Guest blogger Arianne Shahvisi is an assistant professor of philosophy at the American University of Beirut, and has recently written commentary for the New Statesman, Jacobin, Open Democracy, and Truthout, centered on issues surrounding race, class, gender, and borders.
Last month, Saida Grundy, an incoming sociology faculty member at Boston University, tweeted a set of remarks and rhetorical questions regarding white supremacy, slavery, and misogyny in the US. In other words, a trained sociologist of race made some observations centered on race that were perfunctory and impassioned (as tweets invariably are), but nonetheless cogent. And that really should have been the end of that.
Instead, her comments were met with a barrage of hate from ostensibly offended right-wing campus groups, and a subsequent outpouring of solidarity from Twitter users citing #IstandwithSaida. The episode culminated with a condescending letter from the Boston University administrators who have just hired Grundy, in which they unequivocally distance themselves from her sentiments, express understanding with her detractors, and without any clear rationale, accuse her of racism and bigotry. The original critics, and the BU administration, are yet to convincingly explain what exactly is so unpalatable about a black sociologist’s public critique of white male supremacy.
Boston University, where Martin Luther King studied for his PhD, has a race problem. In 1976, 2.4 percent of BU’s faculty members were black; forty years on, that percentage is somehow even lower. It is not the only place where progress is slow or non-existent. Across the US, only 7% of tenured fulltime faculty are black or Hispanic, while these groups constitute a third of the US population. In the UK, there are 18,500 university professors, and just 0.1% of them are black women. Academia, with its inflexible traditions, rooted in patriarchy and white supremacy, is highly resistant to change. It is a hostile place for people of color, and an even more hostile place for women of color.
In issuing their admonishing letter, BU did the worst thing they could possibly have done from the perspective of structural injustice. They publicly announced that a young black woman, who they saw fit to hire on the strength of her credentials as an academic sociologist, and who represents two systematically under-represented groups within the professional field, was wrong in the statements she made relating to her own field of expertise.
In philosophy, we have a name for the way in which Boston University has wronged Grundy. When a person whose opinion is credible by virtue of legitimate expertise is nonetheless disbelieved or discredited on the basis of belonging to an oppressed group who have traditionally been excluded from knowledge practices, we call this “epistemic injustice.” Boston University has committed an epistemic injustice against Grundy. If they were so concerned about the public reception of the comments, they had a far better option. They ought to have offered her (as a member of the university, who has earned her position there by virtue of a decade of academic study) an official platform to expand upon, and draw out the nuance of, her tweets. They ought to have democratized their (questionably legitimate) authority by sharing their platform. Instead, they kept that platform for themselves, and used it to quash her credibility and the credibility of all those who share her views.
They have achieved their intention of dismissing, diminishing, and contradicting Grundy’s stance. The university used the heft of its authority to let the world know in no uncertain terms that Grundy is wrong. In doing so, they have confirmed the widespread belief that women (and specifically, women of color) do not belong in the academy, that they are incapable of calm, rational discussion which draws on evidence, that they lie and exaggerate, and that they victimize white people and should be rebuked for it. Worst of all, in taking the bait of a group of misinformed internet trolls over the considered views of a professional under their employ, they have also failed in their duty of care towards a member of their own community, and have succumbed to the sort of reactive views that a university has a unique power to correct. And because the administration is white and powerful, they have had the last word.
BU have thereby tightened the hermetic seal that keeps important knowledge about race and gender, and how they intersect to circumscribe the lives of so many, on the margins and in the shadows of acceptability. Grundy, in her eagerness to call out racism, has been willfully misunderstood and has herself been accused of racism. She, growing up in a country founded on the labor of black slaves, in which race is now a reliable marker of wealth, health, education, and incarceration, is being criticized for comments which call out structural oppression. As a black woman, chances are that in addition to being an expert in race in the US in the academic sense, Grundy is also an expert on race in the US in the experiential sense, having lived as a racialized woman in a racist country. Her Tweets reflect her reality—that racism and patriarchy are alive and well and being denied in both their present and historical forms—and hers is a reality that is shared by many others. Denying that reality is a form of silencing to which women of color have long been subjected.
Worst of all, Saida Grundy was more or less right; her comments were defensible, and are uncontroversial to those who study race and gender. Was her tone “uncivil”? (As we learned with Steven Salaita, the “wrong” tone can lose you your livelihood.) It depends on who is asking, but there’s nothing civil about racism, so it doesn’t seem fair to require civility when responding to it.
