On The CHE‘s Reinforcement Of Suspicion Of Black Academia

By Guest Contributor Tope Fadiran Charlton

Courtesy The Atlantic Wire

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).

Blair Underwood. Courtesy: Zimbio.com

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.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and La TaSha B. Levy (l-r). Courtesy:Afrodiaspores.tumblr.com

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.

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  • Anonymous

    “Emotional midwives” is a sublime term.

    So many white people see POC as sidekicks in whatever heroic white quest they see themselves on, and they see the world of POC as an empty stage for them to star on.

    Hey white people, it’s not always all about you.

  • http://twitter.com/Ellington3 Rhonda Yearwood

    Well said Cleo! Well said!
    Some people seem to think because they are married to or dating someone who is a person of colour, or if they are female, or a person of colour they are exempt from saying racist, and or sexist things.
    That kind of logic always astounds me.I remember once that I pointed out to a woman that what she was saying about another woman was rather misogynistic. She got upset and angry at me and then said “I CANNOT BE A MISOGYNIST! I AM A WOMAN!!”
     Sometimes it  is not to be believed the depths of the obtuse.

  • NK4

    My favorite writer about the history of racism in America is J Sakai. He didn’t come from academia and he writes in a clear way that anybody can understand but I have a feeling if white critics had ever heard of him they wouldn’t like him any better! I guess the pathbreaking scholarship from outside academia she likes are people like Huey Newton and Omali Yeshitela right? I’m sure that must be what she means.

  • KittyWrangler

    “Instead of focusing on the people Riley bullied, the media has allowed her to paint herself as a victim […]”

    I’m curious what  “focusing on the people Riley bullied” means? When I see the media spotlight turned on the victims of attack lately– Sandra Fluke, Trayvon Martin and his family, others who have limited means of media access– it has been, itself, an invitation to further attack. I assume this isn’t what Charlton has in mind. I’d love to know more about how Charlton would have preferred the media to behave, since I am hoping there’s a clear way to shine a spotlight on a victim of bullying without it becoming an interrogation.

    • Anonymous

      Um, I would venture to say that what he means is that as usual, the suffering of the white woman who was being racist and dismissive of their work was made into the most important thing as opposed to the reputations of the doctoral students whose work she insulted.

      Too many conversations about white women’s racism devolves into  a discussion about how much the white woman’s feelings have been hurt when she is rightfully called out.  Privileged white woman are pretty high up the totem pole in this country.  They should not be beyond reproach when they mess up.

      It would be great if just one conversation about racism didn’t become a discussion about a white woman’s butthurt.  

      And to equate Riley’s “suffering” with Trayvon Martin is beyond insulting.  He is dead, and she will never be treated as he was, nor will be ever be subjected to unjust search, seizure, profiling, etc.

      I wouldn’t include Sandra Fluke precisely because everyone goes nuts if a single hair on a white woman’s head is insulted.  POC are not afforded that kind of protection by the media.

      This is one giant derail.  She has assaulted the powerless using a role that she is barely qualified for.  She has no doctorate but she can dissect dissertations that she didn’t bother to read?  And you, like so many others, take issue with that?

      I’d love for the media to focus on real victims, not racists whose feelings have been hurt for getting called out on their racism.  

      And I’m so tired of people trotting out their Black/Asian/other partners as proof that they are not racist.  Yes Virginia, you can sleep with a POC every night, have children who are POC and still be the biggest racist ever.

      • KittyWrangler

         We must be having some sort of miscommunication. My comment begins with the assumption that what Riley did was racist and unprofessional, though I could have explicitly stated that, and at no point did I imply Riley is “suffering,” much less compare her suffering to Trayvon Martin’s, and yes, it would be insulting to do so. I’m not questioning why Charlton feels these grad students are being bullied, that is crystal clear to me. I noted that, lately, highlighting victims of bullies in the media, however dissimilar they may be, has led to further vicious attacks, and I asked what practical media strategies Charlton has in mind that don’t further open these students, simply because it would be a useful thing to know.

        • Anonymous

          Sorry, I have strong feelings about the topic and this wasn’t directed at you, just the frustration from the situation in general.  

          • KittyWrangler

             Oh, nevermind then! :)

    • http://twitter.com/graceishuman Grace

      OP here. I’m not suggesting media interrogations of the students involved, but rather equal consideration – at least – of the professional and personal implications of this fiasco for them as the media has given Riley. There’s been endless handwringing over the loss of a minor position for Naomi Riley and little consideration of what it means for a graduate student to have their work in progress lampooned before a national audience. On top of that, the fact that Riley attacked graduate students by name should be part of basic reporting on the controversy. Much of the media coverage has failed to mention this, framing the original post only as an attack on Black Studies as a field. Beyond mention of that fact it would have been nice to see more journalists acknowledge that it’s highly unusual to single out graduate students, who are not established scholars and are still in the middle of their research and writing, for ridicule – and this was a huge part of why it sparked such a backlash in the first place. 
      These students are already in the spotlight and open to attack and interrogation; they might as well have an equal opportunity to put their perspective out there. I know Ta-Nehisi Coates has extended an invitation to them to write about their work on his blog, and Mark Anthony Neal/New Black Man just had LaTasha Levy on his Left of Black podcast to discuss Riley’s piece.

  • Ladyguerita


     Great article! I go
    to this very liberal state University and I was talking about La Raza and how I
    wanted to join but I was  too busy with classes.
    The two men (both white) then talked about how La Raza was racist organization and
    how it unfair to white people. O.O    This was the same crowd that said, I that I
    hated my white side since I always tend to associate myself to Latino/people of
    color groups.  There sense that when we
    write, talk or discuss our experience people accuse us about race. I would also
    argue that our experiences are fetished and stereotyped. White people( not all
    but people  who are caught doing this are
    white) tend to lecture a person of color about their respected cultures, language,
    etc  or expect them to be a walking stereotype.
    We all know that if you are Black people assume you are poor, grew up on
    welfare, into hip- hop when you are a middle class who like hip- hop but also
    likes rock and had a Goth phased in high -school.  e.g., I am Latina
    and I know one girl who would lecture me on Mexican  food and culture and I then I told her I was
    aware of these dishes and that area of concentration in Anthropology was  Mexico and that I was a Mexican National.

  • JA

    One could argue that it’s appropriate to make an editorial decision to leave these scholars names out of the debate because in addition to the issue of the blindly racist content of Riley’s ridiculous piece (I say blindly because the topics she presented as absurd were the nothing of the sort — how can one consider studies of housing issues and midwifery unnecessary or even esoteric?), there was the cruelty of calling out young, vulnerable, job seeking, publisher courting scholars who don’t deserve the ridicule and have other things they need to focus their attention on.  If a rising academic has their profile raised because they present challenging ideas that is one thing, but Riley was just making fun of the titles of these pieces (and if those were the wildest titles and topics of the bunch, Black Studies may be the most conservative field in academia), so unless a follow-up piece involves actually reading all of their work and giving it a fair critique, I’m all for discussing this incident without focussing on the scholars being attacked.

    • Medusa

       I totally agree. This debate should center around Riley… I wouldn’t want these scholars to be associated with this piece of racist drivel. It would be totally unfair for them to be dragged into this (well, even more than they were already dragged into this by this shitty article) because of CHE’s apparent lack of discretion.

    • Medusa

       I totally agree. This debate should center around Riley… I wouldn’t want these scholars to be associated with this piece of racist drivel. It would be totally unfair for them to be dragged into this (well, even more than they were already dragged into this by this shitty article) because of CHE’s apparent lack of discretion.