Monday, July 30, 2007

Academic Privilege

Hello--if you are reading this blog, more than likely you are a friend of mine and have an invitation to view this blog. It's now Monday morning and I've had a very interesting weekend, which I'll attempt to rehash below (and I apologize for those of you, probably most of you, who talked to me and know these details already).

The blog entry below this one--Friday, July 27--is entitled "Duke Lacrosse: The Exonerated?" and as you'll see, if you go to the trouble of reading it and the 25 comments that follow (3 of which are mine) it created quite a storm. There are very strong opinions about the Duke lacrosse case. And let me now confess to some naivety on my part:

Naive belief 1: I didn't think anyone really read my blog. I certainly didn't think random people would bother to troll the depths of the blogosphere to read what I had to write.

Naive belief 2: I didn't think this was such a controversial subject. I mean, yes it is controversial and heated and I knew of disturbing stories about Duke faculty getting targeted and about the harassment they were facing from Duke students and some other folks, but I had no idea the extent of the hatred out there and the degree of harassment that Duke faculty and others were experiencing in light of this issue.

Naive belief 3: I don't think of myself as a public figure. I assumed that since I didn't specify that my affiliation was with Southern U, that I could be a professor at any other area college and just be living in "liberal college town," but furthermore, I assumed that I was writing as myself and not Dr. myself, Assistant Professor at Sousthern U's English Department. I certainly didn't stop to think about how easy it would be to find my faculty webpage and to download my cv, and of course, I forgot that my cell phone & home address are listed on my cv.

Naive beleif 4: (final point). I started this blog as a way of pre-writing (I'm writing a book on passing and mixed-race Asian Americans) and as a way to put down the things I think about related to race and American culture in a place that could be read and shared and discussed by other people. I've been complaining, lately, about always preaching to the choir and I thought that the blog could be a way to engage in dialogue about race with not just like minded people but people who were really interested in having REAL discussions about race--one's that are difficult to articulate and maintain in a respectful manner. I knew it could be challenging to do this, but I thought it was part of my larger mission as someone who teaches and researches about race.

Anyway, here are the series of events that followed:

1) Someone with the pseudonym "Wayne Fontes" cuts and pastes from my blog on the lacrosse rape case and posts it on the blog "Liespotters"--which is apparently dedicated to exposing the "lies" that liberal folk, esp. humanities professors, tell about the duke case. I was described as yet another "Angry Studies" professor and there was a link to my blog and then someone posted my UNC email address.

2) I got a flurry of blog activity, which for the first 11 posts, were civil, if a bit harsh. Some of the comments I think were fair and some made good points, at least to give me some food for thought. I may not have agreed with all of the opinions, but I did think that perhaps these people (who largely seemed to be men) wanted to really discuss this and dialogue about it, and my first 2 comments were to that effect (although I did lambast the anonymous people, because the anonymous posters were largely flaming me and I said I wasn't interested in that kind of comment, but that I appreciated people who actually raised provocative questions and points and that I would try to explain my own point of view. However, by 7pm that day, I realized that most people didn't want dialogue, they wanted to vent or to target me, and so I wrote a final comment that said that I appreciated people coming to view my blog, that they were welcome to continue reading future posts, but that I was no longer responding to this thread because I was tired, had other work to do, and I appreciated that people were polite and that they kept the conversation civil up to this point.

3) When I went to check my email before going to bed at midnight on Friday, I saw that 11 more people had posted and a quick glance revealed that they had gotten more mean spirited rather than less. Again, I naively thought that when I wrote that I was done commenting, that it would all taper off and that when I said let agree to disagree, people would accept that. I became very uneasy (perhaps a premonition of what was to come) but so far no one had crossed the line and emailed my college account. I wrote to a few friends and colleagues asking for advice on how to handle the blog situation, because I wanted to be able to get past the Duke thing and to talk about other issues, like the recent news that a mule had just given birth and vets are trying to figure out whether it's a chimera (a freak abnormality of genetics) or a legitimate mule birth.

