The hardest thing I was ever tasked with reading in a history course was Edward Said’s Orientalism. I dropped the course because it was totally over my head. That says a lot.
My major was 20th century European history, and my focus was on Germany, but specifically the rise of the Third Reich. I was interested in finding out why and how millions of people could justify a genocide. I was very, very focused on Germany and Russia; I didn’t want to study the United States at all, but my major required me to take courses in non-European and non-American history, so toward the end of my education, I took courses—grudgingly, at the time—on African and Southeast Asian colonial history. Eventually I also started taking courses on contemporary art history, where I was introduced to South American artists like Lygia Clark and Gabriel Orozco, and my art theoretical deity, the Cuban-born American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. That’s really all the background I have on South American culture.
It’s tremendously ironic that I was interested in the mechanics of genocide in Europe but uninterested in learning about the Native American genocide—except in its context as an inspiration for Hitler’s Final Solution—and uninterested in learning about colonial genocide in Africa. It’s also ironic that I was invested in learning about how Germany and Russia healed from war, but not at all invested in learning about how African and Asian nations have fared post-independence. It’s ironic, it’s sad, and it’s reflective of an oppressive academic instinct. My reflexive defense of my studies is that that the German genocide had its own, very distinct quality that merits thorough and focused research, and that’s true, but so did the Belgian exploitation of the Congo. It’s not a good defense on its own, and it’s no defense at all for the foot-tapping frustration with which I originally approached studying the history of literally any continent but Europe.
Originally. Unfortunately, by the time I started to dust off my preconceptions about studying non-white historical and cultural phenomena, I was maybe two or three semesters away from graduation and so far in debt that I wanted to just be done with my undergraduate degree.
It was also around that time that I started delving more deeply into English courses in the hopes of finishing a minor and was faced with two different sets of English students and scholars: On the one hand, you had the Hispanic grad student who taught a course on rhetoric and framed Plato’s writings around gang rhetoric, and a black woman grad student who taught women’s literature, careful to include Zora Neale Hurston, bell hooks, and Alice Walker along with Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Brontë. On the other hand, you had the white alt-lit writer who was a full-time staff member rather than a grad student, who taught mainly white, male authors from the ‘90s—his peers at publications where he’d worked—in a creative nonfiction workshop.
Or you had a lot of my friends, who insisted that we were taught F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a deluge of white, male experimental fiction writers from the mid-twentieth century because they were simply the best authors available to teach, not because academia has historically excluded women and non-whites.
One of the speakers sums up that English department problem pretty succinctly:
The majority of academia, with a few exceptions, is based on status and how often somebody is referenced. So of course, historically, institutions even as forward-thinking as UCL perpetuate the idea that certain people who have been there for the longest must have the strongest right to claim academic privilege.
The black grad student who taught women’s lit was M. Shelly Conner, who’s now an instructor in the English department at Loyola University Chicago. She was the person who most challenged my ideas about whiteness in academia, because she pointed out that even without having as long of a written, documented history as whites have, there is a wealth of oral history and cultural artifacts that tell just as much of a story as Herodotus ever did. She taught that with Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. That’s an argument that was bolstered by what I learned about the valuation of white machismo in the art world—there have been whole exhibits of “anonymous” artworks created by black American slaves. It’s not that the artists were truly anonymous, it’s that they were stripped of their identities by enslavement. They might be able to create beautiful works of art, but they’ll never get the credit that, say, Donald Judd will, in terms of their contributions to American art. The art world still hasn’t fully confronted that reality.
It’s made worse by the fact that academia is so rarefied by class. One speaker in the video talked about the fact that at her university, students who were admitted out of private secondary schools were disproportionately represented—less than 10 percent of U.K. students attend private schools, but they constituted 70 percent of her university. I don’t think I need to say that centuries of slavery, exploitation, and discrimination have left non-white Americans and Europeans in a situation in which they do not have the economic leverage to attend those private schools, but I’m glad to repeat it anyway. So you have an academic universe in which wealthy white men constituted the majority of university students for a very, very long time, and in which white men still constitute the majority of all educators in post-secondary institutions, with the second highest-represented group being white women. It entrenches the expertise of white people, who continue not to teach non-white sources, and leads to this reality, as described by another speaker in the video:
There is very much an awareness about the curriculum being white. It’s just that if somebody says, ‘Well, I don’t realize that the curriculum is white,’ it’s just because of the fact that that curriculum serves the class interests of a particular individual, and therefore they choose not to see it.
During my course, a Masters in Development at SOAS, all that I was taught by a black professor was Foucault, Marx, Weber, Bernstein. So what about the African scholars? What about the scholars from Australasia? What about the scholars from Americas? Is it that their views about development are unimportant?
There are plenty of people who claim that academia isn’t important, that it’s an ivory tower that stands apart from the rest of the world. The fact that it’s an ivory tower is true, but the idea that it’s unimportant is dangerous. We rely on academics to inform us with research studies and advise on policy decisions, and if they’re educated and entrenched in an intellectual space that only discusses white ideas and only serves white interests, we come up with, well, an America in which the median net worth of black households is one-thirteenth of that of white households, and the racial wealth gap keeps widening as time goes on.
The first step in the solution to the race problem in academia is to teach non-white sources. I’m sure that idea makes some people cringe, and by the way, that cringing is latent racism. It’s just untrue to claim that white writers and thinkers are the best available sources to teach. They might be the best writers and thinkers to teach about white culture, but whiteness does not confer upon a person the ability to come up with the best ideas, period. Especially in a globalized society in which we are in constant cultural and political contact with other nations, societies, and peoples, often under the premise of mutual aid, we can’t keep relying on white, Western thinkers to guide us. Or, as another speaker in UCL’s video puts it:
Stop being so dependent on conventional sources, in the sense that when you’re studying about poverty and development, and when you’re trying to learn about burgeoning democracies and how they work, and resistance and rebellion, you can’t be consistently and continuously reading what some white man sitting in an office in New York thinks about this.
We have to validate the idea that America, and also Europe, are not actually cities on a hill, intellectually. We do not guide the world. We are not a shining beacon. The ideas and modes of thinking of scholars who are of backgrounds other than our own are exactly as good or bad, as worthy or unworthy, as ethical or unethical, as effective or ineffective as ours—and history proves that. The only way to move forward and truly cooperate, truly be able to benefit the whole of humanity, is to give equal consideration to all scholarship. And for those of us who are no longer in academia: Read widely, and diversely, and let it challenge you and make you uncomfortable. That discomfort is growth.