In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed writes that she will not cite any white men. It is a concise, assertive stance. We talk frequently about diversifying syllabi and including more works by women, queer people, and people of color. We develop tools to track our progress. We make personal commitments to drawing on work by scholars native to the countries we study, by those marginalized by “mainstream” academia, by those not writing in standard academic fora. Typically we accept, however, that a good portion of what we cite—and what we make our students read—will be the “canonical” texts of the Waltzes and Morgenthaus and Machiavellis (as though the canon were not itself a construct of those in positions of power). We accept that certain ideas and ways of seeing the world will continue to dominate, even as we introduce alternative perspectives. Leaving the white men out entirely is thus striking.
I want to probe whether it should be striking. What is striking is that a plethora of human experiences exist and yet scholars go to considerable effort to reify one kind. What an endeavor—what a commitment to the white male enterprise—to ignore the cornucopia of work by copious scholars from countless backgrounds to take a narrow slice of human knowledge and make that the entirety of the thing.
This is how dominance works, of course; this is how power reproduces itself. I am a queer woman and I know this in my bones. I don’t mean to question the mechanism by which we all end up citing a bunch of white men. “Citational privilege: when you do not need to intend your own reproduction,” Ahmed writes. “… You have to do more not to reproduce whiteness than not to intend to reproduce whiteness.” The system has magnified the narrow slice: it is institutionalized. It is sticky. It is also a condition of possibility, one in which “striking” in response to setting that slice aside in favor of the entire rest of the cake becomes a thinkable reaction.
I interact regularly with a white male academic who has asked me, among other things, to track oppression as though progress were an inevitable linear companion of time. “Don’t you think,” he has asked, “that things have gotten better?” (He means for black people.) In this statement, he ignores the rest of the cake: all of the work of black scholars on mass incarceration, on the War on Drugs, on the ways in which we have hidden societal violence rather than abandoned it. It is a willful ignorance—a privileged one, certainly, and nonetheless striking, because he is 56 and by now, it is a choice. (It is also the entire point: “it’s better now” is an implicit justification for that ignorance.)
And here I arrive back at myself: my immediate reaction to Ahmed’s stance, after “striking”, is, well, who would I cite if I cast the white men aside? The entirety of the universe, presumably, because I write on terrorism and we lament how impossible it is to keep up with that ballooning literature…despite citing the same 10 people over and over again. We decide what we think is seminal, and I do use that word intentionally. “Seminal: how ideas are assumed to originate from male bodies,” Ahmed points out. I digress. In that ballooning literature is so much I do not know. There is work to be done. Perhaps what is most striking of all is the ability to live in such a rich world with so many experiences and viewpoints, to have “progressed” so far in our own timeline, and to still make that empirical statement about our reality: there is work to be done. There is effort to be undone.