The Big Not-So-Easy

I shall not name the event, nor shall I name the participants.  But I am keen to record in writing my experience at a political science conference in the USA, which I attended last week along with my Race In The Americas (RITA) colleague, Adunni Adams.  Adunni Adams is a dark-skinned black woman with a striking crop of dyed blonde hair, shaped in a quasi-Grace Jones style.  I do not know whether this unconventional look was in any way connected to the fact that we were treated differently to everyone else when we arrived at the freezing cold room at the Hyatt Regency, where I would be presenting my research paper.  Adunni was only there to film my presentation for inclusion on the RITA website and she had been allowed to attend only the one panel.  Unlike me, she had opted not to become a member of the organisation holding the event, and not to pay the considerable fee for attending.  Perhaps we were treated differently because the presence of a relatively responsible-looking white man was not enough to re-assure the others in attendance that she meant no harm.  On the other hand, perhaps the fact that we came as a pair only exacerbated the problem.  I have always felt that our partnership has a charming, almost Pet Shop Boys style on first appearance, i.e. one looking ‘straight’ and respectable in a smart outfit, the other looking casual, dressed in what some would term ‘street’ clothes.  The comparison is only re-enforced by fact that when RITA attends these events, the ‘straight’ one usually stands and performs while the ‘street’ one says nothing and operates the equipment.

Whatever the cause, it was clear from the first few minutes that Adunni and I were not welcome in this grand, freezing cold room.  The chair introduced herself to the other two presenters in the room and explained how the session would go while ignoring myself and Adunni, before eventually turning to us and asking if we were there ‘for the presentations’, as though we might have been there to shampoo the carpet.  Others came into the room and also behaved as though we were not there, unless of course they needed to reach over for a glass of ice water, which they managed to accomplish with a half-smile, a polite ‘excuse me’ and no eye contact.  To isolate us even further, there was also the fact that they all knew each other by name and had all attended conferences together in the past.  The only conversation which Adams and I managed to have with anyone at the Hyatt on this day was with a man named Duwayne, who was responsible for the audio/visual set-up in each room.

During the first couple of presentations, I noticed that all three of the other presenters were wearing the classic staple of the American male, namely, the dark blazer with light pleated slacks and slip-on shoes combo.  Two of the men presenting had collaborated on a research paper, and were wearing the signature tie of their university.  It never occurred to me that any of the universities I have attended would have their own ties, but I think it's safe to say that I would rather have turned up bollock-naked than wearing a jacket and tie, especially a tie which has any association with my university.  The second presenter was unusual in that he actually stood up to present.  In a remarkable mid-Atlantic accent worthy of Keanu Reeves in ‘Dracula’, he exclaimed at one point, ‘just look at that co-efficient’.  Aside from the obvious point to be made here – namely, that I have now attended a conference at which someone actually said ‘just look at that co-efficient’ – I wondered at this point what Duwayne would have made of the co-efficient in question if he, or any other black person other than Adunni Adams, had been in the room.  After all, this was a presentation on race in the American South, and here we were in the American South, with the white people inside the Hyatt in the conference rooms, discussing issues relating to racism, and the black people outside, opening the doors and organising taxis or walking through corridors, managing security, changing sheets or unblocking toilets.  If some of them had been allowed into the room to hear this white man explain his ‘co-efficient’, perhaps all of us would have been one step closer to the realisation of racial harmony. 

I was the last to present, and following my presentation, I opted not to close my slide show, but instead leave the infamous mugshot of black teenager George Stinney up there on the screen.  The face of George Stinney – convicted and executed for the rape and murder of two white girls in what is widely believed to be an appalling miscarriage of justice – stared down on us as we began the Q&A session.  In the event, the chair used her ‘privilege’ (pun intended) to provide feedback on the three papers presented.  As the only PhD student there, I had the honour of listening to her advice on how my paper could have been improved.  Clearly, the work of those who have completed their PhDs cannot possibly be improved, so I look forward to reaching that stage in my academic development.  However, I do agree with her that my paper could have been better, but for a different reason.  I could have pointed out to her that if the current system were altered so that there was less elitism and less prejudice toward the study of institutional political science in the UK, I might have won some PhD funding, which would have enabled me to spend day after day on work such as this without the irritating necessity of having to sell gas and electricity for a living.  I could then have used three full days to complete this paper, rather than the few hours I was able to scrape either side of my full-time work commitments during that three-day period. 

