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Hounding of Harvard’s Claudine Gay part of racialised and gendered backlash

By Philile Ntuli

11 Feb 2024

Philile Ntuli is a commissioner of the South African Human Rights Commission.

The relentless attacks on the lives and credentials of black women in positions of authority could, if not scrutinised, pose a challenge to the extent to which affirmative action, equity and diversity programmes are lauded.

The resignation of Prof Claudine Gay from the position of president of Harvard University – only six months into her tenure – resonated wretchedly for many historically and currently marginalised people and communities across the world. Prof Gay is the first black, and second woman president in Harvard University’s 400-year history.

Her resignation followed her 5 December 2023 appearance, together with the two female presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology respectively, before a congressional hearing of the United States House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce.

The committee quizzed the three presidents on their approaches to antisemitic views on campuses. All three presidents were widely criticised for their responses. Prof Gay’s resignation came shortly after that of Prof Liz Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania.
A racialised and gendered backlash

Following Prof Gay’s resignation, the chairperson of the education and the workforce committee, Virginia Foxx, released a statement in which, among other things, she accused Gay of “appalling academically dishonest behaviour” and of evading accountability. While welcoming Prof Gay’s resignation, Foxx shared a broader critique of the state of higher-learning education and institutions, alleging a “hostile takeover of postsecondary education by political activists, woke faculty and partisan administrators”.

Foxx’s statement preceded and invited similar criticisms. More pointedly, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies and programmes of Harvard University and other campuses were accused of racism against white people. A pattern of allegations of incompetence against Prof Gay also began to emerge. For example, a few hours after Foxx’s statement, Bill Ackman publicly announced that DEI was the root cause of antisemitism at Harvard. He also levelled claims of incompetence against Prof Gay, writing that:

“It is one thing to give disadvantaged people the opportunities and resources so that they can help themselves. It is another to select a candidate for admission or for a leadership role when they are not qualified to serve in that role. This appears to have been the case with former President Gay’s selection. She did not possess the leadership skills to serve as Harvard’s president, putting aside any questions about her academic credentials. This became apparent shortly after October 7th, but there were many signs before then when she was dean of the faculty. The result was a disaster for Harvard and for Claudine Gay.”

On the same day as Ackman, Prof Gay wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in which she confirmed the public impugnation of her character and intelligence, adding that her inbox “has been flooded with invective, including death threats. I’ve been called the N-word more times than I care to count.”

The racialised and gendered texture of the backlash against Prof Gay is a marker, and indicator, of a much broader social issue: the experiences of historically and currently marginalised persons in positions of power and authority. This signpost is a reminder that while access is an important facet of anti-marginalisation, equity and inclusion programmes and processes, it is not the end goal.

Questioning how historically marginalised persons experience positions and institutions of power and authority is a necessary component of understanding the political and organised nature of the backlash they face.
Whose power is it? Numbers versus substance

The appointment of previously marginalised persons into positions of power and authority has been globally lauded as necessary components of democratisation processes and has widely increased satisfaction with governments. However, and as demonstrated by the resignation of Prof Claudine Gay and the similar experiences of many others, there are increasing uncertainties regarding whether descriptive representation translates into political influence and/or changes in public attitudes and exclusionary cultures.

Portentously, the very substance of Prof Gay’s scholarship focuses on the significance of minority office-holding in American politics. In her New York Times oped, she describes her research as having shown that when historically marginalised communities gain access, and a meaningful voice in powerful positions and institutions, it inspires, and “signals an open door where before many saw only barriers. And that, in turn, strengthens our democracy.”

Prof Gay is also regarded as being key to the foundation and operations of the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging at Havard.

Beyond the political aesthetic of the inclusion of historically marginalised individuals into positions of authority, evidence shows common patterns in their experiences.

In her seminal work: Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place, Nirmal Puwar explores what happens when those embodied differently come to occupy spaces where they had been previously excluded. Puwar posits that the historical constructions of certain types of bodies as naturally disposed to occupy certain positions renders bodies entering spaces from which they had been previously excluded as perpetually “othered”, and is often met by resistance and denial of belonging.
The structural ‘othering’ of historically marginalised bodies

The marking of spaces and bodies as “othered” means that the previously marginalised not only disrupt institutional norms, but they enter and participate in authoritative positions with a perpetual marking of foreignness. They arrive to previously set templates for organisational cultures, logics, speeches and gestures, into which they are pressured to assimilate.

In chorus with Puwar’s observations, Prof Gay affirms in her New York Times oped that “it is not lost on me that I make an ideal canvas for projecting every anxiety about the generational and demographic changes unfolding on American campuses: a Black woman selected to lead a storied institution”.

Viewed within the context and imagery of a canvas that projects social anxieties about black women’s abilities, Prof Gay enjoins the pile of other canvases of similar experiences, unveiling a pattern of infantilisation, accusations of lack of integrity and labels of incompetence.

As observed by Charles Blow in The New York Times, the campaign against Prof Gay “was never truly about her testimony or accusations of plagiarism. It was a political attack … and is a project of displacement and defilement meant to reverse progress and shame the proponents of that progress”.

Further, Blow writes that:

“At a time when Black women are ascendant in the culture, they have become, for some, the emblems of unwelcome change; their presence in positions of power represents a threat to the power traditionally clustered in the hands of a few. As such, Black women see their credentials relentlessly attacked, their characters impugned, their lives scoured. The issue is not that the bar is lowered for them to succeed but rather raised so that any imperfection can be inflated into a fundamental flaw. These women are trapped in prisons of others’ demands for perfection.”

The relentless attacks on the lives and credentials of black women in positions of authority can, if not scrutinised, pose a challenge to the extent to which affirmative action, equity, and diversity programmes can be lauded.

In South Africa, as across the world, the experience of Prof Gay at Harvard is but a familiar experience. At the decision-making platforms of private and public institutions, the pattern that connects the experiences of black women is defined by patterns of infantilisation, accusations of lack of integrity, and labels of incompetence.
Call to action

The resignation of Prof Gay from the presidency of Harvard is, in her own words, “wrenching”. However, it simultaneously presents an opportunity for women, and women’s groupings, to gather to re-evaluate their efforts at investing in women, and to critically assess the patterns emerging out of the experiences of historically marginalised leaders in positions of power and authority. DM

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