4) I checked my email for the first time at 10am on Saturday to discover that someone named Jim Clyne had emailed me telling me that he had just impersonated me on someone else's blog. To back up, let me say that a CUNY Brooklyn History professor, KC Johnson, has a blog called "Durham-in-Wonderland" in which he blogs extensively and provocatively about the Duke case--essentially attacking anyone who doesn't agree with his position (he also has a book forthcoming in September about the mistrials of justice related to this case). He had posted my entire blog entry, but not only that, he had put a link to my faculty web page and had discussed some of my academic articles and research, mocking both the opinions I wrote in my blog as well as my academic credentials and my research. This person, Jim Clyne, then posted a response to KC Johnson by pretending to be me. KC Johnson then posted this fake response and responded to the fake me, in terms that I think were pretty nasty. I'm not exactly certain. A colleague-friend, who did read it, told me not to, after I had printed out a copy. Needless to say, I was very shaken up knowing someone had impersonated me, but I was also shaken up by the hate mail that had now found its way into my college email account.

5) What followed Saturday afternoon was a series of email message and phone calls. Again, a very supportive and enormously helpful friend-colleague immediately called and gave me great advice about how to handle everything. On his advice I wrote to KC Johnson, forwarding him the email message from Jim Clyne, which proved that I did not write a response to his blog, I then asked him to remove all mention of my name from my blog and to alert his readers that there had been a hoax going on and to stop emailing me. I also told him that he did not have permission to use the contents of my correspondence with him on his blog or any other publication, and I copied the general counsel of Southern U and the chair of my department. [Johnson did take down the fake response, his response to the fake response, and the comments to those blog entries. He included a note that said that I "denied" replying to him and that he would have to take me at my word since I wouldn't give permission to have him print my email message to him. He did leave his original blog entry replicating my posting about the lacrosse thing, with links to my faculty page and website, although he discontinued the commenting feature and he wrote a note saying that my blog was now set at "invitation only" as was my right.] I then made my blog into an "invitation only" site and, after I received a phone call to my cell phone from someone named Les Blaitz in Iowa, who wanted to "talk" about the Duke case and who said he got my cell from my cv, I had another friend-colleague take down all contact information from my faculty website and I talked to the chair of my department to let him know what was going on, in case the craziness spilled over into Monday (thank goodness it hasn't). I also did not read any of the hate mail. I did glance at it--Les, when I wouldn't talk to him, sent me a very nasty note. I don't know if it was threatening or not, because I decided for my mental health not to read any of the mail or the comments that were posted after my last comment at 7pm to my blog. I do know that regardless of whether anyone was really physically threatening in the email messages I got, that when someone starts a message by calling you a "fucking whore" what follows is not going to be nice. I did, on the advice of legal counsel and some colleagues, send a "reply" to these people, essentially informing them that their original email message had been recorded and that it was illegal to send harassing or threatening email messages and that sending such messages could result in legal action. I haven't gotten any more email messages or phone calls.

6) Let me end my numbered points by saying that I think it's over (knock on wood) but more importantly, as upsetting as all of this has been, there has been amazing support out there. I received triple the number of supportive email messages and phone calls--some from people I've never met but who have had similar run-in's with KC or over the Duke issue. I had colleagues on a weekend call me and be so helpful with giving advice and being supportive. I had people drop by my home to check up on me, and friends from far away call me to make sure I was doing OK. The positive moral support far outweighs the negative hate mail, and that was the turning point for me Sunday morning when I was still feeling uneasy and weird about everything. I realized that I had received, in total, 6 pieces of hate mail, 22 comments, and one phone call. This is minor in comparison to the overwhelmingly supportive email messages, phone calls, and in person confirmations that I received. Again, I can't judge how threatening any of the email messages were, but I have been told by friends who did read the comments that while some of them are mean spirited, none are truly threatening. And in comparison to the death threats and verbal harassment that Duke faculty get over this issue, this is nothing. It's totally minor. And while this blog is set at invitation only currently, I'm hopeful that in a month I'll put it out in the wider world of the blogosphere. I may, for protection purposes, take down the whole Duke postings. I am still not sure if that would be the right thing to do. I do know that I'm not allowing anymore anonymous postings and will put a caveat about not giving permission to cut and paste from my blog--if anyone knows about intellectual property law, give ma a ring.

