I’ve intentionally borrowed the title of this post from Richard Rodriguez’ widely anthologized essay of the same name. I read it first, I think, either in high school or as an undergraduate; back then appropriately aligned with all the other Left-leaning “progressives” I know–feminist, pro-LGBTQ, anti-racist, Marxist, green, advocating for massive expansions of the social welfare system and public healthcare…. Rodriguez’s essay, which revolves around his decision to pass up a tenure-track offer from Yale, quit grad school and move forward on his own as a writer, struck me back then as reactionary, conservative, inattentive to what I suppose I thought of as the overwhelmingly positive structural effects of early US affirmative action programs.
Here are the final paragraphs of the essay:
On the 18th of February, late in the afternoon, I was in the office I shared with several other teaching assistants. Another graduate student was sitting across the room at his desk. When I got up to leave, he looked over to say in an uneventful voice that he had some big news. He had finally decided to accept a position at a faraway university. It was not a job he especially wanted, he admitted. But he had to take it because there hadn’t been any other offers. He felt trapped, and depressed, since his job would separate him from his young daughter.
I tried to encourage him by remarking that he was lucky at least to have found a job. So many others hadn’t been able to get anything. But before I finished speaking I realized that I had said the wrong thing. And I anticipated his next question.
‘What are your plans?” he wanted to know. “Is it true you’ve gotten an offer from Yale?”
I said that it was. “Only, I still haven’t made up my mind.”
He stared at me as I put on my jacket. And smiling, then unsmiling, he asked if I knew that he too had written to Yale. In his case, however, no one had bothered to acknowledge his letter with even a postcard. What did I think of that?
He gave me no time to answer.
“Damn!” he said sharply and his chair rasped the floor as he pushed himself back. Suddenly, it was to me that he was complaining. “It’s just not right, Richard. None of this is fair. You’ve done some good work, but so have I. I’ll bet our records are just about equal. But when we look for jobs this year, it’s a different story. You get all of the breaks.”
To evade his criticism, I wanted to side with him. I was about to admit the injustice of Affirmative Action. But he went on, his voice hard with accusation. “It’s all very simple this year. You’re a Chicano. And I am a Jew. That’s the only real difference between us.”
His words stung me: there was nothing he was telling me that I didn’t know. I had admitted everything already. But to hear someone else say these things, and in such an accusing tone, was suddenly hard to take. In a deceptively calm voice, I responded that he had simplified the
whole issue. The phrases came like bubbles to the tip of my tongue: “new blood”; “the importance of cultural diversity”; “the goal of racial integration.” These were all the arguments I had proposed several years ago—and had long since abandoned. Of course the offers were unjustifiable. I knew that. All I was saying amounted to a frantic self-defense. I tried to find an end to a sentence. My voice faltered to a stop.
“Yeah, sure,” he said. “I’ve heard all that before. Nothing you say really changes the fact that Affirmative Action is unfair. You see that, don’t you? There isn’t any way for me to compete with you. Once there were quotas to keep my parents out of certain schools; now there are quotas to get you in and the effect on me is the same as it was for them.”
I listened to every word he spoke. But my mind was really on something else. I knew at that moment that I would reject all of the offers. I stood there silently surprised by what an easy conclusion it was. Having prepared for so many years to teach, having trained myself to do nothing else, I had hesitated out of practical fear. But now that it was made, the decision came with relief. I immediately knew I had made the right choice.
My colleague continued talking and I realized that he was simply right. Affirmative Action programs are unfair to white students. But as I listened to him assert his rights, I thought of the seriously disadvantaged. How different they were from white, middle-class students who come armed with the testimony of their grades and aptitude scores and self-confidence to complain about the unequal treatment they now receive. I listen to them. I do not want to be careless about what they say. Their rights are important to protect. But inevitably when I hear them or their lawyers, I think about the most seriously disadvantaged, not simply Mexican-Americans, but of all those who do not ever imagine themselves going to college or becoming doctors: white, black, brown. Always poor. Silent. They are not plaintiffs before the court or against the misdirection of Affirmative Action. They lack the confidence (my confidence!) to assume their right to a good education. They lack the confidence and skills a good primary and secondary education provides and which are prerequisites for informed public life. They remain silent.
The debate drones on and surrounds them in stillness. They are distant, faraway figures like the boys I have seen peering down from freeway overpasses in some other part of town.
Since coming to the UK, I’ve found myself—in a surprisingly diverse number of contexts and settings, some explicit, some not—confronted with ‘hard’ questions concerning the ethics and politics of what arguably constitutes a new, and certainly complex, form of “affirmative action”: the often well-intentioned but more or less unavoidably tokenistic and, from a structural perspective, discriminatory and segregative “privileging” of service users and survivors in proscribed ways within the academy.
As readers of my blog know, I have, in the past, forcefully advocated for the greater inclusion of service users in academia. To a very large degree, I stand firmly by these commitments—somehow, we all need to work to find ways to ensure that diverse (*truly* diverse) voices are heard in the halls of research institutions; that evaluation, policy and practice are co-produced by their historical ‘beneficiaries’; that power/knowledge hierarchies are relentlessly questioned and interrogated; that knowledge is used, as the motto of Portland State University reads, “to serve the city” [or the people]. So what’s the problem?
