Targeting the Targeted
About a month ago, Lauren Goodlad contacted me to see if I might be willing to participate tonight as a respondent. She felt that I could, as a member of American Indian Studies, bring a valuable and compelling perspective to the conversation, that my participation might help contextualize the administration’s exhortations towards civility at that site where they encounter, embrace, and cajole savagery. A month ago, I said yes; a month ago I had volumes I still wanted to say into the world and to anyone who would listen about what was happening on this campus, in this community, and especially to my home unit of American Indian Studies in the aftermath of Chancellor Wise’s decision to undo the work I had done on behalf of my colleagues in AIS to hire Steven Salaita last year. Over the course of that month, many of us attended faculty senate meetings, raised our voices alongside students and staff, and offered teach-ins on the meaning of academic freedom in the face of the devaluation of certain lives lived and lost at the harsh borders of territory, race, class, gender, religion, and sexuality. Thirty days and we have heard from a cacophony of voices—some insightful and others not so much, some passionate and fiery, and others fearfully appealing for ways to bring some sense of normalcy back to what was supposed to be just another dreary workaday end to just another Indian summer. Each of those voices raised, regardless of their pitch and tenor, sought to weigh in on the upper administration and Board of Trustees’ decision to revoke Salaita’s tenure and summarily dismiss him from this campus before he even set foot on it. A month ago, it still felt like saying something might actually matter in this situation, that being heard, even if from the tiniest of tin-can-strung-telephone-communiqués, might cast a line of clarity through the noise and clamor and point a way out of the quagmire. A month ago, it seemed like we still had a chance to shore up the damage, to salvage the reputation of our campus, and to turn that cacophony into a polyphonic chorus demanding justice for a number of disenfranchised constituencies across this campus if not across this state, this nation, and this world.
Certainly the logics of speaking up and acting out have deep genealogies within the communities of those of us who, to borrow from Paula Gunn Allen, are like Indians and endure. Breaking silence, giving voice, signifying, making oneself heard, and raging against have been vital means to confront hatred, intolerance, abuse, condemnation, and despair delivered by the hands of power in the name of protection, safety, and care. “What are the words you do not have yet?,” Audre Lorde asks us to vocalize. “What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?” Your silence, she warns, will not protect you. If you don’t have anything nice to say, my mother told me, don’t say anything at all.
At last year’s DRIVE workshop (Diversity Realized at Illinois through Visioning Excellence), the Chancellor gathered faculty from across campus and asked us to reflect on why it has been so difficult to recruit and successfully retain faculty and staff from underrepresented minorities. American Indians are always the nadir in the metrics, and we collectively spent the morning contemplating what might be the possible reasons faculty from these groups might choose another campus if they have a choice to make at all. In the hallway during one of the breaks, and in conversation with an ally from one of the many diversity initiatives this campus sponsors, I was told that the University’s mascot history was a non-starter in such discussions and that the issues of diversity on this campus are older than Chief Illiniwek. As a Chickasaw, I wondered how that could be possible. This university, after all, is a land-grant institution made possible through the violently coerced dispossession of the Miami, Peoria, Kaskaskia, Wea, Ho-Chunk, Potawatomie, Chickasaw and Sac and Fox peoples who knew, cared for, and learned on these lands and in their own institutions long before settlers arrived.
Of course these issues go beyond a dancing headdress, but the fact that the Chief is now verboten, a conversation killer, an incivil reminder of a community abuse that no one wants to admit happened at all now that it has, for the most part anyway and aside from some halftime music and t-shirts, stopped, illustrates the deep divide between indigenous scholars and students on this campus and our colleagues. Steven Salaita’s hire was part of a capacious vision for our unit as we strove to emphasize the global implications of what that land grant obligation meant to us. His work on the circulation of indigeneity as a concept across Israel, Palestine, and the United States offered, we felt, a necessary intervention to the current prominence of settler colonial studies within the discipline of indigenous studies. In refusing false equivalencies, Salaita’s work challenged indigeneity’s applicability to Israel and Palestine at the same time that he asked us to consider the epistemic investments the colonizer and colonized both have in making claims to being indigenous to a contested space and to the histories of oppression that might entitle each to that space as reparation. Instead of easy answers, Salaita asked us to reflect on the scale and scope of the work we do in the spaces of the dispossessed.
Each of us are asked to make our own the tyrannies of sexual harassment, homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and the daily aggressions large and small as a matter of course in the name of making this campus inclusive and in pursuit of those spaces and forums where we might, momentarily, be heard. And meanwhile, power speaks back to us through the same strategies of refusing to be silent. In the last thirty days, twitter has seen a rise in misogyny, racism, and hatred in the name of defending a small but threatened enclave of young, privileged and primarily white, men who feel that their culture and identity are under attack by feminists critiquing representations of women in videogames. Using death threats, doxxings, and a daily barrage of noise under the hashtags #gamergate and #notyourshield, these gamers have taken to twitter to raise their voices against what they feel is a tyranny they have been asked to swallow. The logics of #gamergate are the logics of our campus. In the name of ethics and civility, those with power accuse those drawing attention to structural violences and inequities of being bullies, of ruining something vital, of attacking something precious only power can fully appreciate and truly protect. In the contest of voices, the win has always been to make it seem as if both sides are equally matched in their opposition. There are, after all, two sides to every story.
In thirty days, I have gone from shaking with wanting to speak to now not knowing what would be useful to say—to validate, on the one hand, the reality that some on this campus fear Salaita’s voice and a raising tide of anti-Semitism around the world, and to remember on the other hand that his voice was speaking into a barrage of missiles aimed at a brutalized and entrapped people. In the fifty days between June 8 and August 26 this summer, the state of Israel was able to silence the voices of over 2200 Palestinians. If we are facing a neoliberal revolution in the form of a new red scare that uses the ethics of speaking as a means to silence, then we are also in a fraught clash over meaning, signification, and interpretation. The answer may not be found in the speaking, but in the spaces of not speaking, of inhalation, of pause. The last two nights have seen the annual peak activity for the Orionid meteor showers and for Southeastern American Indians—of which the Chickasaw are a part—the next thirty days are what’s left of this cycle’s time for the souls of the dead to prepare for their journey through the door to the afterlife. While everyone knows that this land once belonged to Indians who were, alas, somehow and regrettably removed a long, long time ago, I would invite you each to step out into the night air tonight and really think about what the silence of those who cannot speak means to us now. What words might we have yet to find through which to confront the ongoing implications of that loss on this land and in this community?