Author and philologist Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei walked into a 9:00 a.m. keynote panel at a conference on Medieval Studies at the University of Leeds in England. The panel was on the idea of “otherness” and the audience was filled with many people of color from 56 countries. The panel speakers: all white men.
“Well, that’s awkward,” he remembers thinking, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. “I wonder whether anyone is going to say something about this.”
Then an awkward situation got much worse. Introducing the speech, the moderator of the panel made a joke about the idea of “otherness,” noting that if those in the audience thought he was simply another old, white man, they should just wait until after his holiday at the beach.
“Whether or not he intended it as a joke, it obviously ridicules the entire importance of race in this debate, as if it was merely a matter of lying in the sun,” Van Gerven Oei told The Chronicle. “I was thinking I could do two things: Either I can just get up and leave, and it will be very awkward, or I can tweet about this.”
That’s when he took to Twitter using the account of the publishing firm he worked for.
— punctum books (@punctum_books) July 3, 2017
He wasn’t the only one to take to the conference to task. Jonathan Hsy, an associate professor of English at George Washington University, believed the decision was an example of completely disregarding other experiences.
“The IMC simply chose to ignore the expertise of people of color and ‘others’ whose knowledge on issues of race and otherness has informed decades of scholarship,” he told The Chronicle. “If the thread organizers had listened to critiques voiced about the thread’s problematic framing and exclusions at any point during the planning process or indeed during the conference itself, this entire conversation could have been inclusive and innovative.”
One white woman who was on the panel is also speaking out, saying that the complaints have made her think more clearly about broadening the field.
“I can appreciate more both how I failed to communicate effectively or sensitively at times, especially by seeming unfairly dismissive of others’ scholarship, and also how I misunderstood others,” she wrote.
(Note: This article has been updated.)