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.