The Inferiority Of Blackness As A Subject

By Guest Contributor Tressie McMillan Cottom, cross-posted from Tressie MC

I am writing this very quickly while on the side of Interstate 20. I am also struggling mightily to not use my colorful repertoire of insanely rhythmic and appropriate curse words. Thank me later.

Today The Chronicle of Higher Education published a blog entry from Naomi Schaefer Riley entitled “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” I refuse to link. They do not deserve the traffic. Google it or take my word for it.

Schaefer Riley is responding to an earlier Chronicle article lauding the first cohort of Northwestern University’s Black Studies program. So bemused is she by the mere titles of the dissertations of these young black scholars that Schaefer Riley can barely contain her glee as she proceeds to viciously, intentionally, and deliberately insult every single one of the scholars listed and everyone within the field of black studies. You can almost hear her giggling as she writes:

If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline, the sidebar explaining some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it. What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap. The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.

What could be so utterly ridiculous of an academic topic to draw such ire from Schaefer Riley? For one, black midwives. I mean can you just imagine a critical examination of how black women give birth? How RIDICULOUS!

That’s what I would say about Ruth Hayes’ dissertation, “‘So I Could Be Easeful’: Black Women’s Authoritative Knowledge on Childbirth.” It began because she “noticed that nonwhite women’s experiences were largely absent from natural-birth literature, which led me to look into historical black midwifery.” How could we overlook the nonwhite experience in “natural birth literature,” whatever the heck that is? It’s scandalous and clearly a sign that racism is alive and well in America, not to mention academia.

Not only is black childbirth beneath her contempt but the very idea of literature about natural birth is also contemptible. It could be argued that is a particularly odd position in an age when public health schools are cropping up at every reputable university imaginable and scholars from across disciplines are attempting to better understand the links between social realities and biological processes. Schaefer Riley will hear none of that! It’s liberal nonsense this whole idea that scholars might want to record the history and experiences of women having babies.

It’s not just childbirth that pisses Schaefer Riley off, though. So, too, does a critical analysis of housing, public policy, and race:

Then there is Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of “Race for Profit: Black Housing and the Urban Crisis of the 1970s.” Ms. Taylor believes there was apparently some kind of conspiracy in the federal government’s promotion of single family homes in black neighborhoods after the unrest of the 1960s. Single family homes! The audacity! But Ms. Taylor sees that her issue is still relevant today. (Not much of a surprise since the entirety of black studies today seems to rest on the premise that nothing much has changed in this country in the past half century when it comes to race. Shhhh. Don’t tell them about the black president!) She explains that “The subprime lending crisis, if it did nothing else, highlighted the profitability of racism in the housing market.” The subprime lending crisis was about the profitability of racism? Those millions of white people who went into foreclosure were just collateral damage, I guess.

This, as our nation tries to recover from a protracted economic recession caused, in part, by persistent inequality in the housing market. Nope, not relevant. History happened then and this is now. And what happens to black people can in no way be generalized to any greater white human experience. You know, the only experience that matters.

Schaefer Riley goes on to deride, chide, and condescend to all of Black Studies through a personal attack on the scholarship of three young scholars who have the audacity to treat the black subject as a human subject worthy of interrogation.

The relevancy of Black Studies has never been so clearly proven as it is in Schaefer Riley’s gleeful attack.

But that’s not really what I want to talk about.

I want to talk about how Schaefer Riley constructed her argument.

She begins by responding to an innocuous article highlighting the work of doctoral students who just happen to be black and who just happen to be studying issues that impact black people.

Doctoral students.

That’s Schaefer Riley’s target: a group of accomplished, intelligent black doctoral students.

Schaefer Riley went after, arguably, the most powerless group of people in all of academe: doctoral students who lack the political cover of tenure, institutional support, or extensive professional networks. She attacked junior scholars who have done nothing but tried to fulfill the requirements of their degree program and who had the audacity to be recognized for doing so in academia’s largest publication. Their crime is not being fucking* invisible.

For that–for daring to be seen and heard–Schaefer Riley eviscerates the hard work of doctoral students.

And she does not even afford them the respect of critiquing their actual scholarship. That is beneath her. She attacks the very veracity of their right to choose what scholarship they will do. In effect, she attacks their right to be agents in their own academic careers.

She eschews their dissertation titles as laughable. She pokes fun at their subject matter. She all but calls them stupid.

And The Chronicle of Higher Education let her.

Maybe it has been awhile since you have been a graduate student. Maybe you have never been a black graduate student. Let me tell you a little about my experience of that.

You are almost always perceived as crazy and different for doing something few in your family or peer groups would ever consider doing. Even if you are among the best and brightest in college you are somewhat of an oddity in graduate school. You are either the voice of all black people or the voice of no one. You can be, in any combination and at any given moment: an affirmative action case, an overachiever, lazy, aggressive, scary, and your University’s poster child for diversity.

You are simultaneously invisible and in the spotlight…all the time. For five-plus years. And you pay for the privilege because you care about the scholarship. You do the work. You jump through the hoops. You refine a research agenda, craft a research question that passes muster with your committee members; you spend countless hours reading, writing, collecting data, and learning your craft. Finally, it is time to present your baby to the world. And you do not expect to be coddled but you do expect that professional rules of conduct to which you have been taught to adhere will also apply to your colleagues.

