African-American scholars at predominantly white institutions are faced with a challenge that resonates from the streets of Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.: Tiptoe lightly around white supremacy or face consequences.
Saida Grundy, an incoming associate professor of sociology and African-American studies at Boston University, faced swift condemnation this week for her tweets about slavery and the generations of self-entitled white men that the peculiar institution spawned, proving that social media is riddled with land mines for young, black academics. Despite her widespread support, organized with the hashtag #IStandWithSaida, Robert A. Brown, president of Boston University, released a statement condemning Grundy’s tweets as racist and bigoted, followed by Grundy’s releasing a statement expressing regret that she expressed herself “indelicately,” while not walking back the substance of her critique.
She has continued to face vicious backlash for her statement, mostly from white Twitter users directed to her page by various conservative news organizations, and sparks from the fire she inadvertently started have even burned other people. Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein, an MLK postdoctoral fellow in physics at MIT, tells The Root that expressing support for Grundy has proved problematic for her over the past week.
“I've been getting all sorts of grief on Twitter for talking about ‘white folks’ and ‘white supremacy’ in relation to Dr. Saida Grundy,” Prescod-Weinstein says. “Someone on Twitter tagged MIT to try and get me in trouble.
"I don't have a faculty position,” she continues, “so the public character assassination could have serious professional repercussions for me.”
According to black professors who shared their experiences with me, this difficult dance of what’s appropriate to say on and off social media as it pertains to racism is not new, and it is shadowed by the ever-present question of just how black one is allowed to be when navigating predominantly and traditionally white spaces. They are often charged with shaping the minds of privileged, white students while remaining plugged into the struggles of black America that are increasingly being discussed in 140 characters or less. Constantly bracing themselves for punishment does not make that any easier.
Kiese Laymon, an associate professor of English at Vassar College, recently faced heavy criticism of his own after his essay exposing racial profiling at Vassar went viral. He has also faced censorship from the college for statements he’s made on Facebook about “white tears.” Because he holds a tenured position, he tells The Root that he has more career security than Grundy, but remains empathetic to the precarious position in which she finds herself.
“I can't imagine coming into a job as a young black woman to a PWI [predominantly white institution] where the administration, the students nor the faculty have done the education to start with, and now you're coming in on double parole,” Laymon says. “It's terror and terrifying.”
Laymon, who is also author of How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and Long Division, contends that predominantly white institutions often feel that black scholars owe them a debt of gratitude that requires they speak very carefully on issues of race both inside and outside the ivory tower.
“Black students and faculty at these places are often treated like we’re lucky to be here from trifling and well-meaning white faculty, staff and students,” Laymon says. “And yes, I think it’s another example of this destructive racial bargain where most of us don’t come from much money, and a lot of folks have kids, or extended family who rely on them, so you’re supposed to only deal with white racial superiority theoretically or in your classroom.”
“But we’re never ever to hold the administrators and colleagues accountable. And then you hear lots of us talking about, ‘Wait until I get tenure.’ By that time, the racial terror and the hazing is already effective, and tenure isn’t the final level of promotion,” the tenured Laymon continues. “So there are all these incentives to let people treat you, your students, your colleagues like [n—gers].”
Unfortunately, it appears as if black educators are expected to play the role of the help, reminding white students and reinforcing for white administrators that “they is kind, they is smart and they is important.” Even when black scholars engage in conversations on social media, it has become clear that nothing should shatter that myth.
Treva B. Lindsey, an assistant professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Ohio State University, echoes Laymon’s sentiments that tenure is the brass ring that’s held just out of reach, ready to be snatched away at the hint of radical blackness in inconvenient places.
“As a tenure-track junior scholar of color at a predominantly white institution, I often think about my complicated relationship to the ivory tower,” Lindsey says. “Almost daily, I struggle with the question of voice, both inside and outside of the classroom, and in my scholarship. The struggle, however, is not primarily about whether I should use my black feminist voice, but to what extent I should expect virulent pushback from my institution and those engaging my work when I accurately discuss the realities of patriarchy, white supremacy, anti-black and brown racism, transphobia, homoantagonism, imperialism, colonialism, the BDS movement, or Islamophobia on social media?
“Should I concern myself with if and how someone will decontextualize a 140-character statement about anti-black state violence and demand my school fire me because of my ‘reverse racist’ or ‘bigoted views?’” she adds.
This, of course, is what happened to Grundy, and both Laymon and Lindsey have voiced support for the beleaguered professor. The same cannot be said, however, for Daryl Scott, professor of history at Howard University and president of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History.
In a lengthy Facebook post, Scott said he had always been concerned with the potential for social media to be a dangerous place, particularly for passionate, young black scholars, but he “assumed when those two world[s] collided, folks would tamp down their personal and ideological fire when basic employment was at stake.” Scott further stated that Grundy’s was a “cautionary tale” of what happens when anti-respectability politics, particularly when engaged by black scholars, run headfirst into employment at white institutions.
“Take it from me,” Scott wrote, “a red tooth and claw may mean you made a meal of your opponent, but not even your friends will agree with your table manners, and they will disown you in polite company.”
Some people on social media took offense at Scott’s posts, believing them to be victim-blaming Grundy, while also privileging respectability over authentic and honest scholarship. When I reached out to him, so that he could expound on his statements, Scott said that he did not want to silence Grundy; he just didn’t want her to commit “professional suicide” on Twitter.
“I am not calling for scholars, especially when they are teaching, to silence themselves—far from it,” Scott wrote to me. “My position is that one should take care to give as nuanced an explanation of one’s positions as possible. I do think that academics have made a mistake of thinking the academy is the front line of the struggle. Typically we oppose respectability politics in society at large while engaging in respectability politics to get tenure and promotion. It appears that a younger generation of scholars is not willing to curb their style and advocacy in the place of employment.
“Is the academy the front line of our struggle, or is it the rear? I hold it is the rear, and I also hold the most important work we can do is not speaking truth to power, but organizing to disrupt and overturn power. Much of what goes on today in the academy is posturing for attention, not trying to effect social change. Let’s find the weak points in systems oppressing us rather than satisfying ourselves with denouncing it.”
Scott’s position, at turns both condescending and well-intentioned, may hold some merit, but it easy to see why young, black scholars who engage in scholarship outside of the cocoon of the academy may not agree. Instead, it is viewed as being held hostage by institutional expectations and restrictions that may help their white students, but not their black communities. That is the intense turmoil in which these educators seem to find themselves, not merely whether or not they can advance their careers.
“I will not self-silence while injustice pervades,” Lindsay says. “Material consequences for being outspoken exist, but I could not endure the moral consequences of not being a voice in the world.”
There are several questions that we can ask here: What does revolution look like and where can it take place? Can respectability ever be used as strategy? Is it possible to dismantle systemic racism while, to some degree, being financially dependent on the institutions which breed perpetrators of it?
From a two-party political system, which often ignores the plight of black America, to corporate America, which profits from poverty remaining the status quo in communities of color, these questions remain the same, each sector serving as evidence of the far-reaching and all-encompassing nature of white supremacy and its hold on society at large.
Clearly, these scholars are grappling with the professional and personal risks and benefits of having complicated discussions about that very thing on social media, while daring to color outside the rigid lines of the academy. Time will tell if they will ever be allowed to step down from the ivory tower and into cyberspace, or if freedom of speech for them will always be limited by restrictive codes of conduct and defined by what’s on their approved syllabi.