Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The name "Black Studies" comes at a cost

Malcolm X, a popular figure in the discourse on Black Studies 
On April 30, Riley published a troubling post "The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations" on a blog site for The Chronicle of Higher Education. After Riley's post, a debate ensued; Riley was eventually dismissed by The Chronicle; hard feelings mounted; and many articles appeared.

Looking back on the situation, it's fascinating that few people mentioned the idea that the insertion of the  phrase "Black Studies" into the conversation early on may have prompted some of the harsh responses from conservatives. Of course, given the nature of Riley's conservative background, she likely needed only minor nudges to take hard swipes at the field of Black Studies, or is it African American Studies?

The initial article, which Riley responded to, was written by Stacey Patton and entitled "Black Studies: Swaggering into the Future." The article focused on  "young black-studies scholars" at  Northwestern University. But consider this: Northwestern has an African American Studies Program, not a Black Studies Program. Although "African American Studies" and "Black Studies" are often used interchangeably, I suspect that the article would have been read and responded to differently if distinctions had been made between those phrases.

Patton opens her article by noting that "Northwestern University's first cohort of black-studies Ph.D.'s was not baptized in the fire of racial politics." She goes on to note that "Young black-studies scholars, like the five who enrolled in Northwestern's inaugural Ph.D. class in 2006, are less consumed than their predecessors with the need to validate the field or explain why they are pursuing doctorates in their discipline." In some ways, the article frames early participants in the field as pro-black "Black Studies" in contrast to the current students who "are not concerned with the sort of racial and gender identity politics that often informed scholarly works and divided departments and campuses a generation ago."

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a popular figure in the discourse on African American Studies
Based on those descriptions, which mis-characterize in some ways, there is little wonder why college administrators, conservatives, and those who adhere to strict colorblind codes find the phrase and idea "African American Studies" less threatening than "Black Studies." Some administrators at my university have expressed concern about our program's decision to retain the title "Black Studies" as opposed to more ostensibly diversity-friendly names such as "African American Studies," "Africana Studies," "Ethnic Studies," or "Diaspora Studies." Their concern sometimes comes at a cost: reservations about providing our program funding support.

When Riley came across "Black Studies" in the headline of that Chronicle article, her own reservations, or better yet, her strong ideological opposition to the concept emerged in ways that would have likely been less visceral if the piece had been entitled "African American Studies: 'Swaggering Into the Future.'" But then again, on the street level, the phrase "African American Studies," don't got swag nor cultural capital, like "black."        

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