The term and concept of positionality seems to have first appeared in the 1920s. It started as a way for researchers to position themselves in relation to the subject of their research. A chemist who works for “Big Pharma” may not be as unbiased as a chemist who does not. Fair enough. Sociologists adopted this term to position the researcher in relation to the people they were studying. It’s good to know whether or not the anthropologist studying indigenous people is herself indigenous. No matter the answer to that question, biases will still play into conclusions. It’s just handy to have a hint at where the biases might lie. But what started as a fancy way for academics to say, “here’s where I’m coming from” has evolved into a required preamble for almost every utterance in a college classroom: “I am a straight, white, cis-gender male” or “I am a lesbian of African descent” or “I am a LatinX person who, in terms of gender, identifies as non-binary.” To people not in the Academy, this may seem tedious at best, and crazy at worst. But it does serve a purpose, which is the attempt to keep our unconscious biases about ourselves and others on the surface, where we can deal with them more easily.
With that said, here’s where I’m coming from:
I am a straight, white, cis-gender male of western European descent, who grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and now lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I have an alcoholic mother who is probably bi-polar and a step-dad who is a wonderful guy, but who spent most of my childhood on the road as a salesman. I left Texas at 17, went to clown school in Florida and toured the United States as a clown with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum&Bailey circus. I lived in western Europe (Berlin, Cologne, Paris) for roughly seven years, also preforming as a clown. When I stopped performing—fearing I was no longer funny—I bummed around trying to figure out what to do with my life. I worked in a bakery, drove a truck, worked construction, had my own dog-walking and house-cleaning businesses, and eventually, at the age of 29, ended up as an undergraduate at the State University of New York in Albany.
I now have a Ph.D. in medieval history from The Ohio State University. I make a salary just under the median for history professors in Augsburg’s institutional comparison group. I have a modest, 1200 sq. ft. home with a fenced-in yard in a nice neighborhood. I say it’s modest, but of course this is only by comparison, and I count my blessings every day when I ride the bus past the tent city where my Native brothers and sisters have been living for months, along a stretch of highway that is roughly half way between my house and my workplace, Augsburg University. As of this writing, the city of Minneapolis has yet to find a solution to this problem, which includes not only homelessness, but drug abuse, rape, and assault. They have, however, put up a fence that obscures the view of the tent city from commuters driving by. Positionality. It is all about where the researcher/writer/thinker stands in relation to others.
While the relatives who contributed to my DNA represent a mixture of Italians, Scots and Germans, my abandonment by a biological father and the entrance into my eight-year-old life of an adoptive father named Adamo, meant that I was reared on both sides by Italian immigrants and the children of Italian immigrants, who arrived in the United States in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries. When these ancestors first arrived, Italians in America were not seen as white. Historian David R. Roediger talks about “structures of racial inbetweenness” in his book Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants became White, Roediger recounts the story of 13 million southern, eastern, and central European immigrants who came to the United States between 1886 and 1925, how the government and society categorized them into a racial pecking order—below whites, but above people of color—and how these immigrants, Slavs, Poles, Armenians, Jews, and many others, including my people, the Italians, fought their way up the pecking order to be considered white.
In my family, this struggle became the stuff of myth and legend, similar to myths and legends told in other ethnic families. My ancestors worked hard at jobs nobody wanted. Sometimes they had to steal in order to buy food so the children would not go hungry. My maternal grandfather, for whom I am named, narrowly escaped a career as a Mafioso when World War II broke out and he joined the Army Airforce instead. He served as a staff sergeant in the 9th Airforce Division and was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action against the enemy while serving with a bomber squadron in the Mediterranean in 1942. He retired from the Airforce and in civilian life became a middle-management purchasing agent. He liked to joke that his was the “second oldest profession.” He died of a heart attack at 63, just three years older than I am now. My paternal grandfather, my nonno, had a similar immigrant story. He labored and saved enough money to buy his own grocery store where the entire family worked. He also put on a suit every day and went downtown to play the stock market—apparently, he was pretty good at it. When he’d made enough money, he brought his cousin Agatha to America and married her, thus amplifying the genetic weaknesses in their family and leaving my step-father and half-brothers with cardiac problems.
These are my people, whom the novelist Henry James, witnessing their arrival in his country at the turn of the nineteenth century, called “Italians of superlatively southern type.” Even among the Italians themselves, a kind of hierarchical racism existed. My Sicilian grandfather thought the Neapolitans were stupid, telling many jokes in which that was the punchline. My Neapolitan grandfather, like many other mainland Italians, thought the Sicilians were dirty, uncultured, and shifty.
I read the word “nigger” out loud, just as James Baldwin had written it in his 1963 book, The Fire Next Time. A shock wave moved through my classroom that eventually spread across campus.
“You can really only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.”
That’s the line from Baldwin that caused some students in the room to gasp. I decided that we needed to have a serious discussion about the use of the term.
“I need to ask you a difficult and dangerous question,” I said. This was my version of offering a “trigger warning.”
“In an academic context,” I asked, “quoting from an author’s work, was it appropriate to use the word ‘nigger’ if the author had written it that way? Wasn’t substituting the euphemistic phrase ‘the N-word’ in these cases, in fact, a disservice to Baldwin’s prose?”
Some students said the word made them uncomfortable, others said that black folks could say the word, but only in certain contexts. Some said that white folks should never say the word and a few said that no one should ever say it. We had what seemed to be a reasonable discussion that ended with a consensus decision for the class never to say the word, even when quoting the author, but always to substitute the euphemism, “the N-word.”
But in thinking that we’d ended with reason and consensus, I had deluded myself. Within two days, I had student monitors attending my courses without invitation, secretly recording class discussions and posting them to YouTube and Facebook with inflammatory headings like “Warning: Racial Slur” and “Phil Adamo Justifying Use of the N-word.” A group of students complained to the Provost, editorials appeared in the campus newspaper, faculty turned against each other, compelled to choose between “supporting our students” and “academic freedom.” I was labeled a racist who probably hung out with white supremacist groups.
Then things got really nasty.
—Now what? Aristotle says to start "in the middle of things." Check. Description of myself, the students, the course? What will this book be about? Aftermath? Must avoid whininess.