Not Just the Syllabus, Throw the Whole Discipline In the Trash
If you truly care about Black lives, then it’s time to dismantle and rebuild higher education.
Recently the hashtag #BlackInTheIvory trended on Twitter. This hashtag proved to be both illuminating and incredibly disheartening. I know the tumultuous experience of being Black in higher education spaces well. In fact, during my time in graduate school, I wrote about the terror of being Black at a predominantly white institution. At the time, I felt isolated in my experience, and then my articles resonated with thousands. This to me, signaled that the system is not just broken, it’s also harmful, traumatizing, and soul-splicing.
During my time in graduate school at Harvard University for my Master’s of Theological Studies, I heard one statement, almost incessantly: should we throw the baby out with the bathwater? This phrase reverberated throughout the classroom everytime a Black student dared to challenge the merit of a text on our syllabus.
The situation would go something like this.
A Black student would say, “Hey this text seems a little racist, maybe we can read a different one?”
And, usually, a white male-identified student replied, “ Yes, this text contains elements of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and/or transphobia, but should we throw the baby out with the bath water?”
I always thought with silent ire, well, if the baby is satan, then maybe.
I, of course, am not arguing for infanticide, but I am pushing back against the infantilization of white Academia and the ways in which we grant white academics ample leeway to remain canonized even when their texts are rife with historical, sociological, and biologically racist errors.
White research begets material consequences for BIPOC communities.
Racist and problematic texts are not just for intellectual fodder or tools to foster (emotionally violent) classroom discussions. Racist research kills people. It ends lives and destroys communities. For example, the medical field continues to see the fallout both from a lack of research and problematic research. Recent studies show that a statistically significant amount of medical practitioners believe that Black people are endowed with higher pain thresholds and literally thicker skin. This, in turn, correlates to the lack of care and attention that Black patients receive. I understand this to be a direct correlation to eugenics, and the little that medical schools have done to address and disrupt the racist history of medical research in America. Science is not colorblind, no disciplines are exempt from the impact that racism continues to have upon their scholarship.
White academia’s obsession with holding onto outdated scholarship needs to be closely examined. It is time for academia to reckon with the way in which poor scholarship is part of the social crisis at hand. Academia is responsible for proliferating anti-Blackness, xenophobia, homophobia, and so much more due to its refusal to de-canonize texts that have been proven harmful.
In America, education works to validate intelligence and cosign intellect. As such, I believe schools are morally responsible for the minds they mold. We live in a world wherein titles mean something. When someone leaves an institution with a degree, they then use their degree to leverage themselves into new jobs and new positions of power. But what happens when that Yale-educated physician or Harvard-educated biologist also believes that Black people have thicker skin and higher pain thresholds? The harm done is irrevocable.
During graduate school, I watched in horror as embolden white students completely butchered Black and PoC religious phenomena while going uncorrected by my professors. At first, I called it out, but eventually, I grew weary. This is because my professors were also limited in their knowledge and scope because they are also reading outdated and problematic scholarship. White academia is stuck in a fruitless cycle of producing scholars who know nothing about anything except whiteness, but believe that they know so much more. The arrogance is dangerous and the lack of breadth of knowledge constitutes intellectual negligence.
Recently, in an article exploring intergenerational Black Trauma, I highlighted the ways in which America used time as a shield against culpability for systemic racism. I argue that America attempts to gaslight Black people by telling us that things were worse before and as such, we should be grateful for how things are now. Academia, like America, also uses time as a way to circumvent responsibility for unethical research.
During graduate school, professors told me, again and again, to hold texts in their historical context. Incessantly, they requested that I give white scholars grace. I was to understand them as victims of their time. This, of course, is bullshit.
Since slavery, Black scholars have fiercely, poetically, brilliantly, and timelessly critiqued America. To this day, slave narratives continue to be the most incredible sociological texts I have ever interfaced with. David Walker’s Four Appeals, is one of my favorite texts of all time.
In it Walker states:
“Did not God make us all as it seemed best to himself? What right, then, has one of us, to despise another, and to treat him cruel, on account of his colour, which none, but the God who made it can alter? Can there be a greater absurdity in nature, and particularly in a free republican country?”
Here, Walker succinctly and poignantly critiques America politically, sociologically, and religiously. Walker wrote this text in 1829. For context, Francis Galton created Eugenics in 1883.
Why are Black authors tasked with being clairvoyant, while white writers are allowed to be stuck in their time, victims of the very white supremacy that they uphold?
You can not be both a supremacist and a victim of the very supremacy that you espouse. If in 1829 Walker could so clearly and timelessly critique the violence and hypocrisy of America while experiencing virtually no access to formalized education, then we should absolutely demand that white scholars move beyond supremacist frameworks.
Why are our expectations for white scholars with ample access so much lower? Why do white scholars remain canonized even though the insidiousness of their texts are proven not to be rooted in victimhood, but agency?
Why can’t academia admit that an ample amount of scholarship is racist on purpose?
I use eugenics as an example because right now we are watching a pandemic ravage the Black community at astronomical rates. Everyday Black people walk into hospitals that are ill-equipped to care for them not only due to lack of medical supplies but also due to a lack of medical knowledge. Scholarship does not exist in a vacuum. It affects lives, everyday.
I am advocating for a complete disruption and dismantling of our current educational system. I know firsthand that Religious Studies needs a complete overhaul and I know from my many colleagues that Sociology, Psychology, and Anthropology are high on this list as well. The foundation of American academia is white supremacy. By refusing to reimagine not only the canon but also the theories and methods of every single disciple, academia is choosing to remain complicit in upholding white supremacy as its core value.
So, faculty chairs, as you sit with your colleagues and discuss how to address anti-Blackness on your campus, start with your own departments. Examine your own disciplines.
Destroy it all. Not just the syllabus, the discipline. Your whole discipline needs to be dismantled and reimagined. If you care about Black lives, if you truly meant that long-winded email you sent out to your students, then do not continue to be anti-Black in policy and pedagogy. Now is your time to put your scholarship where your mouth is.
It’s time to dismantle it all and start again.