By Guest Contributor T.F. Charlton
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, La TaSha B. Levy, and Ruth Hays: they’re the doctoral students Naomi Schaefer Riley smeared–in unprecedented fashion–as inadequate, irrelevant scholars, in The Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) based on nothing more than their race and field. But media coverage of the controversy has barely noted their names or their response to Riley; even black commentators have framed Riley’s comments as solely an attack on Black Studies.
Riley’s argument was not only aggressively ignorant and racially aggrieved; it has a clear racist pedigree. Mockery of PoC scholars and ethnic studies is hardly new–as Riley herself is aware–and somehow thinks justifies her piece (“The content of my post, after all, is hardly shocking; the same thing could have been written 30 years ago”–not the defense she thinks!). Suggesting that PoC should debate our lives and our scholarship with white people who are ignorant and resentful of our very existence isn’t just white privilege–it’s white supremacy.
The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that this debacle, and the media response to it, tell a story about the subtle ways in which white supremacy remains deeply embedded in our culture–in the media, in academia, and in our “national conversation” about race and racism in general. Four ways this story is about white supremacy:
1. The coverage of the controversy has centered Riley and erased the black women she attacked.
Instead of focusing on the people Riley bullied, the media has allowed her to paint herself as a victim of perfectly reasonable consequences of her own unprovoked attack and distract from the real issues by claiming she would make the same attacks on old white men doing Black Studies. Influential conservative writers have rallied to Riley’s defense. There’s been a similar lack of concern about “intellectual freedom” for the fields Riley believes shouldn’t exist, notwithstanding that ethnic studies are under very real attack right now by white legislators abusing their power to encode racial fears and resentments into law.
Taylor, Levy, and Hays don’t have the media contacts or influence Riley has. They’ve been forced to defend their work against attack rather than making a positive case for it on its own terms. Anyone would be angry and humiliated to suddenly find themselves the subjects of a hostile conversation framed to be of little relevance or benefit to them, their work, or their field.
2. Riley’s tenure at CHE reveals an institutional problem.
CHE had little problem with the content Riley was producing for them before this–content that included quite a few race-baiting posts and mostly consisted of shallow, boilerplate conservative invective. (Sidenote: would a writer of color have gotten away with such lackluster, gratuitously provocative writing for so long?)
Unsurprisingly, CHE‘s objection to Riley’s comments on Black Studies came only when it was necessary to salvage their brand and reputation. This says much about their institutional culture, as does the shortage of visible PoC among their contributors–e.g., of the twelve remaining contributors to Brainstorm, only one appears to be a PoC. Unless CHE expends actual effort to change their institutional culture, to feature more PoC voices and a broader range of perspectives, their self-protective firing of one blogger–welcome as it is–changes little.
3. CHE‘s initial response elevated white opinion above lived black experiences and knowledge production.
CHE editor Liz McMillen has apologized that her initial response, encouraging readers to see Riley’s comments as an “invitation to debate,” “seemed to elevate [them] to the level of informed opinion.” But her response–along with a CHE staffer’s chastisements of critics as attention hungry media illiterates maligning CHE as a villain and ignorant of its First Amendment rights–did more than that. They actually elevated Riley’s screed above lived black experience and scholarship on black communities. They also overlooked the fact that Riley was explicitly motivated by resentment over the idea that blackness is worthy of study in itself. She was rather clear that she singled out Levy, Hays, and Taylor for disdain because CHE dared to publish a positive profile of them and their program, but “neglected” to include quotes from anyone “skeptical of Black Studies … Like me.” Well!
And despite obviously scant familiarity with scholarship coming out of Black Studies departments, Riley now asserts that “[while] the black experience in America is worthy of study…the best of this work rarely comes out of Black Studies departments.” She then proceeds to name, as an example of “pathbreaking” scholarship on racial disparities, Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist who–wait for it–spent 2 years as director of the Dubois Institute for African and African American Studies and remains affiliated with it now. Whoops. Guess Fryer is down with a field that Riley dismisses as a “series of axes…to grind.”
