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.
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.