Grundy’s first claim refers to slavery, and the inheritance of slave status. She does not claim, as some commentators misread her, that slavery originates with Europeans. Slavery is patently much older than European colonialism. Rather, she rightly points out that the inheritance of slave status across generations—originates with European slavery. As such, slavery as a concept of “personhood” is a European construct. Europeans were the first to construct a social reality within which slaves were slaves because of something innate about them, which would be passed down, inevitably, to their children. Slavery, under its European conception, became an immutable condition, a necessary presumption made on the basis of skin color, that ensured the perpetuation of white supremacy. In other words, the most damaging and dehumanizing conception of slavery is due to white Europeans.
How should white people respond to this? Certainly not by rejecting her claim because they don’t like the sound of it. And certainly not by absolving themselves of all responsibility for what other white people did at some point in the past, as many readily do. Unresolved evils do not simply disappear because time has passed, especially if the scars remained unhealed (and largely unmentioned) in the present. The wealth of the US and Europe, from which so many white people benefit, stems, in part, from the forced extraction of free labor from slaves. So too, by contrast, does the poverty and disenfranchisement of black America. These are not claims, they are facts. However white Americans feel about slavery now, it is incumbent upon them to reflect deeply on the privileges conferred on them and their ancestors by the slave trade. (For one, we might reflect on the ways in which US universities, like all other US institutions, have benefitted from the slave trade.) At the very least, this means listening and have a disposition to believe when black sociologists offer their interpretations of slavery.
Grundy’s second point refers to the culture of white male privilege in US universities. Grundy claims that ‘white masculinity is THE problem for America’s colleges.’ And again, she makes an important point. Grundy seems to be referring the white male “frat” culture that is strongly implicated in rising numbers of cases of rape in colleges. Then again, she might be referring to the epidemic of young men gunning down their woman peers. In fact, she could be referring to any number of things, because one thing is certain: white young men (in the US and elsewhere) can be something of a problem. That isn’t to say that every white man is a problem, or that nobody else is a problem, but rather that being raised as a white man is likely to inculcate a propensity towards being problematic in some particularly worrying ways. This is because the enormous sense of privilege that comes together in white men (male privilege intersecting with white privilege) produces a phenomenal sense of entitlement. Add in the class factor (remember, Grundy is talking about college students, therefore primarily middle-class boys) and you have a very interesting formula. White men expect more from the world because (unlike more or less everyone else) they have never been told that they are worth less than anyone else. So they develop very high expectations from the world, just by virtue of how the world responds to them as white men. And because their high expectations are often met, this reinforces the belief that they were special, or deserving, to start with. But when the cognate expectations are not met, as is bound to happen from time to time, there is a sense of righteousness in punishing those who are perceived to be preventing white young men from obtaining their “rightful” due. The result is that white middle-class men are over-represented amongst those who are aggressive and unpleasant in the classroom, those who are disrespectful of the need for sexual consent, and those who see fit to seek fatal revenge on their peers.
In short, Grundy’s comments are (unsurprisingly, given her training) credible and insightful, even if they are challenging and perturbing. The issues Grundy raises, as well as being directly relevant to her own work as a sociologist are also highly relevant to the university as a whole, and its inability to respond as a critical institution ought to, by questioning its own stance on these issues and bravely addressing an invariably less well-informed public. Instead, they have shunted some of America’s most urgent social issues into the shadows of controversy and shame, and in doing so they have confirmed people’s damaging assumptions that “reverse racism” and “reverse sexism” are real, and that black people, specifically black women, cannot be taken seriously in their contributions to academic matters. That’s why they are so conspicuously absent in the academy. And although they have not (yet) fired Grundy, they have used their power to destroy her reputation, almost certainly to please or appease their sponsors and customer students, when they had a unique opportunity to take a stand and set an example for other institutions.
Roll on the day when university administrators are braver than their staff, and when there is a nuanced enough understanding of how free speech intersects with structural violence that senior management will use the legitimacy of universities to speak boldly to the world outside, rather than bow to its whims. For now, a woman of color has been marginalized and silenced for speaking about what she knows best, which sadly ought to surprise none of us, but should shame us all into speaking out in her defense.
You can offer your solidarity here: https://www.change.org/p/robert-a-brown-president-of-bostonuniversity-stand-in-solidarity-with-professor-saida-grundy