When Civility Is Brown

13 Feb

By Sandy Soto

In his sharp Bully Bloggers post on “Civility Disobedience” last fall, Tavia Nyong’o  pointed out that (in)civility is too often taken up by we who might be most suspicious of that tool: “Why are we, who are cast outside the circle of privileges that accrue to the civilized, still drawn to and invested in the lure of civility? Is it precisely because we sense that it is a tape against which we are measured and forever falling short?” Yes, I think so.

BienMalEducado

I’ve been thinking about Tavia’s questions a lot in the context of brownness—both brownness in relation to Chicanada and brownness in the more capacious, but more specific, way that José Esteban Muñoz had been thinkin’ it, feelin’ it, diggin’ it.

Chicanada is a term I’ve always thought of as lovingly and proudly naming brown resistance in all its complicated and competing forms—from the vato loco cry ¡Pachuco Yo! (raul salínas), to the dyke’s tattooed ofrenda (Ester Hernández), to the in-your-face literature written by The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About.

raul salínas

raul salínas, University of Wisconsin, late 1970s

La Ofrenda II (1990) Ester Hérnandez

La Ofrenda II (1990) Ester Hernández

Berkeley: Third Woman Press, 1991

Berkeley: Third Woman Press, 1991

The great thing about Chican@ is that the moment you claim it for yourself, you necessarily give yourself some breathing room against bourgeois norms–including civility. We leave accommodation to the Hispanics. At least that’s what I’ve always thought. But then, NACCS.

  • Around the time that we were becoming glued to the Steven Salaita case in outrage that the UIUC administration had fired him just weeks before he was to start his job because, in the words of the Board of Trustees, “we must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship.” (HT Lisa Duggan for noting in her 2014 ASA presidential address that, “I have yet to hear an administrator denounce the incivility of university donors or those who defend their interests.”)…
  • Around the time that in Ferguson, Missouri a white cop murdered 18-year old Michael Brown, unarmed but Black…
  • Around the time that the media and pundits were accusing broken-hearted protestors in Ferguson of being uncivil animals and around the time that militarized forces were sent in to restore order…

Around that time—actually, not around, but on the heels of Salaita and Ferguson–the National Association of Chicana & Chicano [not Hispanic, right?] Studies (NACCS) announced their theme for the 2015 conference in San Francisco.

Exploring Civility within the Chicana & Chicano Studies Discipline

Huh? Does that mean that civility is something that exists in Chican@ studies and that we are being invited to write some papers that explore its existence? Or, did NACCS mean to work “Discipline” as a double-entendre, which, in relation to Civility, was meant to critically invoke disciplining, because Salaita, because Ferguson, because HB 2281 (which shut down Ethnic Studies in TUSD classrooms based on a right-wing campaign run on the argument that those classrooms were teaching students to be uncivil), because imperialism, because colonialism, because genocide, because the cult of true womanhood….? Why else would they have risked reducing Chican@ Studies to one, singular Discipline in their theme when we all know that Chican@ Studies is a heterogeneous, interdisciplinary site of contestation that at its best resists groupthink and disciplining in relation to academic codification and/or injunctions toward civility?

But, no. The three paragraph description of the theme and the list of possible topics in the CFP, made it clear that NACCS–at least in this moment under this particular leadership–had adopted the rhetoric of civility and was using it in the most prescriptive ways to shape the 2015 gathering.

Original NACCS Call for Papers

Original NACCS Call for Papers

Since its formation in the early 1970s, NACCS has provided a much-needed infrastructure for the Chican@ Studies annual gathering of academics, students, artists and activists—most of them Chican@. NACCS bills itself as an organization that “rejects mainstream research, which promotes an integrationist perspective that emphasizes consensus, assimilation, and legitimization of societal institutions,” and that “promotes research that directly confronts structures of inequality based on class, race, and gender privileges in U.S. society.” And for the most part, it has resisted professionalization. It’s one of the few conferences I know of, for example, that welcomes—and has a dedication to accepting—submissions from undergraduate students. (I can’t imagine not having had access to NACCS myself as a young MEChista. Those annual experiences helped me believe that I could make a place for myself in academia.)

As you can imagine, then, the moment the call for papers and conference theme were announced, Chican@s took to social media and hallway conversation to express shock that NACCS was calling for civility, and at this particular moment, no less. Some people—mainly NACCS insiders—did come to the defense of the chair-elect (who thought up the theme) by explaining that she had actually chosen civility as her conference theme before the Salaita incident and before Ferguson (as if those uses of civility are anything new), or by reminding us that the theme doesn’t much matter anyway, because submissions don’t need to stick to it (as if a conference theme and CFP aren’t reflections of the spirit and values of the organization). It kills me that I’ve decided not to include here a gorgeous screenshot of one Chicano professor’s particularly noteworthy postings on facebook in defense of the theme. But let me tell you, people, it was a beautiful combination of fuckity fuckity fuck you (but more masculine than the ity I just typed, sabes?) hurled at those of us who were critical of the theme, and an in-your-face machista invitation to go toe-to-toe, esé. Hell, any day give me those speech acts instead of the politely soft responses we  received from the NACCS leadership:

  1. “The NACCS Board appreciates the comments expressed on the 2015 theme. At this time the description has been removed and the Board will be discussing these concerns.” (09/04/14)
  2. “The Board thanks the membership for the feedback of the recent CFP. After deliberation and feedback from Board Members, a CFP revision will be released on September 12, 2015. The Board feels that the idea of ‘civility’ is important to engage in its different forms, in its various meanings, and in its numerous consequences. We look forward to the continued discussion of these ideas in our forthcoming conference.” (09/07/14)
  3. And, finally, the new and improved theme, dressed up with some Español, cool slash marks, and struggle (09/12/14):

Chicana/o In/Civilities: Contestación y Lucha:
Cornerstones of Chicana & Chicano Studies

revised cfp

Revised CFP

No thank you, NACCS.

The revised CFP claims that “Communications and dialogue with the NACCS membership” took place after the original CFP was released. No they didn’t–unless there were conversations (other than the fuckity fuck one) that I wasn’t privy to. I only saw those of us who were critical of the theme expressing our thoughts. It wasn’t a reciprocal conversation. But what’s most upsetting to me about the revised CFP is not that, it’s this: “‘Civility’ is a complex yet essential concept for social interaction and communication. Change agents such as Emma Tenayuca, Ernesto Galarza, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Corky Gonzalez, Gloria Anzaldúa, and many current leaders of different social movements have struggled to strategically find the balance between ‘civility [sic] and ‘incivility’ in order to achieve cultural, political, and economic transformation at both the individual and social level.” How have we arrived here—a juncture in which our brown revolutionaries are dubbed (through the corporate-derived speech of capitalism) “change agents”? How have we come to the place where a political construct like “civility” (that has a history) is completely naturalized by NACCS leaders as though it always already existed in some pure natural form, if only we could work our way back to that sweetness against all of the misuse and corruption over time?

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