So where does this leave me? I'm really fine. I've learned a lot and will write about it later, when I've had some time and distance away from this subject. I think it needs to be written about. Not even because of what I went through but just the idea, which is so angering, that someone, this KC Johnson, has incited so much hate and has been the conduit for people to attack faculty around the nation based on their progressive ideas. He has targeted Duke faculty, but he has been known to attack other progressive-liberal faculty members, at Wesleyan, for example. But perhaps the larger picture is this: there are a lot of angry white men out there. Truly, if you go to Durham-in-Wonderland (not that I think you should--I was going to put a link to KC Johnson's blog, but I don't think anyone should give him the time of day), you will find that people are angry. Some angry women, but lots and lots of angry men, the majority seem to be white. And they are nasty, not all, but a lot of them are angry and nasty and say the kind of racist and sexist things that confirm your worst fears. And it just feels discouraging, but at the same time, it also affirms, to me, that something needs to be done.

And so we finally (sorry for the length of this post) get to the title of my blog entry: Academic Privilege. Because I have A LOT of it. I have a PhD and a university affiliation--because of these things I had the support of my colleagues and chair in English and I had access to a lot of advice, most importantly, free legal advice. I do have a platform to speak about the things I want to speak about and believe in, both in this blog but also in the research I conduct and the classes I teach. On a regular basis I get to make my opinions known and heard, and for the most part it's done entirely within the realm of academic freedom of speech. I don't feel censored by what I write about or research or teach. I get a lot of support from the university, my department, colleagues and friends. I am lucky in many, many ways, but more importantly, as part of the less than .05% of the population holding a PhD, I am very, very privileged, to have a PhD, to have a tenure-track position, to have access to power and influence, to be a semi-public figure.

There is a responsibility that comes with academic privilege--and there are many things that I think I feel more strongly about--like academic freedom of speech, like doing the research I do on race, like speaking out about gender and class and sexuality issues. And I don't want to feel, as I briefly did this weekend, that I should second-guess myself with what I write on this blog or that I don't have the right to talk about issues of race or that I should bow to the hate mail or the not-so-nice-things that were written about me on KC Johnson's blog. There is a problem of dialogue and discourse--maybe I was naive to think the blog was a place to have civil dialogue and discourse about race. I don't regret trying--I am a little discouraged, but I'm also determined not to give up. I don't want to preach to the choir, but I also don't want to plead in front of the lynch mob. But somewhere in-between there has to be a space and a place where people can engage in civil dialogue about difficult subjects, like race. Where we can all be open minded, not say everything perfectly, but still manage to hear one another.

If anyone knows where that place is, let me know. I'll be there in a second.


Paul said...

Hey J,

This is a very thoughtful post about the privilege of academics to speak. I'm glad you're continuing to blog despite the ugliness of some commenters.

:) P

Unknown said...


Your experience is another fascinating example of how we all try to do/think/say/feel hard things in an easy place.

We do need to have conversations about gender, race, class, sexuality, access, privilege, social justice, etc. As long as they are real conversations.

The internet and blog-o-sphere seduce us with a large audience and the freedom share/express. That freedom, for better and worse, is amplified by the facelessness of the internet.

Additionally, it robs us of having the essential component of dialogue, of real connection: a shared experience where two or more physical beings are sharing physical, emotional, and spiritual, space. It's like trying to do couples therapy on-line or helping family members reconcile on a conference call.

Race, gender, sexuality are not simply theorectical constructs like String or Chaos Theory to be discussed. There are deep, painful, dimensions to each minority experience for the minority and majority.

