Like many, the story she told failed to move me. That Alice Goffman was white or female didn’t matter a whit. What mattered was that she didn’t demonstrate a sufficient grasp of the legal system to not make people stupider.
She goes long on problems, though somehow neglects to mention that less appealing side of the problem, like when one kid murders another kid to steal his sneakers, or because he tried to horn in on his drug spot. There are certainly wrongful arrests and convictions. There are also proper arrests and convictions. Didn’t anyone tell her?
Yet, in the world of sociologists, she was something of a rock star, having spent six years “embedded” with black, inner-city youth in Philadelphia. That’s a commitment, if nothing else. She taught at University of Wisconsin, Madison, but took a visiting professorship at Pomona College. Yes, that Pomona, part of the Claremont-McKenna group, where “black intellectuals” knew all the right words and none of their definitions.
Yet again, there was anger at Pomona. Goffman was not their flavor of prof.
As it stands, she’s slated to be there for two years starting in July, teaching quantitative research methods and an elective. But more than 100 self-described “students, alumni and allies” say she’s not welcome at Pomona, citing familiar concerns about academic integrity and less commonly cited ones related to “positionality.”
Positionality in sociology refers to where one is situated within the social structure being studied, often with regard to gender, class or race. So to sum up the latter set of concerns at Pomona, in telling the story of a poor, predominantly black community, and focusing on its criminal elements in On the Run, Goffman paid insufficient attention to the fact that she herself is white and well educated, from a family of prominent academics.
What exactly the problem is with “positionality” isn’t clear. How does one pay “sufficient attention” to one’s whiteness while researching black kids? What is it Goffman didn’t do that she should have done? In the absence of any specific failing, is it that a white woman isn’t capable, or allowed, to engage in research or write about black people? So it would appear.
Those concerns are not new. Victor Rios, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for example, has described Goffman as guilty of employing the “Jungle Book trope,” in which an outsider enters the jungle and lives to tell the tale. Christina Sharpe, an associate professor of English at Tufts University, wrote in The New Inquiry in 2014, “In the neoliberal ‘engaged’ university, On the Run is sure to be a primer for how to do immersive ‘urban’ ethnography. And so continues, into the next generation, within and outside of the university, what Sylvia Wynter has called our black narratively condemned status.” (In fairness, such critiques tend to reserve as much disapproval for Goffman’s enamored, largely white audiences as they do for Goffman herself.)
Goffman wrote about black kids as a white woman, and her book, vapid as it was about law, was adored by largely white audiences. Much of this was because they wanted so badly to be good allies to blacks in their privileged fight against racism. You don’t try to help, you’re a racist. You try to help, you’re a racist. Face it, you’re a racist.
But there was another, more concrete problem with Pomona bringing this ally to the school.
A letter from Goffman’s critics at Pomona to their administration attempts to explain what it means when a body of such criticism exists and a professor is hired anyway. As background, it notes that Pomona recently committed to making attention to student diversity and inclusion tenure requirements, and that the college has no female sociology professors of color.
“Goffman’s hire proves the college’s failure to wholeheartedly address underrepresentation of faculty of color and Pomona’s institutional inadequacy to recognize and advocate for the best interests of students of color,” the letter reads. The “national controversy around Goffman’s academic integrity, dubious reputation, her hypercriminalization of black men, and hypersexualization of black women does not embrace and align with our shared community values.”
Pomona had no “female sociology professors of color,” proving that it paid lip service to diversity but didn’t fill the quota.
Demanding the revocation of Goffman’s offer, the letter goes on to say that hiring white faculty members “who engage in voyeuristic, unethical research and who are not mindful of their positionality as outsiders to the communities they study reinforces harmful narratives about people of color.” If “no action is taken, the sociology department will knowingly provide Goffman with a platform to promote harmful research methods” in her courses.
Putting Goffman in the prof chair “boasts the framework that white women can theorize about and profit from black lives while giving no room for black academics to claim scholarship regarding their own lived experiences.” Was there a black academic who didn’t get the seat? Who should have gotten the seat. Who “deserved” the seat more than Goffman? Crickets.
The students want a black female sociology prof, which is a perfectly fine thing to want, provided the person exists and has equivalent chops to teach them, you know, sociology. Because that’s why they’re going to college, to learn stuff. Had it been any other seat, any other discipline, Goffman would likely be signing the demand letter as well, because she’s as passionate an ally as any other white woman who wants desperately to achieve social justice. But this time, it’s chewing her up and spitting her out. What’s a gal to do?
The letter concludes by saying that Pomona supports diversity in theory but not in practice, and that students need “authentic mentors.” It asserts that the two other candidates for the visiting position were women of color who study structural inequality, and that Goffman’s hire over them will chill people of color’s involvement in the sociology department “for years to come.”
Threatening unspecified “direct action” if no response is received by Tuesday evening, the 128 signatories say their names have been redacted for “individual safety in recognition of the violence inflicted on communities of color by various publications,” including a conservative student newspaper that covers Pomona and other Claremont colleges.
With every move, the apocalypse is upon us, and no matter how deeply passionate, how dear an ally, there is no overcoming the demand for skin color or genitalia, competence notwithstanding. But the 128 signatories have learned a lesson. Sure, they described their need to redact their names for “individual safety.” Was “violence inflicted” by publications? Where did the story give you a boo boo, kids?
We know the answer, as the hurt was to the ego when they were roundly condemned for being dumbasses who write worse than they think. One might think that what Pomona College needs more than anything is a more rigorous course of study so that these 128 “intellectuals” don’t leave with a shiny diploma and shit for brains, but that’s likely my positionality inflicting violence by stating the obvious. Goffman would probably defend them, even though she’s their enemy too.