Riley is only one of many producing a large, profitable genre of racial concern-trolling, fear-mongering, and hypocritical laments that any attention is paid to race at all (especially by “race-hustling,” “victim mentality” buying PoC). Just in the past few months we’ve seen right-wing media paint critical race pioneer Professor Derrick Bell as some kind of wild-eyed “racialist” radical. Since 2008 we’ve been subjected to pontifications on Black liberation theology by conservatives, set on stirring up white racial anxiety, who clearly don’t know the first thing about this theological tradition (hint: Black liberation theology=Latin American liberation theology).
Such commentators routinely use influential media platforms to complain about how put upon they are by anything that centers PoC. They present themselves as edgy, brave souls, risking livelihoods to speak “truth” about race–because attacking PoC is so taboo–while they repeatedly attack POC with impunity. It’s a prevalent mindset exemplified by the white theater critic who recently derided the all-black production of A Streetcar Named Desire, not based on its quality, but because there are no all-white August Wilson plays–implying that black folks are somehow taking something from him and other white people in an industry where black actors are extremely marginalized and black critics are virtually nonexistent. As Blair Underwood, the star of this adaptation, put it on his Facebook page, the clear message is “BLACK FOLKS, STAY IN YOUR PLACE.”
4. Black scholarship and black scholars are viewed as suspect and having to be justified, while implicitly white scholarship is seen as neutral, worthwhile, and objective.
What’s true of the media is true of academia: the legitimacy and value of “traditional” (disproportionately white) fields are taken for granted. There’s little room to question the “objectivity” of white mainstream scholarship, despite the long history of institutional racism in academia; still less room to articulate the indispensable contribution Black and other Ethnic Studies have made to our knowledge.
Without Black Studies, what would we know of black protest of Jim Crow, slave revolts (and white suppression of records of these revolts), or the medical exploitation of black and brown bodies? Who would chronicle not just the struggle, but the achievements, creativity, and joys of black lives and experiences? Do naysayers really imagine white scholarship, on its own, has given an honest account on these topics? Or are such accounts simply irrelevant to them?
If anything is intellectually fraudulent, it’s scholarship that, consciously and not, excludes POC scholars or ignores race and ethnicity as categories of analysis. We all, white people included, need Ethnic Studies. Both academic scholarship and our understanding of the world are better, more honest, more robust with them than otherwise.
None of this is to say that black studies is perfect. Like many academic disciplines, it can be deeply bound to “traditional” approaches that marginalize scholarship from or about women, queer, and/or trans people. But it’s also the case that substantive critiques of Black Studies by scholars who take race and racism seriously (i.e., not Sowell and Steele) already exist. That critics are wholly ignorant of both the contributions and critiques of Black Studies is an example of what Spelman anthropologist Erica L. Williams describes as the “emotional labor” PoC scholars “must perform … beyond our job descriptions” and not just in the humanities. The considerable stresses of educating and producing scholarship are compounded by the suspicion and racial hostility PoC scholars routinely face.
PoC are constantly expected to be emotional midwives to white people. Attempts to claim space or identity for ourselves–without deference to whiteness–are inevitably met with suspicion, anger, fear, and guilt (witness white anger over the President’s racial self-identification). We’re expected to have a conversation on race and racism that centers and assuages white emotions, to speak about race in terms and frameworks that are neither by, for, or ultimately about us. What little space we’re afforded in mainstream media is taken up with 101-level education, demands that we justify our existence, and prove the merit of our perspectives and accomplishments beyond the shadow of a doubt. White critics and, occasionally, other people of color, often feel a casual entitlement to pass judgment on PoC narratives of our own experiences, and on our scholarship, without putting in the effort to learn about or engage with either.
This episode highlights the need for POC scholars to create our own media platforms where they can make a positive case for the work they do. I confess to deep pessimism that there will be any substantive change in mainstream media when it comes to diversity; there are few incentives for such changes and little will or power to enact them. But more than that, in mainstream spaces POC are routinely forced to play rhetorical defense. We are in desperate need of spaces where we can define our lives and our work on our own terms.
T.F. Charlton is a writer and blogger at Barnacle Studios.