Death Without Tenure - Joanne Dobson

~~Moved from GR: serious countdown territory: last < 3-star review to unload from GR!~~


Death without Tenure

by Joanne Dobson


Reader beware: this book made me angry. Anger pushes my general nitpickery and mean streak into seamless monochrome. This may indeed be a good book, but it really, really pushed my buttons and I am currently unapologetic for the forthcoming tirade.

Death without Tenure is, as one might expect from the title, a murder mystery that takes place in academia with a professorial protagonist. Karen is a professor of English in a New England liberal arts college. She is currently fighting against a fellow professor, the Native American Joe Lone Wolf (groan), for tenure. For some odd and improbable reason, this school decided to give tenure to only one of the two. Even more improbably, Joe Lone Wolf was somehow hired with no publications, no finished PhD, and no qualifications. He hasn't attended a conference for six years, no one has even checked on what he is teaching, and he isn't producing academic work. But despite this, the school decides to put him up for tenure because of...wait for it... affirmative action, thereby wronging the poor innocent white professor. FYI, this isn't how the system works: there is no way outside the deep abysses of Hell that any professor could get away with the above. The system is also not so corrupt that ethnicity trumps everything else, and this setup is already so offensive that my blood pressure is beginning to rise just writing it out.

Well, of course, Joe gets murdered, and our protagonist is a primary suspect. We have some ridiculously improbable police interrogation and even more ridiculous and offensive characterization of Native Americans and other ethnicities. The book finally terminates with the obvious suspect and an improbable methodology.

As a relatively engaging, light, and not particularly enthralling murder mystery, this is fine. I've read plenty of books that were more poorly written. So why all the ire?

Well, the entire plot centres around racism, ethnicity, and affirmative action, and I have never before encountered someone who combines such self-satisfied politically correct smugness with such disgustingly racist perspectives. We have a lot of different characters with different nationalities: Indian Joe (just in case the fact that his freaking name is "Joe" happened to escape you...), the protagonist's African-American friend, and her Muslim student. Again, the entire story is superficially about racism, with facile characterizations of affirmative action, entitlement, prejudice, and racism, and the oh-so-easy answers. We have various characterizations of various types of racism, from general hate speech to the more insidious "over-affirmative action" and the tendency to view a minority as an exemplar of said minority. The author repeatedly pontificates about white entitlement and appropriation...and then goes on to commit those same crimes. The hypocrisy of all of this infuriates me.

Let's talk about the basics: the characterization of minority characters. First, this book suffers from one of the worst (and yet smuggest) cases of default whiteness I've ever encountered. All characters are (obviously, right?) white unless otherwise specified. Any time any character of any ethnicity is mentioned, you can be sure that some description of "exotic eyes" or "dark skin," etc, will be mentioned. It doesn't matter if it's the hundredth time or the thousandth time that the character has spoken; exotic eyes or dark skin or braided hair are sure to be mentioned, just in case we started thinking of the character as a character rather than an instance of an ethnic group. Any character with any nonwhite ethnicity are seen as of that nationality first, human being second (or never.) And along with that, we get a single "exemplar" character per culture. Each exemplar has all the stereotypes of their culture, and obviously since all are the same, having one character of each nationality is sufficient, right? Our Native American exemplar is an arrogant, entitled, uneducated Native American who dresses in feathers, smokes marijuana, takes peyote, does native war dances, collects tomahawks...tomahawks, for heaven's sake. Kill me now.

[As it turns out, "Native American Joe" isn't Native American, but he's the closest we get to seeing the culture, other than Karen. This little piece of appropriation irritated me even more. Karen's "magical" discovery of Native American ancestry, that adorable emotional discussion where she helps her mother not to feel ashamed of their ancestry (grr), and, worst of all, her oh-so-magical-mystical "vision quest" at the end were absolutely offensive.]

(show spoiler)

One of the worst cases of this, other than the almost abusive portrayal of Native Americans in the story, is that of Khalida, Karen's Muslim student. Every time she is mentioned, her religion, her face veil, etc are mentioned. She is smart, quiet...and Muslim. That apparently suffices to create a personality, right? One of the instances that infuriated me with the book was when Joe touches Khalida's arm and Karen decides to "rescue" her by yelling at Joe and saying that it is a "Muslim crime," etc for him to touch her. Really, Karen is using Khalida as a pawn in her own argument with Joe, but since she is "defending" Khalida, this is apparently laudable. In my own personal view, however, by pushing her own assumptions and preconceptions of Islam on Khalida, Karen silences her just as effectively as Joe's pressure.

Yes, there are a multitude of self-conscious and self-satisfied stereotype reversals; for example, Khalida's family are fine with her gaining an education and don't want to kill her for transgressing sharia law (shocker!). But the creation of the stereotype, the self-satisfied-aren't-we-PC reversal, and above all the use of an exemplar, is just as bad. It's like the TV shows where the token minority is placed in a position of power rather than as the token minority goof-off sidekick or subordinate, or the tech-savvy girl being incredibly beautiful and articulate. It's an attempt to reverse an ethnicity/socioeconomic/power stereotype, but it ends up looking smug, self-conscious, and forced. It actually enforces the stereotype as it creates a separation between "good" __'s and "bad" __'s because it basically suggests that if you don't totally renounce everything typically attributed to your minority, you don't deserve to be represented as a character. It's patronizing: rather than letting a character be an individual, it's almost like the author is trying to correct the "flaws" of the minority and erase anyone with a subset of these "flaws".

The entire basis of the plot is that, given the right ethnicity, you can get away with anything because obviously, affirmative action goes on to shove totally unsuitable candidates far above their "proper station". This attitude is disgusting. It reminds me of certain rather insane leaders and their belief that white middle-class men are "oppressed." Yeah, right. I'm white and know that, since I grew up in suburban America, my outlook is tainted by racism and I can never fully understand the perspectives of those who have encountered the casual, everyday prejudice that is such a part of American life. As a woman in a profession that is ~10% female, I have, however, almost definitely benefited from affirmative action, and am in a position to state from experience that misconceptions such as those propounded in this book do immeasurable harm. Affirmative action can be devastating to the self-esteem of those who benefit from it, creating a sense of inferiority that is impossible to shake. It doesn't help that everyone around you assumes that you got where you did because of affirmative action. It creates an impossible pinnacle of preconceptions to scale. I suspect Dr. Dobson perceived that she had experienced some "reverse racism" at some point and decided to write her book to get that feeling out. The combination of academic smugness and banal stereotypes is as shocking as it is repulsive.

Honestly, I don't know how to approach sensitive topics like race. I am white; I am middle-class; I am priveliged; I can never fully understand the magnitude of the problem. But whatever approach is right, I think this one is indubitably wrong. It effectively pushes minority viewpoints into handy pidgeonholes and easy solutions, minimizes and appropriates the pains and problems of prejudice, and, by simplifying and stereotyping, effectively silences those who actually understand the subtleties of the problem of prejudice.


Ah, well, back to smug self-satisfaction at our own PC-ness, I suppose.