Realising that we had been made to feel about as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit, myself and the other half of RITA re-grouped in the hallway to pack up our equipment.  My decision to leave the hotel with Adunni and abandon my original plan of staying at the conference was an easy one to make – it was simply a case of going with the solution rather than the problem.  There was also the fact that I became only too aware of what I have always suspected, namely, that you learn about race in the South by spending time in the South with southern people.  So that is what we opted to do.  As we made our way to the gigantic lobby of the hotel, it felt like walking through the headquarters of a James Bond villain, with everyone wearing the same outfit: dark blazer, light pleated slacks and slip-on shoes.

Strangely, rather than a defeat, the experience felt like some vindication of what RITA has been trying to do for the last two and a half years.  This was simply the wrong setting for us.  I did my best, as usual, to plug the RITA group, but I doubt if anyone will check us out, and I am certain that any one of them who does will abandon us immediately after reading our ‘why we exist’ section.  Of course, I am not suggesting that we were treated so shabbily because of outright prejudice, as there are so many other possible reasons: a staggering lack of self-awareness, for example, or perhaps just a natural sense of conservatism, to suggest but two.  On the other hand, aside from the lack of diversity which I have already pointed out, there was also the manner in which the other presentations offered quantitative rather than qualitative research, treating black Americans as one homogenous entity.  One presenter made the daring assertion that the election of a white mayor in a majority-black city does not mean that race is no longer an issue, prompting Adams and myself to glance across the table at one other in a ‘well, who the hell suggested that it wouldn't be?’ kind of way.  It's rather like making the assertion that the moon is made of cheese just so you can go out and argue against it.  There was also the rather odd suggestion that successful black Republican candidates are evidence of Republican success in winning over black voters, and the suggestion that the Republican Party will have to make a special effort to win over non-white voters in the future, despite sufficient evidence to show that the Democratic Party has not been popular during recent elections when Barack Obama has not been on the ballot. Whatever the reason for the way we were treated, the stark reality of the truth was quite evident in that cold room.  They all know each other.  They like what they have.  They're determined to keep it and they don't want others joining in.  Sound familiar?

Despite striking a modest blow for diversity – albeit unintentionally – by bringing one black person into that room, it is difficult to see how I could have achieved any kind of impact among those thirteen or fourteen people.  I doubt we would have gone down any better if I had incorporated a ‘co-efficient’ into my presentation, or if Adunni had adopted a Tyra Banks weave, or if the two of us had just stood there and performed ‘West End Girls’.  The other issue which made it difficult to take part in this event was the astonishing unavailability of wi-fi throughout this major three-day event.  This was a large conference held in the twenty-first century in a massive swanky hotel and cost a small fortune to attend, but the staggering absence of wifi facilities prevented us from following our usual conference practice of tweeting information throughout the event, using the conference hashtag.  A conference hashtag did exist, but sadly there was no facility for using it, unless one was prepared to run into Starbucks between panels and tweet furiously, from memory, details from the last three or four presentations.  The young lady on the registration desk looked so uncomfortable as she told me all this, almost hiding her face behind her paperwork, and I don't blame her.  Whatever conclusion one may draw from the other points I have made, it is hard to deny that a lack of wifi facilities at an event such as this – despite the existence of a perfectly good hashtag – is a total and utter embarrassment.

Two days later, we found ourselves on the outskirts of the city, at ExhibitBE, the largest street art exhibition in the American South.  I do not know if the magnificent graffiti on these derelict buildings will be preserved for all to see in the future, but it was an enormous privilege to be at this event, which drew together people of all ages and all ethnicities.  

Interestingly, we would not have been aware of this very special event – which was free for all to attend – had we not met DJ RQ Away and his wife, the magnificent Nailah Ricco, at the RITA intersectionality event held in London last November.  It was an enormous privilege to spend time with real people, and to witness such a remarkable display of creativity – the kind which comes from raw talent and genuine emotion.  The truth is, you learn about race, politics and people by spending time with people.  Clearly many if not most of the participants at the conference were not ready for a new approach to the study of race in the Americas.  Clearly we will never be on first-name terms with that group of people, who we'd never heard of and will probably never see again.  And it is hard to say what any of those people would have made of the images at ExhibitBe.  To them, the appearance of a black woman with a camera proved to be more troubling than the sight of two grown men wearing the same tie.


James O.