I’m currently studying for a Ph. D. in History and Philosophy of Science. “What the hell is that?” you might ask. And that would be a good question. In fact, I even took a whole class on the question of whether my field really exists, or if it’s just a bunch of historians and philosophers who enter a marriage of convenience because they’d rather share a building with each other than with the would-be colleagues in their respective departments. I’m also minoring in Cognitive Science, a department composed of philosophers, cognitive psychologists, linguists, mathematicians, computer scientists, logicians, communication scientists–just about everything except for “cognitive scientists”. So I’m majoring in a field that might not exist and minoring in one that’s more or less a hodge podge of other fields. This is why when asked “What do you do for a living?”, I just avoid the question.
There are lots of reasons to question what constitutes a “legitimate” academic field. Is it really a good idea to offer a master’s degree in Peace Studies? And what the hell is a Ph. D. in Scandinavian? These are legitimate questions. But, as with any topic, there are also really asinine, bigoted questions to be asked, and Naomi Schaefer Riley of the Chronicle of Higher Education is making sure that stupid questions get their time in the sun, too. Here’s the title of her piece:
The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.
Spoiler: She doesn’t read any dissertations. She just reads the titles. No, seriously:
You’ll have to forgive the lateness but I just got around to reading The Chronicle’s recent piece on the young guns of black studies. If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline, the sidebar explaining some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it. What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap. The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.
What better way to counter “left-wing victimization” than with white-wing whining? Anyone familiar with the de rigueur method of discussing race on the American right can see where this is going. “Why do those ni–, I mean, African Americans still complain about racism? America doesn’t have a race problem any more. The problem is laziness! And black people who say there’s still racism in America are just enabling all those lazy spear-chu–, I mean, non-job-creaters.”
And, yes, Ms. Riley hasn’t actually read any dissertations by Black Studies scholars. She read a sidebar from a CHE article that lists the author, title and short description of a grand total of five dissertations. All of them are from the Black Studies Department at Northwestern University. The entirety of her thesis rests on this sample. Excellent scholarship there, Ms. Riley. Up next, Ms. Riley will offer some movie reviews based on her first impressions of the Blu-Ray box art. I’m sure film critics will find her insights very useful when asking whether Film and Media Studies is a topic that deserves to have its own department.
That’s what I would say about Ruth Hayes’ dissertation, “‘So I Could Be Easeful’: Black Women’s Authoritative Knowledge on Childbirth.” It began because she “noticed that nonwhite women’s experiences were largely absent from natural-birth literature, which led me to look into historical black midwifery.”
Now, I could see the germ of a legitimate criticism here. It’s always irritating to me when people see the word “natural” attached to something and automatically think that makes it better. Generally, whenever I hear some hippie praising the merits of “natural” foods or “natural” medicine, I point out to them that arsenic and dog shit are both perfectly natural, too. That doesn’t necessarily mean you want it in your body. And when it comes to “natural birth”–i.e., birth at the home with a midwife rather than at a hospital–I feel the same way. Why risk your baby’s life and your own by giving up all the benefits of modern medicine found at a hospital? Because it’s more “natural” to increase your baby’s risk of early death? Well, that’s idiotic. (Of course, I’m not going to attack Hayes for this, and for one simple reason: I don’t know if that’s what she’s really saying. I haven’t read her dissertation, and have no way of knowing if she took this position or not. But that won’t stop Riley.)
However, it’s also easy to see a real, academic topic here. Hospitals are expensive, especially without insurance, and black people tend to have less money and less insurance than white people. As a result, you would expect more at-home births amongst blacks simply out of necessity, and it would stand to reason that your average black woman might know more about midwifery than her white counterparts. It makes sense, and I could see why someone might want to study it.
But apparently I’m not seeing what’s really going on here. Ms. Riley sets me straight:
How could we overlook the nonwhite experience in “natural birth literature,” whatever the heck that is? It’s scandalous and clearly a sign that racism is alive and well in America, not to mention academia.
