Rethinking Race and Ethnic Studies in the Liberal Arts

How does one make Race and Ethnic Studies relevant to a generation who believes, according to a recent MTV poll, that focusing on racial differences perpetuates racism and that white people suffer from as much racial discrimination as people of color do? Although 91% of the poll’s respondents “believe in equality” and believe “everyone should be treated equally,” white millennials’ views on racial opportunities are consistent with older white Americans’ views. Despite persistent and increasing gaps between blacks and whites in almost all measures of social and economic wellbeing and the documented re-segregation, since the 1970s, of K-12 as well as higher education, until recently many white Americans were convinced that we are in a “post-racial” era where Barak Obama’s presidency and Oprah Winfrey’s position on the Fortune 500 list prove that racial barriers no longer stand in the way of success.
It would be interesting to see if the national media attention to the police killings of unarmed black men in the last year has changed some of the MTV poll respondents’ views. According to a May 2015 CBS News/New York Times poll, there is unprecedented agreement between black and white Americans that race relations are bad. At the beginning of the year, 58% of black respondents “thought that race relations were bad, but just 35% of whites agreed.” Now 61% of Americans, black and white, say race relations in this country are generally bad.
Now more than ever, undergraduates need robust programs that focus on understanding the role of race, ethnicity, and migration in all dimensions of social experience because these are fundamental categories of experience across the globe. In the U.S., ethnic studies as an academic discipline was born out the civil rights movement of the turbulent sixties, when students of color at newly integrated colleges and universities and activists with the winds of history beneath their wings demanded of U.S higher education a new accountability. They believed that scholarship and teaching should reflect the multiracial realities of the nation’s past, present, and future and scholars of color should be among those producing knowledge that was useful to their communities and policymakers. Many colleges and universities relatively quickly established Black Studies, Chicano (or Latin@ Studies), Native American Studies, and Asian American Studies programs. However, in her book, White Money/Black Power,” Dr. Niowle Rooks points out the emergence of black studies programs in the late sixties and early seventies was not simply a matter of white institutions giving in to activists’ demands, and that the investment of money from the Ford Foundation and colleges and universities had a troubling effect on both the past and present of black studies programs: “The success of the Ford Foundation’s strategy of funding black studies programs has created a complex situation wherein institutions continue to use the field in order to diversify their institutions, but very often, the preponderance of black people in and around African American studies programs, and their absence in other departments in those institutions, unfairly mark the field as an affirmative action program.” Until recently, the ethnic studies program at my own small liberal arts college was an underfunded minor with no dedicated tenure lines, widely viewed as a social or political symbol of institutional commitment to diversity, rather than a legitimate academic field central to the mission of a liberal arts college. In conversations with colleagues in the field at other institutions, this attitude of institutional minimalism is not unusual.

As both public and private institutions feel the squeeze of fewer economic resources, the right has portrayed black studies and other ethnic studies programs as political entities more committed to brainwashing than educating its students while some on the left have indeed seen the programs as either spaces for marginalized students to feel “at home” or as political action programs. Others see ethnic studies programs as no longer necessary now that Toni Morrison and Rudolfo Anaya are taught in English classes and history departments routinely offer courses in the history of people of color in the US. Still others are concerned that degrees reflecting a focus on the history and lives of people of color are esoteric and that whatever knowledge is accrued from such classes is irrelevant to getting a job.

However, after a year in which we saw nationwide, transracial outrage over what seems to be a systemic support of police brutality against black and brown people, a dramatic increase in the number of Arab and African migrants fleeing war zones and broken economic systems for Europe, the population of displaced peoples worldwide reaching the numbers of mid-sized nations, and often virulent debates over national identity and citizenship, the urgency of offering undergraduates a program of study that gives them the critical, analytical, humanistic and quantitative skills to understand and address these and other racial and ethnic issues is clear. And in this age of border crossings as a fact of life for all classes and many populations, the chances that college-educated students will find themselves working and living among those from different cultural backgrounds are very high.