What I see happening, in both academia and the services & policy worlds, is unfortunately not the greater inclusion of what Rodriguez describes as “the most seriously disadvantaged.” Activist and academic service user leaders are overwhelmingly white, often financially privileged, and more or less universally ‘privileged’ in the more complex sense of their (our/my) confidence, ideological passion, unyielding faith in the righteousness of their [our] political claims, culturally (if not formally) recognized intelligence, and ambition. And yet, in a sense, even they are victims.
We’re clearly poised at an awkward and paradoxical historical moment in which service users are simultaneously subject to ongoing, in some cases horrific, discrimination but also presented with myriad identity-based opportunities—none without substantial risks— including grants and resources, committee representation, sub-academic research positions, ‘honorary’ university affiliations, invited book chapters, invited participation in research conferences, and so forth.
While this might sound like progress, I feel increasingly suspicious that what is in fact happening—almost perfectly in tandem with the advancement and institutionalization of the peer specialist movement–is the insidious creation of a segregated, sub-class or under-class of low-wage “co”-researchers, para-academics, and other service user representatives-in-academia. And here’s my list of concerns about this move:
(1) no matter the noble intentions of the administrative and academic powers involved, the fact remains that individuals without doctorates (and/or with substantially less experience, fewer accomplishments, etc.) are simply not positioned in a way that is even remotely “equal” to scholars and researchers who have moved through formal doctoral programs, “put in their time” as research apprentices, established a funding record, and completed years of formal coursework in theory, research methods, grant-writing and/or statistics. This new sub-class of service user academics or affiliates, at least in the US, is certainly not positioned to meet eligibility requirements for federal grants, to advance in any substantial way within academia, to sit on scientific review committees, or to make significant decisions, within academic and/or reseach settings, about funding priorities, funding structures, admissions, advancement and tenure, and so forth;
(2) as in all instances that might be loosely categorizing as involving some sort of cooptive mechanism, collaboration with this new class of ‘workers’ or junior researchers will in fact likely bolster the academic prospects of traditional academics (not servie users), heightening, rather than narrowing, operative power-knowledge hierarchies. More problematic still are those instances of collaboration that do in fact involve or reflect the exigencies of the “most seriously disadvantaged”—e.g. individuals living in abject poverty, with no education, and serious, ongoing, disabling mental health problems. It is mostly self-deception to think that these forms of colloboration in any sense divide power equally;
(3) the distinction between “expertise by experience” and “expertise by training” arguably contributes to a system-justifying anti-intellectualism and, as George W. famously put it, “soft discrimination” (the service user doesn’t need formal training, whereas everyone else does; mental health experience is somehow qualitatively different from myriad other types of experience)
(4) the lowering of standards for service user and/or academic presentations, publications and scholarly rigor can only damage the truth claims of all service user researchers, including those who in fact do only the most careful and critical work;
(5) the shaming, rather than empowering, of students, activists and researchers thus ‘singled out’;
(5) finally, I believe there is an almost omnipresent risk of the conflation of any and all service user academics with either rigid, ideological positions or with a particular, proscribed, over-simplified set of sociopolitical claims. I know a growing number of young academics with lived experience who refuse to identify not because they’re afraid to disclose, but because they actively want to avoid any perceived affiliation with areas of dogmatic and uncritical sociopolitical discourse and activism with which they so strongly disagree.
What can we do; what should we do?
To repeat, unambiguously, we as a society, and we as members of the academy, need to critically assess and address myriad barriers to the advancement and non-segregated (or “single tier”) inclusion and training of service users and survivors AS academics, researchers, evaluation experts, and clinicians. We must also continue to explore ways to push the envelope on participatory methods and research, to deconstruct both the explicit and subtle ways in which the academy has become its own little bastion of exploitation (of adjunct faculty, of postdocs, of grad students), and to ruthlessly rework theory and research in light of the profound heterogeneity and diversity of psychiatric experiences, ‘symptoms,’ individualized best practices, and user/survivor values & goals.
None of these commitments, however, should encourage or validate the publication of journal articles that ordinarily would not make it through ‘standard’ peer review, the lowering of standards in any form, the inclusion of researchers in projects or at a level for which they would normally not be qualified (e.g. given a lack of experience or training) or for which others are more qualified, the creation of special non-peer-reviewed “subjective” accounts sections and first person conference panels, and the singling out (and privileging)of individuals with a particular identity on the basis of that identity alone.
I also want to join Rodriguez in observing of the vast majority of seriously distressed, poor and disabled service users: They remain silent. The debate drones on and surrounds them in stillness. They are distant faraway figures…
And finally, from an interview with Scott London:
London: I noticed that some university students put up a poster outside the lecture hall where you spoke the other night. It said “Richard Rodriguez is a disgrace to the Chicano community.”
Rodriguez: I sort of like that. I don’t think writers [scholars, researchers, philosophers] should be convenient examples. I don’t think we should make people feel settled. I don’t try to be a gadfly, but I do think that real ideas are troublesome. There should be something about my work that leaves the reader unsettled. I intend that. The notion of the writer [scholar, researcher, philosopher] as a kind of sociological sample of a community is ludicrous.