You expect that completing almost all the requirements of your degree program will signal to the greater field that you, at minimum, should be respected as an intellectual peer.

You expect arguments to adhere, however symbolically, to the rules of logic.

You expect critiques to be confined to your ideas and not extended to your person.

You expect that when an academic publication promotes a scholar’s opinion that these very basic rules of engagement will apply.

If you are Ruth Hayes, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and La TaSha B. Levy you awoke today to find that none of those rules apply when the scholarship is yours.

For that The Chronicle of Higher Education is as much to blame as Naomi Schaefer Riley.

These scholars did not deserve to be publicly attacked in the largest academic news publication for daring to be visible and black with a dissertation title that Schaefer Riley finds hilarious.

It isn’t scholarship when the entire purpose is to ridicule.

I know we’re not using the “r” word after Obama being elected and all but it really is this simple: by elevating Schaefer Riley’s racially tinged attack on three emerging scholars, The Chronicle is legitimizing open season on black scholars for doing Black Studies. That’s racist racism.

It does go to prove that Black Studies remain critical to academe but it also begs the question: with colleagues like The Chronicle and Naomi Schaefer Riley who in the hell needs enemies?

* fine, fine, fine: one cuss word slipped through. Sue me. Just don’t write about me in The Chronicle!

ETA: There’s now a petition because every time I think about it I get angry all over again. Public shaming and bullying is never OK. Please sign and share.

About the author: I’m terrible at bios. I am fairly better at being a friend, daughter, researcher, and eternal hell-raiser.

  • Renee Campbell

    i just read her hateful article… what really shocks me and incensed me the most was her quote. ”
    Ms. Levy’s dissertation argues that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have ‘played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.’” The assault on civil rights? Because they don’t favor affirmative action they are assaulting civil rights? Because they believe there are some fundamental problems in black culture that cannot be blamed on white people they are assaulting civil rights?”

    WHAT?! all the fundamental problems in the black culture have been created by colonization and the further disruption of our culture and way of life. her flippant attitude and racial superiority is appalling. 

  • Anonymous

    I can’t.

    It seems every few months an article or blog post is published in some allegedly reputable information source that degrades and dehumanizes black people in particular. First there was the “black women are scientifically less attractive” article, then the “why don’t black kids just use open source classes at the public library to lift themselves out of poverty!” article and now this one. Anxiety of a demographically changing America is really on the uptick. I am glad that many people are calling her out, but I had to sit this one out. Be warned, I think this will only get worse.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JVANDZ6YP3FXZSHKIA24GQTCEU ShelleyB

    As an incoming graduate student in Peruvian art I’m waiting for the Hispanic American or Latin American version of this, as the hate against these particular groups in the United States is growing and I have already heard people deride the study of issues related to Hispanic cultures both outside and within the US.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JVANDZ6YP3FXZSHKIA24GQTCEU ShelleyB

    As an incoming graduate student in Peruvian art I’m waiting for the Hispanic American or Latin American version of this, as the hate against these particular groups in the United States is growing and I have already heard people deride the study of issues related to Hispanic cultures both outside and within the US.

  • Pingback: I Wish A N*gga Would (Tell Me Black Studies Isn’t Good Enough) « The Thread

  • Pingback: Good Ain’t Good Enough When It Comes to Black Studies « The Thread

  • Alphabet

    Not only was she blatantly wrong about what she wrote, but she was downright cruel to the students she calls out by name.  These are young people who have worked incredibly hard to get where they are and complete their dissertations.  How horrifying disrespectful.  I hope this turns into a positive for those students with some positive publicity on their work.

  • Alphabet

    Not only was she blatantly wrong about what she wrote, but she was downright cruel to the students she calls out by name.  These are young people who have worked incredibly hard to get where they are and complete their dissertations.  How horrifying disrespectful.  I hope this turns into a positive for those students with some positive publicity on their work.

  • Montclair Mommy

    P.S. I would love to read the article on natural birth in the black community.  The “natural mothering” or “attachment parenting” type community has a real noticeable lack of the voices of women of color.  My DH’s grandmother was a midwife, as was his auntie.  But you never hear about the birth experiences of women of color.  Women of color are always presumed to be parenting by accident, not with thoughtful choice and deliberation, and its really deplorable to shame Ruth Hayes for having the *audacity* to refuse to allow black women to remain invisible in the natural childbirth community.  You said it right–she is criticizing them for being visible and for refusing to stay silent.  We NEED more voices like that.  We NEED that knowledge.  Its important and congrats to the scholars for being dedicated to gathering and disseminating that information.

