We, a group of Penn alumni and current students, wish to address white supremacist violence and discourse in America. Even if we are not surprised that Charlottesville can happen, witnessing blatant racism takes an emotional toll on us, some more so than others. And yet, overtly racist acts are identifiable and seem “easy” to criticize. It is nearly impossible for anyone, white, black or otherwise to see what happened in Charlottesville and not admit that a wrong occurred — unless you are a white supremacist yourself, that is.
But at the same time, history teaches us that these hateful ideas about racial superiority have been embedded in many of our social institutions. They crawl through the hallways of our most prestigious universities, promoting hate and bigotry under the guise of “intellectual debate.” Indeed, just days before Charlottesville, Penn Law School professor Amy Wax, co-wrote an op-ed piece with Larry Alexander, a law professor at the University of San Diego, claiming that not “all cultures are created equal” and extolling the virtues of white cultural practices of the ‘50s that, if understood within their sociocultural context, stem from the very same malignant logic of hetero-patriarchal, class-based, white supremacy that plagues our country today. These cultural values and logics are steeped in anti-blackness and white hetero-patriarchal respectability, i.e. two-hetero-parent homes, divorce is a vice and the denouncement of all groups perceived as not acting white enough i.e. black Americans, Latino communities and immigrants in particular.
Wax’s and Alexander’s claims rely on a simplistic, bigoted and archaic notion of culture; a concept purported to be bounded and discrete, a postulate which anthropologists “dismantled” decades ago by showing how such formulations of culture are embedded in systems of political, economic and social oppression. We know that these claims are based on culturally-situated values of purity that safely legitimate one group’s superiority over Others: values which, in this case, are easily discernible as those associated with Anglo-whiteness. But these professors are allowed to speak because they hold markers of white respectability. They are well-educated, and use appropriately respectable (white) diction and dress. And so, when it has come time to challenge the weak foundations of white supremacist rhetoric like Wax’s on cultural grounds, other scholars have rarely done so. Instead, many remain comfortably silent as racist ideology continues to permeate our halls under the guise of “free speech,” “hearing all sides,” and “remaining safe.” This despite the fact that cultural claims like Wax and Alexander’s are the very basis for white supremacy and legitimize bigotry under the guise of intellectual discourse.Two years ago, as Muslim Americans were threatened by the very same president who is now overtly supporting white supremacy, most on campus remained silent. Maybe they stayed silent because it was “just rhetoric, it wouldn’t get worse,” but mainly because Muslim Americans were safely perceived as Other enough, that it wasn’t about some imagined “us” that was seen as more “American.” And now, unsurprisingly, this same form of bigotry continues to expand in scope towards the rhetoric of ethnic cleansing that reminds us of the most hateful and horrifically violent moments in our history. Immigrants — especially black and brown immigrants — black folks, Jews, Muslims and white allies to People of Color have also been explicitly singled out for hatred in this Nazi-style rhetoric, a tactic that further seeks to silence those who might be vocal critics.
This is the time for members of the University of Pennsylvania community who claim to fight systemic inequality to speak up, especially those anthropologists and scholars who claim an understanding of culture and who recognize culture talk’s deleterious potential as a vehicle for racism and sexism.
We, the undersigned scholars, are each committed to combating white supremacy in our pedagogy and we call for all other scholars at Penn, especially those in the social sciences and humanities, to make the question of white supremacy a constitutive part of their syllabi and discussions, centering it in the first few weeks of their classes. Faculty should be supported in this, for instance, through a syllabus workshop for people who are unsure how to do this work but would like to learn more. There is a need more than ever to educate ourselves and our students in order to expunge the anti-intellectual values that continue to uphold white supremacy.
We call for the denunciation, not of racism as some abstract concept “out there” — in Charlottesville, in America, by the poor uneducated white or by an individual racist ideologue — but for a denunciation of racism at the University of Pennsylvania. In particular we must denounce faculty members that are complicit in and uphold white supremacy, normalizing it as if it were just another viable opinion in our educational tenures at the University.
We call for the University of Pennsylvania administration — Penn President Gutmann and the deans of each school — as well as faculty to directly confront Wax and Alexander’s op-ed as racist and white supremacist discourse and to push for an investigation into Wax’s advocacy for white supremacy. We believe that such statements should point directly to the historical and sociopolitical antecedents of Wax’s hate speech, and to disallow hate speech whether shrouded in respectability or not.
