Slow work

A Letter

In a bracing lecture titled, “Can there be a feminist world?” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes,

I am a teacher of the humanities. I do not directly influence state policy. Humanities teachers are like personal trainers in the gym of the mind. They believe that unless this work is done at the same time as agitating for merely legal change, generation after generation, persistently, supplemented by rearranging the desires of people, nothing can succeed. In the long run, if laws have to be constantly enforced on the majority, without any change in how people really think about rape, honor killings, gender discrimination in general—and I mean people, men and women—the laws become useless, ways of dodging them proliferate, and force takes over; not a feminist world. Short-term problem solving should not be stopped. There are too many problems. But the kind of work we do, silent work, quiet work, slow work, is the work that sustains everything. “Public awareness” preaches to the choir, at best makes the choir a bit larger. “Sustainable” is used only in the economic/ecologic sphere. We humanities teachers can be the sustainers, because generation after generation, we can produce the will to sustain. We can work toward being the long-term producers of problem solvers.

What Spivak says—much better than I can, but which I need to speak with my own words if I’m going to live them—is that while the short-term work of law making and enforcement matter in efforts of social justice, they are but that—short-term. They can slow a bleed but not stop it. At best, they create temporary spaces in which the harder work must take place: the work of changing people’s will, rearranging their desires, convincing them that the law should be followed not because it is the law but because it is right. This slow work, as Spivak calls it, is necessary for equality to be sustainable, for it to be a defining measure of our culture even absent the threat of force.

I’ve read this lecture several times. Spivak is speaking of feminism and anti-sexism, but I don’t think it a stretch to extend her thinking to anti-racism. So today, I also read this lecture with Charleston on my mind, with a vivid awareness that white supremacy remains this country’s primary organizing principle, regardless of what the law, today, says. White supremacy was created to justify slavery; when slavery was outlawed, it turned to Jim Crow; when Jim Crow was repealed, it invented the war on drugs and mass incarceration and dog whistle campaigns and countless policies that everyone knows are racist but which are couched in words that could—superficially—be about something else so granting us the tiniest of windows to let our consciences escape. This, I think, is what Spivak means about changing people’s desires, about how people will dodge the laws if they don’t believe them: the law can’t end white supremacy, we have to.

And by we, I mean whites.

The terrorist in Charleston (who I will not name, because naming him lends power to the cycle whereby mass killers earn fame and spread their hate through their acts, thereby breeding more mass killers) frequently spouted racist epithets, wore the flags of white supremacists, purchased a gun, and declared his intentions to do something crazy—yet his white family members and other friends evidently did nothing. This is the extreme end of white supremacy, but we’ve all walked that path: when a racist uncle or friend of a friend says something and the room goes quiet but people step over it and change the subject, when we’ve gone out of our way to avoid a certain relative at holidays or birthday parties, or unfollowed that cousin on Facebook, or chatted behind the back of a colleague without confronting them—or, worse, let slip our own thoughts without addressing them, without naming them, without saying what they are and working to exorcise them.

We’ve let white supremacy breed in our ranks, let it mask itself in more subtle but still destructive forms, and Charleston is but the latest, bloody result.

Spivak continues:

What we define as the literary is that of which the reading, making sense, is for its own sake, necessarily requiring that you suspend yourself in what the writer or the speaker says, rather than using it for self-interest. This is classroom teaching in literature. In any kind of classroom teaching in literature, you know that the teacher who teaches you how to read what the writer means, rather than making the writer’s text resemble what you yourself think, is teaching the literary. This is real literary teaching. This so-called training in reading is a practice of moving away from your self-interest into the other’s interest. It is just training for unconditional ethics; it does not make you ethical. It is like going to the gym and training your body, which does not necessarily make you an athlete; but without it, you will not be able to do anything. It is training.

This is training that every white person must take upon themselves, not only as student but as teacher. We must learn to listen to the stories of black men and women, learn to read them, to move away from our own self-interest and into theirs, to recognize their humanity as equal to our own, to identify the ways in which white supremacy continues to degrade that humanity and the ways in which we are complicit in that degradation, and we must take what we learn and spread it to our white brothers and sisters—even when, most importantly when, those conversations are hard.

There’s another parallel with feminism that I’ll draw: most men do not identify as sexists, even when they espouse sexism. Similarly, most whites do not identify as racists even when we routinely engage in racism. This is in fact how racism and sexism have perpetuated themselves despite being “officially” a thing of the past: by refraining from overt actions, racism and sexism are harder to pinpoint, but just as deadly. Which is why it is imperative that we not let those subtle assaults fly past us—we have to name them, have to make clear what they are, have to work to undo them. We have to train our minds and then work to train others.

We have to make it unacceptable for racist ideas to move through us. We have to end this vile thing our forebears created and which our complacency permits to continue.

It’s been said that the terrorist in Charleston was a “lone wolf,” but this is a lie. He did not act alone. He acted within the framework of white supremacy, within a system that we have officially decried but quietly tolerated because it works in our favor. He acted with our consent.

It should go without saying, but since it doesn’t: I am white. What happened in Charleston was an act of terrorism. The killer-who-I-refuse-to-name is a terrorist. This country was birthed by white supremacy and remains infected by it. The confederate flag is a symbol of white supremacy and it should come down, forever.

The work will be slow but it’s long past time we got started.