The American university is just like many other parts of the American fabric. “We who are dark”, in a lot of cases, to use the title of Harvard philosopher Tommie Shelby’s book, must learn to discern the stigma of our color and heritage even as we are expected to create knowledge in our fields of expertise. Race was a reason why Cornell West left his position at Harvard University. In 2002, former Harvard President Larry Summers argued, among other things, that West was not productive in his academic career because he spent too much time recording rap CDs (link to article).
Non-White scholars in the United States maintain the “double-consciousness” that W.E.B. DuBois discussed years ago in The Souls of Black Folk. However, our academic consciousness is framed in particular ways because of mandates to express the legitimacy of one’s scholarship in certain ways in the American university. Historically, non-White scholars have had to consider the implications of the fight to gain status or “tenure” in the university side-by-side with their recognition that many universities are filled with practices of discrimination, indifference, and racial hegemony.
This video was posted on Facebook by my friend (who is Black, a graduate of MIT, and an MD/PhD):
Asked if he has felt these same tensions, my friend confirmed that he absolutely did.
So what does diversity mean in the university? In an article from a few years back, Wende Marshall, an anthropologist, states that diversity “is more than just black bodies” in the university (link to Marshall: University of Virginia tenure case). She states that diversity is also about different approaches in academics. If I could add to her words, it’s about non-White people being fully human. We are not animals. We are not caricatures. We are complex humans. We are scholars of the highest order.
Following Marshall, what does the non-White scholar become in the academy? What protections do we not have that White scholars have? It’s frightening sometimes…seriously frightening. I am reminded of the hunger strike that a biology professor at MIT put himself through during my time there.
Here is a link: http://tech.mit.edu/V127/N1/1sherley.html
Brilliance, in this case, was dismissed.
I am aware that there are always arguments that the academy has made significant strides in terms of inclusion. Academic departments, across the board, have definitely come a long way relative to the outright segregation that existed just a few decades ago. There are quite a few black and brown bodies in the university. It is kind of exciting. However, what do the people who occupy those bodies endure? How are they twisted and turned in the tenure process? Once they gain tenure, who understands them? How do they express themselves? What happens when they become the subjects of racist stereotypes? These stereotypes may be explicit (e.g. pictures of a gorilla with a Black professor’s face) or more implicit (e.g. Summer’s heavy handed use of the “rap CD” to define West’s career).
Wende Marshall, according to people I have spoken with, spent a lot of time in advocacy roles on UVA’s campus and beyond. In addition to her great “academic” work, her advocacy might have been her “rap CD”, if I can turn Cornell West’s experiences into a metaphor. It is my hope, as I dream of my future in the university, that I won’t endure racist prejudices as an administration attempts to describe me and my presence in the university. I might have my own version of the “rap CD”. In those moments where my work is evaluated, I trust that my “rap CD” won’t be used as a reason for disgust. Rather, I hope it will be considered a statement of my value to the university.