We have spent the last couple of years editing a Cambridge volume on gender in American literature and thinking about what the Trump administration’s glorification of white patriarchal nationalism has taught us about gender in American literary history. We submitted the manuscript of the volume a scant two weeks before COVID-19 emerged, and well before it became apparent that this pandemic would disproportionately harm Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Then the anti-racist uprisings began. The murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people in the US at the hands of police brought into even sharper focus the racism and inequities at the heart of US institutions, from law enforcement and health care to education.
As academic institutions and departments across the US and the world rushed to publish statements in support of Black Lives Matter and the protests against police violence, we recalled the lessons we learned from our book: be wary of grand empty gestures, false allyship, and crocodile tears. As two middle-class white women and professors of English, we want to ask how we are complicit in a system that has perpetuated brutality and injustice. Yes, we edited a volume that demonstrates how gendered models of white supremacy have flourished in American life and letters. But that does not diminish our personal responsibility to take action; quite the contrary.
Scholarly writing and editing is, by definition, the opposite of news: it moves slowly and purports to answer questions that go beyond the current moment. That particular moment, however, was a long time coming, and it continues to cast a harsh light on how slow and reluctant white literary critics have been to act in solidarity with colleagues and students of color. Last year’s historic protests make vivid the relevance of our forthcoming essay collection, which illustrates how rigid ideas about gender have perpetuated a legacy of violence and exclusion in the US. But those same protests in the summer of 2020 also showcase how little the profession has done to seek racial justice. In the process of editing the volume, we learned a great deal from our contributors, among them Brigitte Fielder, who chronicles white feminist failures in the US, particularly failures of anti-racist solidarity and allyship; Shermaine M. Jones, who analyzes Black maternal grief and notes readers’ complicity in the circulation of Black trauma; Anna Mae Duane, who explains how white femininity has justified and perpetuated white supremacy; and Seulghee Lee, who reminds us that white women’s tears have a long historical connection to racial terror and calls attention to how claims about sexual violence against white women have been used to promulgate violence against Black men.
White supremacy thrives today not just in literary studies but across academic institutions. We – by which we mean the two of us and our white colleagues – have not done enough to hire, mentor, and tenure people of color, nor to critically assess our disciplinary curricula and departmental cultures and practices. As white people raise voices, march, kneel, and publish anti-racist statements, they must remember their own failures and longstanding refusals to take anti-Blackness and racism seriously. We must publish and speak out, but we also must recognize and work to repair the racism in our own institutions—the ones in which we work and live.
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