Until we can stomach in person, with each other, without knee jerk responses of guilt or overcompensation, the "isms" will continue to hurt, outrage, and drive scared minority and majority people to do and say crazy things.

In short, right conversation to have, wrong medium to experience it in.


Jennifer said...

I just want to thank both Paul & Heath for their comments--really appreciate the thoughtfulness of your responses. And I also wanted to include a piece of advice from a Duke faculty member I've been emailing with. She believes that it is important to know about these conservative sites--esp. since they are targeting academics (and specifically Duke academics) and to be informed about the scary discourse of right wing people. It's not easy to stomach, but it is a mistake for those of us on the liberal left to dismiss the conservative right and to believe that by ignoring them we choose not to give credence to their arguments and therefore we disempower them.

I think a lot of what Heath wrote goes to this point--the relative anonymity of the web places us in a different realm. Things people would normally never say directly to someone become fair game under anonymous postings or the relative safety of the blogosphere.

So, to that end, I'm including a link to "Durham in Wonderland"--you can find it at:

I'd make it a real link, but I'm unclear how to do that in "comment" mode, which proves what a neophyte I am when it comes to blogging (if anyone knows, feel free to email me off-line).

Anyway, I'm not saying that any of you needs to read it--and although the Duke professor is encouraging me to share the hate mail I received with others, the truth is, at this point, I just can't bring myself to look at the folder that they are in. I guess I'm more thin skinned than I'd like to think. Or perhaps it's a totally rational and human reaction to be upset by nasty (even if untrue) things that people write to you. At any rate, I suppose the point is, there is a lot of real anger and hate and I think I became a lightening rod, briefly, for some of it. I think I was an easy lightening rod, in many ways, because I am a young-ish, junior faculty, woman of color, who works in issues of race (and to some degree gender and sexuality) and because I become a personification of the "liberal Angry Studies Minority Feminist" professor that is creating all sorts of problems right now for everyone else (read: angry white men who don't want to share their privilege).

The funny thing is this--I wonder, again as per Heath's comments, if I were face to face with any of the men who wrote those comments (or women, I'm sure a few were women) would they be as angry? Would I? Could we really hear each other? I don't know...I suppose that's just another academic question.

jordynn said...

It seems like this kind of thing is endemic in the blogosphere. A woman named Kathy Sierra received death threats for a post she made on a technology blog--it's not clear to me what it was about or why it was so controversial, but she ended up stopping her blog, I think. There's a news story about it here:

I wonder if there's any way to combat this kind of hostility. It all reminds me of a book by Krista Ratcliffe called Rhetorical Listening, which outlines a theory of listening and argues for its importance as a rhetorical concept...

Unknown said...

Here's an interesting question that I have: Is the frustration, hurt, anger, pain, and fear that minorities feel/experience the same or similar to the anger of the angry white man?

At the root of all anger is fear. Is the fear that we won't be heard or that we'll be heard and we also expect people to change as a result of our words? Is the fear one of disappointment? Is the fear the result of minorities and majorities being defined as competitors for limited resources? Is the fear the fear of losing power over one's destiny, one's ability to fulfill the myth of the American Dream?

It seems to me that until these fears, the BIG pink elephant(s) in the room, get addressed not in terms of blame and who has suffered more but in terms of collaboration for mutual benefit, we end up in the same place.

The thing is have liberals-progressives explained in plain, jargon free terms why diversity is good or beneficial to the angry white man. If his anger is not addressed, if his fears are not addressed, if he does not understand how his attitudes get in the way of what he really needs and wants, why should he change?


Unknown said...

In terms of hearing people when we're face-to-face, I think people are more likely to hear if they feel like they are being heard on their terms.

Tenured Radical said...


Great blog -- and I'm glad things calmed down. One thing I would say about the academic privilege thing is yes, but: you worked pretty hard for that privilege, and you will continue to work hard for it and because of it. So although I do get what you are saying, I think it's tricky. As far as I can tell a lot of KC's people are pretty privileged too: doctors, lawyers, Duke alums. Some of them seem to be posting from a mental hospital, but in many of the emails I got, people seemed to be bolstering hteir authority by coming out as professionals.

