Having a Ph.D. doesn’t make you immune from racism, it just means you have the logic and diction to justify it.
One of my friends recently called me after the incident at Yale University where a Black grad student endured a police interrogation for sleeping in a common dormitory. The conversation was ostensibly to catch up on our lives, but he quickly got to his purpose for the call: he was appalled that an educated lawyer like Sarah Braasch could be so racist as to call the police on a sleeping Black student. I wasn’t.
Perhaps this is because I have become accustomed to racist behaviors going viral, or because I already read about Braasch’s conservative beliefs and questionable past behaviors. Simply put, her calling the police aligned with her past actions toward Black folks.
More importantly, I had already observed the brand of racism that runs rampant in academia – the implicit and insidious kind that is dismissed and justified.
My friend, a white non-academic, assumed that earning a Ph.D. prevents you from being racist. He believed that being highly educated entails exposure to a wide range of people. An experience of which should allow for a certain type of sensitivity when interacting with individuals from diverse backgrounds. Yet, based on recent cases in the media and my personal experiences in higher education (along with numerous stories told to me by faculty of color and graduate students), having a doctorate or working towards one does not make you immune from racism; in fact, all this means is that you can justify your bigotry with jargon and logic.
Many scholars hide behind their academic pedigrees and fancy titles to intellectualize their racism, thus providing hostile environments for people of color both within the ivory tower and outside of it.
Case in point: Sarah Braasch has two engineering degrees and a law degree from Fordham University. She is a First Amendment advocate and international human rights lawyer who will complete her doctorate in Philosophy in 2020.
Her intellect and human rights advocacy did not hinder her pro-slavery stance in a decade-old post for The Humanist, where she argued that some of the enslaved wanted to remain with their masters. She goes on to ask, “Who are we to tell someone that she has to be regarded as fully human?” She justified her support of slavery on logical grounds and also asserted that the notions of racism and tribalism “seem downright silly.”
Her defense of slavery might get our blood boiling, but she supported it on logical grounds: in the land of the free, it is not up to anyone to force the enslaved to seek freedom. Braasch could have easily argued the reverse, that the land of the free means exactly that – freedom – but I suppose this notion only applied selectively.
More to the point, she is clearly a humanist, and a highly educated one at that, but as Trav Mamone aptly argues, “even humanists are prone to implicit personal bias and racist indoctrination.” This might surprise us, given the definition that Mamone invokes from the third Humanist Manifesto: humanism is about “treating each person with inherent worth and dignity.”
Perhaps Braasch overlooked this explanation in her training as a human rights lawyer.
The two of us became one Black man; any Black man; every Black man
As evidence that humanists are not immune from bias or racial indoctrination, Mamone recalls attending the American Humanist Association Conference in 2017, where they witnessed racism firsthand. Some of the participants were hostile during conversations on racial injustice, with one board member allegedly leaving a talk not wanting “to hear another angry Black man.”
This behavior is unsurprising, since conferences force us to confront a variety of perspectives through panels and roundtables, even if the perspectives of Black scholars can sometimes get collapsed. For instance, after Professor George Yancy offered a plenary address at a well-known philosophy conference in 2015. Several of the white conference attendees complimented the only other Black man at the conference, while ignoring him.
In recalling this painful episode for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Yancy writes “This was the manifestation of an all-too-familiar mode of being white — a habit of perception that sees Black people as all the same, through a fixed image. This was white racism … The two of us became one Black man; any Black man; every Black man. We were flattened, rendered one-dimensional, indistinct and repeatable.”
It did not matter that the other Black philosopher was “older, taller, heavier, and very gray” or that he did not deliver a talk; what mattered was that in the minds of the white philosophers in attendance, these two Black philosophers became flattened, dismissed, and interchangeable. The attendees who made this error probably saw nothing wrong and might even justify it through their research.
Unfortunately this story is not atypical, since many Black academics – including myself – can relate to Yancy. I vividly recall the first year I sat on the board of directors for an established literary association, when some of the attendees at our convention that year thought I was the tech support guy. I should have played up that role and charged them for all the technical questions they pestered me with.
Complicit Racism in the Culture of Silence
Literary scholars are not exempt from racial insensitivity either. During my last year of doctoral coursework, a graduate student in my class sent out an incredibly offensive email inviting fellow students to her home to watch the racist Disney movie Song of the South. That she wanted to indulge in this movie is the first problem; the second being the language of watermelons, “hooch, straw hats, and darkeyisms” that she used in the message. I joined other Black grad students in calling attention to her atrocious language and to the department’s initial passive response on the matter. Somehow, we were relegated to troublemakers. Like the gentleman referenced in Mamone’s piece, I was rendered the “angry Black man” by my colleagues.