While adhering to the traditional Ethnic Studies commitments of bridging theory and practice, uniting conversations in the classroom to larger communities, race and ethnic studies programs for the 21st century must be significantly different from the programs that developed in the mid-century US. Twentieth century institutional thinking about the position and role of ethnic studies classes and programs in an undergraduate context has led to a conflating of and simplistic attitude toward all kinds of social differences one may encounter on a campus. Recent events from France to Ferguson and the emergence of critical whiteness studies makes clear the fallacy of the notion that the study of the people of color, racial formations, and the histories and legacies of race-based colonial projects is not central to a rigorous and relevant liberal education. Current scholarship in the field should lead undergraduate liberal arts programs in new directions.

First, the programs must acknowledge the fluidity and permeability of racial categories and take a critical approach to the theoretical underpinnings of identity politics. The concept of intersectionality, applied to all social identities and not just those of marginalized groups, allows students to embrace a dynamic and critical attitude toward race, racial formations, and racism in a society that is still haunted by assumptions of racial and cultural essentialism. Along the same lines, spoken and unspoken assumptions that all “marginalized” groups are subject to a monolithic force called “oppression” must be unpacked. A rigorous genuinely intersectional approach to understanding racial formations and their historical and contemporary effects will complicate campus conversations about “diversity and inclusion” that puts various student groups and constituencies under the same umbrella of “marginalized groups,” but equip students to better understand the complexities of how racial and other differences are meaningful in the larger multicultural and global arenas they will enter after graduation.

Second, the programs must be genuinely inter- and multi- disciplinary. Many Ph. D. programs in Ethnic Studies are still dominated by the Social Sciences, and it is an on-going struggle in my own liberal arts college to remind my colleagues that our program in Race, Ethnicity, and Migration studies is interdisciplinary, and doesn’t “naturally” belong to the Social Science division. Developments in cultural studies and critical race theory emphasize that discursive practices that create, perpetuate, and reflect racial realties are powerful. Some traditional Ethnic Studies programs and classes treat cultural productions such as novels and film as merely illustrations of resilience, oppression, and/or historical practices. Students should develop skills and theoretical tools drawn from a variety of disciplines, from close reading of various texts—literary, mass media, and folk among them—to being able to critically “read” quantitative data and critique various disciplinary methodologies. They should have a sense of historiography. They should be able to understand transnational and intra-national diasporas from a variety of disciplinary perspectives that enrich their analyses.

Third, the programs must be transnational in scope, and discussions and analyses of the vast number of voluntary and involuntary migrations that are shaping economies, communities, and lived experiences of millions of people worldwide must be a central part of any race and ethnic studies curriculum. Students should also be familiar with different patterns and practices of colonization and decolonization.

Fourth, the dominant pedagogical paradigm of “privilege” must be scrutinized and problematized. Despite thoughtful critiques from scholars such as Nishin Nathwani and celebrity race experts like Tim Wise, US institutions of higher education remain under the spell of this simplistic neoliberal idea that, despite its claims to develop students’ ability to combat racism and other forms of bigotry the concept of privilege, actually has the effect of reifying a white, middle-class, hetero-normative center or standpoint. While the idea of privilege exercises might offer student life leaders a quick and easy way to introduce students to “diversity issues,” as a critical tool it is dangerously diversionary, making it all too easy for students to think that discussing racism as a problem of unearned individual privilege will get us any closer to addressing and changing historical and structural racial inequities and exclusion. Demanding that individuals “check their privilege” is not an effective anti-racist strategy, nor does it facilitate analysis and understanding of the meanings accorded racial difference in different areas of human endeavor.

