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“Elitism,” “Anti-Intellectualism,” or Just “Lost in Translation”?

March 26, 2010

So . . . um . . . yeah. Anti-intellectualism . . .

Where to start?

Um . . . I guess I’ll start with this:

The other day, I saw a “call for papers and proposals” (on Racialicious) for the Critical Mixed Race Conference (CMRC) that’s hosted by DePaul University in November, 2010. Seeing that, I thought to myself, “That sounds pretty interesting, and I feel like I’ve got a lot of experience/ideas to offer,” so I checked it out.

Went to the website and read:

“Critical Mixed Race Studies (CMRS) is the transracial, transdisciplinary, and transnational critical analysis of the institutionalization of social, cultural, and political orders based on dominant conceptions of race. CMRS emphasizes the mutability of race and the porosity of racial boundaries in order to critique processes of racialization and social stratification based on race. CMRS addresses local and global systemic injustices rooted in systems of racialization.”

Um . . . uh . . . what the —- did that just say!? Read it again . . .

Hmmm . . . well . . . still not entirely sure, but it’s definitely an academic conference . . .

Looked through their various “Proposal Guidelines,” etc., and I quickly decided that I shouldn’t bother submitting any proposals for seminars or anything else – because I’m not really what they’re looking for. I’m not an “academic.” When they request a bio emphasizing “teaching experience,” they’re not talking middle school. I haven’t published any academic papers on the subject. I’m not a “leading expert in the field.”

I’m just a mixed-race youth worker and teacher that (sometimes) does spoken-word and writes a (vaguely political) blog on the side . . .

Waitaminute.

I’m a mixed-race youth worker and teacher that (sometimes) does spoken-word and writes a (vaguely political) blog (about race and other forms of oppression) on the side.

And I’m “not really what they’re looking for?”

What’s wrong with this picture?!

So I thought about it for a little bit, and it seems that it comes down to one of two scenarios (with – quite possibly – a “mix” of both): 1) This conference is for a bunch of academic “intellectuals” that just aren’t interested in hearing from “common-folk” like me; or 2) They are perfectly welcoming of folks like me, but they are a bunch of academics who don’t know how to communicate that effectively using “normal” terminology and speech.

Whichever situation it happens to be, the root of the problem is more clear – this is that dichotomy of “Academic/Intellectual” vs. “Everyday Person” that pops up all the time. Either we cannot communicate across the divide because we don’t want to (i.e. “they” think I’m “beneath them,” or “we” think “they’re too snooty/elitist”) or we don’t know how to.

Breaking it down, I’d suppose that it started with the latter (we don’t know how to), which led to further misunderstandings that ended up with the former (we don’t want to).

Because it all starts with language. I could take the quoted paragraph from above (from the CMRC website) to most non-native English speakers, and they would think, “is that really English?” Take that a step further – I could take it to most native English speakers, and they would think, “is that really English?”

I think I’m a pretty smart guy. I even have an educational background that has exposed me to language like that before, and it still took me a number of passes to figure out what that paragraph really says:

“CMRS brings in perspectives from different races, nationalities, and areas of study to look at how the ‘System’ is built by the racial majority. CMRS talks about how there is no way to draw a real line between races – when does a mixed-race person become “white” or “black,” etc. ? is it skin-color, blood, or something else? – to blow up stereotypes and inequalities based on race. CMRS looks at racism in the U.S. and abroad.” (*1)

Looking at it “decoded” like that, I suddenly realize that “CMRS” is me. Seriously. Just take the exact paragraph and wording above, swap out “CMRS” for “the CVT,” and it pretty much sums up what I do.

Kind of eerie, isn’t it? It’s like asking a Ouija board “when am I going to die?” and having it spell out “Y-O-U-A-L-R-E-A-D-Y-H-A-V-E.”

Really. I still kind of have chills about it. Okay, shake it off . . . get back to the point . . .

Anyway. So it turns out that I am exactly the right fit for this conference (to a scary degree), but if I hadn’t taken the time and mental energy to figure that out, I would never have realized that. And – probably – even though I did figure it out, “they” probably still wouldn’t realize that. (*2)

Miscommunication ensues. I get mad at the “academic elite,” “they” decide that I’m “unqualified,” and the divide widens.

Which is sad, really, because I think we both could get a lot out of this. We “common folk” on the ground could really benefit from all the research and resources that a group such as this could offer (if it could be translated into language we understood). Academics in the field could benefit from a very different – and valid – perspective from folks on the ground that “study” race from within the microscope.

It’s just one more situation where this human tendency to take sides and draw a line in the sand is holding us back. It’s no different (structurally-speaking) from racial misunderstanding or any other misunderstanding between different oppressed groups that end up cutting each other off instead of working together.

So how do we bridge that gap? How can we connect?

Easier said than done, but – we need more “generalists.” That’s it. In a society and culture that tends to emphasize – more and more – the need to “specialize” and “focus” on just one thing, we’re losing common language.

“Academics” create more and more specific language, defined only within their fields, and the applicability is lost on the “normal” people who could most benefit from the knowledge. Most people dismiss “science” because the terminology is so confusing -even times when the actual concepts and application are elegantly simple. The minute Obama starts using some fancier words in his speeches, folks are looking to cut him as an “elitist.”

So we need folks who are interested in both areas – who are sort of “bicultural” in terms of “Academia” and “normal life” – to start translating. Events like the CMRC are probably culturally-sensitive enough, on an ethnicity/nationality level, to translate a lot of their stuff into non-English languages. But why don’t they also translate it into “normal” words? (*3) It’s a bit ironic that a conference all about the blurred lines between racial groups isn’t quite there in blurring the lines between academics and "the rest."

