On Phantom Racism and the Family Archive
By Neil Verma |
JANUARY 11, 2022
As my father, Harish Verma, approached his early forties, the age that I am now, his academic career stalled. He had earned his PhD in Geology and Palaeontology in 1972 from McMaster University, a prestigious research university in Canada. For a decade, he applied for every job he was qualified for, without success.
And guess what? He kept the receipts.
In the family archive, I recently discovered folders of neatly organized, precisely written job applications – professorships, curating, drilling, surveying, cataloguing. There were original ads from newspapers and journals clipped to carbon copies of his typewritten cover letters, along with rejections from universities, mining firms and museums on old letterhead. The files were stored in brown and white banker’s boxes on the same shelves where he kept specimens of million-year old fossilized trilobites. His job search files span the years from 1969 to 1983.
Here are some of them:
Yet his materials were also of another time. My father’s writing contains many starched-collar phrasings that are almost extinct today – “If you would be so kind as to consider …” “At the suggestion of my revered Professor”… “You may recall I had the honour of meeting you at …” Indians of his era (like many racial minorities more generally) had a knack for talking to white people in a lubricating way – never sinking to obsequiousness, yet always leaving their sense of status ratified, at least on the surface.
My dad had an eventful life. Born under the British Raj in Rawalpindi in what is now Pakistan, he narrowly survived Partition when he was nine. Family lore tells of a Muslim neighbour warning his Hindu family of coming danger in the nick of time, flight with little more than bedrolls and a tin of cookies, an eleven-member family on an eighteen-day train journey beset by hunger, flashing gunfire and railroad sabotage in the night.
The family started over in India with next to nothing. My grandfather found work as a teacher. My dad grew to become a scientist, and from a young age sought to emigrate, putting his hopes and ambitions in the West. His early papers show him attending every cultural exchange event he could find, taking notes and writing consuls and visitors from Russia, Germany, Brazil, and the U.S. looking for opportunities. I can just picture him cheerfully buttonholing some embassy attaché over tea after a Cold-War era scientific exchange lecture in 1960s Chandigarh, where he studied at Panjab University for a time. Coinciding with the Green Revolution, it was a time when institutional relationships were forged between institutions in India and schools in the West, to the benefit of a generation of Punjabi male scientists with interest in studying abroad.1
Here are photos of him surveying the Burgess Pass in the Rockies, site of the famous Burgess Shale, up in James Bay where he worked once on a contract, and finally a photo of him in San Luis Potosí in Mexico, where he did his PhD field work in late Jurassic ammonites.
As my mother supported the family, teaching middle school throughout the 1970s, my dad struggled to get temporary jobs: teaching, cataloguing, working at the Royal Ontario Museum, on drilling teams, or for the government. Close friends and allies would now and then take him aside and tell him frankly that when it came to full-time employment in his field, his race would be an “albatross.”
I remember vague stories of under-qualified bosses who took credit for his work, and others who just outright stole it, of being passed over for advancement by white superiors hoarding prestige that came from his labor. At one point my parents crossed the whole country looking for work at universities, staying in campgrounds to save money, my mother pressing his suit in the tent so my dad would look crisp, all to no avail. Like many in his generation, my father never said out loud exactly how race bent his prospects downward. I believe that’s because he really couldn’t articulate it.
No one can. The pernicious thing about systemic racism is that its effects are often about things not happening: the mortgage application, the restaurant table reservation, the job, the promotion. It’s a phantom. Perversely, you blame yourself for its effects. And although it isn’t ever verbalized outright from parent to child, the phantom becomes a part of experience. It joins a family repertoire of memories and comportments, unspoken expectations and affects.2 It’s there all the time, just never taking the form of something you can point at or touch.
Then, sometimes, it does. Here’s a 1976 letter from my father’s doctoral supervisor that my wife and I found in one of those job application files. In it, the supervisor calls out a colleague at another university as a racist for failing to consider my father for a position for which he was qualified.
I’ve spent time in archives. Believe me, you almost never find stuff like this. It reminded me that no matter how much we value the repertoire of family memory as authentic knowledge – as we should – there is power in the exoneration afforded by written substantiation. Tangible evidence trumps memory every time; that’s Western epistemology for you.