It’s all about white guilt. Because even when black people talk about black people, it’s really about white people. A dissertation about black midwives is clearly aimed at making Riley feel guilty about white racism. We can easily discern this without bothering to read the dissertation. Or even, for that matter, the full description of said dissertation in the very article Ms. Riley purports to be commenting on:
By the time she started her first semester, Ms. Hayes was ready to make black women’s approaches to pregnancy and childbirth her main focus. She is primarily interested in what happens after women decide to carry a pregnancy to term: how they choose health-care providers, prepare themselves mentally and physically to give birth, and how their social location affects those choices. Black women, she says, are more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to be dissatisfied with the care they receive while birthing, and thus experience increased negative birth outcomes. “Hopefully, my research will suggest more effective ways to intervene socially or medically,” she says, “to improve health outcomes for black mothers and infants. This research can provide some insights into how black women’s collective history continues to impact how we give birth.”
Choosing health care providers? Effective medical intervention? The relation between history and child birth choices? Bah! We know your game, Ms. Hayes! This is all about making white people feel bad! Everything is about making white people feel bad!
Okay, I can’t do this any more. Getting into the head of someone like Riley makes me feel like I’m wearing someone else’s unwashed Fruit of the Looms (or is it Fruits of the Loom?). But this is illustrative of a general mindset on the wingnut right of American politics. Even talking about a minority is construed as an imposition on the majority. Whether it’s blacks, gays, women, Muslims, or whatever, the mere discussion of their lives as a topic is converted into an act of aggression in the mind of the right wing bigot. One great way to keep people down is to take offense at even the notion that they might want to talk about their own lives.
But Ms. Riley isn’t done attacking grad students who are doing far more productive work than she is. Here she is offering her insight on a dissertation on racism in housing:
But Ms. Taylor sees that her issue is still relevant today. (Not much of a surprise since the entirety of black studies today seems to rest on the premise that nothing much has changed in this country in the past half century when it comes to race. Shhhh. Don’t tell them about the black president!)
The president’s black? Oh, well then, racism is over. And that same black president had Osama bin Laden killed. That ends terrorism. So will the right wing please shut up about Muslim terrorism already?
But topping the list in terms of sheer political partisanship and liberal hackery is La TaSha B. Levy.
I’m definitely seeing some partisanship and hackery here, but it ain’t La TaSha Levy’s doing, and it sure as fuck ain’t “liberal” (whatever that means).
“Ms. Levy is interested in examining the long tradition of black Republicanism, especially the rightward ideological shift it took in the 1980s after the election of Ronald Reagan. Ms. Levy’s dissertation argues that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have ‘played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.’” The assault on civil rights? Because they don’t favor affirmative action they are assaulting civil rights? Because they believe there are some fundamental problems in black culture that cannot be blamed on white people they are assaulting civil rights?
Did she fucking say that? I’m asking rhetorically since I already know the answer: Ms. Riley has no idea if that’s what Ms. Levy said, since she hasn’t read the dissertation, or hardly any of the literature in black studies for that matter.
It often feels like the American right is carrying out arguments which exist entirely within the heads of its pundits without any regard for what actual “liberals” are actually saying. But in this case, that is quite literally what’s happening. Riley is offering counterarguments not to anything La TaSha Levy said, but to what Imaginary La TaSha Levy is saying deep in the shit-strewn sewer of Riley’s tiny, reptilian brain stem. There isn’t even the pretense of actually responding to someone’s statements (which is what the right wingers usually do). Riley is just flat out playing make-believe, and the CHE is publishing what might as well have been written in crayon on a roll of toilet paper at a mental institute. (Oh, and CHE, would you mind letting us know why exactly we should consider you to be a respectable academic publication?)
Luckily, Riley lets us know that she really does care about black people:
Seriously, folks, there are legitimate debates about the problems that plague the black community from high incarceration rates to low graduation rates to high out-of-wedlock birth rates.