MARIAM DURRANI is a Penn alumna with a PhD in anthropology and education.
ARJUN SHANKAR is a Penn alumnus with a PhD in anthropology and education.
ROSEANN LIU is a Penn alumna with a PhD in anthropology and education.
AARON SHAPIRO is a Penn PhD candidate in the Annenberg School for Communication.
JULIA MCWILLIAMS is a Penn alumna with a PhD in anthropology and education.
TALI ZIV is a Penn PhD candidate in Anthropology.
KEON MCGUIRE is a Penn alumnus with a PhD in education and africana studies.
CECILE EVERS is a Penn alumna with a PhD in Anthropology and Education.
HALEY DE KORNE is a Penn alumna with a PhD in Educational Linguistics.
CORRINA LAUGHLIN is a Penn PhD Candidate in the Annenberg School for Communication.
KARL SWINEHART is a Penn alumnus with a PhD in anthropology and education.
GABRIEL DATTATREYAN is a Penn alumnus with a PhD in anthropology and education.
JENNIFER BROWN is a Penn alumna with a PhD in anthropology.
MADELINE BOYER is a PhD candidate in Anthropology.
MARIA FERNANDA ESTEBAN is a PhD candidate in Anthropology.
NORA GROSS is a PhD student in Education and Sociology.
OMAR AL-GHAZZI is a Penn alumnus in the Annenberg School for Communication.
MATTHEW TARDITI is a Penn alumnus with a PhD in education.
MICHELLE MUNYIKWA is a MD/PhD candidate in Anthropology.
KATHERINE MORTIMER is a Penn alumna with a PhD in Educational Linguistics.
MIRANDA WEINBERG is a PhD candidate in the Departments of Education and Anthropology.
FATIMA TASSIDIQ is a graduate student studying Anthropology.
MIRIAM FIFE is an Ed.D. candidate in Language & Literacy in Education.
HILARY P. DICK is a Penn alumna with a degree in anthropology.
THAI-HUY NGUYEN is a Penn alumnus with a PhD in education.
SOFIA CHAPARRO is a Penn alumna with a PhD in education.
UTPAL SANDESARA is a Penn alumnus with a PhD in anthropology; currently an MD candidate.
SARAH SPELL is a Penn alumna with a PhD in sociology.
SCOTT M. CODY is a Penn alumnus with an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership.
JASMINE ERDENER is a PhD student in the Annenberg School for Communication.
DANIELLE HANLEY is a PhD Candidate in Political Science.
CELINA DE SA is a PhD Candidate in Africana Studies and Anthropology.
MARK C. LEWIS is a PhD candidate in Educational Linguistics.
ROSANNA DENT is a Penn alumna with a PhD in History and Sociology of Science.
CARLOS MARTINEZ-CANO is a PhD Candidate in Education, Culture & Society.
DIEGO ARISPE-BAZAN is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology.
KATIE CLONAN-ROY is a Penn alumna with a PhD in Education.
KASEY DISERENS is a PhD student in Anthropology.
THOMAS HARDY is a PhD candidate in Anthropology.
LENIQUECA WELCOME is a PhD candidate in Anthropology.
SARA RENDELL is a MD/PhD candidate in Anthropology.
VOLNEY FRIEDRICH is a PhD candidate in Anthropology.
LISE PUYO is a PhD candidate in Anthropology.
JOANNE BARON is a Penn alumna with a BA and PhD in Anthropology.
KYLE OLSON is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology.
NOOSHIN SAMIMI is a PhD student in Anthropology.
YASSER MAHMUD is a Wharton MBA alum.
JANE ABELL is a PhD student in Anthropology.
COLEMAN DONALDSON is a PhD Candidate in Educational Linguistics.
MARIANA IRBY is a PhD student in Anthropology.
JAMIE SCHISSEL is a Penn alumna with a PhD in Educational Linguistics.
KEVIN BURKE is a PhD candidate in Anthropology.
SAM M. LARSON is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology.
LEE YOUNG is a MD/PhD candidate in Anthropology.