The academy and (threats of) violence

I am visiting the Gender Studies Department at the LSE for the term. They were kind enough to extend an invitation while my partner was invited to be the Susan Strange Lecturer in International Relations. In exchange for the pleasure of sharing their space and their company, I am participating in an evening discussion of Feminist Epistemology with some members of the department.

I was delighted to receive an invitation to attend a workshop for Gender Studies masters’ students on intersectionality given by Kimberlé Crenshaw. Rather than giving a standard academic talk on the topic she offered a narrative composed of autobiographical vignettes — moments that informed her coming to the idea of intersectionality. She is a wonderfully engaging speaker and this was a fresh approach to an idea that I have been grappling with for several years in relation to my work on feminist standpoint theory. Her main point was the specificity and the concreteness of the idea as it grew out of very specific experiences and her responses to them.

At the end of the talk, the students broke into small groups to talk about how Prof. Crenshaw’s presentation and the readings of her work they had been assigned fit together. The plan was to reconvene after tea when a broader discussion would take place — including a question and answer period.

The students — 120 of them, mostly women — are from all over the world and doing masters degrees in a variety of specializations: Women, Peace, and Security; Gender, Media, and Culture; Gender, Policy, and Inequalities; Gender, Development and Globalisation; and various different broader specializations under the heading ‘Gender’ (Sexuality, Research). I left them while I ran some errands and then returned for the afternoon session.

It begin in a fairly ordinary way. Prof. Crenshaw took questions and was in the process of answering them. Questions like “What is the right way to do intersectional research?” (Answer: “There is no formula.”) She was in the process of offering a somewhat more complicated question when white man standing next to me who looked to be in his 50s interrupted. It seemed at first that he had just been impatient and was jumping the question queue. Kimberlé went on speaking, but he got louder and more insistent — in fact, belligerent. I was right next to him and it crossed my mind to get up and ask him to leave — I was one of the older people in the room and technically faculty and so I felt some sense of responsibility for the students — but at that point I realized that Clare Hemmings, the department chair, was moving towards us and was going to handle the situation. Kimberlé stayed focused and continued trying to answer the question although at that point I could no longer focus on what she was saying. Clare was asking the man to leave, politely but strongly, and I though he would of course go now, but he did not. They moved behind me and in a moment he had bashed into my shoulder and quickly moved to the front of the room, where Kimberlé was still speaking, although now she stopped — everyone frozen, tense. Perhaps because there was no exit at the front of the room, he moved back towards where I was sitting nearly as quickly as he had gone to the front and Clare now told him he had to leave and walked him out.

It felt that the whole incident had only been a few minutes. It turns out it all took 15 minutes — documented by Kimberlé’s media assistant. We were all shaken — although, in truth, it is unlikely that he was a real danger. It seems he was a known disrupter at the university. But we did not know that at the time. The only physical contact he had was with Clare — whose arm he grabbed during the confrontation, which had, in turn, caused him to fall over me. I was hurt — not badly – a slight bruise on one shoulder, but the pure shock of the physical pain suddenly felt in my safe, privileged world — the academy — was more startling than the physical pain warranted. I was not alone in this.

It was over — the disruption had passed — but we all were shaken, including Kimberlé. She said “Let’s talk about it.” And she led us in processing the experience. I suspect her thought was to speak about it till we will settled and then move back to the workshop agenda but it was soon apparent that lots of people wanted to talk. We wondered why we had not all responded more immediately. Why hadn’t we all insisted that he leave? Why hadn’t we all stood up? The norms of the lecture hall? Or was it a gendered response? Or simply fear? Fear of escalation, fear of violence.

Students spoke of reacting out of their experiences. One student had lost hearing in one ear in a violent encounter and immediately feared she would lose hearing in the other ear as well. One student said he looked like a man who had attacked her and her friends last year (although he was not) — she was still shaking. One student thought that if she spoke up she would just be ignored because she was Asian. Another thought it might be an active shooter — a situation that she had already experienced once in another academic setting.

The concreteness of the individual responses had gelled into the one non-response from the collective — the threat of violence held us still, but the experiences of violence gave that threat a reality. Sharing the moment allowed for a recognition of our fear and Kim finished it with deep breathing and reaffirmation, taking back the day, and keeping us together.

Clare describes the incident here.

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