(talk given at a panel on the notion of niceness within academic spaces)
“My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of anger will teach you nothing, also.
Women responding to racism means women responding to anger; the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation.”
Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” in Sister Outsider (p. 124) (From Keynote presentation at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference, Storrs, Connecticut, June 1981.)
What does nice mean? I think when we think about nice or not nice — it should be a reminder that behind most dichotomies are systems of power, and it is people in power that benefit from those dichotomies. What is not “nice” in some real sense is the inequitable distribution of material and social resources, of access to all imaginable spaces for agency over ones own growth, and fulfilment — physical, material, emotional, intellectual. So, anger in the face of these inequities and the associated structural, cultural, and direct physical violence that undergirds this system! For when the system is really challenged, that’s when we can see fully that under the veneer of “niceness” is the execution of violence on the bodies of the marginalised. The legitimate response to this system is anger.
Niceness in this view is comfort with the status quo, with the imperialist white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy (hooks).
People in power call the expression of that anger as “not nice!” That anger arises from pain, it arises from empathy, it arises from a desire for justice and equity and a desire to live. While the veneer of “niceness” that people in power can hold unto rests on their ability to simply enact inequities in policy and action, and to have a large set of middle managers and enforcers who would “keep the peace” on their behalf.
Power itself is not so dichotomous. Besides realising the dynamics of this at the top and bottom, many of us here at the conference occupy halfway positions. The question is how are we going to occupy this location? Are we going to mirror the “niceness” of those above us, so that they are not inconvenienced? This happened a lot during the pandemic as tenured professors just watched the ranks of adjunct faculty and other contract workers get marginalised, lose jobs, pay etc. Or are we going to align with the anger of those who are marginalised and follow their lead and amplify their voices.
W.r.t. ASEE (American Society for Engineering Education) what does this mean? What does it even mean for us to engage in conversations on equity and diversity when the entry price on the door is $450 for online participation and almost $850 for in person attendance?
We need to confront the ways in which our own research and rhetoric serves researcher interests but doesn’t actually lead to changes in social material conditions for those whom we claim to be advocating for. We have to articulate and confront the symbolic, cultural, structural, and physical harm that our own work perpetuates. This is especially true when we basically just do endless research on inequity while wringing our hands in the face of inequities in our institutions and organisations.
We need to build the capacity for being not-nice productively. Towards achieving real social material change. It is a skill, and the knowledge for that is not within academia — we need to look towards movement organisers and learn from them.