Covid-19 and the White Spaces of Academia

by Mariela Méndez, July 9th 2020

A memory can be consuming. A memory can occupy space. A casual conversation about a past experience of an elite institution can fill the space, the space becomes elite, for a select few, how a few are selected; a sense of ownership spills out and over, our space, our diversity, our university, ours. – Sara Ahmed, The Uses of Use

Two scholars whose work has become more and more central to my teaching and scholarship use the image of the table, or tables, to speak to the long and pervasive act of silencing the voices of women of color within academic environments and within scholarly output. In Living a Feminist Life, feminist writer and scholar Sara Ahmed makes a point of showing us how universities “accommodate” certain bodies and not others. Lélia Gonzalez, a Brazilian scholar whose work is foundational for the field of Afro-Brazilian studies—and Afro-Latin American studies more broadly thanks to her coinage of the category/concept amefricanidade—opens her essay “Racismo e sexismo na cultura brasileira” (“Racism and Sexism in Brazilian Culture”), originally published in 1983, with an anecdote/epigraph describing a party organized by white people to celebrate the publication of a book about people of color.[1] The hosts were cultured and educated, treated her nicely, gave powerful speeches on the oppression, discrimination, and exploitation of people of color, and went the extra mile to even offer her a seat at the table. There was no room for her to sit there, however. Rather than asking people to move and make space for her, she decided to sit in the back, be part of the audience, so as not to interrupt the long list of speeches and rounds of applause that greeted them. Until she was asked a question, and therefore felt compelled to join the conversation. They did not like what she had to say, naturally. How dare she rebuke them, the experts with authority to speak on her behalf?

Gonzalez’s anecdote does not differ much from the one about a diversity practitioner that Ahmed recounts in the opening epigraph. The practitioner in question shared with Ahmed how she felt when she turned up for the equality and diversity committee for which she was the secretary: “they did not stop talking to each other when she entered the room, the person who had sent them the papers that were on the table; they just keep talking to each other as if she was not there. Perhaps for them she was not there. This practitioner said to me about her experience of turning up at a diversity committee, only to find it already occupied, and her words have stayed with me because they got through to me:  ‘I realised how far away they were from my world.’”[2]

The fall semester that we are moving towards will likely for the most part have no tables, or at least, no common tables where we collectively gather. Otherwise, tables seating only one person and spaced apart will have become standard. Yet, the image of the table(s) summoned by Ahmed and Gonzalez haunts me as I prepare to resume my teaching in this new reality brought about by the pandemic. The metaphor used by both Ahmed and Gonzalez points to several layers of oppression. We could start by wondering, asking, demanding to know, actually, who is sitting at the table when decisions are made about the fall semester. Are there any women of color invited to have a seat at the table? How many? How many in comparison to white cisgender men? How many in comparison to white cisgender women? Are there LGBTTQI+ people of color present? How many? And so on and so forth . . . Such questions, like Ahmed’s and Gonzalez’s, obviously signal other, larger issues. 

In the particular case of the semester lurking ahead of us, the tables make me think of the physical space of the classroom, and of how bodies inhabit that space, own it, navigate it. There is no doubt in my mind that we will have, as instructors, all of the technological paraphernalia necessary to still deliver instruction to students spread out in a large classroom. I do not doubt that we will have the means to “zoom in” other students who are given the right to attend our classes remotely. What troubles me is how certain bodies will inhabit that space enmeshed in technological devices. Even before this new iteration of the classroom as a space worthy of a sci-fi movie anticipating a faraway future, some of us did not always feel confident enough to own the white spaces of academia. Will it be possible to prevent the sense of ownership of the elite from filling up and swallowing our space, the space that Latinx faculty have opened up with so much physical, cognitive, emotional labor, to have our bodies be visible, to have our voices be audible? How are Latinx students to inhabit the new classroom space comfortably; how will their space not be engulfed in that of their more privileged counterparts? The classroom space will be an unfamiliar space to all of us as of September; yet, it is undeniable that U.S. academic spaces tend to be coded as white and heteronormorative, which impacts differently our “orientations” towards human and non-human others, to invoke Ahmed once more.

Our bodies perform our identities, our identities are embodied. Teaching and carrying out scholarship are themselves also embodied practices. To quote Latina scholar María Elena Martínez, a scholar of color whose body left us but whose work remains ever more crucial today to think our practices is forever present: “embodiment can be linked to memory and knowledge and [if] the body can act as an archive that articulates past, present, and future.”[3] How do Latinx bodies articulate memories, present trauma, and future re-imaginings when the archive stored in those bodies was not the one centered in decision-making meetings and discussions? How are we to perform our identities at ease when constrained by microphones, additional screens, facial masks, multiple cameras? Not that we were ever at ease to perform our identities in the U.S. academia. As Latinx scholars, many times we are invited to the party, like the person in the anecdote opening Lélia Gonzalez’s article. Many times, like them, we are nevertheless asked to be quiet, in the background, paying close and obedient attention to the “experts,” those who read enough about us that they feel they can make better decisions. How can we be at ease with decisions being made on our behalf? How are we to feel comfortable now to own a space that makes it impossible for us to move and gesture freely, to be ourselves and wield the authority that is so often denied us?

[1] Lélia Gonzalez, “Racismo e sexism na cultura Brasileira,” Revista Ciências Sociais Hoje, 1983, 223–44.

[2] Sara Ahmed, What’s the Use?: On the Uses of Use (Duke University Press, 2019).

[3] María Elena Martínez, “Archives, Bodies, and ImaginationThe Case of Juana Aguilar and Queer Approaches to History, Sexuality, and Politics,” Radical History Review 2014, no. 120 (October 1, 2014): 177,