind my request should be clear from the NAACP statement on travel to Missouri, and though the advisory will have expired before the date of the conference, other events unfolding nationally indicate that we are at a moment where certain regions of this country are not safe for anyone who isn’t white. For example, take Saturday’s horrific attack in Charlottesville, VA, a tragedy perpetrated by a White Nationalist from the state where I teach, but an event that only happened because our country is currently undergoing a strange hate renaissance which certain regions of the country are offering safe haven. Missouri is not safe. Virginia is not safe.
More importantly than safety, however, as an organization NCTE needs to start putting its money where its rhetoric sits. The most recent claims were that it would cost too much to move the conference. CCCC is a gathering of writing studies scholars; one of the values we promote most frequently as a field is inclusion and tolerance. As an organization, you are claiming that the value of treating our peers as equals is too costly, that it is more important to throw a gala that pours massive amounts of our money into a state where things are so bad that people from outside have to be warned not to visit. This, frankly, is a lie. It might not be a willful lie. As an organization, you may believe that you cannot afford to move the conference. But this is a fiction you’ve created for yourselves.
What is the value of the organization’s dignity?
What is the value of the very core of what writing studies and communication hold as sacred?
What is the value of the health and safety (maybe even the life) of just one of the CCCC attendees, even if that person doesn’t happen to be white?
If what you meant to say is that you might have to break a few contracts, and you might lose a few deposits, and it might be hard, then yes, I absolutely believe that. I also, however, believe that for too long as a field of study the people who gather each year for CCCC have talked a very good game about diversity and inclusion and safety and social justice. I also, as someone who has pushed hard from within to make things better, have seen the vast majority of that field pick a place to stand and root their feet, and that place is far, far behind where any sort of line needs to be. To say you cannot suffer the cost of doing the right thing is unacceptable, particularly now in a world where education itself is under assault, where diverse people are threatened, where even the President of the United States wants to make this an issue where he sees an “ egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides.”
We currently live in a country where we have freedom and liberty. It’s a beautiful place. But we also live in a country where a 20-year-old hateful racist ran a car into a crowd and killed someone over a statue of a racist general from the losing side of a war, and our President thinks that the people getting hit by the car were just as wrong as a murderer wielding a massive motor vehicle. Things are far from right with the world.
If as an organization you choose to give money to the Missouri economy and to expect your members to come to an unsafe place so that they can take place in your event, you become a part of the problem, a part of the infrastructure that allows hatred to thrive. And in that moment, I sincerely believe that CCCC and NCTE become worthless to anyone who actually cares about what we do. I think the proper term for it is hypocritical. CCCC would become a hypocritical exercise.
I, personally, am tired of being in a field where everyone talks about bringing change but is too frightened of the consequences of actually doing things. The time for your “statements” and extensive “committee meetings” about things like this need to come to an abrupt end. You need to start doing what you claim you’ll do, or you need to be honest and admit that you’d like to talk about doing the right thing but will not do the hard work or take the risk of acting. It’s easy to say you want to do the right thing. It’s harder to put something at stake. But it’s also time to put something at stake.
I realize that scathing comments from me will not mean much. I’m a nobody to the machine that is the field of composition, communication, writing studies, etc. Even as a graduate student I felt out-of-place in the field, and I am currently working as an academic in a different-but-related discipline because English departments belittle video game scholars, aren’t interested in people who do critical race studies from a non-western point of view, and most of all don’t appreciate pre-tenure faculty who say the sorts of things I’m writing here. No one was going to bother to come to my presentation — if it was even accepted — because of my name. I don’t have that level of value to the field. They might have come because of my topic. And my topic of discussion was, basically, this. We need to try harder. We need to be better. We are not doing inclusion and respect for diversity correctly. And being nice about it, saying “hey, could you try harder, please, sir?” isn’t working. It’s time to start saying “you have to do better, or else.”
And I am as I say this, to the outside onlooker, one of the lucky ones. I don’t need to personally be afraid of going to Kansas City. If I put on a KC Chiefs hoodie, all irony aside for the Cherokee scholar, I could easily pass for a local. I grew up in Indiana. I watch sports. I’m working class. I teach video game design and writing. I scream “white” even though I’m far from it. I am not saying this out of fear for myself. If it weren’t for the soul crushing racism and quick-trigger police creating a maelstrom of hate, I could have a fun time in KC seeing old friends. I actually feel like writing this letter is more dangerous to me than walking the streets of Kansas City.
