Epistemic injustice in the academy: an analysis of the Saida Grundy witch-hunt

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

25 thoughts on “Epistemic injustice in the academy: an analysis of the Saida Grundy witch-hunt

    • According to the article you linked to, the rape victim maintains Grundy was in fact aware of her situation during the original exchange. Grundy herself refuses to speak to reporters about the matter. Her only defender is a single personal friend. And to its discredit, Jezebel sat on the story.

      Did you realize the Boston.com story hurts and does not serve Grundy’s cause?

      • The article says that the woman Grundy reportedly verbally accosted, Chamberlin, said this: “I want brains like hers not in just higher education. I wish we could have that open-mindedness and critical thinking in more places. I would like it my kids’ elementary school.” So she’s not saying that this tiny fb exchange should impact Grundy’s character, job, or anything else. So why is everyone making a big deal of it? BECAUSE IT’S A FOX NEWS-LED CAMPAIGN TO SILENCE HER. Doesn’t Fox News have anything better to do? A fb argument that even the person involved isn’t too bothered: how is THAT news? It just attests to Shahvisi’s point in this article.

      • In the reply by Julian concerning Ms. Grundy’s facebook outburst it is asked “why is everyone making a big deal of it?” Even if we assume that Ms. Grundy did not know that Ms. Chamberlain was a rape victim – which is a stretch – the exchange illustrates that Ms. Grundy acts before she thinks. In the case at point, the best we can say is that Ms. Grundy walked into an on going exchange, made some assumptions, did not pause to understand what was going on, and then viciously attacked. Ms. Grundy claims to have learned from her conviction eight years ago. I believe that she is unlikely to impersonate someone online to sexually humiliate them again. However, by what we have seen she still acts before thinking. In the now infamous tweets she makes numerous false statements. The best we can say is that she is passing on information she heard without every checking on it – a bad trait for a university professor. On the other hand, she may have known it was false but was using it to rally the rioting mobs in Baltimore and elsewhere. Your pick.

  1. Reblogged this on Prof Chris Daly's Blog and commented:
    I rarely share this space with outsiders, but I think my readers will appreciate this commentary on some recent issues at Boston University. I did not write it, but I find it cogent and informed.
    ~The Journalism Professor

  2. Yes!!!! This analysis is 1000% right! Ridiculous that out even requires an explanation this in depth. All of us are harmed by the manner in which Boston University left her out in the cold. They are not the experts, she is. Unfortunately, the way they treated her empowers students to do the same, creating a hostile work environment which is potentially dangerous, as I, and so many of my colleagues, have discovered. White supremacy is not a myth.

  3. While you’re correct in your overall analysis of the topic, it is my opinion that Grundy’s tweet were poorly expressed, naïvely constructed and in general reflected very poor communicational and “educational” skills. This, more than the ridiculous claims of racism, is what should have worried (deeply) Boston University.

  4. I know this won’t be popular in this forum but I feel strongly enough about this issue that I really don’t care.

    Here goes: I am a white man. I have my doctorate from a top 25 university in my field and am now a professor. And I have worked my ASS off to get where I am, and have achieved my position despite having to fill out the racist and sexist Affirmative Action HR forms for EVERY academic job I’ve ever applied to. It is a FACT that every woman and minority man I have met with a terminal degree in my field has a tenure track job. White males? Not even close. So don’t tell me how much easier it is (regardless of skill) for white men to get jobs in academia.

    I have personally heard department chairs and deans mention under their breath to committee chairs how great it would be if the department could hire a person of color or a woman (hint hint), but that the most important thing was to hire the “most qualified person”.
    Is there racism and sexism in academia? Yes. But is it widespread? No. The answer to why there aren’t more women/minority profs is complicated and many layered and in my opinion, calling individuals and institutions racist and sexist is not the way to make anything better.

    Regardless of her expertise, Grundy’s comments were flat out racist, and she deserved to lose her job. If she were a white man saying things of that ilk about black women it would be tabloid fodder for weeks. This article was an angry, poorly informed joke.

    I could go on, but you get the point.

