P O S T E D B Y M O N I Q U E
Editor’s note: Two weeks ago an ARNOVA member set off a campfire of controversy by warmly recommending the White Courtesy Telephone blog to his colleagues. For those of you unfamiliar with the group, ARNOVA is an association of extremely intelligent people who study the nonprofit sector. WCT investigative reporter Rachel Tension was able to obtain a transcript of the highly charged ARNOVA discussion, parts of which are reproduced below. (We changed the participants’ names because we were too lazy to ask their permission to use their real names.) In Washington, DC, it’s dog eat dog. In academia, it’s the opposite, so we were frankly hesitant to approach the subject without some professional assistance. We invited WCT semiotician-on-retainer, Monique Nescafé, to help interpret the transcript for us. Dr. Nescafé’s work for the past several years has focused on neomaterialist narratives in the novels of Jennie Adams. This is her first guest post with WCT …
I am so very happy to be invited to write for the White Telephone of Courtesy, and especially to comment on the post-capitalist discourse of ARNOVA members. They say the American mind is closed. No, my friends, he is wide open, like the pore of some gigantic sweat gland.
Consider this small exchange:
Alas, … I find the name [White Courtesy Telephone] unfortunate. It may indeed be useful but the title is off-putting.
I am in the process of considering the title for my upcoming book, so I have titles on my mind. Can you clarify what it is about the title of the White Courtesy Telephone blog that makes it off-putting? …
I think the title of “white courtesy” gives the impression that there is something else possible like “black courtesy”—i.e. that there are disparate courtesies for different groups. Or even worse—that there is no other courtesy other than white courtesy. I have been involved in discussions with other groups who would therefore find the title offensive. Unless of course you mean it ironically (like we don’t have white courtesy). At the very least, I do not actually understand what “white courtesy” means.
In her brilliant rejoinder, Betty lays bare the racial insensitivity of the White Courtesy Telephone editors. This is not in dispute: these editors often make light of subjects that would be better treated with reverential silence. I applaud Betty. Her act of problematization, of affirming a posttextual paradigm of reality—the impression of a racialized there-for-me—is, in my view, an intellectual tour de force.
How does she do it? She describes herself as being in a superposition of affective eigenstates: while it’s true that she feels “put off,” she simultaneously postpones her feelings of offense as she considers an ironic reading of “white courtesy.” She is put off, but she is not quite yet put off. (A monk asks Dongshan Shouchu, “What is Buddha?” Dongshan answers, “Three pounds of flax.”) And although Betty does not actually understand what “white courtesy” means, she complains about the phrase anyway. If confusion is the first step to knowledge, then Betty is clearly very knowledgeable.
Betty also brilliantly presences the elided contextuality of the ARNOVA discourse by referring to “other groups” that would find the blog’s name offensive. This kind of offense-by-proxy is the mark of a generous individual, willing to be offended not only for herself but on behalf of others as well.
And so, what is it ultimately that puts the “white” in White Courtesy Telephone? Another ARNOVA commentator chimes in:
… we know words make a difference, so what I’m interested in is: why did the creators of white courtesy telephone pick that name, rather than, say, ‘black courtesy telephone,’ or just plain old ‘courtesy telephone’?
Was it in order to prompt this very discussion?
Or do white courtesy telephones have a special connotation not shared with courtesy telephones of other colours?
I may be exposing my ignorance here—but that’s because I’m ignorant.
Did Monsieur Ruesga, when he chose the name White Courtesy Telephone, choose it in order to “prompt this very discussion”? It is possible, n’est-ce pas? He might very well have anticipated the ARNOVA exchange as a sommelier anticipates a Montrachet 1978 from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. How delicious, to inquire after coloured telephones through the fog of a fine wine. While these coloured telephones may have a special significance, we will henceforth, in deference to our subject, refer to them as telephones of colour.
An earlier interlocutor, whom we have named Dorothy, returns to the discussion:
… To be honest, the problem I have had with the name, having understood the reference* when I first encountered it, is I don’t get it. I don’t get what it has to do with the substance of the blog …
Do you see, my friends, do you see why societies build special structures called universities for people who engage in such rarefied discourse? Why they lock us away in ivory towers? It is, franchement, because the academic sense of irony is so refined, it is so biting and pure, that if it were shared with the common people, they would die almost instantly from paroxysms of laughter and tears. It is manifest that our interlocutor, Dorothy, merely pretends to miss the connection between the blog’s name, “White Courtesy Telephone,” and its subject: the assumptions, values, culture, and practices of nonprofit and foundation work. Dorothy’s kind of serio ludere (serious play) is rare in academic circles, where admitting your ignorance can cost you your tenure.
By feigning a kind of morbid insensibility, Dorothy foregrounds the connection between the blog’s name and the culture and practices of contemporary American philanthropy, where “white courtesy” and its cousin, white privilege, are indeed dominant. By pretending to internalize the strictures of white courtesy, rooted in white middle class norms of discourse and behavior—that is to say, by simulating an ignorance of the blog’s themes— she effectively models elite evasion of issues relating to race, gender, class, and other differences.
Thus the ARNOVA interlocutors succeed in exposing the White Courtesy Telephone editors for the tactless fools they are, for clearly no person of intellect or feeling can leave the blog’s pages without feeling offended in some way. At the same time, the ARNOVA exchange becomes painfully self-referential, a brilliant reductio ad absurdum of what too often passes for wisdom in American society.
* It is a matter of intense speculation whether she is referring to this post by WCT contributor, Dixie Moline.
Image source: The University of Georgia