And finally, professors in Race and Ethnic Studies classes should not try to get students to agree with their own politics. This is a tricky and sensitive area. As I have mentioned above, the noble legacy of the first generation of Race and Ethnic Studies programs was their relevance—their ability to bridge the gaps between theory and practice, to generate knowledge and scholarship that had real material and social effects. I share W.E.B. DuBois, Paulette Nardal and other groundbreaking writers’ convictions that responsible scholarship is a necessary form of activism that supports antiracist work in other spheres. However, I don’t believe that our aim as RES professors should be to get students to think the way we do. Several years ago, the RES faculty at my college had a lively debate after two professors who were teaching our introductory course, which they had structured that year around the theme of affirmative action, stated that their primary goal in the course was to persuade the students by the end of the class that affirmative action was a just and necessary policy. I would hope that by the end of such a class, students were convinced that affirmative action policies in all their varieties are attempts to address real and pervasive inequities. But students would also learn the problems and limitations of various forms and definitions of affirmative action, and do justice to the critiques of the policies and laws that fall under this rubric—not just from the right but also from critical race theorists, for example, on the left. We all bring our values, our moral commitments, and tastes into the classroom. But I believe that all professors, not just those in race and ethnic studies, should be helping our students develop their own sophisticated and intellectually sound interpretations of objects of study, including our own racially fraught history and contemporary reality.

Ultimately a relevant Race and Ethnic Studies program in a liberal arts curriculum would enable students to understand the historical conditions, events, and decisions that have shaped the meaning of race and ethnicity today and into the future. They will have at their command many conceptual and theoretical tools for understanding the multicultural and multinational world in which they will live, work, and commit themselves. They would have been exposed to many voices and perspectives and will be able to evaluate competing narratives. Whatever their background, they will be able to theorize their own experiences, values, and worldviews in a larger context. Race and ethnicity are central factors in the post-modern world, and students acquiring a liberal arts education should have access to a curriculum that foregrounds and reflects this significance.

Assimilation, Cultural Capial, and Blackness

‘How should negroes living in Europe dress? The natural reply to such a question to be, “Just like everybody else, according to the demands of the climate and social life.”….Well, in that case, the inquiry of the Review is pointless. Not in the least: for we must keep in mind that the sight of a Negro dressed in European fashion always provokes the laughter of the white man. Then must we reckon with the white man?’
Magd Raney, “Our Inquiry,” The Review of the Black World, 1931

I was both perplexed and saddened by a recent blog post in the on-line magazine, Clutch, by “The Black Snob.” The article, under the headline, “To Assimilate or Not: The Black Person’s Lament,” argues that in American society it is necessary but futile for black people to try to assimilate. Could the notion of assimilating, which the author characterizes as “speaking the King’s English” and straightening her hair for job interviews, really be a relevant one in 2013? Although the author mentions that her mother chose the name “Danielle” for her because “she thought I just looked like a Danielle,” the Black Snob also claims that her parents made a conscious choice to name her Danielle instead of “Keisha,” a popular name at the time of her birth, because “they wanted [her] to assimilate.”

I would not have given the article a second thought, though it is by prominent author who seems to be one of the mainstream media’s go-to people on things racial. It would have been easy to chalk up the simplistic definitions of “whiteness” and “blackness” that informed her piece to the social anxieties particular to someone who would chose the nom-de-plume “the Black Snob.” Is it really a serious cause for existential racial angst to realize that one speaks one way in a job interview and another when hearing one’s favorite Bell Biv DeVoe song come on the radio? But I happened to read this article the same week that I was reading articles about the Georgetown study, “Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Privilege.” The findings of the report are reflected starkly in its title. As a professor who teaches at a highly selective, predominately white, private liberal arts college married to an educator who has worked at community college and open-access public universities, I have long had front-row seat to how the structural dynamics of American higher education reproduce white privilege and conspire to give even bright, ambitious students of color inferior college and university experiences and degrees. The report found that low-income black and brown young people are over-represented at open-access two- and four-year institutions and underrepresented at the most selective institutions. That’s no surprise~ but I was particularly interested to read that even low-income students of color who are well qualified don’t go to more selective institutions, thus missing out on the tangible and intangible advantages that such institutions have to offer. This includes not only better quality teaching, smaller class sizes, and more support systems, but also cultural and social capital that includes such enriching opportunities as travel, a breadth of social and intellectual experience, and door-opening contacts with institutions and networks of privilege that can be invested in educational and career growth for years to come. Low-income students of color are often deprived of access to cultural capital long before they enter their first classroom: lack of exposure to worlds beyond their own, either through books or excursions, and to adults with rewarding and satisfying work lives, handicaps smart, aspiring young people academically and socially.

