I started this post more than a week ago when it was fresh, but stopped abruptly when I was told to scrub in for my niece’s delivery. It’s probably a good thing that I let the dust settle and calm myself down before responding. This story has evolved quite a bit since then.
First there was the article published in the April 2012 edition Chronicle of Higher Education: Black Studies: 'Swaggering Into the Future'. It is a story on the new generation of Black Studies Scholars at Northwestern University. I read that piece – the word swagger drew me in. I thought it was very interesting, informative. Check it out. The article not only showcased rising stars and doctoral students in the program, it also introduced readers to discipline of Black Studies which always been a bit of confrontational subject. Especially when the discipline first emerged in the 1960/70’s, there were plenty of people who objected to idea that African-American perspective was a legitimate lens to review and critique history, sociology, political science or anything from that matter. And the reasons for the objections were (and still are) many.
- There’s no such thing as an African-American lens
- An African-American lens isn’t legitimate
- African-American based studies are one-dimensional, lack depth or academic objectivity.
- Analyzing history/political science or any aspect of the human experience through an African-American lens rehashes negative feelings and only serves to divide ‘us’.
The truth is, these criticisms aren’t limited to Black Studies, it extends to nearly ALL ethnic and gender based studies programs.
In fact, I have noticed how vocal ethnic studies opponents are becoming. In Arizona, any and all Ethnic Studies have been banned in K-12 Public Education and some lawmakers would like to expand it to higher education. What is it about ethnic studies that make some people so uncomfortable? And why is that proponents of ethnic and gender studies have to fight so hard to prove that such perspectives are legitimate and worthy of inclusion in the academic curriculum?
A couple of weeks after the original piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education, one of the publication’s bloggers, Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote her own response to the article: The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations. O-o. I was slack jawed by the title and her case for eliminating Black Studies as a discipline altogether. And as I read her truly vitriolic screed, issuing snipe after snipe at grad students, I felt ill. And sucker punched. Her remarks reminded me once again of all of those insecure feelings I shared in Impostor Syndrome post. Folks just don’t want you here (in academia). They don’t value your work or even you as a person.
Luckily @TressieMCphd – a PhD student in Black Studies—wrote a fabulous response. Plus, she did so with such accuracy and panache and well just awesomeness, read it yourself: The Inferiority of Blackness as a Subject. TressieMC nails it right on the head! She also affirmed the experiencesof many minority scholars. She notes that as black graduate students "You are simultaneously invisible and in the spotlight…all the time." Whoa, if that didn't remind me of my own experiences On Being Conspicously Invisible.
And Schaefer-Riley’s words and later her reactions to the criticism made it clear to me that sometimes the ugly is real. That feeling like you’re no valued because you are (fill in blank) isn’t in your head. There really are people - backed by major powerful institutions like Schaefer-Riley was until a little while ago - who denigrate you because you are...well not 'mainstream' or conventional.
I'm being nice and deliberately broad. That's because back-handed insults at you (or your work) can be based on anything that makes a minority stand out: being a blogger, woman, person of color, differently-abled, having a vibrant personality, coming from a less-affluent family or having an accent. It also makes it clear that this notion of inclusion, and creating an academic environment that is inclusive and welcoming to [Black] Scholars does start from the top. For a while the Chronicle was standing boldly and firmly with Schaefer-Riley. @Chronicle_Amy was defending Schaefer-Riley’s proposals that there were ‘more important things for folks like TressieMCphd to be upset over. It all rubbed me the wrong way and I thought less of the Chronicle for it.
Diversity may be the spice of life, but in some halls of higher education, douche fairies are there to douche all of that nonsense. (Pun intended).
I’m not sad to see Schaefer-Riley go. And if Black Studies isn't a course, but a cause, as Schaefer-Riley defends herself in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, then what becomes of her now? I suspect she going to elevated to saint status by the ultra-conservatives out there and start speaking on the Rush Limbaugh/Glenn Beck/Michelle Bachmann circuit. I recommend keeping an eye out.