When “Diversity” Feels Like a Trap: The Palestine Exception – WOC Guest Post

I am delighted to offer another guest post in my series of contributed posts by black women and other women of color. These go up on Wednesday.

PLEASE submit a post or an idea for a post for consideration! I want to hear from you! Email me proposals or drafts at gettenure@gmail.com. I pay $150 for accepted posts. The posts can be anonymous or not, as you prefer and can be about your experiences of racism/microaggressions in grad school or the career, your post-academic musings, hard-won advice for other students/faculty of color coming up, intersectional practices in teaching or research that you have found valuable, and also of course, makeup and clothes, or even tech gear you’ve found that helps in your work. More information can be found here.

Today’s post is by an author who prefers to remain anonymous.

By Anonymous 

Few people outside the academy understand the (probably naïve) exhilaration a graduate student fresh on the market feels when their dream job pops up: the right city, a cool school, a great department, and a job for which you actually might be qualified. This year, as I tweaked my letters for that special job that seemed placed by the market gods just for me, I stumbled on a roadblock. The school had just terminated a professor’s contract seemingly for his activism around Palestine (of course the school denies this point.)

As a Palestinian scholar myself who does not work on Palestine, it left me gutted, frustrated and angry. Another one of us targeted; one less person on campus who dares to say the word Palestine. But disgust arose in me when I sat to write the dreaded, opaque, “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” document that has become a standard requirement for job applications. Instead of believing that there was any desire by the hiring committee to know the work I have done in advancing these issues, I felt it to be the opposite: what I didn’t include seemed to be the most desired element.

I started graduate school in an American Studies/Ethnic Studies department the year Steve Salaita was fired for his now infamous tweet about the Israeli war on Gaza in 2014. Since then, I have seen a steady stream of attacks on Palestinian scholars, scholars in solidarity with Palestine, and Middle East departments. I watched as scholars who I respected and who inspired me to enter academia were burdened with lawsuits, harassment, and termination of contracts. When I brought this up with the chair of my department in my first year, who happens to be a leading scholar of race and ethnicity in the United States, he responded, “well it’s not a problem for you since you are not going to work on Palestine.”  More like, “it’s not a problem for us, and let’s keep it that way.”  

Now that I am on the job market, it feels like a cruel joke to be asked to write about my experiences with Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Once again, I feel I am asked to show that I care about DEI, but not when it comes to Palestine. The document has feels like a disciplinary technique, particularly as I apply to schools that have kicked out scholars for their work on the place I call home, a place that has informed all of my scholarly commitments and interests, whether I explicitly write about it or not. Certainly, as we see with the scandalous case of Lorgia Garcia Peña’s tenure denial at Harvard, this is not a problem unique to Palestinians; but as Trump continues to target BDS activists, and Boris Johnson plans to make BDS illegal altogether, the crisis is at a boiling point.  Departments, particularly those who praise themselves on their understanding of race and ethnicity, must acknowledge the complications of asking scholars to reveal their work on diversity, equity, and inclusion, particularly when that work is becoming increasingly targeted by college administrations and the government. It doesn’t take a history degree to be reminded about the perils of documenting activism, and departments need to respond to the increasingly tenuous place of Palestinians in the academy. 

I did not include any of work I’ve done with Students for Justice in Palestine, the BDS movement, or Palestinian students on my DEI statement, for the same reason I wrote this article anonymously; I do not trust the university and, dear reader, I do not trust you. Universities have actively silenced activism on Palestine, and most professors have remained publicly silent on the infringement of Palestinian rights on campus and beyond, even when they have nothing to lose.

Karen has written that the “last person you want to be is yourself” when you are on the job market, because as a grad student you are insecure and defensive and paranoid etc. I agree with her assertion. Regarding the DEI statement in particular, however, which seems to beg for confessional-style writing and personal commitment to social justice, I find new meaning in that advice. I am actually too precious to be myself, and as of yet the university does not deserve to be part of my activism and vision of justice. I will continue to work for justice for Palestinians, and I plan to continue that when I get a job and find allies on campus.  But until then, I find the work too important, and the stakes too high, to trust in an institution that has failed me so many times.

As tempting as it is to believe the DEI statement means progress on the part of the university, in my experience, I feel it is more like being asked to play along in a game where the loser is most often me.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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