[NOTE: I am a signatory to but not an author of this letter. It is archived here for reference purposes.]
An Open Letter to the Department of History, University of Chicago:
Cc: Amanda Woodward, Interim Dean of the Social Sciences
David Nirenberg, Executive Vice Provost
Daniel Diermeier, Provost
We write as a group of medievalists and other scholars deeply concerned about the recent words and actions of your faculty member Rachel Fulton Brown. While tenets of academic freedom dictate that Professor Fulton Brown is allowed to express any opinion she wishes, we do not believe that doing so in a manner that puts an untenured scholar of color — or any scholar — in harm’s way is her right. And while, again, she is allowed to say what she likes, her ignorance of basic theoretical principles of race theory renders her an ill-informed and substandard interlocutor in the rigorous scholarly discussion of this important subject. To say the very least, her highly public statement reflects poorly on your department. But her words do far more grievous damage as well.
Professor Fulton Brown attempts to argue that: 1. she is not a white supremacist because she acknowledges the Middle Ages’ own complex awareness of non-white presences; and 2. the field does not espouse white supremacy because William Chester Jordan, a medievalist scholar of color, has attained an elevated position in it. These arguments betray her fundamental lack of knowledge concerning the discourses of structural racism and white supremacy. To claim that medieval studies’ support of a specific person of color negates any relationship the field has to white supremacy is, as even your undergraduates trained in theories of race will surely attest, stunningly benighted. Despite her assertions of respect for Professor Jordan’s work, Fulton Brown emphasizes his race, particularly by including a photo. Making race the lens through which to view his considerable achievements is in itself diminishing. Furthermore, it seems an entirely rudimentary point that a difference exists between the features of a historical period — such as the premodern cultural and demographic diversity that Professor Kim and other medievalists frequently discuss — and the modern constitution, practices, and reception of the field of study focusing on that historical period. Professor Kim and others argue that the latter house, attract, and produce white supremacist attitudes. Such attitudes are structurally implicit and by no means defused simply by particular medievalists mentioning particular non-white medieval figures in their research and teaching. The failure to understand the complexities of relation and distinction between a period’s artifacts and the engines of their study reveals a dearth of sophistication, research, and knowledge concerning not only race but also historical inquiry.
If the situation were merely that Professor Fulton Brown intervenes with ignorance into an already developed and nuanced scholarly conversation, that might embarrass your department but not necessarily cause concern or comment. In this instance, however, Professor Fulton Brown employs unconscionable and dangerous tactics in attempting to make her claims. She writes in a disrespectful manner that encourages contempt among her followers for Professor Kim. To imply that Professor Kim needs to “[l]earn some f*cking medieval western European Christian history, including the history of our field” represents an unacceptable way to phrase criticism in any public discursive arena. Additionally, the post puts Professor Kim at risk by accompanying its critique with a copyrighted image of her, used without permission. The picture makes Professor Kim identifiable — not just online but in real life — to an aggressive, vindictive population of racists known for their threats of physical violence and bodily harm. Professor Fulton Brown’s activity on Breitbart, and more significantly the fact that she has tagged Milo Yiannopoulos on her public Facebook page regarding this post, expose Professor Kim to one of the most racially violent contingents currently operating. Your department may feel compelled to set aside its high standards and support one of your own faculty no matter how disingenuous and ill-informed her points may be; however, she does not have the right to subject a colleague to virtual harassment or actual harm. Posting Professor Kim’s photo and identifying details, and then taking steps to make that data available to the volatile followers of an inflammatory right-wing public figure, Professor Fulton Brown has deliberately imperiled Professor Kim. Indeed, one day after Professor Fulton Brown’s post appeared, Professor Kim began receiving hate mail, and Yiannopoulos himself created a post for his followers describing Professor Kim as having been “beat[en] down” by Professor Fulton Brown and her sword. That post is not a mere Facebook folly. It contains an image from “Game of Thrones” of a female figure holding a metal-spiked club. Her weapon bears resemblance to the barbed-wire-wrapped bat used to kill an Asian-American character in “The Walking Dead” by bashing in his head. A post by another social media user accompanies the picture of Professor Kim with an assertion that Professor Fulton Brown “gets medieval” on her; the violent meaning of this familiar phrase from “Pulp Fiction” is well known. This country’s sense of license to inflict violence upon people of color is considerable; we do not deem it unreasonable to fear for our colleague’s safety as a result of your colleague’s actions.
It is not our place to tell your department whether or how to deal with Professor Fulton Brown. We ask, however, that you publicly acknowledge and act on your responsibility to protect vulnerable colleagues — within and without the University of Chicago — when your senior faculty violate basic norms of professional behavior and place those less powerful in the path of harassment and other forms of violence.
[Over 1,300 signatures on the original. Names withheld here to protect the signatories from harassment.]