“Taking on the ‘Little Things’ that Mean A Lot”
By Harry Denny, St. John's University
New York, June 30, 2012
Long ago, Kitty Kallen sang and made famous a line that still resonates with me: "little things mean a lot." Of course, she was talking about the small gestures that make love meaningful, so her campy lyrics are just rife for queer re-appropriation, especially in moments of social awkwardness in the academy and beyond. "Little things" to me include passing experiences rife with meaning, codings that exceed an interlocutor's intended meaning, as Stuart Hall might argue. Gauzy warm examples for me include those out-of-the-blue heartfelt expressions of appreciation from a student or a reader, but the darker ones always seem powerfully fresh in my memory. I remember a professional colleague correcting me for naming her companion a “partner” rather than as her preferred use of “husband.” To correct a queer person, who at time couldn’t have a long-term relationship recognized by governments and most people, seemed tone deaf. I’m also drawn to a WPA, who professed progressive politics and a faith in critical pedagogy, but who stood by and tacitly supported a faculty peer being mobbed and bullied. Saying, “Stop it!” would have been a “little thing” that would have meant a lot to that young professor.
In “Troubling the Boundaries: (De)Constructing WPA Identities at the Intersections of Race and Gender,” Collin Lamont Craig and Staci Maree Perryman-Clark paint powerful narratives about their own lived experiences at the intersection of powerful forms of institutional oppression and the everyday practices of WPA work. For both, the hegemonic practices of racism and sexism became both legible and material in the context of WPA work as well as early in their academic careers. Craig's and Perryman-Clark's stories, sadly enough, aren't instructive for anyone who experiences the grinding reality of institutional and systemic oppression. In the wince-worthy moments they share, readers, whether those who have been inscribed as Others or those individuals who perform their identities beyond normalized codes or protocol, will find a familiar refrain of humiliation, embarrassment, frustration, and anger.
For some, my use of "little thing" might signify as diminishing, but my intent couldn't be further away. "Little things" to me represent conflict in everyday exchanges, actions which accumulate into patterns, that sustain environments, and that make the lived experiences with discrimination and oppression both demoralizing to one's spirit and grinding on our desire to be a part of an integrated, diverse community. "Little things" stand in contrast to their implied opposition -- the big things -- moments whose offensiveness are obvious, stark, and odious. Such occasions are the stuff of horrific legends that enable the majority to distance itself from enactors. For queers like me, it's the distinction between the sort of harassment that drives a young teen to commit suicide and the kind of professional interpersonal interaction that re-inscribes marginalization, just as Craig and Perryman-Clark note of.
I worry the lesson that young WPAs are supposed to take away from the ubiquity of everyday oppression is that "it gets better." Grizzled veterans of harassment, whether Othered themselves or well-meaning progressive allies (white, straight, middle-class, male), might caution objects of quotidian harassment to pull our punches, turn our cheeks, bide our time, or know "this too will pass." Just as bad and demoralizing is for our sympathizers to attempt fixes and become our champions, to fail, in a sense, to recognize the ubiquity, the insidiousness, the enormity of systems of oppression and the paucity of assimilationist responses. The liberal response to both vulgar and everyday oppression is to turn the experiences into teachable moments that are individualized, reflected or parroted back to the personal objects and occasionally the agents of discrimination and harassment.
For novice WPAs, who live the intersectionality that Craig and Perryman-Clark write into so well, we don't need people to mentor us in what to do or how to respond. Rather, what we need are allies who can listen and hear (as Villanueva has written about), who can turn ears and eyes to our words, internalize them, and perhaps even work with us to make sense and challenge them on our terms (not on their terms or our oppressors). We don't need people to affirm how we feel about these moments, to grant them legitimacy as if we couldn't authentically own them ourselves. Instead, we need mentors who are connectors, people who open doors for rich conversations and consciousness raising and who practice an ongoing commitment to performing a challenge to everyday, hegemonic oppression. In essence, we need mentors who practice quiet leadership that’s rooted in critical dialogues, difficult conversations, and energizing exchanges.
Craig, Collin and Staci Perryman-Clark. “Troubling the Boundaries: (De)Constructing WPA Identities at the Intersections of Race and Gender.” WPA: Writing Program Administration, Spring 2011.
Hall, Stuart. Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse. Birmingham: Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, 1972.
Villanueva, Victor. “Blind: Talking about the New Racism.” The Writing Center Journal, 26.1 (2006): 3-19.