March 23, 2004

Waiting for Menchu

Not for the first time, a reported campus hate crime has turned out to be a hoax, this time at Claremont. A part-time instructor reported that her car had been vandalized and hate slogans scrawled on it, sparking campus-wide efforts to confront racism at Claremont. It now appears likely that the instructor did it herself.

Ah-hah!, say many critics of academic life and campus identity politics. This just proves that hate crimes on campus are exaggerated and the culture of victimization has run rampant. Nothing to see here, move along, say those who remain deeply concerned about questions of racism and discrimination within higher education.

This exchange reminds me in many ways of the debate over the fabrications of Rigoberta Menchu. For many of the combatants, that affair became a battle first and only briefly about Menchu herself and Guatemala, and more potently about the ulterior motives of her defenders or her critics. For the critics, it was evidence of the conscious, premeditated and instrumental lies of the academic left; for the defenders, it was evidence of the lurking malevolence of a conspiratorial right and the need to maintain solidarity in the face of this threat.

There were more than a few people who also threaded the needle in between in some manner, most prominently David Stoll, who revealed Menchu’s prevarications. What struck me most powerfully was that Menchu’s real story, had it been written in her autobiography, would still have been interesting and valid and important and reasonable testimony to the struggles of Guatemalans under military rule. The question for me was, “Why did she, with assistance from interlocutors, refashion herself into the most abject and maximally oppressed subject that she could?” The answer to that question, the fault of that untruth, lies not so much in Menchu but in her intended audience.

Here I think the academic left, that portion of it most invested in identity politics (which is not the whole or necessarily even the majority of the academic left), takes it on the chin. Menchu is what some of them most wanted, a speaking subaltern.

You build a syllabus and go looking: is there any text, any material, that will let you say, “This is what illiterate peasant women in this place think. This is what ordinary migrant laborers in 1940s South Africa thought. This is what serfs in medieval Central Europe thought. This is what slaves in classical Greece thought”. You know those people existed and presume they had thoughts, feelings, sentiments. You want those thoughts written in teachable, usable, knowable form.

You want what people in my field call “the African voice”. If you don’t have it in the syllabus, in your talk, in your paper, in your book, somebody’s going to get up in the audience and say, “Where is the authentic African voice?” and mutter dire imprecations when you say, “I don’t have it. I can’t find it. It doesn’t exist”. You may quote or mention or study an African, or many, but if they’re middle-class, or “Westernized”, or literate, or working for the colonial state, somebody’s going to tell you that’s not enough. The light of old anthropological quests for the pure untouched native is going to shine through the tissue paper of more contemporary theory. You may move into more troubled waters if you say, as you ought, “I don’t need it and there isn’t any such thing. There’s just Africans and Europeans and anybody else: everything that anyone has ever written or had written down about them is grist for my mill. A thousand voices, no Voice”.

Some people wanted Rigoberta Menchu. They wanted La Maxima Autentica, the most subalterny subaltern ever. They bought her book, taught her book, willed her into being. She fit. I don’t blame Menchu for giving an audience its desire, and I don’t really blame the audience for that desire either. It’s not the highly conscious, totally instrumental, connivingly ideological scheme that some on the right made it out to be. It’s a needy hypothesis gone deep into the intellectual preconscious, a torment over knowledge unknowable. Somewhere there probably is a peasant woman who lived Menchu’s fictional life, more or less. We don’t have her book, her words, and probably if we did or could, they’d be more morally complex, more empirically ambivalent, more reflecting the lived contours of an actuality (suffering included) than the searingly unambiguous j’accuse that some visions of the world require.

This is all similar to when someone fabricates a hate crime on a campus, or exaggerates the modestly offensive stupidity of a drunken student into the raving malevolence of Bull Connor. There is an overdetermination here, an always-already knowledge, a neediness. Of course some people are going to fabricate such crimes, following the logic of a moral panic, a deep prior narrative, a chronicle of a deed foretold. Everyone “knows” such crimes exist—and of course (this is important) they do. But they are presumed to exist more than they exist, they are needed to exist more than they exist, because our received narratives of racial and sexual injustice tell us that institutional and cultural racism is the iceberg below the sea, an iceberg signaled by the visible tip of extraordinary hate crimes. Crime has an intentionality that is tangible, a concretization: from it we infer the concrete intentionality of what is hidden from view.

So campuses mobilize at every blackface, at every act of minor vandalism, at every hostile word or mysterious epithet. The sign is given!

But no one knows how to deal with subtle, pervasive forms of discrimination, and that’s partly because the discourses we have available to us about fighting discrimination hold that it is equally bad regardless of its form or nature, that the harm suffered by being misrepresented, slighted, overlooked, denigrated, condescended to is one part of a seamless and unitary phenomenon that includes being lynched and put in the back of the bus. And they are connected. They are part of a connected history, but they are not the same. History contains continuity and rupture both.

The gleeful critics of campus politics roll their eyes at this equivalence and take it as evidence of the triviality of the academic left. I agree with conservative critics that it’s a mistake to stress the continuities between the brutalities of Jim Crow and the subtleties of unconscious stereotype and subtle exclusion in present practice, but this is not to say that the latter is non-harmful, or just something to shrug off. One thing I learned by being a white man living in a black country is that it is an incredible psychic drain day after day to know that you are marked as a stranger, as socially different, by mere fact of your physiognomy. It exacts a real toll on you, and every subtle thing that people do to remind you of it, without any malice, digs the psychic claws deeper and deeper.

This innocent wounding, this cumulative stigma, is the core of the problem. Many look for, expect or anticipate hate crimes on campus as the visible signs of a pervasive malevolence, an illegitimate system of holding power, as an indication of a willfulness and agency that is the illegitimate and contestable cause of the sense of alienation and unease that some students, some faculty, some people have within white-majority campuses. Those crimes come less often than predicted, and when they come, they mostly don’t seem to be the acts of Simon Legree’s spiritual descendents, deliberate acts rich in the intentionality of power, but accidents and oversights, misspeech and crudity. Some see in these incidents the secret of racial conspiracy revealed, rather like Eddie Murphy’s brilliant sketch on Saturday Night Live where disguised as a white man, his character finds that white people give each other free money and privilege once racial minorities are out of sight. They overdeterminedly read a synecdoche, a single moment that contains a hidden whole. And when the right number and type of crimes do not come, some make them come, certain that even if the incident is false, the deeper truth is not.

Rigoberta Menchu’s real story is still interesting and powerful: a woman with some education, some status, some resources, some agency, in confrontation with a state and a social order, witness to terror and suffering. Its ambiguities are what could teach us, not its stridency. If we want to confront racial alienation on campuses, we will equally have to embrace its ambiguities, its subtleties, and recognize that it cannot be easily marched against, confronted, protested, forbidden by statute or code, expelled. It is in us, it is us, and the world has changed in the time we have all come into being and found ourselves where we do. It is not dogs and firehoses now, but small words and the pain of a thousand pinpricks. Until that is fully understood, there will be occasions where stressed, needy people tired of waiting for Godot try to summon into being the spirit whose ubiquity they have too busily prophesized.