The Privilege to Protest

The Privilege to Protest

The dispute began innocently enough.  Thomas Glave, an assistant professor in the creative writing program at the State University of New York at Binghamton, along with the director of the creative writing program and another senior colleague, both of whom are White women, were serving together on a search committee for a long-delayed senior hire.
In a discussion over the wording of the job ad, Glave, who is African American, suggested that it include what has become the standard affirmative action language “women and minorities are especially encouraged to apply.” His colleague “very cordially,” Glave says, rejected the idea.
Both Glave and the director of the creative writing were perplexed. “I asked why, said this was standard language and that I felt very uncomfortable about not including it,” he says. His colleague responded, “Does this mean that White men are not encouraged to apply?”
The argument went back and forth until finally Glave lost his patience. “I asked, ‘How do you expect me to feel as a person of color in the program about this? Am I a token? Do we really want diversity in this program? We know very well that White men are going to apply for this job anyway, but I don’t see how we can not include this language.’ “
But she would not be moved. So Glave took a step that many assistant professors would have thought twice about. He wrote “a very measured e-mail” to his colleague accusing her of racism and copied the message to the creative writing faculty listserv.
Glave laid his feelings right on the line. “Basically, I said I don’t trust you as a colleague because I see you trying to subvert our intention to put forth an equitable ad, and I want you to know that I’m going to challenge you openly.”
Furious, the woman demanded a meeting with the department chairman, an idea to which Glave readily assented. But while the department chairman assured Glave of his support, and said that he and the director of creative writing both would be present, he made the limits of that support distressingly clear. “Basically, he said that he wouldn’t say anything at all, and he told the director of creative writing not to say anything either, just to sit there.”
Dr. David Bartine, chairman of the English department, said it was not appropriate for him to comment on the situation. Maria Gillan, director of the creative writing program, said she did not wish to comment directly on the situation either, adding, “I think we really need Thomas (in the department). He’s a wonderful writer. He’s a wonderful teacher.” Glave is on leave this semester.
As the scheduled meeting approached, Glave admits he was terrified. But he says he was calmed when “I thought of all the people who came before me. I thought, ‘You know, these people did burn and swing and hang for centuries so you can be here and be frightened now. And it is scary, but you have to do it; because if you don’t, it’ll almost be like their deaths were for nothing.’ “
Glave was able to maintain that sense of calm throughout the meeting — even when the faculty member, at her most belligerent, began threatening him with a lawsuit. “If that’s meant to intimidate me, I’m not intimidated,” Glave says he told her.
But, privately, he confided to friends that he was demoralized, even tempted to quit. That’s when one of them, Dr. Maureen Reddy of Rhode Island College, pointed out “that this is how people who have racist intentions, consciously or not, this is how they work — and this is how (young Black faculty) get driven out or pushed out or so fed up you just leave.”
Glave adds that he knows his action could, in the long run, affect his chances at tenure, but he’s philosophical about the risk. He has published one book already and won several prestigious writing awards, so he can’t be denied on that basis. And besides, “If I’m beaten tomorrow, or lynched tomorrow … tenure is not going to help,” he says. “The specter of tenure, clearly, it’s a conditioning tool, used to condition people into silence by dangling this carrot in front of them.”
It’s more important to him, he says, to follow the teachings of his spiritual mentor, Audre Lorde. “Audre talked about the importance of privilege and of sharing it. She said if you don’t do that, then you’re not helping yourself and you’re not helping anyone else either,” Glave says. 
— By Kendra Hamilton



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