In Defense of Offense
Below is the text of a talk I delivered on a panel that formed part of the 75th Anniversary Symposium for Harvard University’s Houghton Library. The panel’s title was “Taking Care.”
That might offend some of you in this room today, but I have my reasons for saying it, despite the fact that I’m speaking here this afternoon and also a current graduate student here. The first reason is that I’m a rarely, sometimes, actually never proud alumnus of Yale College where I played wide receiver on the football team and so I’ve been saying “Fuck Harvard” for a dozen years.
The second reason is that I’m still sick to my stomach at the decision made by Harvard University leadership last spring to revoke the admission of Michelle Jones to the PhD program in History. While the history department granted Jones admission based on her academic aptitude and record, the New York Times reported last month that the president, provost, and deans at the graduate school rescinded the offer due to concerns over Jones’s 20-year incarceration at the Indiana Women’s Prison for the murder of her 4-year-old child. Professors in Harvard’s American Studies program, where Jones also applied, notified university leadership of their concerns, and one of those professors quoted in the Times story justified his reason for raising the alarm as such:
…we knew that anyone could just punch her crime into Google, and Fox News would probably say that P.C. liberal Harvard gave 200 grand of funding to a child murderer, who also happened to be a minority.
To be clear, a Harvard professor rationalized his decision to alert university leadership for fear of enraging and offending white supremacists. This makes him, and by extension the university leadership involved in the decision, white supremacists. Because let the record reflect: no one on Fox News called Jones “a child murderer, who also happened to be a minority.” A Harvard professor proffered this misogynoir on his own accord because of his and the University administration’s aversion to offending white supremacists.
Thus, my fair-weather allegiance to Yale and Harvard’s demonstrated commitment to white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy are way I say Fuck Harvard. This phrase also serves as a rhetorical device to amplify the argument that to advance racial and social justice, organizations such as universities, libraries, and archives that claim a commitment to diversity and inclusion must not retreat from the opportunity to offend white supremacists, sexists, nativists, homophobes, and transphobes but instead they must relish it. This assertion emerges from my direct experience in collaborating to construct A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland and specifically from our decision not to involve the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in its creation.
To give a brief background, SAA hosted its 2015 annual meeting in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s typical at the annual meeting for the society to organize or sponsor service projects so that attendees can give something back to whichever city the society invades and helps gentrify that year. As an example, the official service projects of 2015 included partnerships with two local non-profits: Shoes and Clothes for Kids and the Cleveland Animal Protection League. The 2013 meeting in New Orleans saw SAA sponsor a range of service projects, including partnerships with a local food bank and the St. Bernard Project. To be sure, I don’t know when SAA began its tradition of service projects, but I noticed one common thread tying together the recent offerings: each one had a nil probability of offending middle-class, liberal-leaning white people. This is not to discount or diminish any positive impacts produced by the projects, but it is to say that an unwritten prequalification for a service project’s sponsorship at the society’s meeting appeared to be its appeal and acceptability to white people of centrist political persuasions.
But, contrary to the society’s self-perception, SAA also includes black people, other people of color, and a handful of white people who do not value white feelings over black and brown lives. As such, on May 23, 2015, many of these people — myself included — expressed outrage on Twitter at yet another acquittal of a white police officer who stole black lives in the name of the state, an acquittal that represented just a bleep in Cleveland’s history of brutalizing, breaking, and bludgeoning black bodies with impunity. This prolonged pogrom against black people in Cleveland commanded us to consider how we might lend our skills, services, and time during the annual meeting — at this point, less than three months away — to people of the city who are directly impacted by police violence.
Almost immediately, the question emerged of how and whether we should bring this service project idea to SAA for official sponsorship and endorsement. This was our first big decision, and the only decision we as the trained archivists made without the activists in Cleveland with whom we would later partner. We deliberated diligently and exercised excruciating discernment regarding the choice; many of us lost sleep over the next nights, forcing many to pray on it and ask our Lorde in Heaven for guidance. It was hard.
I’m joking. Literally minutes after we floated the idea of working through SAA, we agreed unanimously that we would not do so. This swift decision reflected the sentiment that the society would do one or more of the following. One, it would require more detailed information about the project than we had at the time, given that we hadn’t yet contacted local Cleveland organizers who’d been confronting the issue of police violence on the ground. Two, the society would begrudgingly accept the project, but only on the precondition that it conform to the organization’s lackluster language around diversity and inclusion, which would have removed the potentially radical roots of the project’s focus. Three, the society would take its sweet time deliberating on the project idea but ultimately decline it just before the meeting, thereby preventing us the chance to plan the project without them.
Because of these distinct possibilities and the organization’s demonstrated indifference to addressing white supremacy within SAA, a record too replete to recount here, we took all of six minutes to preempt the society by refusing its involvement, logistical or financial. And it’s not the case that we couldn’t have used the logistical or financial assistance; quite the contrary. Logistically, the project that eventually came of this idea, A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland, required intense planning and coordination that took place across four time zones with many folks who’d never met each other before, as well as the drafting of release forms and consent documentation for Cleveland residents who partook in the oral history project we organized. Financially, the archive cost $1,000 just to launch but since then has exceeded well over $2,000 in expenditures for website redesign and enhancement, domain hosting, and storage fees; and these figures do not account for the hours of labor donated to the project by the citizen archivists and advisory archivists, two terms we devised for the long-term stewardship of the project, which is still alive and present on the web more than two years after its launch.
Numerous as they were, these logistical and financial challenges constitute the premium price of freedom and it is a sum that this A-Team of activists and archivists were duty-bound to pay in order that we might do justice to the lives of the black children, the women, the poor, the mentally ill, and the chronically homeless lives reflected in the records testifying that their black lives indeed mattered, as do the lives of the ones they left behind. This is the care commanded with collections of this clime. And it is a care that cannot be given by organizations that at once cling to slogans of diversity yet are unwilling to acknowledge the potency of white supremacy and the ways it cuts differently across lines of class, gender, and health status both within society at large and within their own organizations.
These organizations — be they universities, libraries, or archives — must realize that while they attempt to avoid offending white supremacists, they not only comply with and concede to white supremacy but they consequently collude with it. It’s way past time for Good White People to cease their concern for offending Bad White People, because in the midst of that concern Black peoples and other oppressed communities are invariably the ones whose suffering is sustained.
If you take offense to either of the two previous statements, do yourself a favor and pass that offense onto the nearest white supremacist. You need not look too far.