‘The room is shaken, it’s palpable,’ said one attendee
Guests at the recent Berkshire Conference of Women Historians are expressing fury after one of the event’s venerable cofounders — an elderly white scholar — said she wished she had dark skin so her professional life had been easier, according to numerous tweets from professors in the audience.
“Well, the Berks plenary just took a turn. A white senior scholar at the 50th anniversary plenary VERY publicly, and unapologetically, said that she wished she was Black so her professional life would be easier,” tweeted attendee Stephanie Narrow, a history PhD candidate at UC Irvine.
“She was immediately called out for her blatantly racist remarks, and refused to apologize, let alone listen, to the reason why her remarks were horrifying[ly] wrong. ‘You won’t change my mind, I’m 84 years old,'” Narrow continued in her June 30 tweet thread. “The room is shaken, it’s palpable.”
The offending culprit has been identified by numerous activist female historians on Twitter as Lois Banner, professor emerita of history and gender studies at the University of Southern California, described by her faculty bio as “a founder of the field of women’s history in the 1970s” as well as the author of 10 books.
“Banner — author of a 2012 biography of Marilyn Monroe — reportedly also said she wished she was a lesbian because they were good at building community and organizing,” reported the Daily Beast. “…Banner’s speech came after historian Deborah Gray White of Rutgers University had addressed the crowd on the subject of Black women in the profession.”
Deirdre Cooper Owens, a history professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, tweeted July 2 that the “Berks Conference was a beautiful one until it was soiled by Lois Banner’s hatefully racist comments. Yes, I did speak out forcefully against her vitriol because she needed to keep Black women’s name out of her mouth.”
Judith Weisenfeld, professor of religion at Princeton University, chimed in with a June 30 tweet: “I’m grateful for Deirdre Cooper Owens naming Lois Banner’s Berks remarks (that she wished her skin was dark and she had never experienced any privilege from being white) as hateful and self-hate …”
Paul Renfro of Florida State University told the Daily Beast that Banner “made this allusion to this desire that she’s always had, to have dark skin, which is very, very, very problematic.”
“And so when that happened, the awkward, sort of strange response that many in the audience had to the remarks that came before kind of mutated into almost sort of just complete discomfort and revulsion,” Renfro said. “Some people gasped audibly, and some people began to walk out.”
Sharlene Newman, a professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas, described the controversy as “not surprising” in her tweet on the topic.
“I think most Black women in and out of academia have experienced a white woman who believes this, and not just older ones. At the same time they want us to support their feminism which leaves us out,” tweeted Newman on July 2.
In a statement that appears to address the situation without mentioning it specifically, the official Berkshire Conference of Women Historians tweeted out on July 1: “Thank you for those who gave their time, thoughts and input at the meeting today. The board and trustees listened, took careful notes, and are planning action. The conversation is not over and the board will have a statement and a concrete action plan soon.”
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