  • Montclair Mommy

    P.S. I would love to read the article on natural birth in the black community.  The “natural mothering” or “attachment parenting” type community has a real noticeable lack of the voices of women of color.  My DH’s grandmother was a midwife, as was his auntie.  But you never hear about the birth experiences of women of color.  Women of color are always presumed to be parenting by accident, not with thoughtful choice and deliberation, and its really deplorable to shame Ruth Hayes for having the *audacity* to refuse to allow black women to remain invisible in the natural childbirth community.  You said it right–she is criticizing them for being visible and for refusing to stay silent.  We NEED more voices like that.  We NEED that knowledge.  Its important and congrats to the scholars for being dedicated to gathering and disseminating that information.

  • Montclair Mommy

    I have not commented in a long time, but this made me furious!  I’m so glad that  CHE apologized (finally) in response to all of the protesting.  I couldn’t believe, however, that the editor said they didn’t review the blog post before it was posted…whaaa???? Seriously?  No.  Seriously?? You have got to be kidding me that that was their defense.  Try: “We didn’t think anyone (that mattered) was paying attention and then — whoopsie — people took us to task on an intellectual level that we were shamed by.”

    • http://mclicious.org/ McLicious

       The comments after that post are possibly more depressing than the ones on the original two posts.

  • Montclair Mommy

    I have not commented in a long time, but this made me furious!  I’m so glad that  CHE apologized (finally) in response to all of the protesting.  I couldn’t believe, however, that the editor said they didn’t review the blog post before it was posted…whaaa???? Seriously?  No.  Seriously?? You have got to be kidding me that that was their defense.  Try: “We didn’t think anyone (that mattered) was paying attention and then — whoopsie — people took us to task on an intellectual level that we were shamed by.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joyce-Tesar/100000205757228 Joyce Tesar

    One word: Amen.

  • ElfinnMagik

    Naomi’s firing has hit the NY POST:

    http://www.nypost.com/p/blogs/capitol/academics_response_to_criticism_hQdzEqGvH8a0QRFxQcNgMI

    The post is perpetuating the lie that Naomi actually read the dissertations: 

    ” Riley
    wrote about the failure of black studies at American universities,
    citing PhD dissertations as evidence of the weakness of the discipline
    .”
    And they are trashing the petition:

    “But personal attacks and false accusations of prejudice are the only
    things academics can offer in the face of legitimate criticism, it
    seems. Perhaps Riley should take it as a compliment that not a single
    one of her critics has managed to defend black studies or the
    dissertations the field produces on their own merits. That 6,000 lost
    souls (who’ve signed the online petition) should support the effort to
    separate her from her job and on the basis of a racism charge with no
    foundation in reality, is nothing short of a tragedy.”

  • https://me.yahoo.com/a/3codUm8BxvqjexiiRD_vT6du6nFanFt0#6779e roundelay78

     To the author of this piece and everyone else on the board—check these responses to Riley’s so-called article—A LOT of people called her out on her BS—particularly the fact that she didn’t even research the particular subjects in Black Studies that she put down, so she really didn’t know what the hell she was talking about in the first place—I called her out myself in a couple of posts—check out all the responses on there–it’s so worth it:

    http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/black-studies-part-2-a-response-to-critics/46401

  • sleepyccs

    I wonder if she would support attacks on women’s studies?  (also  known as white women’s studies)

  • Yoshi19959

    Y’know, midwifery sounds like an interesting subject to write on. I actually read Naomi’s article, and all of the dissertations sounded like something I would enjoy reading. Black Studies focuses on the intersectionality of race and other personal experiences. The fact that Naomi completely missed the point of Black Studies is only but one of the many reasons as to why we need it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1130483506 Cleo Hines

    If you read the comments section of that post, it’s about 400+ deep and she was taken to task by I’d say about 99% of the comments.  Which made me reallllly happy. So she decides to write a rebuttal/defense of her first post, annnd further stepped into it, 300+comments deep, to the same results. If you can believe it’s she’s even more arrogant and self-congratulatory about her opinions than she was in the first post. The irony of the whole situation? If not for people like her, people who think like her, believe like her that black people should basically be invisible and grateful that police dogs and water hoses aren’t being aimed in their direction openly anymore, we wouldn’t NEED black studies programs. So yeah she kinda proves the opposite of what she was trying to.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1130483506 Cleo Hines

    If you read the comments section of that post, it’s about 400+ deep and she was taken to task by I’d say about 99% of the comments.  Which made me reallllly happy. So she decides to write a rebuttal/defense of her first post, annnd further stepped into it, 300+comments deep, to the same results. If you can believe it’s she’s even more arrogant and self-congratulatory about her opinions than she was in the first post. The irony of the whole situation? If not for people like her, people who think like her, believe like her that black people should basically be invisible and grateful that police dogs and water hoses aren’t being aimed in their direction openly anymore, we wouldn’t NEED black studies programs. So yeah she kinda proves the opposite of what she was trying to.

  • steps

    The Chronicle of Higher Education is disgusting. Whenever it publishes any piece that even touches on race (or feminism, or socioeconomic issues, or any sort of intersectional issue, really), the comments subsequently light up with instances of ignorance, prejudice, and racism. Academe is a nightmare to work in, and race is a big contributing factor. I really wish the Chronicle isn’t the supposed “bible” of my industry because I would love for it to disappear forever and take its large base of narrow-minded, hateful, supposedly “educated” readership along with it.