And then there’s the breath-taking poetic justice of it all, right? The very talent that ought to have qualified my father for the job in the first place – fastidious cataloguing of artifacts – is precisely the reason I found this letter in a banker’s box half a century later, tucked in among the trilobites.
The writer of this letter was a tenured professor, a vanishing species in academia. Those who seek tenure do so for many reasons. Partly it’s the lofty idea that afterward they will have the opportunity to disseminate knowledge with freedom; partly it’s the hope that decades of precarity will be compensated at last with a modicum of job security. But there is also a new responsibility. For those of you out there who have taken this vanishing path and earned tenure, or who have similar institutional power, pay attention: this letter is what you should be using your professional capital doing – calling out and documenting obvious discrimination within your own ranks. It’s what this guy was doing in 1976.
In 1983, my father gave up on academic life and on geology altogether, realizing a brutal truth that many immigrants discover, particularly those with Brown and Black skin. You can work, you can rise, but you may still never be part of the club. I think recognizing that took courage. In his memoir, he wrote, "As far as my geological career and aspirations were concerned […] I was ready for Canada but the employment atmosphere in Canada was not ready for me.”3
So, instead, my dad started a mom-and-pop print shop, where I worked as a kid, foil-stamping business cards and trimming labels for pool chemical buckets and triplicate bills of lading. It’s not that this path was without racial barriers, far from it, only that there were more ways around those barriers. He never had to write one of those futile job applications again. With extraordinary hustle and grit, my parents were able to support a family, raise three children, make it to the middle class and eventually retire decently in a nice suburb, where he was central to the lives of many friends and family in the community.
Yet my father’s frustrated decade still cast a shadow, one that fell across my life, a version of what the anthropologist Purnima Mankekar calls “Indian unsettlement.”4 Perhaps the reason I pursued an academic career, despite the mental and physical tolls of this profession, has all along been out of a need to rectify what he endured back then. I have, over a lifetime, become habituated to the slow pressure of the desire for generational vindication.
And I’m not alone. When I shared this story on social media in summer 2020, it resonated with many grown children of immigrants in the West from India, Pakistan, China, Nigeria, Korea, Mexico and other nations, who shared their own version of this story, what Michelle Casswell calls “corollary records” of racial exclusion.5 Like me, many were haunted by the remit of generational vindication; it was the unspoken predicate for their pursuits in science, business, medicine, law, engineering, or whatever field wouldn’t let their first-generation parents in. It’s a familiar feeling for people of color all over the place: driving yourself crazy with the certainty that by dint of industry, luck, and whatever else you can grab hold of, you must confront an unready world and make it ready.6 Only then can you really start to exist.
My father was killed in a car accident six months ago. I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye. The morning of the day he died, he set up a small automatic rock tumbler to polish a few rocks and minerals for his grandchildren in the basement. It was still running when I came home from Chicago to prepare his funeral.
I heard an odd grinding sound late one night, which led me downstairs, where I also found the papers that I have been discussing here.
What my father went through back in the 1970s still grieves me. I wish I had been awarded tenure before he died. I don’t know if it will mean as much now that he is gone.
Still, I believe that my father died happy, because he was a person of abundant energy and life. The joy he didn't find in work he found in his strong connection to family, his deep belief in God, and in his wide range of experiences. He found ways to put his own anxiety outside of himself, a lesson I am struggling to learn.
I still have his geological hammer.
1. I thank Hardeep Kaur Dhillon for pointing this out to me.
2. I am thinking here of Diana Taylor’s idea of the complex relationship between the archive and the repertoire. See Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).
3. Harish Verma, unpublished memoir, property of the author.
4. Purnima Mankekar, Unsettling India: Affect, Temporality, Transnationality (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).
5. See Michelle Caswell, “Archives for Liberation: How SAADA catalyzes corollary records, Accessed November 26, 2021, https://www.saada.org/tides/article/archives-for-liberation.
6. I’d associate this particular mode of “brown anxiety” with the classic account of racialized depression articulated by José Esteban Muñoz. See: José Esteban Muñoz, “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, the Performativity of Race, and the Depressive Position.” Signs 31, no. 3 (2006) pp. 675–88, https://doi.org/10.1086/499080.
Neil Verma is assistant professor of sound studies in Radio/TV/Film at Northwestern University.