I was more irritated than angry, mainly with all the intellectualizing that ensued: the email’s author rationalized her racist behavior by saying she invoked the language of the turn-of-the century books from our syllabus to construct the correspondence, while her graduate student fan club justified it as humorous fun the Black grad students misinterpreted and took too seriously. We were doctoral students in literature; we don’t do misinterpretations.
What bothered me most was the overwhelming silence.
Too many of my colleagues knew about this invitation and said nothing at all. A former friend of mine justified it by whitesplaining: “maybe we just don’t know what to say.” How can graduate students in English, who talk abstractly about books all day, somehow not have the verbiage to talk about the real life issue of racism? Their silence did nothing to absolve them of complicit racism.
The question I posed to several of my classmates at the time was, “If I said something anti-Semitic, homophobic, or misogynist, would you allow your silence to render you passive and tolerant, or would you speak up against me for being ignorant?”
Their lack of response was my answer.
It was at that moment that I realized how inherently racist academia can be. It is not the explicit kind – nobody with a doctorate has ever called me an epithet, for example – but it manifests itself in terms of how folks act about race, who gets funding and other departmental resources.
Like Eric Anthony Grollman, learning of the racism entrenched in my profession “was like a swift, hard punch to the gut” for me, especially in the ways it gets rationalized and the resulting silence and indifference. Grollman offers excellent advice for Black graduate students in a guide for Inside Higher Ed.
In light of his insights, I should not have been surprised when my department offered me pittance for all my graduate conference travel and prevented me from pursuing a school-wide funding opportunity. That’s how they penalized the “angry” Black man who studies race and called them out about their implicit racism.
Disrupting Traditional White (Racist) Spaces
My goal here is not to implicate all scholars; most of the academics I know are indeed progressive and are sensitive to matters of diversity—including matters about race. My problem is specifically about my friend’s notion that a Ph.D. is automatically tantamount to not being racist. Having an elite degree only means you can express your prejudice in subtle ways and try to intellectually justify it with logical arguments. It also means that you might be in a position to educate future generations as a professor, and that your implicit biases would seep into the classroom, affecting both how you treat and how you train students.
Let’s face it, education in this country has been hostile to African-Americans since the very beginning. It was illegal to teach the enslaved how to read in the nineteenth century, then schools were segregated for most of the twentieth century. Even after the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case in 1954, some schools opted to close their doors instead of having white students learn alongside their Black counterparts. Schools are still segregated, with Black students receiving a subpar education across the country.
When it comes to higher education, as Tariro Mzezewa argues in a recent New York Times article, “Black and brown people seem out of place to some people when they encounter them in institutions of higher learning.” She adduces both personal anecdotes and recent viral stories to support her claims.
Disrupting Traditional White (Racist) Rituals
This feeling of being out of place is literalized by the viral videos from the University of Florida, where a white faculty member forcibly removed Black graduates who danced on stage during commencement earlier this month. While the faculty usher stopped them from their form of expression in commemorating their achievement, he was more nonchalant with celebratory white students. I have been to many college graduations, but I have yet to be at a graduation where Black students don’t celebrate, often by strolling to represent their Greek affiliation.
Although, the faculty usher at U.F. was placed on leave, he is not the problem; he represents the intellectuals who view African-Americans as threats needing to be controlled. Nobody on the stage stopped his aggression until afterwards, when the videos went viral and caused widespread criticism. Those academics were silent and thus complicit as he manhandled Black graduates. Forcibly removing Black students from the graduation stage symbolizes academia’s conventional treatment of Black folks: constrain them at once lest they cause trouble and threaten whiteness.
Perhaps this was the logic used by “BBQ Becky,” the Internet’s nickname for the woman who called the cops on Black people barbecuing in Oakland. If she is indeed Dr. Jennifer Shulte, then she would join Sarah Braasch as educated folks who take it upon themselves to police what they see as their privileged white spaces. They might feel empowered to do so based on their academic training, which minimized or excluded African-Americans.
Of course, if they struggle to rationalize their illogical behavior, they can seek tips from some of my seemingly progressive graduate school colleagues.
I have no solution to combat the “hide my racism behind my intellect” syndrome, nor am I under any illusion that it will reach its nadir anytime soon. Yet like Trav Mamone, I just hope that at the very least, these incidences “will be an alarm for all white humanists to look at their own biases, racist indoctrination, and check our fellow white humanists.” I hope too, that my friend who called me realize that having a doctorate and being racist are not always mutually exclusive.