The Polite Sound of Daily Academic Racism and Sexism
The recent high-profile cases of Black women in academia being denied the tenure and promotion that they were clearly qualified for made me rethink my own academic experiences. They. Were. Horrible. When people are racist in the Ivory Tower, they show it ever-so-slightly, and you are expected to die intellectually….but politely.
Let me confess something, Reader; I love learning. I have always loved learning. I grew up with a nosy momma, and her nosiness rubbed off on me at an early age. I love learning, because I just want to know stuff like my mother. But as much as I love learning, school has never been an affirming space for me. The two recent high-profile cases in the media about Black women being denied tenure that they clearly earned made me rethink my experiences in a structured environment.
Recently, I have been thinking about school in a new light, thanks to tenure denials. If Nikole Hannah-Jones and Lorgia Garcia Pena do not deserve tenure, Sweet Merciful Father, who does?
These stories were a shock to the news nation, but not to myself and thousands of other academics like me. We have experienced academic racism and/or sexism almost daily! Some of us were kicked out of graduate programs for no reason at all. Some of us, disgusted with the way we were treated and the powerlessness we felt, either transferred to another program or degree that we had to settle for. Some of us turned our backs on higher education and became entrepreneurs or now work in the private sector: a graduate degree may have been our dream, but we found that the economic payoff was not worth our sanity. Some of us wanted to tell our stories, but people refuse to believe the guardians of liberal thinking would be that cruel: they blame us and try to tell us where we went wrong.
Why is it almost impossible for people to believe that educators, particularly those of us who work in higher education, can be the guardians of white supremacy? Educators constructed, delivered, and maintained the scientific racism that continues to plague our society. An “educated” scientist here in the Memphis area was just released from his job for calling someone a “knuckle-dragger.” That was clearly a throw-back insult from the era of Black people being scientifically studied as the “missing link.” Some educators in the academy use their degrees and areas of expertise to cloak white supremacist attitudes and practices. And no, I am not talking about teaching commonly accepted grammar. I am talking about professors who conduct themselves in ways that diminish or dismiss Black scholarship and those professors who expel Black students from graduate programs with little or no reason other than they are insecure about that student’s research topic. I am also talking about those Black professors who narcisstically guard the crumbs that they receive from the master’s table while starving out students who look to them for mentoring.
Now, let me take you a long aside, Dear Reader. I’m going to do like the Baptist preacher and ask you to bear with me. I am going somewhere with this.
The last time ya’ll (Yes, I say ya’ll. I’m from South Ssippi and I REFUSE to leave it behind) heard from me, I posited that we need to revisit Reconstruction: https://latoyarjeffersonjames.medium.com/back-to-the-present-revisiting-reconstruction-without-the-shameless-plug-207a558c35b3 I could have made that a James Baldwin-length essay, but I know that reading on the screen can be difficult on the eyes and cut it short. I did not list any of the “academic” publications that supported and informed white supremacy of the era. Several of the academic postings of that era focused on Black people and their curious intellectual deficiencies. Like this one:
This text was supposed to be an “objective” study on Black people and Black people’s work ethics. It is a very “nice” repeat of stereotypes spread during slavery within academic language.
The science of psychology in America developed from phrenology. Phrenologists claimed that African skulls were misshaped, and therefore, African people were incapable of intellect.
Animalistic categories continue(d) to plague the academic conversations that involve African people. Has anyone ever heard that Black men are an “endangered species”? I do not care what the intended effect that was supposed to have, the language casts Black men as animals (but without the economic investment and protection that most endangered animals have) and is reminiscent of scientific racism. Sadly, this language was taken up and repeated by Black social scientists!
From the young science of phrenology, the “Father of Modern Gynecology,” James Marion Sims, performed experiments on Black newborns in order to “correct” the shape of their heads. Some of those children died, and since they were slave children, he received no punishment for their murders. One could call him a racist, but one could look at the fact that he was using the modern scientific knowledge of his day.
Reader, I took you on this long aside in order to tell you that academia has never truly purged itself of scientific racism. In the Ivory Tower, there are still long-standing notions that Black people and women are intellectually inferior. Each day, it rears its ugly head in the academy via microaggressions, and nobody questions it.
With this post, I’m going to “translate” some of the nice, polite racism and sexism that students in higher education endure every day. And what makes this even more cruel, is when Black professors repeat some of the same things to Black students who are already struggling to adjust to microaggressions that no one warned us about. We don’t understand how Black educators could behave that way. But can we say, “internalization”? Some Black professors, who are overly-concerned with keeping their “spot” in the academy, avoid Black students and the “controversy” that they bring with them, or they remain silent while they witness the academic hazing that students (and sometimes, colleagues) endure. Sadly, some of the blame the students for the all-out mobbing and bullying that students endure at the hands of racist professors.
Here are a few statements from academic racism’s greatest hits. These are not all, but these tend to be the most prevalent.