I started wondering, after reading the Black Snob’s lament on the failures of assimilation, a notion that for her is predicated on a fundamental opposition between “blackness” and assimilation, if “assimilation” is a useful concept for understanding the relationship between American concepts of “blackness” and the dominant culture, and more importantly, for recognizing and advancing the participation of black Americans in the broader society.

What does it mean to “assimilate”?
In ante-bellum America, the concept of “black humanity” was, for the majority of white people, an oxymoron—otherwise, the systemic and consistent cruelties and degradations could not have been maintained. After the abolition of slavery, white recognition of the dignity of black humanity and citizenship were still difficult to achieve. Black activists, especially those of the educated classes, developed what the historian Evelyn Brooks Higgenbotham calls a “politics of respectability”: for Civil Rights activists up until the late 1960s, this entailed always being well dressed, well spoken, and maintaining a sense of dignity no matter what humiliations and indignities were imposed upon you. Anna Julia Cooper, the pioneering feminist writer and education reformer, could thus make a call for black women, who had been both unsexed and sexually exploited by slavery, to be treated as “ladies” by train conductors—given the respect, assistance and small courtesies afforded to white women. At a time when many white women were shaking off the constraints of “lady-hood,” it was radical for black women to demand to be treated like ladies. This example highlights the difficulties of talking about black assimilation into white society without looking carefully at the historical context and what the alternative to assimilation might be. Until well into the 20th century, black American activists argued for white respect and recognition of human rights necessary to support claims for citizenship rights; equality in all realms of life; economic integration and fairness at all levels from laborer to entrepreneur. “Assimilation” (and terms such as “integration” describing similar and related concepts of supporting the entrance of black Americans into all spheres of American life with all of the rights accorded to other Americans) were usually juxtaposed to ideas committed to varying degrees of separatism or nationalism. A major tenet of black separatist approaches such as those advocated by Marcus Garvey has been that white Americans will never accept black people as equals, and that economic and cultural self-sufficiency is the only rational response to white refusal to recognize black people as humans and citizens. On the other hand, white arguments against assimilation have rested on the belief that blackness is so fundamentally and intractably different from whiteness that black people and white people can never coexist productively and peacefully as equals in the same society.

During the era of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s, the idea of assimilation took on more cultural and social connotations. To “assimilate” meant to conform to white expectations of behavior at the price of sacrificing black identities and cultural values. Of course, “whiteness” in these conversations was juxtaposed in simple terms to “blackness”: for the Black Snob, “whiteness” is speaking the King’s English (does any American speak this? Or any English speaker?) and straightening her hair. But assimilation defined as a way of trying to disguise or ameliorate “blackness” so as to get ahead in America will always be a failed project: “You can name me Danielle, but you can still see I’m black.” The entire article has the air of the view of someone whose nose is pressed against the windowpane of “real” American life, forced to play a game which can never be won: “Assimilation is the greatest and most important waste of time any black person will ever engage in. Because it essentially means spending your life anticipating someone else’s prejudices, then trying to modify your behavior to prove you’re a special, different, extraordinary Negro….”

The Black Snob is accurate in her depiction of white people’s general inability to perceive black individuality outside of handy-dandy shortcut stereotypes, but I don’t think that the concept of “assimilation” is a relevant way to understand the challenges and paradoxes of “blackness” and black advancement in 21st century America. As we continue to struggle to gain access to meaningful and empowering education and political and economic power, we must also avoid internalizing racist, inaccurate, and disabling concepts of “blackness” as we seek to understand and combat the effects of racism.