“Seriously, folks, if we’re gonna talk about black people, let’s make sure that the debate is couched entirely in terms that make them sound bad. We can’t have those uppity ni–, African Americans talk about themselves in a manner that doesn’t evoke images of dumb thugs who will fuck anything that moves, now can we?”
But it’s clear that they’re not happening in black-studies departments.
This is how “clarity” works in the wingnut-o-sphere: Make up some bullshit. Believe the bullshit. There! It’s all so clear now! “Clearly” there’s no useful scholarship in black studies departments, because I imagined there being none, so there’s none! It’s so much fun to be a stupid, bigoted douchenozzle!
If these young scholars are the future of the discipline, I think they can just as well leave their calendars at 1963 and let some legitimate scholars find solutions to the problems of blacks in America. Solutions that don’t begin and end with blame the white man.
Uh, are these “young” scholars 50 or 60 years old? Hmmm, let me check. Nope, they’re all between the ages of 27 and 39. So they weren’t fucking alive in fucking 1963. If they experienced racism growing up, it would have been in the 80s and 90s or 2000s. Not the fucking 60s.
And here’s the thing. I’m white, and I never experienced racism against myself growing up. But I damn sure noticed racism against my black friends. I’ve seen white trash in pickup trucks yelling “nigger” at my schoolmates as they drove down the streets. I’ve seen my own parents and grandparents worry about the possibility of having to let a black repairman in the house. Fuck, I didn’t even know the proper name for a Brazil nut as a kid. The only name I ever heard from them came from my uncle, who called them “nigger toes.”
And by the time I was 16 and living in New Orleans, I was already noticing the subtler aspects of white privilege. For instance, when I walked down the street with my black friend Phil, and there were cars stopped at a red light, you could hear people locking their doors as Phil passed by. Phil just laughed it off and shouted, “Nothing to worry about, folks. Just a black boy walking down the street.” But it wasn’t lost on me that no one did that when my white friends were with me. Even the simple experience of walking down the god damn street is different if you’re black. And this was in 1997, not 1963.
So it’s obvious to anyone with two neurons to rub together that racism didn’t magically disappear with the passage of the Civil Rights bill. What has happened, though, is the emergence of what I’ll call Whiny Whitey (I’m white, so I get to use the w-word). Whiny Whitey is very troubled by race issues in America. Not, mind you, with actual racial tensions or inequalities. No, what troubles Whiny Whitey is that anyone would dare suggest that such issues exist. You see, talking about race makes Whiny Whitey uncomfortable. It’s inconvenient. And since openly racist commentary is no longer considered socially acceptable (yes, we have made progress), Whiny Whitey would rather we just not talk about race at all. Ever.
And Whiny Whitey is brimming with resentment that anyone might suggest that Whiny Whitey should feel guilty about what has happened to blacks in America. And what, pray tell, would constitute such a suggestion? Anything about race. Anything at all. Any discussion of race is just a game of “blame the white man,” and Whiny Whitey isn’t gonna take it any more. She’s gonna put her foot down and say Enough is Enough. Shut up about income inequality, racial profiling, employee discrimination, stereotyping, voter discrimination, and white privilege! It makes Whiny Whitey sad. Black people’s problems aren’t caused by racism. They just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, just like Whiny Whitey did. I mean, they were born into safe, middle class neighborhoods with adequate health care and education and never feared or reviled because of the color of their skin, just like Whiny Whitey. Right?
I’m not a big fan of so-called “white guilt”. I don’t feel the slightest bit of guilt for what happened before I was born and I had no control over. However, I also can’t stand white racists who use “white guilt” as a way to demean or dismiss the black experience of racism in this country. You have to be quite stupid to think that historical events such as slavery, segregation and lynching have left no lasting effects on today’s world. You can’t escape history. It’s worse than naive to suggest that the negative effects of Jim Crow just poofed away into the aether, never to be seen again, after the laws were abolished. It’s irresponsible, it’s idiotic, and it’s bigoted. It’s also the current default position of the Republican party. But what else should we expect from the party that thinks creationism, abortion bans and dogmatic supply-side economics are the wave of the future?