- ) “You have an attitude/you are hard to work with.” This is a modern, nice academic way of calling someone an “uppity n*gg*r.” If I had a dime for every time I have been told this, I would be a rich woman today. This hurts. As a young woman trying to make my way, I didn’t know why I was being told that I have “an attitude.” I am the one person in your class or office who would bake you a homemade 7-up pound cake and bring Yankee candles for Christmas presents. I do not take myself seriously and smile. I was raised by a World War II veteran: sass was not allowed. So, when white (these were the first to say it) and Black professors accused me of “having an attitude,” I just didn’t know what they were talking about. I have even cried over this charge.
Well, one particular day when I was feeling extra-sorry for myself, a light bulb went off: my white colleagues were calling me an “uppity n*gg*r” in a very polite way. What is an “uppity n*gg*r”? This blog post explains the history of it in detail much better than I can: https://uppitynegronetwork.com/what-is-an-uppity-negro/
Yes, I am humble. No, I don’t take myself too seriously. But don't get it twisted. I am a force of nature in the classroom. I know what I know, I know how to teach it, and I know my value. My mother began my education with a library card when I was a 3rd grader. I didn’t need any college professor, white or Black, to tell me who I was as a college freshman and I certainly do not need that now. I am a recruitment and retention program (okay, I am channeling Meghan Thee Stallion here in that I don’t brag enough. But is it bragging if it’s the truth?) all by myself. Yes, I went to all white institutions, and I was Black there, am Black now, and will tell you that I don’t have to do nothing but stay Black and die. Of course, I don’t state these things out loud, Reader. Give me some credit, I’m a teacher, so I have all of the class, right? Okay, that was corny, but it’s the best I can do.
My confidence in my abilities makes white colleagues nervous. Can you believe, Reader, that I have been told to change the way I walk because it sends the wrong message? What message? How does simply walking into a room with my head up and shoulders straight send a message to anybody? But here’s what angers me: though I am confident in what I know, I do not step on anybody’s toes. I get the bad reputation with none of the fun that goes along with earning that reputation. I am forever trying to formulate academic relationships in a transdisciplinary manner. The librarians are better at teaching database and antiplagiarism techniques than I am, and my students are taken to the instructional librarians for that lecture. I do not try to teach theology or economics. I have very brilliant colleagues who went to school for a long time to do just that and I recommend other humanities classes to students who want to attend law school. But that doesn’t stop people from saying that I “have an attitude.”
Because I “have an attitude,” I have been blocked from jobs and passed up for promotions. I have even said that I am tired of teaching, submitted a letter of resignation to my home institution, packed up my office, and parsed out my teaching materials to colleagues. I am EXHAUSTED by this accusation.
For some reason, I get sucked back into teaching. But here’s my concern: how many bright, Black graduate students are accused of having an attitude or being difficult to work with, simply because they can manage the intellectual rigor and dare to look white folks in the eyes? How many of them are hazed to academic death, because white professors refuse to believe in their intellectual capabilities, become angry because their stereotype does not fit, and actively pick at these students? How many students have given up trying to diminish who they are to placate white insecurities and dropped out of school? On a second thought, why don’t we ever think that white people can be jealous of Black intellect? We don’t give that a second thought, but imagine being raised with the idea that Black folk are intellectually inferior, then meet your Black better or equal? Imagine what a crushing psychological blow that is!
A long time ago, white people used to outright make fun of Black intellectualism and our attempts to become educated. They laughed at Black “code switchers.” The caricature created in order to deny Black intelligence was Zip Coon, and he was a popular figure in the minstrel show circuit.
Zip Coon is often confused with Jim Crow. Whereas Jim Crow is lazy and slovenly, Zip Coon is a nightmarish version of the educated dandy.
Today, rather than call you Zip Coon or “uppity” to your face, they rely on the reality television portrayal of Black women as fighting banshees with acrid tongues. Even when it is not true, this label of one with an “attitude” can affect your graduate school and academic careers.
2.) You have so much energy/You need to tone down/You are too passionate. Honestly, I don’t know what the Hell the “energy” comment is all about. All I do know is that I hear that comment about myself from older white colleagues all of the time. If I had a dime per dozen times I’ve heard that, I would be rich. Here’s the message it sends me: “The presence of your Black body is threatening me and you don’t know how to properly minimize your movements to allay my fears.” Again, when white folks say it, I just look at them. When Black folks say it to me, it actually makes me angry. Are we all supposed to talk like NPR commentators, low and close to the microphone, in order to help white people feel okay around us? I have been in rooms where Black academics were ashamed of me. I have watched them physically squirm and hold their collective breaths in my presence. I have seen the thought in their heads, “Oh, God. Not her.” It was only after I presented my research and white people approved of it that they let out a sigh of relief.
In graduate school, I had one Black feminist to haze me, and it reached a crescendo when she sent me a text calling me “stupid.” She got a true, brown liquor ignorant, South Mississippi cussing out behind that, and I don’t regret one word of what I said to her. As a matter of fact, I wish I’d said more. Well, as a result, I was about to be expelled from my graduate program. The only thing that saved my academic career, was that this monster was foolish enough to send her insults to me by text — many, many texts. My expulsion would have been the trigger I needed to sue the school. Her harassment of me was well-known throughout the department. In fact, the Black woman’s behavior towards me gave the racist white feminist permission to call me angry to my face and deny me a much-needed teaching position and stipend. I was forced to find a job outside of the school.