    • Well, Disagreeablejoe, perhaps you need to slow down a bit and take a look at yourself and your career. First of all, you are implying that people who are not as successful as you don’t work very hard, but claim that you do. That’s a classic trope of the rich and well-to-do, but it has neither truth nor relevance. Frankly, I’ve never heard anyone who really does work hard make that sort of claim–only the lazy and lucky. Second, why should anyone take your word for anything when you don’t even identify yourself? Grundy doesn’t hide, and she is vulnerable in ways that you, a tenured (I assume) professor, are not. Third, claiming something as a “FACT” does not make it so. Fourth, it is not simply a matter of getting a job but of keeping it. In my nine years in a tenure-track/tenured position, I have seen five attempts to hound people of color who I know personally out of positions in academia. I haven’t seen anything similar happen to a white person in that time (though I have seen it). It certainly does happen–just not quite as often. Fifth, all other things being equal, it makes sense to hire candidates from under-represented groups whenever that is possible. Diversity, especially in academia, has value in a number of ways. Sixth, and this goes back to #1, academia is not a competition but a collaboration that is meant to work for the good of all. People don’t become academics to “get ahead” in the business sense but to do something because they love it and because they find the contributions they make satisfying. Your obvious bitterness–a little odd in itself, given the success you claim–only makes me think that you went into the wrong profession in the first place.

      I could go on, but you get the point.

      If you don’t, read this.

      • Well, Dear Professor, I’m afraid to say that by the standards of reasonable commentary you’ve written something of an omni-shambles here. So let us then take a moment now & descend more closely to the arguments therein so that we all might better understand the nature of some of the errors which have so unfortunately come to attach themselves to your comment above.

        Firstly, on the matter of hard work, I must say that have met rich & privileged persons who have been so since the day they were born but yet work very hard & I’ve met those who are lazy as well. I’ve also met poor & underprivileged persons who are hardworking as well as those who are layabouts. And the same is true for the middling types. Simply put, there is no relationship between wealth & privilege with which one is endowed at time of birth or by family & one’s ability & inclination to hard work. As we have all seen this but of course, I think it not necessary to continue on this point for only a particularly obtuse person– whether willfully or otherwise– would seek to deny it at this point. Let us just say that in American society it is generally the case that those who work hard tend to move upwards (an at times at a startling pace when compared to the similar movements in other, less democratic, societies) whilst those who do not work hard tend to level off– or even gradually descend in the case of those who are even more dilettantish in their attitude towards work. Let us not pretend to see a connection between the two.

        Secondly, as to the matter of your witness to the prejudicial treatment of black faculty members. What are we to say, Good Professor? Should we be so charitable as to give you the credibility which you yourself have so eagerly & cheerfully denied in the case of the commenter above, whom you categorised as someone refusing to identify himself. The same must be said for you but of course, such is the nature of online discourse, most of us are indeed anonymous (which is a boon actually, and not a malady as some would wrongfully suspect, as it allows for us all to focus on the strength of the arguments & evidence offered themselves rather than merely focusing upon the identity of those making the arguments & so engaging in what in China is known as ‘以人废言’– to dismiss the words themselves simply on account of he who speaks them).

        But whether or not we are to be so charitable is quite beside the point. For this is a matter of truth, not charity. What is sought here is the truth & unfortunately based upon what little you have offered (nothing more than assertions, really) we simply cannot ascertain the veracity of such claims. Perhaps you might be so obliging as to offer us a more detailed story of events as well as some supporting evidence? And please do not try to resort to that ever so peculiar sort of argument to authority, which has gained some currency among the less scholarly types as of late: I am speaking of course of the one which holds that we are the ‘arbiters of our own experience’ and that others must therefore yield to our authority on such as they could never possibly understand. As to such an argument to authority let me just point out that the Roman who said ‘Homo sum, humani nihil a me puto alienum’ would clearly disagree. I fear I must tell you that my sympathy lies with the Roman in this matter & not with your cohort.

        Thirdly, as to the matter of academics being a collaboration & not a competition, let us not deceive ourselves by mumbling such sweet little nothings of this sort. Would you actually have us to believe that the professors spend their days wandering about the halls in their robes, sipping their sherry & tutoring the students from time as though it were an Oxbridge college of the 1950s? I’m quite sure that all those many newly minted Doctores Philosophiae who each year come out to find their first jobs in academia would most certainly disagree with such a claim. I’m sure the assistant professors seeking tenure would also quite disagree. Oh! How privileged you must be not to have to be exposed to such crude & ungentlemanly competition for places which is to be found amongst the lower orders of academia & indeed society! We of course, as polite & civilised members of society, must congratulate you on account of you finding for yourself such a lofty place in society, but let us not in our ‘spirit of politique’ go so far as to indulge the pretensions which have evidently come to you along with your good fortune. Let us instead venture to ask would you & indeed your own colleagues favour such an assessment should that nice corner office with the big windows & all the floor space suddenly ‘come on the market’ so to speak?

