A (Final) Letter from the Chair

Monday, June 8, 2020

Dear WFF readers,

This is my final newsletter as Chair, as I step down at the end of this month after three years. Naomi Rogers and Reina Maruyama will be taking over, starting July 1. Thank you to everyone at WFF for your generosity, your engagement, and your companionship. I look forward to seeing the new things that Naomi and Reina will be doing.

I’d like to use today to reflect a little. Like many, I am struggling to find the right words for the occasion, in this global pandemic and national crisis. I write conscious that words must be backed up by action and change; otherwise, it’s just empty virtue signalling. I write in the consciousness that organizations like WFF are not neutral players in these discussions. One cannot be neutral when it comes to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, or of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and so many other Black Americans.

My term as chair began in Fall, 2017, just at the point at which the #metoo movement moved to global prominence around the Harvey Weinstein cases. #metoo illustrated the power of memes to organize and catalyze. It also illustrated the ways in which white feminism appropriates the work of women of color. The meme went viral in 2017, yes. But #metoo didn’t start in 2017: Tarana Burke started #metoo in 2006. In 2017, I doubted that #metoo would change anything. It seemed like the perfect topic for collective denial and amnesia. But it has changed things. Not as much as we would like, but not as little as we feared. Then, WFF had plenty to say.

And now we’re here. At powerful moments like these, I strongly believe that there are times to speak up and times to shut up and listen to other, more qualified voices. And for me, right now I’m listening.

I’m listening to WFF member Christine Ngaruiya’s recent op-ed

I’m listening to the AAPF’s podcasts, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s ‘intersectionality matters’ work, and the AAPF’s #sayhername report on police violence against Black women.

I’m listening and learning while reading more about how black unemployment rates have been above 50% for the last two months.

I’m reading more about Amy Cooper, what she did to Christian Cooper, and how she did it. Andre Henry’s piece on the topic is one good example; here’s another piece with a linguistic angle.

I’m reading and thinking about bias in the classroom, even the kindergarten classroom. 

I’m learning from Jennifer Packer’s black lives matter work: “Say Her Name” and other portraits (to read more about Jennifer Packer’s work, see this interview in the Observer). 

I’m exploring the resource guide by Angela Chikowero from UCSB: a trove for further exploration, as well as this guide from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. I’m listening and learning from the testimonies.

I’m learning how “our liberation is bound together.” As Faybra Hemphill says, “we’ve been here.”

We’ve been here before. And without listening, learning, and remembering, we will be here again. 

What can organizations like WFF do? We have a responsibility to act on our pledges for equity and diversity, and we have work to do, both on our campus and within our organizations. How do we represent and witness, without appropriating and without assimilating? It’s hard. If it were easy, we would have done better, and done it earlier. But that’s not a reason not to do it. To appropriate and reapply a famous phrase: we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. We chose to go to the moon. We can choose that #blacklivesmatter.  

What can we do as scholars? Here are some things I aim to do with respect to scholarship in the coming year. First, just as I have evaluated my curricular materials to think about how gender is presented, I will be doing the same for topics around race and social justice. My field, Linguistics, has a lot to say about this, but it’s not in my classroom to the extent that it should be. I will engage further with work on anti-racist linguistics, such as my field’s Statement on Race. And I’ll write about it. Many WFF readers are already engaged in this work, and many, I know, are becoming more so.

What do you say when words fail? Silence is too often complicity. But sometimes it’s a pause before you find the right words. And when we aren’t talking ourselves, we can listen to others and learn from them. And then put that into practice. Then we act. 

Claire Bowern

This letter was originally released in the weekly WFF newsletter on 08/05/2020. 

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