After I showed the department chair veritable proof of the verbal abuse that I received from this Black feminist scholar who wrote about and preached Black sisterhood any time it benefitted her quest for tenure and promotion, I somehow became the pariah. I was labeled as “difficult.” Of course, this added flame to the already racist fire that I had an “attitude.” It was the “proof” that the cloaked white supremacists needed in order to be dismissive of me. From then on, other Black professors avoided me like I had leprosy. And it hurt. I wonder how many other Black graduate students, who may be the only Black graduate student in their respective programs, are suffering alone and in silence? Worst yet, how many Black professors are missing the opportunity to truly mentor and develop a real scholar, and not someone who is simply looking to become the next inefficient, over-paid administrator? Where are the Black professors who aspire to be John Hope Franklin instead of settling for a paycheck, a title, and benefits? Maybe I am being idealistic here. Maybe John Hope Franklin was the last John Hope Franklin.
3.) Your research is more like activism./Your research topic is not valid. This comment has several translations. a.) When we are not writing about white people, scholarship is activism. I once asked a white colleague: if writing about Black people is “activism” rather than scholarship, what do we call all of the many, many texts about ecocriticism? Isn’t environmental writing a form of Left-wing activism? We have whole readers on ecocriticism by now….like this one: https://www.amazon.com/Affective-Ecocriticism-Emotion-Embodiment-Environment/dp/1496207564/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1ES0CBAID6BNB&keywords=ecocriticism&qid=1661624179&s=books&sprefix=ecocriticism%2Cstripbooks%2C99&sr=1-1 Ironically, Black writers have been writing about the environment for decades, and they are left out ecocritical conversations around scholarship as activism. Zora Neale Hurston’s least-taught and last novel is about a man who routinely ravashes teh environment. Una Marson wote several poems about the terrain of Jamaica. But in the land of cloaked white supremacy, this type of intellectual activism is only for white people, because it is hailed as a paragone of scholarship combined with environmental concerns and activism. But when Black people’s scholarship is called, “activist,” that label is meant to be derogatory? Black people’s scholarly activism is invalid, but white people’s is not? I’m confused.
b.) When Black scholarship does not have a “white frame,” it’s activism. I was told that my dissertation needed a frame of the Cold War and that I was not using any “valid” theorists. James Baldwin and Frantz Fanon do not count as theorists??????? I wrote my first dissertation alone. No one believed that I would finish. But I knew I would. Glissant had a chart in one of his intellectual tracts that provided me with the thesis statement for my entire dissertation. I later turned this dissertation into my first book, but the pushback that I received from the publishing world about the validity of my research was just awful.
Fortunately, for me, in spite of all of the heartbreak and soul-crushing rejection that I received, I graduated. But how many Black graduate students get to the dissertation phase and are expelled from programs because some cloaked white supremacist refuses to see Black culture as worthy of academic interrogation? How many of those cloaked white supremacists are actually nervous or jealous because the student possesses a cadre of knowledge that they didn’t know exists? I can see right past some of their rhetoric: they are angry or jealous because the Black student brings them facts that they were unaware of. And when they speak disparagingly of our research, they can often make fools of themselves. Don’t believe me, Reader: https://www.thefire.org/following-controversial-blog-entry-chronicle-of-higher-education-firing-makes-waves/
The person who dismissed the dissertation on Black midwives did not know that she had shitted and stepped back in it. The study of Black midwives entails historical racism/sexism in America’s medical practices, eugenics and how they apply to African Americans, marginalization of Black medical expertise, and a whole host of other issues that I could outline. This cloaked white supremacist got roasted, and she should have.
4. “You are too emotional./You need to get over this traumatic event that changed your life and write about something else.” One of the most heart-rending stories of academic hazing that I have ever heard came from internationally acclaimed poet, Natasha Trethewey.
A graduate school professor told her to “get over” the brutal murder of her mother. I don’t have a translation here. I think the sexism that this implies is self-evident. It does not matter if the speaker were a man or a woman, it was astoundingly sexist (there are such things as patriarchal women, but that is another post). Secondly, the inhumanity that Black graduate students suffer through with comments like this is unbelievable. Even more tragic is the fact that absolutely no one seems to understand or care.
Okay, Reader, this post has gone on long enough. I thank you, for bearing with me. This series of posts will be personal. I think more Black graduate students need to share their experiences, because they hazing continues post-graduation and into tenure decisions. If you are unafraid to share your hazing experiences with me, please leave a comment. I would love to hear from you. Being academically hazed is such an alienating experience. But I understand. And though I may not be able to help in your unique situation, sometimes just having that shoulder to cry on is needed. Honey, let me tell you, I am a big, hefty brown woman from South Mississippi. My shoulders are broad enough to hold all of the tears.
This post comes from my personal experiences.