When Your Faves are Problematic: Interrupting Harmful Narratives as Feminist Practice

by Didem Uca

Social media has held an important place in my development as an intersectional feminist scholar-activist. Running the Coalition of Women in German Twitter page since October 2014 has allowed me to engage a broad audience in a diverse set of issues. And yet I acknowledge that I am often preaching to the choir, with retweets and favorites coming from like-minded individuals. While social media is undoubtedly an important tool for community building and sharing information beyond one’s immediate physical surroundings, tweets and posts do not necessarily reach or change the minds of those who uphold kyriarchal values, particularly when those members of the academic community are part of an older generation that may not engage as frequently online. I have therefore been challenging myself to speak out in real time—and in real life—when I hear harmful narratives in academic spaces. As someone who occupies several positionalities that may not be apparent at first glance—including my status as a very light-skinned woman of color and child of Muslim immigrants to the U.S.—I aim to interrupt spaces of white nonsense and say: “Surprise: I’m not in on the joke!”

It’s hard to do this in general. But it’s even harder when you’re a PhD candidate and the purveyors of white supremacist viewpoints are supposed to be the experts in the room. Two recent experiences illustrate my attempts to challenge harmful narratives of such ‘experts’—keynote speakers!—during major language and literature conferences. While my acts are not revolutionary, I hope that they may encourage others to speak out in the room when it is safe to do so, acknowledging that my various privileges protect me in important ways.

Narrative: Are beige and pink not colors?

I had the opportunity to attend a pre-conference workshop on safe spaces and microaggressions across languages at a recent meeting of a comparative literature association. The session was also attended by one of the conference keynote speakers, a white European woman who happened to be one of my scholarly idols. The following is a rough transcript of the question and answer session following the presentations.

Panel organizer: Since we have [esteemed keynote speaker] with us, I’d like to offer her the first chance to respond to the papers.

Keynote: As a literary scholar, I was very bothered by the imprecision and flippancy of language used by the panelists. I’m working on a book on the toxicity of language and how language is becoming devoid of meaning. One of these terms is one the panelists kept using: “people of color.” Are beige and pink not colors? This term is used as a catch all to mean everyone who is not us. What is the point of this term? Everyone has a skin color.

Me: As a woman of color, and considering we’re in a session on safe spaces, I must say that I’m feeling very unsafe due to these remarks. The term “people of color” is used by marginalized communities to find solidarity with each other and organize in activism against white supremacy. While these acts of solidarity may not be perfect and there’s always room for improvement, your critique of the term seems to belittle the sense of community it offers and the issues it addresses. Also, your use of the phrase “everyone who is not us” raises questions about whom you include within academia. There are many scholars of color in this room; are we included within this “us”?

Scholar on panel: I also should point out that when I’ve used this term, I am quoting scholars and activists who refer to themselves as people of color, like how you [referring to me] just described. I’m not imposing this term, but rather using the language they use to describe themselves.

Keynote: I guess that makes it better. But generally, a lot of this type of language comes out of identity politics and political correctness. It’s nonsense.

Though I had hoped she would better understand the stakes of the term after my intervention, her description of inclusive language as “nonsense” seems to suggest otherwise. Her defensiveness comes through in her dismissiveness. It is a condescending attempt to silence those who attempt to decenter hegemonic discourses or to merely consider alternate perspectives, by pretending that the issues they seek to problematize are a bugbear, a paranoid delusion. Yet, if this were true, then why would a scholar of her level deign to attend a workshop on inclusive language? Was her goal to shut down discussion? Maybe, but regardless of her intentions and unwillingness to see past her own white fragility, I could not have let her words sit unchallenged in the room. Though my voice and hands were shaky, I was proud of myself for speaking out and I vowed to continue this practice, no matter how high-profile the speaker or how public the event. Unfortunately, I did not have to wait too long to test my mettle, as a keynote address at another big conference earlier this month proved.

Narrative: The Non-Western world has the West to thank for translation practice.

This keynote speaker was a respected scholar of translation studies who has published upwards of two dozen books. He began his talk with a Homi Bhabha quote, joking, “you’d think the most highly paid English professor in the world would be able to speak English.” He goes on to quip that Bhabha lost that year’s award for most incomprehensible scholarly prose to none other than Judith Butler. Already my guard was up seeing this white man question both the linguistic ability and the paycheck of a scholar of color and then take a non-sequitur jab at a queer woman scholar, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

The presentation was largely expository as the speaker dismantled several myths regarding translation studies. Near the end of his presentation, he presented quotes about how the non-Western world did not engage in translation until European modes of translation were introduced. Naturally, I expected him to dismantle this myth as well, but he didn’t. Instead, he began talking about how non-Western countries have benefitted from European modernity for introducing such theories and methods to their “less developed languages.” During this portion, he also confusingly located Israel in Europe but the Ottoman Empire in the East. By the end of his talk, I felt numb and gaslit. I still was convinced that I must have misunderstood him.

During the Q&A, I asked if he had argued that non-Western cultures had no translation culture before Western influence. He said that I correctly summarized his argument. Flummoxed, I asked, “well what about translations of the Bible; wasn’t that written in a non-Western language?” To which he cheekily responded, “was it?” effectively shutting down conversation. As far as I know, Aramaic and Hebrew aren’t considered Western languages!

Luckily, I wasn’t alone in my outrage. Other scholars of color asked him to clarify his definition of “less developed languages,” and to consider the immense contributions of the Muslim Abbasid translators of Ancient Greek philosophy. His responses to these comments were similarly snide and dismissive. When a scholar hailing from Japan asked a question about Japanese Christians and the biblical translations into non-Western languages, the speaker remarked with a chuckle, “I absolutely love Japanese culture! Everyone wants to be Christian on their wedding day to get to wear a white dress! And then they get to be Buddhist for their funeral!”

Clearly, he was not willing to be questioned on his historically inaccurate and white supremacist worldview. But do I regret speaking out against his white nonsense? Absolutely not. Despite my various intersecting positionalities that put me in a precarious position—including my status as a graduate student who will soon enter the job market—I must speak out, even if it does not change that person’s point of view.

I did not leave these events with this feeling of triumph, however; instead, I felt regret, wishing that I could have been more assertive, more articulate, more impactful. So I shared what happened on my private Facebook page and sought counsel. My friends matched my righteous rage and helped me identify further cracks in these scholars’ rhetoric. Their encouragement also inspired me to continue in this work.

The digital realm is a vital extension of our thinking, feeling, flesh-and-blood selves. The networks and collectives we form, whether in person and online, can effect change. Because hopefully our interventions inch the conversation in a more just direction. Hopefully they challenge the alleged expertise of those who thrive by keeping academic spaces homogenous. And hopefully they encourage others to speak out when confronted with harmful narratives in their own spheres of influence.