For starters, let’s get rid of the assumption that to speak and dress professionally is to somehow be less black. As we emerge into adulthood, all of us realize that how we speak and comport ourselves depends upon the demands of the context. There’s no inherent conflict between being able to shriek, “That’s my JAM!” with your friends in the cafeteria and speaking grammatically correct English as you present a report to your boss. On the other hand, I believe that we need to combat messages from both within and outside our community that natural black hair is somehow unprofessional: professional hair is clean and neat. I’ll grant that someone might feel that she has to straighten her hair for a job interview, but if that’s the only reason she is straightening her hair, she should start a campaign to change the company culture as soon as she gets the job. On the other hand, if straightening her hair is the equivalent of putting on panty hose and heels when she usually wears pants, then the concession to the performance demands of job-hunting is not a high-stakes proposition.

Cultural Capital
The concept of cultural capital originated with the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and refers to the non-tangible assets that provide upward mobility in a particular society. Education scholars have long recognized that a lack of cultural capital in poor, non-white families in this country is a severe academic and later social handicap. It accounts for the fact that the achievement gap opens up before many children enter pre-school: poor children on average have heard millions fewer words than their middle-class peers by the time they enter kindergarten. Later along the educational path, low-income children who have little sense of the world and its opportunities beyond their own constrained and stressful neighborhoods are ill-prepared to take advantage of good college and university programs. They also have little sense of the realities of the black presence and contributions to American society, and so may not have the tools to advocate for themselves and their communities from a position of strength and dignity.

In my predominantly white community, I’ve too often seen both black and white efforts to limit all of our children’s access to cultural capital. For starters, African American history is seen as only relevant to African Americans. I once had a teacher from a Pueblo, Colorado, school tell me that her colleagues in the English Department didn’t think it appropriate to teach Frederick Douglass’s Narrative because they only had three African Americans in the school. On the other hand, a couple of years ago a white parent in Colorado Springs complained to the school district because her child was not allowed to go on a field trip to the local concert hall to see a show commemorating Martin Luther King’s birthday, while all of the African American children in the school were automatically excused and loaded onto busses to attend. Given this kind of thinking, then, perhaps I should not have been surprised that when I first attended a Pueblo Symphony concert a few years ago– the professor wife of the university president– that a white local businessman felt that he had to explain to me the basic composition of a symphony orchestra and start on a Classical Music 101 lobby lecture before a tactful intervention by my companion.

Cultural capital and cultural competency for 21st century Americans is not assimilating whiteness, though our history of white supremacist binary thinking may contribute to this habit of mind. A far more common lament I have heard from both black and white students in my college classes is that they have so little idea that African-descended people and their energy, ingenuity, and resistance have been, in W.E.B. DuBois’s words, part of the “warp and woof” of the United States since “before the Mayflower.” African American students don’t realize that, simply by virtue of being English speakers, that Shakespeare is part of their heritage as much as it is that of the middle-class Jewish kid from Shaker Heights. Pioneering black artists like Jacob Lawrence and Lois Maillou Jones were situating their work in artistic traditions that included Giotto as well as West African artists. It is dangerous to internalize the patently false and racist idea that blackness represents the outer limits of “otherness”~ the ultimate social and cultural “not-this”. If our children somehow get the message that there is white culture, and there is black culture, and that the two somehow cancel each other out, they are not going to be prepared for the complex cultural interpollinations that are occurring on both a national and global scale.

In our increasingly complex American society, which in these days of digital communities and mass media is not governed by one dominant code of appropriate behavior, all Americans must be able to read and, if it is consistent with their goals, adapt, to the rhetorics and codes of various social groups. We must all develop the skills associated with “code switching” as we compete for jobs, power, and self-determination in a world in which physical borders are becoming more and more permeable and irrelevant and micro-cultures aren’t necessarily consistently hierarchized. To worry about the myriad and multifaceted challenges of being black in what is still a white supremacist society in terms of either assimilating or remaining “black” is to doom yourself to sitting on the sidelines of a game that has moved on to other arenas.