        No, academics is not any less competitive than the other human endeavours. Let us dispose with such a conceit at once and not dare to flatter it any further! It’s merely a case of many academics, such as yourself good Sir, trying to cover such sordid competition under the guise of harmonious coexistence, which only makes the competition so much more ‘bitchy’ in the end– as anyone who has spent the slightest amount of time in ‘the Academy’ knows plainly. Indeed it is not unlike here in China where the Party, the Government & society at large are keen to clothe the pull & thrust, the pell mell & hurly-burly of competition with that that holy vestment of harmony– the vaunted ‘和谐’ as it is known it China– and similarly to nurture the conceit of a harmonious & collaborationist co-existence in all things public. This has been the overriding desire for millenia now & thus the bitchiness is even more pronounced than it is in American Academia.

        Alas, we have reached the end of this analysis, if you will, of your comment above & as I’ve never been very good with conclusions (a trait which I fear is all to common with members of the more youthful generation in which I find myself), let us just end by saying– as you yourself put it so eloquently above: I could go on, but you get the point.

        Good morning to you, Dear Professor!

  5. If most scholars of race and gender truly think Grundy’s comments were largely accurate, then that speaks very poorly of most scholars of race and gender. Europeans were not the first to enslave others for a life term. They were not the first to ship slaves over long distances to sell them. Even her claim that chattel slavery was an invention of Europeans is unproven at best, and doubtful at worst. Slavery is not exclusively or uniquely a “white thing.” American slavery did differ in significant ways from other types of slavery, but Grundy doesn’t appear to be able to identify or explain those differences. On a less controversial note, her claim that St. Patrick’s Day is made up and not celebrated in Ireland is ludicrous.

    Were Grundy’s statements racist? I think there is a legitimate case to be argued both for or against. Where her statements largely uninformed? Absolutely. And the fact that some academics are uncritically promoting them as if they are generally accepted knowledge just proves what those of us on the inside of universities already knew: at heart, academia isn’t engaged in a quest for truth, but in a quest for what is most politically useful.

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  7. I believe Grundy’s third strike must be her felony charges of impersonating a rival lover on an adult web site when she was 24, certainly old enough to know better. She clearly is in need of psychiatric assistance and should not be allowed around young minds at this point. Perhaps she will recover in time. University of Boston, today is the day to pay her to go away. Please.

  8. Ms. Shahvisi makes the point repeatedly that Ms. Grundy was not given the respect she deserved because she is a black woman. The problem with that point of view is that Ms. Grundy was wrong on the issues that can be fact checked. (Thank you to Anonprof for your comments above – you saved me the trouble.) This causes one to doubt the other messages she is sending. Her credibility was not damaged by the BU administration as much as she damaged it herself.

    As for epistemic injustice it seems a better example is the case of the white rape victim that Ms. Grundy shamed in the Facebook exchange. Ms. Grundy dismissed the experience of the victim and then “shouted her out of the room”.

  9. Witch hunt? This is like shooting fish in a barrel. No one is investigating Saida Grundy except to the extent she made public statements, which to put it exceedingly mildly are inflammatory.
    As far as stating her tweets were cogent, especially the one about the “European race” creating slavery, they are hardly that. There is no basis in fact the “European race” did so, slavery existed way before Europeans got involved. She apparently has limited exposure to history as she does not understand that Arabs and blacks fed the African slave trade.
    Then to say “white males” are a problem population in American colleges just totally takes the cake. Making generalizations like that is akin to saying blacks like chicken and watermelon.
    She’s just getting a pass on all her spiteful commentary because she is a black female. I think no one can legitimately characterize her self immolation as a witch hunt.

    • To be fair. As “Anonprof” noted in a comment above Ms. Grundy was wrong in her claim that Europeans invented lifelong, inherited, and transported slavery. However, she never claimed that Europeans invented slavery itself. She was wrong but not that wrong.

  10. Ridiculous, in fact, obscenely so. Anyone that would excuse, justify, or enable Grundy for her outrageous behavior is off their nut. Word to the wise: it does not matter one iota, not one good da*n, if your sociological “knowledge” (is that what she has?) tells you to offend every student in your classroom. It’s not “okay”. Once you’ve gotten to that point, you are playing with some serious fire. If that university doesn’t get the picture, they will once the donors yank their “green” privilege right out the door. Sometimes wrong is wrong, and Grundy is wrong. So, bye Felicia!

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