Watson and Anti-Black Racism

by Andrea Olinger, Director, 2020-2021 Watson Mini-Conference
October 12, 2020

Even as the Watson Committee and I, its director, joined the swelling outcry against the historic and ongoing brutality toward, and indifference to, Black lives; even as, in a collective statement with our colleagues in the English Department, we declared our commitment to developing pedagogies and programs that work to uproot white supremacy and promote racial justice, it is vital that we recognize how the Watson Conference participates in systems infected by anti-Blackness. We must confront our role in sustaining the very structures we stand determined to take down. We must face that the Watson Conference is a space saturated with whiteness, just as are the department, the university, and the field of rhetoric and composition: the very institutions that host Watson and enable it. And we must pierce this bubble of privilege and answer for the harms we have created.

In the case of the 2018 Watson Conference and subsequent events, the wrong, and the injury that attended it, sprang from this toxic history. The retelling that follows is guided by the principle that reconciliation cannot precede truth—that to meaningfully challenge white supremacy in the present, we must first acknowledge, expose, and reckon with its legacy.

The Racist Incident and Its Aftermath

At the 2018 conference, one of the keynote speakers, Laurie Gries, uttered the N-word when quoting language she heard growing up as a white child being indoctrinated into anti-Black racism in the South. No one addressed her use of the racial slur at the conference, though concerns were expressed on Twitter. Although Watson director Mary P. Sheridan called out Gries’s “offensive example” and circulated Gries’s apology letter, that did not happen until the post-conference feedback period closed, a month later. Shortly thereafter, an open letter by the Black, Latinx, American Indian, Queer, and Asian/Asian American caucuses of NCTE/CCCC called the Watson Conference to account for its lack of formal institutional action. In response, Sheridan wrote an open letter, which was emailed to the caucuses and Watson registrants and posted on Twitter, in which she apologized and pledged to “do better in working to redress deeply entrenched racism in our field” through antiracist actions—citing particularly the upcoming Watson graduate seminar, which would “foreground the voices of scholars of color and antiracist theoretical and methodological frameworks.” She also called on future Watson directors to take these lessons into their own conference planning, as her directorship ended in 2018.

In fall 2019, the Watson Committee began publicizing the 2020 Watson Conference. The call for papers drew controversy for seeming to equate the rhetorical strategies employed by the political right and left and for characterizing Black Lives Matter and #MeToo as manifestations of “identity politics.” As we contemplated revisions, we were forced by reductions in course releases and staffing to cancel the regular conference and withdraw the call for papers. Ultimately, we decided to downscale the 2020 conference and convene a mini-conference with a handful of invited speakers unaffiliated with UofL.

In spring 2020, I undertook the directorship and themed the mini-conference around the production of a digital edited collection on methodologies of social justice-oriented researchers. However, I did not initiate conversations with my four fellow moderators/co-editors, all from outside UofL, about the details of the 2018 incident, including the previously stated commitment to “foreground the voices of scholars of color and anti-racist theoretical and methodological frameworks.” When one of the invited keynotes independently researched what happened during Gries’s 2018 keynote and looked to our website for a response but found nothing, I shared the 2018 chronology and letters with the moderators, revealing these earlier-stated commitments. The lone moderator of color then resigned, and all but two of the moderators and keynotes followed, citing that the 2020 event, and the scholars of color who had been invited, were being used to redress the racist actions of 2018 without my ever having made this purpose transparent.

In short, the soul-searching from us that ensued was instigated by the work of a Black scholar who, as a matter of self-preservation, makes it a practice to interrogate the history of the predominantly white spaces she enters, especially when no such history is plainly offered. And this document is a direct result of the questions asked by some of the BIPOC women who served among the moderators and keynotes—a deeply regrettable situation given that women of color, and Black women in particular, have borne the brunt of educating white people in academia about individual and systemic racism.

With the support of the Watson Committee, I address this history here in order to account and apologize for the multiple harms we inflicted. By neglecting to call out the racial slur immediately in 2018, we exposed our ignorance of its gravity in any context. A public but fleeting statement from just one of us was not sufficient; it was imperative that we post to our website a collective statement, one informed by institutional and personal self-examination, that could be viewed by all even beyond 2018. Although Watson conferences are separated by two years, directed by a different UofL faculty member, served by a committee of shifting faculty, and guided by a different theme, their identity, culture, and sense of community cut across and linger beyond individual iterations. Without a collective statement, we thus left open the question of whether future Watson conferences would be a safe and affirming site for our Black colleagues. Finally, by operating on the presumption that the 2020 invited moderators and keynotes were familiar with this history, I projected the impression—unintentional but no less actual—that the scholars of color were being exploited, as if their presence alone would expiate our past. In so doing, I compounded those harms and created new ones.

Watson’s Commitments to Fighting Anti-Black Racism

No amount of contrition can undo these wrongs. But it lies well within our power to embody the principles that we profess and that the joint-caucus open letter calls for: to strive to eradicate white supremacy and to affirm that Black lives matter. Toward that end, the 2021 event will invest the Watson endowment’s resources in speakers with expertise in building and implementing antiracist structures for rhetoric and composition conferences and other scholarly venues (outlined below). Furthermore, for the 2021 event and Watson conferences thereafter, the following actions will be undertaken:

  • We will support and amplify Black scholars through our speaker invitations and honoraria while being mindful not to burden them with the expectation that they must, or that their participation does, absolve Watson for our past.
  • We will prepare and follow guidelines for Watson participants on recognizing and countering microaggressions, acts of racism, and hate speech.
  • We will support local Black-owned businesses whenever possible.
  • We will assess our actions on these initiatives as part of our post-conference review process in order to weave these practices into the fabric of the conference.

The January virtual mini-conference will examine such questions as the following:

  • What approaches exist, or should be developed, to combat the inveterate whiteness of conferences in their population and environment?
  • What systems have been or should be created to address microaggressions and hate speech at conferences?
  • What feedback and reporting mechanisms should conferences implement to assess their antiracist performance objectives?
  • How have conferences extended outside the academy by engaging with local communities around literacy or writing?
  • What compensation structures exist, or could be developed, for BIPOC scholars who expend intellectual and emotional labor to educate conference organizers or other groups about racist actions?

Ultimately, we hope that these conversations will inspire new policies and practices both within Watson and other organizations in our discipline. We likewise aim to generate texts that compile our findings and to disseminate them within the field. At minimum, this will include the following documents:

  • A public post-conference report that discusses the lessons we have learned from the mini-conference, makes recommendations for future Watson conferences, and revises our commitments to future Watson conferences as needed. [Update: Access report on the 2021 conference]
  • Guidelines for Watson participants on recognizing and countering microaggressions, acts of racism, and hate speech. These guidelines will be included in all future conference programs and also posted on our website. [Update: Access the 2021 Conference Commitments]
  • Training materials for the next Watson director that will document what we have learned, including suggestions for writing inclusive calls for papers. Given that the directorship rotates every two years, these materials, in conjunction with the report, will support the development of institutional memory.

Finally, all moderators/co-editors and keynotes who had accepted the initial invitation to the 2020 mini-conference will be invited to participate in January 2021 in keynote sessions or in mentoring workshops for graduate students. It is through their lead, after all, that Watson has been transformed. If they choose to participate, their presence will neither be taken as a sign of absolution nor induce us to relax our efforts. Antiracist work is continuous, we recognize now more than ever, and we will not rest satisfied.

This statement is a living document. Feedback is encouraged at watson@louisville.edu.

Andrea Olinger
Director, 2020-2021 Watson Mini-Conference