There was a moment in one of my classes where I had to look a participant in the eye and tell him “if this gets too toxic, please stop and we’ll think of something else.” The man was of African descent, part of the diaspora that had fled persecution in his homeland in southern Morocco. He had proposed exploring rH+ conspiracy theories, and I had agreed largely on the basis that he had in a previous class worked on other alt-right conspiracies. He was excited by the weirdness, the lumpiness of the overall web of ideas that stretched from the usual racism that he had already charted to lizard people overlords and beyond. As he exuberantly pursued his research – I never understood how he could delve again and again into those forums – he eventually worked out that he was dealing with a mythological system.1
It was some of the finest work I have ever encountered, whether in the classroom or in the pages of a journal, and I feel that I enjoy a certain advantage in approaching diversity in that my field of folklore studies embraces not only a diversity of peoples but also a diversity of forms. I cannot escape the fact that I am identifiably a white man, and so I cannot be a model for all students in terms of being able to identify with me in one way. But I can model openness and commitment, and I can include a wide range of scholarship in what we read, including work like Brandeis Marshall’s Data Conscience or D’Ignazio and Klein’s Data Feminism. And, as a folklorist, I can support students I also have a wide range of texts (data) available on which to focus attention in a course, including of course those texts that participants themselves seek out, either to understand themselves or to understand others.
My commitment to proceeding in this fashion draws upon my own experience of growing up in the South and witnessing first-hand the toll intolerance takes on us all. As a child, I swam in pools that had no signs but were in fact “whites only.” As a teenager I grieved alone when my grandfather died, because all the black men I had grown up with while at his side didn’t feel comfortable coming to what was the de facto “white” funeral home. The fact is the cultures of the South having long been porous but their societies are fenced. As much as I would like it all to be different now, it’s not. My goal is to do what I can as a researcher, teacher, and member of my community in the hope that the arc of history is not as long as it seems and that it does indeed bend toward justice.
In my research I have examined the experiences of African Americans, Appalachians, Cajuns, Creoles, and a lot of ordinary men and women through the folklore they share, the homes the create, the landscapes they shape, and the machines they make with the goal of making clear the sophistication behind the forms that others have mistaken for simple or inconsequential. One strand of my research focuses on online legends and fake news, which are often sites, and acts, that prey on individual fears that can then be collectively harnessed and aimed at inappropriate objects, creating an environment in which it is not only acceptable but forward-thinking to take children from their families and lock them up.
I have been fortunate to have taught at institutions where diversity was not simply a matter of compliance but the right thing to do. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette has the proud legacy of being one of the first in a deeply Southern state to desegregate and to do so peacefully. Its student population averages about one-third African American, with a small but steady stream of students from Vietnamese and, increasingly, Latin American communities. The U.S. Army considers diversity to be one of its competitive advantages, and the 1.2 million active military and civilian personnel seek to lead the way in forging a path for others to follow in this regard.
The joy of being a folklorist is encouraging students to base their projects on things they know from their own communities, however they wish to define it – and it is important to remember that some students, especially those exploring their identities for the first time without close familial supervision, do not necessarily identify in ethnic terms but in other alternate terms that can be just as energizing, if we allow them space to do so but also the necessary structure to do so productively. So, yes, I have been there at the birth of projects focused on treasure legends in an all-black town, a study of La Llorona sightings on Youtube, or an examination of cucking on 4chan. In some cases these students are first-generation, and in others they are from school systems that strain to keep buildings from collapsing, and so one of the things I have learned is important is to assess where students are in order to make adjustments to get them where they need to be in order to do their best work possible.
But addressing students needs is but one task of many at a university, and adjusting curricula to reflect student needs and interests on a departmental committee as well as participating in the oversight of research focused on minority populations as part of the Institutional Review Board are the kinds of activities that begin to address larger, institutional biases and encourage an institution to understand the necessity for highlighting diversity at a variety of levels. The same is true for groups and committees in the scholarly and scientific societies we populate: when tasked with forming a committee, I always sought out a diverse group with the hopes of finding voices that would be critical of everything that we forgot or overlooked or assumed. (The same goes for declining invitations when I felt like a committee already had enough people who were like me: sure I’m aware of the issues, but I don’t live the issues the way others do and they need to be there with that experience and not me with my awareness.)
Finally, we not only work in this world but we also live in it. As a member of a family with readily apparent mixed ethnicities, I feel I have a personal responsibility to do what I can to open the eyes of those who need to understand that things they take for granted or things of which they are afraid are often based on events that never happened or ideas that do not hold up to closer examination. Part of that commitment is a steady stream of workshops or talks or whatever else is called for at area festivals, schools, libraries, and organizations. I have talked about Creole narrative traditions at the Zydeco Festival in Plaisance and about networked creativity to the Jaycees in Eunice. This is not always easy, given some of the things that happen, but it’s the only way I know that at least doesn’t contribute to making things worse and maybe, just maybe, makes things better.
He eventually presented his work at a meeting of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research, where both it and he were very well received. ↩