BTW, given my own experience with KC, I came to believe that several of the harassers were actually him operating under different names. I can tell you why I think this, but not here.

And the way he found you was that he has a permanent Google search set up for a variety of phrases attached to the case. My post was about the Rutgers basketball team and Don Imus, with only a passing reference to the Duke thing. Now, when I want to reference my horrible experience with KC and the Trolls I refer to "the People with Sticks (and Balls.)"

The other thing I did was post something on my blog that said explicitly that I would take down vicious comments, and I do. In many ways, they are just talking ot each other, and they migrate the conversation to other people's blogs. Once you frusttrate them by taking the comments down, they post their comments to you on KC's blog, and as far as I can tell that makes them just as happy.

Good luck!


Paul said...

While I agree that we all need to be having these kinds of difficult conversations about race IRL as well, I hesitate to concede the blogosphere as a space inadequate for these kinds of conversations. As h3mswlcsw notes, there are definitely difficulties associated with talking about grounded issues on the internet, but the anonymity and facelessness of the place also offers a kind of safety for people who might not feel comfortable talking about these things in person. Ultimately, I continue to hope for a proliferation of sites where people have (and attempt to have) productive discussions about race.

Jennifer said...

Thank you to everyone who is reading this blog and to everyone who has posted a comment. I just wanted to make a specific reply to "Tenured Radical" in appreciation for the strategies to deal with future people reading the blog once it goes public again. And I also wanted to concur about KC using multiple "pseudonyms" to harass others. I *think* that he may have actually started it all as "Wayne Fontes" and maybe even the "Ralph" poster as well. Hard to tell exactly. But it wouldn't surprise me and would fit in a lot of different ways.

I also want to concur with "TR" that in reading through the posters to KC's blog and to think about the amount of free time that people had to respond, so quickly, to my comments, chances are these are professional people, men with free time on their hands (and yes, I know that there may have been women posting comments and certainly there was at least one hate mail message from a woman--and women probably post comments to KC's blog, and probably there are non-white people who post, but I'm going to just say right now that I think the majority of the nasty comments and hate mail come from angry white men), and yes they are very privileged. The truth is, a college degree doesn't inocculate you from racism and sexism--neither does a professional job or an advanced degree like an MBA, JD, MD, or in KC's case, a PhD. I think a very important lesson is that it's easy to dismiss these people as marginal and crazy, but the truth is, I don't think they are marginal--I think some of them form a core, the center of our society, and I think they are angry.

And I guess the question, per Heath's very provocative questions, are why are they angry -- what is the root of their anger? Because in some ways it's similar and yet vastly different from the anger of people of color, women, the GLBT community, and other marginalized people. Yes, we may be angry that we're not being heard, but I think the anger of white men (esp. straight white men with white collar jobs) is stemming from a very different place--and I guess I just don't understand where that place is, but I think I'd be negligent to think that it wasn't important to find out, because it may be at the heart of real dialogue and healing, if we can find that common ground, which like Paul, I'm not willing to concede the blogosphere as being not hospitable.

Unknown said...

I think the anger of minority and majority are really similar. The anger experienced by both are temporally located in the past, present, and future. For many minoritiies, they have learned anger from other generations who were interned, inslaved, and annihilated. This anger has also been intensified by their own experiences of discrimination. For majority folks there is a sense of losing one's heritage, one's traditions, one's way of life as they were taught to expect it. In the present, minorities can sense how close they are to fuller experiences of equality. At the same time minority groups experience frustation with the pace of change. As minority groups become fuller participants, majority groups feel that their ability to fully participate is diminishing. Both groups look to the future with anxiety: What struggles will the current generation of minorities have to endure to finally see total equality for all people across all spheres of public and private life? Is this the final generation that majority groups will experience the privileges they have been accustomed to for so long? I think if any of us were faced with these questions, we'd be angry.