But I am the diversity you erase, the underrepresented member of a population that is in the census margin of error, the person you might not even realize is diverse. I’m not a special superstar, not a person you’ll invite for a keynote or put up posters to hype being present. I am just a person who works hard as a teacher, who trained hard in rhetoric and writing, who tries every single day to talk-the-talk and walk-the-walk.
I’m the sort of person who isn’t safe.
I’m the least of the people this conversation is about, and I am deeply concerned for my colleagues who, unlike me, can’t toss on a KC Chiefs hoodie and pass, because not that long ago an African-American in a hoodie did something I do all the time — walked to the gas station for a bottle of soda — and ended up dead. There are members of your organization, people in this field, who are always already marked and always already know they’re not the target audience. They know they’re on the margins. You can’t expect them to also accept that you want to meet in a place where people like them aren’t even safe to walk the streets.
So if I remove myself, you lose the value of a person like me. And one me leaving is not significant. Phill Alexander making an ultimatum to the executive committee of CCCC is a laugh, along the lines of a gnat threatening a lion. And if you know branding — which I also teach — the cynical among you will think this is a publicity stunt, as honestly what can I expect one angry letter to accomplish. I get that. But I also know that sparks start fires and snowballs grow as the slowly roll downhill.
There are so many others like me. Not exactly like me, but with aspects of my profile (non-white, pre-tenure, first generation student, working class poor, concerned with social issues but often feeling helpless). These are people who are early in their careers, who are afraid to speak up against CCCC because they need vita lines, they need to interview, they need the support of people who would be upset to see the boat tipped. They need to not be seen as insubordinate or as a “bad colleague” for criticizing the way things are.
More of your membership are people no one would come specifically to see than are your superstars that pack keynotes and wow audiences with featured panels. More of your members feel they have to be at your events than want to be at your events. And you’re perpetuating a machine that allows for — perhaps even encourages — fear with your current actions. You’re making it worse. You’ve put people in crisis by telling them that the conference they feel they have to be present for MUST happen in a place where they will not be safe, and you’ve told them that you think it would cost too much to actually give them peace of mind.
You need to do a better job.
I told the organization before the Houston meeting that I wouldn’t attend because I wouldn’t put my money in the hands of that community given how it was treating GLBT rights at the time, then I used network technology to support the people that I presented with. This could easily be done again, in fact CCCC could easily have an entirely online meeting this year — I’d gladly help organize that — and save people the travel budget. We could actually do something good with all the money, even after you pay whatever debts you’d incur for the cancelled KC meeting. Instead of scholars buying expensive meals in Kansas City and barely sleeping in overpriced rooms, we could do something that mattered with that cash.
I’ve also said I wouldn’t renew my NCTE dues. I get an email every week-or-so asking me to re-up. Imagine if you used that same infrastructure, those same emails, to offer support to issues that matter to your membership. What if you commented on the situation in Missouri, offered solutions for the KC meeting? I know you have to raise funds. I work for a program where we have to do that, too. I’m not foolishly saying money doesn’t matter at all. But you don’t have to be so blatant about how money drives your bottom line. You are, after all, part of a field of non-profits. And if you were trying to do something other than perpetuate the status quo, people like me would be pouring our money into your efforts. Right now I’d rather do what I did last year. I gave the money I would have given to CCCC to charity.
We are all trained in this field to look at the world with a critical eye and to understand how communication works. Right now, a critical eye can see that your organization isn’t taking a serious situation nearly as seriously as it needs to, and your communication is deeply lacking.
I know you don’t need to win me over. I’m not going to end this letter with some urge to prove the organization’s value to me. As I already said, I’m a nobody, just one of the people who comes to your meeting, one of the people who teaches classes full of students to be better people and better communicators. I’m not special.
But CCCC is only special because of a collection of people like me. And while my not attending, and my calling for you to cancel the event, is just one tiny voice, maybe someone else will see what I’ve said and join me. And if enough of the people who many don’t even see, the people who just show up and put in work, choose to skip the event, maybe you’ll see that a big academic conference without enough attendees is a bigger financial loss than the expense of moving the conference to a place where all those little people could feel safe and respected.
Because in the end, this is about money for you, isn’t it? That’s how it looks.
And for us, it’s about life. It’s about respect. It’s about being considered a part of what we do.
What we want is priceless.
And if you endanger and alienate us, your conference is worthless.
-Dr. Phill Alexander