By Kerry Sinanan
Last year, in July 2021, I wrote this letter as a response to ongoing events in ASECS and to raise awareness of structural issues that needed, and continue to need, our collective vigilance and action. Many ASECS members signed at the time and the letter was fully supported by the Women’s Caucus which has long been working for a more equitable environment at ASECS. The recent Gladiator Report on ASECS’ membership and engagement notes that the membership of ASECS remains 83% white with 50% of members tenured and it recorded members’ experiences of structural racism, gender discrimination and ableism at work in ASECS. While there has been much discussion of the need for change in the organization, the report led with the finding that ASECS must “Operationalize Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility”. It seems timely to reissue this letter as a blog post for the new Women’s Caucus website.
N.B. I have added one note (see starred item at the end) after discussion with Black colleagues who asked that it be made explicit how the words “zero tolerance” have been weaponized against their communities.
July 14, 2021
Dear ASECS Executive Board,
This letter is to register a series of objections to William Warner’s Presidential Column for the ASECS Summer Circular. The column uses the language of putative “toleration” to mount a deeply intolerant response to necessary calls inside and outside of ASECS for the organization to become more anti-racist, more inclusive, and to take further tangible actions on tackling white supremacy within its membership and within the fields of eighteenth-century studies that it represents.
The circular centers a white, privileged, male perspective on eighteenth-century studies, using the pronoun “I” frequently and offering personal reminiscence, in order to prioritize what is in fact a limited opinion, unaware of its own positionality and bias. This is the opposite of what a Presidential Column should offer to a wide and diverse community and is harmful in its assumptions of a universal perspective from what is a highly elitist one. Some of us have rarely found ASECS meetings to be “supportive, friendly, and fun” and, even when we have, have not been able to ignore more troubling misogynistic, racist and ableist currents at work. It should be the priority of any ASECS President to acknowledge and address these aspects of the organization that need to be reformed urgently.
Aside from these solipsistic dynamics in the structure of the piece, there are deeply troubling assertions that participate in racist and genocidal discourses of the eighteenth century while asserting these as part of a “civil” Enlightenment culture. Many eighteenth-century scholars are familiar with the words and lives of Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson, but the explicit racism of both men, and Jefferson’s role as the architect of Indian Removal following the Louisiana purchase, an enslaver of over 600 human beings, and a repeated rapist of enslaved women, would make most of us baulk at choosing to deploy these figures as representatives of “freedom” and “tolerance”. To cite a letter from Jefferson urging the “freedom of the human mind”, as Warner does, is to participate in Jefferson’s white supremacy and settler colonial violence that only acknowledged the freedom and humanity of white, male settlers and enslavers. If this is not Warner’s agenda, then it betrays his woeful ignorance and desire to preserve a selective, historically inaccurate version of what the Enlightenment actually involved. The request for “tolerance” in this context, and in the context of Warner’s Presidential paper at ASECS 2021 that attacked what he called “woke diversity radicals” and scholars working in Critical Race Studies, can therefore only be read as a request for toleration of white supremacy. This we object to in the strongest terms.
Those of us signing this letter are proud to have “zero-tolerance”* for racism and white supremacy in our disciplines and organizations. It is a disgrace to ASECS, as a leading, international, scholarly organization, that this retrograde opinion is being presented by its head at this moment. Warner’s circular draws on the language and tactics of far-right and neo-liberal imperialists in the US, UK, and France which falsely claim that refusing to tolerate racism is in itself racist and intolerant. This tactic is anything but truthful or objective as Warner’s column claims to be. It is lamentable that the head of ASECS should align himself with these forces at this time when many eighteenth-century scholars who teach histories of racism and enslavement are under serious attack. We register our deep opprobrium of the content and message circulated by ASECS under Warner’s aegis and our hope that this violence against true inclusivity and true tolerance is not repeated by the organization in the future.
* This phrase is quoted from Warner’s Summer Circular in which he writes, “we seem more interested in zero-tolerance for one bad thing or another”. It is cited in this letter to note the bad faith of the usage which erases how in fact, zero-tolerance policies in the US have been integral to the over-policing and mass incarceration of Black people since the Reagan era. The citation of “zero tolerance” is intended to reclaim the word for anti-racism.