Alice Goffman: From Heroine to Goat

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.

42 thoughts on “Alice Goffman: From Heroine to Goat

  1. PDB

    Positionality? Who comes up with these terms? Intersectionality? College jumped the shark a long time ago. Why would any sane person send their kid to any of these places?

  2. Erik H

    Was there a black academic who didn’t get the seat? Who should have gotten the seat. Who “deserved” the seat more than Goffman?

    Yes. Goffman was one of three professors who made it to the presentation phase, and the other two were black. Both black professors did presentations akin to “intersectionality of ___.” In this context the letter is complaining that Goffman was hired over them.

    1. Erik H

      Clarification: I don’t mean “yes, they should have gotten the seat”; I mean “yes, there were other black professors.”

        1. Erik H

          There is a whole wheelbarrow of stupid in the student letter, but the claim that alternate non-white faculty exist is accurate.

  3. el profesor presente

    The implicit conclusion from the letter is that it’s acceptable – desirable, even – for other academics to produce the same negative outcomes they are complaining about. They’re going from “only white people can be racist” to “only non-white people should be allowed to be racist.” (Class identity is only icing on the cake in their analysis, never the cake.)

    1. SHG Post author

      But since non-white people can’t be racist, then they aren’t racist when they’re racist, because they’re not white. There’s a symmetry to the sophistry.

      1. Morgan O.

        “Symmetry to the sophistry”- Assonant, rhyming, and syllabically balanced. You’re boning up for an epic limerick duel with FUBAR, aren’t you?

          1. Morgan O.

            I clicked the pink button. There was no option for “presented me with a hope akin to what a small child feels before opening a Christmas present, only to leave me with an empty box”.

            Maybe “mucked up the storyline in my RP” is close enough…

      2. el profesor presente

        We’ll have to call it white supremacy then. I’m glad I paid attention to their lectures on how intent doesn’t matter.

  4. Dan Gray

    “not mindful of their positionality as outsiders to the communities they study”

    I’m no sociologist, but wouldn’t an outside perspective be preferable to avoid potential bias? It seems like it would be harder to dispassionately evaluate behaviors that you yourself share.

      1. Billy Bob

        Dispassionate positionalities and intersectionalities may be permitted, but not encouraged. Split infinitives are now also permitted in common discourse but not in scientific journals or law reviews. Peer reviews and crowd-sourcing have lead to incredible advancements in the area of linguistics and grammar.

    1. G. Banks

      At the risk of giving a real answer instead of just snark, the answer is that inside and outside both have pros and cons. Insiders may have trouble seeing the water they are swimming in–it’s so familiar that they can’t really outline it and see it anything but natural, and outsiders may have biases that just make them not understand what behaviors are actually culturally meaningful, what they mean, etc.. The best are probably people who have been both insiders and outsiders in different circumstances, and thus know they have to look–so people who, in fact, recognize their own position, and try to accommodate that by paying more attention and understanding their own biases. You’d have to read her book to know how well she did that–you certainly can’t assert it simply from “she’s an outsider, therefore…”

      1. SHG Post author

        Who would fit the bill for someone who’s both insider and outsider? Obviously, that would preclude a white person from being an insider to any research of culture of black inner city youth, unless six years (or less) embedded would be sufficient to overcome outsider status. But if so, wouldn’t that make Goffman qualify? If not, then only blacks can study blacks?

        1. DaveL

          Somebody mentioned Rachel Dolezal? Apparently she’s both black and white at the same time, some kind of Schrodinger’s minority.

      2. Miles

        Well done snark has the twin virtues of being funny as well as pointed. In contrast, pretentious circular rhetoric has the virtue of being pretentious. Don’t be hating on snark unless you have something more illuminating to offer than pedestrian pedantry.

  5. Billy Bob

    Is it possible that the Pomona 128 Signatories read your May 31, 2015 derisive entry, where you linked to Goffman’s TED Talk? That they read Steve Lubet’s New Rambler review of Goffman and her On the Road book, also linked? Unlikely! That would be our guess?

    Comments are closed on the above entry, so we’ll just say here, as a post script: As far as the credibility of official Philadelphia goes–in any capacity–does anyone remember the ordeal of Mumia Abu Jamal? (Same city as Goffman’s book-study and TED talk.) Nobody wants to go there, but the case remains unsolved, certainly in my mind. As posted here previously. Yes, I read the book, carefully. Goffman’s methodologies may be flawed, due to her inexplicable positionalities and intersectionalities, but her instincts and insights accurate, based on our own inner-city experiences. Yes, we did Philly once, and found it distinctly “unbrotherly”, unpredictable and dangerous. Probably for the cops as well.

    We did not have a problem with the cops, but I’m white, and they’re mostly white. White on white gets a pass, for the most part, but not always.

    Does that make Goffman accurate? Not necessarily. Does that make her emotionality on the subject at hand wrong or inappropriate? Not necessarily. It was a great TED talk notwithstanding its flaws. How to square that corner? It’s a problem. If you’re white consorting with blacks, that can be a problem as well. It gets complicated,… reasons.

    Finally, does anyone remember Street Corner Society, the classic “ethnographic studies” book done in Chicago, I believe? Full Disclosure: We did a year of graduate study in sociology and social psychology
    before dropping out and switching to the law. Or did I mean to say,… jail? (From Yale to Jail, it happens!) Hey look, maybe Pomona needs Goffman more than she needs them. If they want a black sociology professor, well then so be it! Remember when they wanted a black man on SCOTUS? And Bush #41 gave them one they will rue for the rest of their lives. And the rest is history.

      1. Billy Bob

        On the “Run” book, sorry! We are a child of the Jack Kerouac era. And don’t forget Jackson Pollock who lived and worked in your neighborhood. We luv Jack and Jackson. Those were the days when writers were writers and artists were artists! (And lawyers, lawyers? Roy Cohn-breath?)

  6. Allen

    The Sociologist’s Burden, it’s always a vale of tears. I’m just waiting for the day when a professor can’t teach certain students, or students can’t be in certain professor’s classes due to non-intersectionality of positional spaces. Or, it’s racist to try to teach someone of a different race anything.

  7. Scarlet Pimpernel

    “the college has no female sociology professors of color”
    Hmmm, it would help if terms would quit changing meanings. I guess, since a quick search of teaching staff shows a Gilda Ochoa as a Professor of Sociology, that in this context “professor of color” does not include Latinas as people of color.

    1. Billy Bob

      Latinas come in all colors, or lack therof. Where have you been?
      Wise Latinas come in only one color: Black, garb extending to the ankle.
      Unwise latinas remove as much clothing as possible and can be found at Mardi Gras annually.
      Paint us South and Central Amerikan.

    1. SHG Post author

      Ken would say his people have no tradition of proofreading, but I would never suggest any such thing for the 128 signatories. It would be wrong.

  8. Lackademic

    The letter is so nuts that I can’t help but question whether it really was signed by “more than 100 self-described students, alumni and allies.”

    Over at SocJobRumors, there’s a discussion thread which makes me think of a very small handful of discipline insiders resent Goffman (something have to do with her professional success and her status as the daughter of another successful sociologist), and so I can’t help but wonder whether the letter is just comes from them.
    [Ed. Note: Link deleted per rules.]

    1. Ken Mackenzie

      The power of a good petition is that many people are willing to put their name to it, to stand openly for the proposal or accusation it asserts. Redact the names, and it’s reduced to the credibility of an online poll.

Comments are closed.