To support racialized scholars, we need to confront the epistemology of whiteness in the academy
Once again, I sent this out to some publications, and they weren’t into it (for obvious reasons you will see below). So now you can read it. Enjoy!
Now that the initial wave of interest in Black lives has largely subsided, we academic types have reverted to our usual tactics, with school presidents sending electronic missives to their respective student bodies, asserting their commitment to racial justice. We have released “special issues” of journals that are in actuality cobbled-together past articles, and even changed the names of campus buildings. It’s all very good optics, and it’s certainly a net positive for the academy to have been shamed into these changes. As a Black doctoral student whose scholarship focuses on whiteness and (language) education, I have personally joined my school’s committee on racial justice out of a feeling of obligation due to my experience and my identity. The committee has since broken into smaller subcommittees, and then again into working groups, with the aim to advance initiatives to the larger university by the end of the school year. I hope that whatever we come up with provides some support to the minoritized students in our community — we are working on some language for common syllabi, oh boy! — but I cannot say I expect a substantive change within the current structures of the academy, because it is the academy itself that is causing the harm.
When we speak of anti-racism, decolonizing our curricula, or even the dismantling of whiteness, ultimately we are calling for a redistribution of power from exploiters to those who have been exploited. Potential changes to hiring practices that allow more scholars of color to gain positions are a nice step, but the process by which scholars are considered qualified for employment needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, relying as it does on an amorphous form of meritocracy tied to, among other things, peer-reviewed publications. Publications may yet seem like a fair way to judge the value of a scholar, but I would in fact argue that performing academic language and data reportage acceptably enough for editors and peers is hardly a process without inherent power differentials, one that benefits those who write in standardized English and disadvantages minoritized ways of knowing and communicating. Publication is ultimately about impressing a predominantly white audience, and as such, so long as we depend upon this metric for career advancement, we will necessarily support only those who have successfully demonstrated this skill.
To be clear, I do not write this as someone who has struggled to gain public acceptance — though we’ll see what people think about this essay! — and indeed, I have, for most of my life, attended exclusive institutions that were quick to inform me of how special I was for having gained acceptance. In other words, I have long been welcomed into the cold embrace of elite American education. Although I’m Black and neurodivergent, and experienced genuine educational trauma accordingly, the academy has accepted me thus far, and I am writing today to point out that it shouldn’t just be the Black scholars who can play the game the way that I can that are supported and celebrated.
Even if a minoritized scholar manages to gain acceptance into the academy, there is a narrow path that we must follow to be allowed to the front of the professional line. We are told to publish in journals, read only by a relatively small number of us academics per issue, or perhaps to craft an academic book, which will be prohibitively expensive for any member of the public.
Additionally, the prose we are told to use in our reportage is, in my opinion at least, usually dry, detached, and distant, thereby removing the author from their work. This academic non-style has its benefits, but it flattens much of scholarly writing, which allows for great harm to pass through the review process, so long as it follows the regulations. The list of scholar-approved atrocities is enormous (we all know about Tuskegee now, but the study appeared in medical journals for decades before the public was alerted), but considering we are still chasing the silver bullet to fix the supposed deficits in our minoritized students, I am skeptical we have learned much of anything.
I’m the person the academy wants to put forth as an example. I test well — be it the eugenicist nonsense of the IQ or the classist claptrap of the SAT — and I can impress a white audience. My parents had enough money to send me to school with wealthy white classmates, and I can accordingly speak exactly the type of (white) American English that is prized, which I employ with internal rhyme and alliteration (go back and look). I could very easily keep my head down and be one of the handful of Black faces hired a few years from now as these updated policies come to fruition. But I’ve experienced and studied too much about whiteness in education to passively accept — or actively chase — inclusion into a system that is built upon my destruction.
Whiteness exists only to be categorized as superior to other groups as a justification for chattel slavery and settler colonialism, and it would not have endured for lo these many centuries if it weren’t for the efforts of the scholars who helped define it as such. So long as our institutions refuse to challenge the power structures upon which they were built, those of us in said other groups can only hope to be exceptions to the rule. Accordingly, no matter what our schools do, it can only possibly be a half-measure if we rely upon the same stories we’ve always told ourselves.
The academy needs to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Instead of efforts to “include” scholars of color in the current academy, interrogate every supposed thinker in the canon and decide whether or not their inclusion supports minoritized scholars. Consider if there is a better way to determine who is worthy of a faculty position than publications that are essentially hidden from public view. Most of all, allow, and encourage, minoritized scholars to put their full selves into their writing, and celebrate them for doing so. These are only a few suggestions among many that need to occur, but until we truly start along this path, until the academy can genuinely claim to support all scholars, until there is a chance that power will change hands, all of our letters, our meetings, our committees, they are without meaning. We are merely engaging in a grotesque diversity theater, and absolutely no one is enjoying the show.