For scholars in the fields of race and ethnic studies—including those who work outside the ivory tower—dealing with snide questions, nasty comments, and occasional name-calling is just part of the job description. Over the years, these academics have repeatedly told me that their work is uniquely misunderstood and dismissed by students, fellow faculty, and the general public.
Stacy Patton, Chronicle of Higher Education
Other than looking out the window, there are few more sure-fire ways to know it’s summer than the appearance in journals of higher education of articles based on tissue-thin premises. Such is the case of “How Race-Studies Scholars Can Respond to their Haters,” from which the above passage is excerpted.
First of all, there is the notion that any one scholar’s field of study can be “uniquely misunderstood.” I wonder if classics professors ever have to explain why they study languages nobody writes or speaks any more? Or if the physics professor whose specialty is plasmonics has ever faced a blank stare when she answers the question “what do you do”?
Next, there is the neat conflation of “questioning” with “hating.” It must be difficult indeed to work in a discipline so tenuous that it not be questioned lest it evaporate under the mild scrutiny of the merely curious.
But these observations pale in comparison to my disappointment in the answers scholars give to Ms. Patton’s question, “is there a right way to answer this kind of skepticism?” She “asked almost two-dozen writers and scholars to share the questions or comments they hear most often, and to offer some advice on how graduate students and junior faculty in race and ethnic studies can respond.”
Some (two) of the ten scholars (not all are faculty) whose answers Ms. Patton records give thoughtful, reasoned comments, although only one gives what I would call the “right answer” to a challenging question about the subject he studies: “‘I’m interested in doing scholarship about black life'” says Marlon M. Bailey, Associate Professor of gender and American studies at Indiana University a Bloomington. That about sums it up, don’t you think? A scholar’s interest in his subject is what motivates his work.
Most of Ms. Patton’s other respondents, however, snap at the bait she offers like catfish swarming a tourist boat at feeding time.
Advises Brown (his university, not his skin c0lor) Professor Matthew Pratt Guterl, upon being asked why a white guy specializes in Africana and American studies, “‘Basically, there is no real “off” time. Every single context—every dinner party, every casual conversation—can be transformed by a single dumb question. So be ready.'” If I am to understand Profess Guterl correctly, a racial confrontation lurks around every corner. Whenever or wherever the subject of race, no matter how tangentially (as is “how come you study that?”), go on the defensive, because your interlocutor is at best clueless and at worst a white supremacist.
Fordham University Professor Mark Naison,who teaches history and African American studies, evidently agrees with Professor Guterl’s assessment, and even does him one better:
If you are a white scholar who teaches in an ethnic studies department or program, best be prepared for the greatest skepticism and resistance to come from whites who think the whole field is illegitimate and preaches hatred of white people and contempt for American traditions. A lot of whites in the U.S. now think they are the major victims of racism and that black people play the race card against them to gain unfair advantages.
You need to be ready for this and have some quick retorts to statements like these.
If they say, “Black people hate white people,” respond by saying: “No, my colleagues love white people! It’s white racists they have problems with, which at this point is about half of the country!” [Emphasis is part of the original text.]
Notice in passing, if you will, that Professor Naison conflates African American with all of “ethnic studies” so he can include all the whiteys who run around condemning Canadian, Latvian, Irish, Puerto Rican, Asian ad nauseam studies in the big tent of racism. But do pay most attention to the distinguished historians assessment of the American peoples: if they are white, they are racist. That is, a full two-thirds of white Americans are racists. Given that white Americans make up 72.4 percent of the population according to the 2010 Census, that’s a powerful lot of bigots running around. No wonder Professor Guterl has a hard time at dinner parties.
Mark Naison cannot possible document his mathematics. If he can, I would love to see his proof, and will gladly, albeit sadly, eat my words. He does not deserve the honorable title of “professor.” It’s hard to have a conversation about race, when the scholars to whom we look for information appear to believe that facts are optional.
And here you thought there was no such thing as a “stupid question.”