How Race-Studies Scholars Respond to Haters

While some shrug off comments, “others feel compelled to offer thoughtful responses because they view insensitive questions as teachable moments.”

Academics shared responses to criticisms about their focus on race. Top, from left: Siobhan Brooks Mark Naison, Kirsten West Savali. Bottom: Marlon M. Bailey, Camille Zubrinsky Charles, Matthew Pratt Guterl.
Academics shared responses to criticisms about their focus on race. Top, from left: Siobhan Brooks Mark Naison, Kirsten West Savali. Bottom: Marlon M. Bailey, Camille Zubrinsky Charles, Matthew Pratt Guterl. Chronicle of Higher Education

Race-Studies Scholars Share Their Responses to the Haters

Journalists of color are often accused by their readers, viewers, listeners — and sometimes editors — of devoting too much attention to race, even when race isn’t their subject. Not surprisingly, a similar dynamic takes place in academia, but also includes white professors who think race is a topic deserving their attention.

Stacey Patton, senior enterprise reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote about the haters on Friday:

Graduate school prepares students for a range of intellectual and professional endeavors. Unfortunately, responding to scholarly insults and academic shade-throwing isn’t one of them.

“But 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. The election of Barack Obama, some say, has only made it tougher to defend ethnic studies: Amid declarations of a ‘post-racial’ America, how do you explain why you study and write about racism?

“Nearly every race-studies scholar — white professors included — can identify a phrase that drives them uniquely nuts: ‘Stop playing the race card.’ ‘What about white studies?’ ‘Racism is no longer an issue. Why are you beating a dead horse?’

“Some writers and scholars say they feel inclined to track haters down to deliver custom curse-outs. Others offer a simple ‘Kanye shrug’ and keep moving. Still others say they feel compelled to offer thoughtful responses because they view insensitive questions as teachable moments. Those who take this tactic say they are willing to hand out maps, but they refuse to be racial tour guides.

” ‘I promise you, if I had a quarter for every time some fool said, “Why do you make everything about race?” in emails or comments or letters to various publications I’ve written for in my 20-year career, several dorms full of college students would have laundry money for a year,’ says Denene Millner, an Atlanta-based journalist and editor whose work explores the intersections of parenting and race in America.

“So is there a right way to answer this kind of skepticism? I 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.

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