Via Inside Higher Ed, Karen Kelsky at The Professor Is In has a riveting post about the challenges facing graduate students of color and in overwhelmingly white departments, which is to say, the vast majority of academic departments in any discipline you can think of in the United States and Canada. She’s been affiliated with three public research university Anthropology departments, and she details the ways in which the faculty in two of the three failed to respond effectively to the questions that graduate students of color posed to them, their discipline, and to their way of conducting business.
The whole thing is worth a considered read, especially if you serve as a professor or advisor of graduate students and/or if you’re interested in dysfunctional departmental dynamics. (Like most of us, she’s like a neurologist: more certain on the diagnosis than on ideas towards a cure.) While it won’t be a surprise to any nonwhite readers, perhaps some white readers will be taken aback by her frankness in discussing white privilege among so-called “white allies:”
Here’s what I want to say. I learned through these interactions that the vast majority of white people in the academy are absolutely clueless when it comes to race. Not race as some abstract category of analysis “out there,” but race as it is manifested daily in their/our own subject position and actions.
One archaeology colleague remarked to me at a cocktail party, . . . “Too bad for you cultural anthropologists. You should be like us in archaeology. We don’t have any race problems. Because all of our students are white!” I gamely tried to explain to this colleague that the absence of students of color in her program was actually a more profound sign of a “race problem” than any visible conflict could be, but she was unmoveable.
. . . . . . . . .
Anyway, it goes without saying that graduate students of color so often feel heartbreakingly isolated in their departments and completely without a friend or ally. That when they try to talk to white faculty about race—not so much as an analytical concept, as a systematic source of blindness about how syllabi are written (ie, with exclusively white scholarship) or how classroom discussions are conducted (ie, when the tentative critiques of students of color are instantly and angrily shot down by defensive white students and faculty), they are met with on one end, bewilderment, in the middle defensiveness, and on the other end, hostility. That when they try to engage their white graduate classmates in a collective intervention, the white graduate students are often MORE defensive, angry, and hostile than the faculty members themselves, probably because of their own status insecurity.
(OUCH on that last point, as someone who was once a very defensive undergraduate and graduate student, and who struggles with defensiveness even today.)
I appreciated that cocktail party anecdote in the middle paragraph. I’m sure that all of you white readers have been in on conversations with other white people in which you were presumed to be an ally with an essentially racist opinion or point of view. (If not an ally, they didn’t think we’d ever tell on them, right?) Do you think white disciplines and white departments really want to change? What are effective strategies for making non-white students and non-white perspectives part of the way we do business?
This is a question that feminists should be in sympathy with, because it’s undeniable that the influx of women into the academy is clearly linked to the production of feminist scholarship. In my experience advising M.A. students, I’ve personally seen how gay graduate students have come up with fascinating questions and innovative ideas for coming to new conclusions in their research in the history of sexuality. Our departments and our disciplines have a long way to go, but at least in the humanities departments I know of, they are much more inclusive of white women and white gay faculty and graduate students than they are of faculty and graduate students of color.
What do you think?