A white engineering professor jokingly suggests a white alternative to the National Society of Black Engineers. What this can tell us about the comfort and security of being white in the American academy:
If we’re going to face up to the continuing advantages offered by white identity in the American academy, we need to think about how completely naturalized those advantages are. We can start by looking at the places where identity seems least likely to play a role, like Engineering. The quantitative, calibrated nature of engineering disciplines suggests to many of us a sort of machinelike mode of work, a setting firewalled—unlike, say, the arts or humanities–from political or social ideologies. A recent “joke” offered by a white engineering professor at SUNY Binghamton, on his departmental Listserv, gives us a chance to see just how off the mark that image is.
As described by Colleen Flaherty in InsideHigherEd:
Last week, the National Society of Black Engineers chapter at the State University of New York at Binghamton sent out an invitation to a fund-raising dinner on an engineering department Listserv. In response, Victor Skormin, distinguished service professor of electrical and computer engineering, wrote, “Please let me know about a dinner of the National Society for White Engineers.”
Prof. Skormin later told Inside Higher Ed that his comment was “intended strictly as a joke,” one of many “funny and sarcastic statements” he has made over time to help students “’recharge’ their attention mechanisms” and thereby “enhance the learning experience.”
We cannot know much if anything about Prof. Skormin’s considered beliefs about race relations in America from his joke or his brief comments about the joke. But we can ask about his choice of topic FOR a joke, and I think that can tell us about the conditions of being a white academic in the US, a group to which I also belong.
So let’s ask, with as much care and precision as we can muster so as not to ascribe intentions that are not there: What beliefs or attitudes would a white professor have to hold in order to propose, even light-heartedly (especially light-heartedly), a National Society for White Engineers?
- A sense that the rising level of violence against black people in America, Trump’s racist rhetoric, and events like Charlottesville are issues easily minimized by the people hearing his joke
- A sense that the decades of public discourse regarding ongoing racial inequities in America, including in mainstream media, do not refer to serious social matters, that the concerns of such discussions are not for the likes of Prof. Skormin’s audience
- And very possibly a sense that an invocation of white neglect and marginalization will strike some people (that is, let’s be clear, people other than the students in NSBE) as right on the money.
In short, I’m suggesting that we get beyond the clumsy, un-funny nature of Prof. Skormin’s repartee to see what it conveys as an attempt at humor.
Note: I’m not saying there are things that we “shouldn’t joke about.” In my book it is never “too soon.” But jokes have meanings and convey messages. The meanings and messages of Prof. Skormin’s joke contain absolutely no reflection on white privilege, no whiff of take-down of the security and ease with which white academics function compared to others. We cannot know if Prof. Skormin intended his joke to valorize that ease and security, but it does exactly that if only because his “humor” arose from just those circumstances.
Can there be jokes about white grievance? Absolutely. It is a darkly ironic aspect of today’s “democratic” America badly in need of parody. I also believe that deeply cutting humor about ourselves can be very funny indeed. Definitely nothing like it for puncturing self-importance and revealing the mechanisms of power and privilege. But that is definitely not what Prof. Skormin has offered us.