Because how cool would it be if events like the CMRC commonly consisted of a diverse blend of “academics,” “community organizers,” and just plain old “normal” folks who are simply living the experience of race (mixed or otherwise), all dialoguing and taking each other seriously?

Of course, it wouldn’t be so easy to achieve. Again, it would take very conscious steps and “translation” (without condescension) to pull it off. And I’m not offering myself as the model of the solution because I’m certainly not immune to this dichotomy, myself. On either side.

When I run into somebody who proudly references their Ivy League degree and/or unnecessarily (in my opinion) uses “big words” in everyday conversation – I admit I generally dismiss them. I assume they have no “real world” experience. I cast them as “elitists.”

On the other hand, my own writing isn’t necessarily “accessible to everyone.” (*4) In a response to my post on “Hybrid Vigor,” a commenter referenced my “science jargon” – and they were absolutely right. A good teacher is able to take the most complicated topic and explain it in the simplest terms – and I’m not there yet. It’s difficult walking that road, and I don’t mean to suggest that it’s easy (or that I am necessarily able to do it).

But it needs to be done. Because as long as we stay divided along these lines, well-meaning folks on both sides are going to drop the ball. We’re going to miss it when a particular piece of academic work shines light on a solution – but the folks on the ground aren’t paying attention or don’t catch it in time to put it into practice. Politicians are going to dismiss real solutions that come from “non-experts.” Etc.

It happens all the time.

So our job? We’ve all got to get studying.

Those of us who’ve gone a bit too “academic” need to start figuring out how to make our work (and language) more accessible to the rest of the world – and need to understand that a good resume isn’t a necessity (often isn’t) for a good idea. Those who’ve dismissed “academia” and “science” need to put in the work to better understand it, and then translate it for ourselves and others to broaden the distribution. (*5)

If we all start doing this a little bit? Certainly not an end to the problem, but it’s a beginning, and it may set things in motion for some great things in the future.

Because, in the end, it always comes back to the whole "divided we fall" concept – folks working against oppression (in any of its forms) are folks working against oppression, period. And it makes no sense how we so often try to do it independently (or in spite) of all those other people fighting that same fight out there. We need to constantly keep ourselves humble, get over our egos and fears, and link up to do some real damage to a damaging system.

As for the CMRC? Well, if any of the folks running that show want to get a hold of me, you know where to find me . . . Of course, it turns out I’ll be out of the country when the actual conference goes down, so I won’t be attending this one, but I’d love to get in the mix for next time . . .

(*1) Sh–. That was a good 15 – 20 minutes of brain-power “translating” that one.

(*2) There is a stated emphasis on having panels with “community organizers” on board, but it’s unclear whether or not a “non-academic” with that kind of background could fly solo or has to be paired up with an academic “expert.”

(*3) The concept is a little patronizing, I suppose, but I know I would appreciate it, if done correctly. And people are already doing this: science writers like Malcolm Gladwell (on whom I have very mixed feelings) have become quite popular for their ability to cull through current research and make it more accessible to (more of) the masses.

(*4) As a funny side-note on this topic: I didn’t even know what the term “intersectionality” meant until a commenter on this site told me that’s what I do, and I looked it up.

(*5) Along those lines, I am going to start posting regular "Science of Oppression" pieces breaking down current research as it applies to oppression (the causes, effects, and – hopefully – solutions).

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4 comments

  1. Hey, didn’t you know that academics are totally pissed off with the way us ordinary mortals regard them as aloof, detatched, self serving elitists.

    We reported on it at Boggart Blog only yesterday.

    Whining Academics


  2. I completely relate. I’ve done my fair share of fist-shaking at ivory tower academia. I still do, when I see them pull out the language of the well-to-do, as they’ve done here, because I agree that it’s divisive in the way it caters to the Educated Academic, who hold the privilege of education and, frequently, other markers of privilege as well.

    What struck me as I was reading this, though, was whether the fancying-up of the language might not also be interpreted as a sign of internalized oppression. That is, the department recognizes that a certain level of formality and jargon is necessary to be taken seriously within an academic environment – the way that “liberal studies” have become the “soft” fields as opposed to “hard” fields like the maths and sciences – and in order to give the appearance that they are every bit as deserving as those less-contested departments, they participate in the same high-context language as others. It reminds me of the ways in which friends of colour may use specific slang among themselves, but code-switch into more formalized English when in the presence of white people, so as not to play into stereotypes of poc as ignorant, lazy, uneducated, etc.

    It’s also notable that one of the most common privileges is the ability to set the standards, to define and control the language – so the politics of diction really is the politics of power, in that language that fails to adhere to specific, strict criteria may be dismissed summarily, without ever having to address the thoughts and opinions behind the words.


  3. CVT, I think you are being over-negative.

    I think you should put together a proposal to give a seminar . Call it something like “The Voice of Experience” and prepare to teach ~ 15 people what you’ve learned in your teaching, youth work, and personal experience and how they intersect (oooh!) w/ broader issues you’re concerned about in this area.

    The form is there. Can’t hurt to try.

    http://las.depaul.edu/aas/docs/CMRSConference/CMRSSeminarApp.doc

    Good luck!


  4. This is another great post. I’m in a similar line of work and will be telling my colleagues about this post. That said, there are some academics who are trying to use plain English (I think there’s quite a few race blogs like that).

    Btw, speaking of being careful with choice of words so as not to exclude – I checked out the site and am a little confused. The site uses the term ‘mixed heritage’, with which I can fully identify. But the conference is ‘mixed race’ – that pretty much deflated my interest in it because it excludes my experience, despite the fact that I can probably relate to much of what will be discussed there and have struggled with identity issues big time. Just an observation.



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