Entering this space, I am immediately overwhelmed by the sea of unfamiliar faces. A few with friendly smiles, sure. But a few others with clear indignation, perhaps questioning my place here among them, perhaps a sense of intrusion. But mostly, faces of indifference, of apathy, with little care as to my anxious experience. This is not a description of Kansas City but rather of my first ever time walking into a CCCC conference in San Francisco 2009. In some way, I’m baffled by the reaction to MO and KC when a hostile space has been under our collective nose this whole time. Some other, more specific, instances in this space:
Atlanta, Georgia, 2011: A scholar asks me, “So what do you do? ESL?,” as if that is the only intellectual space I may occupy. In case it’s not immediately clear why that is territorial, many of us non-native speakers are capable of, can contribute to, and have decided to research other things.
Tampa, Florida, 2015: A scholar is discussing with me and my white colleague some organizational work for which I am the Chair. Throughout the whole time, she looks at, speaks to, asks questions from my white colleague. Never me.
Portland, Oregon, 2017: I enter a conference hotel elevator. Only one other person is in there, a scholar, who clutches her purse tighter to herself–even though I am clearly wearing my conference credentials. There’s a complicated gender dynamic, I understand.
There are more instances. And I remember each one. Vividly. We might call these “microaggressions.” I don’t know why we call them that. They are aggressions. There’s nothing micro or small about what I feel when these things happen to me. To be clear, I am not equating these experiences with black lives taken by police overreach and brutality. I won’t get into a value comparison of physical versus emotional/social aggressions because that is too complex for the limited space I have here.
So this is my travel advisory for non-normative bodies traveling at CCCC and our allies: US academic conferences are violent spaces. Some of us may not feel it as readily, or are impervious to it, or have become immune to it. Some of us may even think that it is some kind of safe haven. But to me it has always been an incredibly dangerous space that is threatened by my existence and therefore polices and enacts violence upon my person. Friends and colleagues, be alert at all times.
So what are we doing about this? We can’t simply move the conference elsewhere because this space follows us everywhere. Do we boycott this space to feel safer or in solidarity as good allies? Do we attend anyway in attempt to enact change in this space? Do we create programs and sessions that engage our community? These are tactics that we have employed to deal with the MO travel advisory as an external threat. But what do we do when we look in the mirror and don’t like what we see?
WINGS, or: ENCOUNTERS WITH LOCALS
On Monday, I arrive in KC in the middle of the night with my friend and ally, Brian Hendrickson. We haven’t had dinner so ask the hotel what’s still open. Not much. But the black shuttle driver (the driver is black, not the shuttle), Dre, insists on finding something and goes out of his way to take us to a bar where Cousin Joe works. When we get there, I check my own biases as I catch myself being surprised that Cousin Joe is a white guy. They exchange a bear hug and hook us up with supposedly the best buffalo wings in town (they are). Another, the white cook, is celebrating his birthday and has a large group of friends with him. They are a sordid mix but mostly Latinx folk who blast Selena on the sound system as they dance around one another. Fireballs all around on the house soon follow. As Cousin Joe tends the bar, we mostly speak with him and ask what he thinks of the travel advisory. He is livid because, similar to the local NAACP chapter, he thinks essentializing the whole state of MO betrays some kind of spirit of Kansas City.
Afterward, we chat with the concierge, James, an immigrant from the Philippines. While asking about his experience of the city, we all spin tales about large Pin@y communities, such as in Florida, NYC, Seattle, Los Angeles, and he laments that he’s not anywhere there but doesn’t really have a choice because his mother could only find limited opportunity to be a nurse in KC. When he finds out that we are English teachers, he shares having always wanted to be a teacher too. We encourage him to pursue that dream.
On Tuesday, we have dinner and drinks with three local scholars on the Local Arrangements Committee who feel that they had very little say in how the discourse leading up to the conference characterizes their home.
On Thursday morning, during the conference’s opening session, including the Chair’s Address, the Exemplar Award and many other awards handed out, what stands out to me the most is actually Local Committee Chair Jane Greer’s welcome, as the giant ballroom screens show a close-up of her otherwise smiling face holding back tears, assuring that local academics and activists are “dedicated to making KC a safe and just place.” Jane has been a gracious host and later gives me an exquisite list of local barbecue recommendations.
Later that same day, three local figures speak at the All-Attendee Event as to the currents of the city: a literacy program director provides a vivid description of data showing social mobility through their local efforts; an archives curator shares a tragic poem on lynching history in the region; a former police officer and local activist gifts us with an inspiring speech on the spirit of oppressed groups overcoming hardships through community. It is the most powerful Cs session I have ever participated in throughout my unbroken 10-year attendance. I cry during each of their contributions partly for their powerful words that touch me in very different ways. But mostly I cry because I look around at all the empty tables and chairs in the audience and feel they deserve to be heard by a larger or more present audience.
I empathize with these locals. I empathize with them every time someone makes a little scoff at the idea of visiting Arizona, like it is beneath them, like the whole state is ruled by Sheriffs Joe Arpaios, like there isn’t resistance worth their time. The politics of academics helping local communities versus saviourism is also one that is fraught and too much to get into in this limited space. I understand we can’t just be visiting activists swooping in. But how do we know local resistance doesn’t want what little help we can offer in those few brief days? Has anyone actually asked that specific question or are we assuming academic theories? I wonder this because many of my Tucson activist friends would love whatever they can get, even for one brief fleeting moment. I have no delusions that academics and our conferences can save local causes and activists. But maybe their wings just get tired. Maybe they just sometimes need to know that there are people sitting at the tables and chairs in the audience, listening, so they can keep flying to soar in the sky.
THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH
On my own flight home, I reflect back on our community conversations leading up to the event. In my role leading the Social Justice and Activism (SJAC) Task Force’s Safety/Security group, I saw a few conference attendees ask for travel company. At least one seemed so scared to even set foot in KC, a legitimate feeling that I myself felt too. And I wonder how distorted our reactions might have been, and how much of that might have cost the locals and their ongoing causes. Were our reactions warranted? Or did we in some way exacerbate the situation? Did we, inadvertently, take part in fearmongering? These aren’t rhetorical questions, and I’m earnestly looking for some kind of qualitative assessment of the discourse of the formal and personal statements leading up to the conference.
The Safety/Security subcommittee could meet most of the demand for a travel companion, though a couple were left unmet. Our previous anonymous survey for volunteers indicated around 200 conference attendees willing to volunteer, of which we got around 10-15 to sign up. At the booth next to us was Donations to Local Organizations, another SJAC initiative that started with a bang in the lead-up and lost steam at the actual conference. Where were the donors? The willing volunteers? The allies for the All-Attendee event of local speakers? I’m not out to shame anyone. I myself certainly couldn’t be present in every single space or do every single thing that I wanted to because doing so would require an inhuman amount of time and energy. I’m merely pointing out here that the conference we (some of us) want is not sustainable unless we all turn up. And we won’t all turn up if many of us feel threatened, either in the host location or within the conference itself.
And if that’s not actually the conference we want, then what is an academic conference? What is it supposed to do? And for whom? Is it a mobile ivory tower, with our traveling circus troupe of performers, passing through each conference site as academic tourists? Is it even possible for us to have an academic conference that is both safe and relevant? In the case of KC, I lament that we could not reconcile our desire for both. What if, to hold a relevant conference, we have to take risks?–perhaps risks that we will need to assess and respond to responsibly and in informed ways, and prepare for as a community that continues to have one another’s backs.