Last week, we were reminded again of the false construct of a post-racial society when Naomi Schaefer Riley posted a vitriolic and careless article in The Chronicle of Higher Education maligning three Black studies graduate students at Northwestern University, their professors, and the entire area of study. In her piece, she openly sneered at each woman’s dissertation (none of which she had read) and basically characterized their work as useless, “irrelevant,” outdated, and predicated upon victimization.
Already, responses have been generated by the NU students as well as the faculty. A Chronicle editor has also responded with a rather weak defense of Riley’s blog, claiming that, “It is a blog for opinion . . . not news reporting by the staff.” Besides the feelings of intense rage and sadness I felt over Riley publicly defaming these scholars at the beginning of their careers, I had another overwhelming feeling.
It is simply exhausting to fight those who have no awareness of the presence and manifestation of their own White privilege. It is the additional energy that Blacks must expend particularly when they dare to trespass through areas perceived as “White terrain” (Feagin 1991) which academia most certainly is.
Riley’s piece exposed the White privilege that Peggy McIntosh spoke of long ago in her 1988 landmark essay. In it, McIntosh includes a laundry list of nearly 50 invisible privileges conferred to her at birth simply by virtue of being born White. Based on Riley’s piece and her equally as sarcastic and misguided non-apology, we could adapt and add to some of McIntosh’s original items, because through Riley’s pieces, we’ve learned White privilege also includes:
1) The ability to make pronouncements and declarations on which dissertation topics constitute “legitimate debate” and who is a “legitimate scholar” based on precious few sentences about the work in question.
2) The privilege to substitute snark for responsible research and have it published in the leading publication on higher education without the editors challenging its integrity and in fact defending its inclusion as merely “an opportunity– to debate.”
3) The privilege to stunt the spirit of academic inquiry and intellectual curiosity simply because a research topic pertains to Blackness.
4) The privilege to pretend all is well where race relations are concerned and that if there are racial disparities or tensions, it’s because people of color caused them. [FYI: Ms. Riley, any of Tim Wise's books, or Eduardo Bonilla-Silva's Racism without Racists (2009), or Joe Feagin's recent White Racial Frame (2010) can help you with this one.]
5) The ability to attack any Black person at any time and particularly those who have achieved scholar status because they threaten White hegemony.
And so, because Ms. Riley decided to wield these elements of her privilege like a weapon, we are stuck defending ourselves and expending the energy to respond.
Essentially, what she told the NU students is: You do not belong. It’s a message sent to Blacks whether they are doctoral students at a leading research university, student-athletes on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, or a child walking around a White neighborhood armed only with an iced tea and Skittles. And yes, Ms. Riley, even President Obama is regularly told he doesn’t belong when he’s the only president who’s been called a “liar” in a televised address before a joint session of Congress or who has to prove citizenship over and over again like a freed slave showing manumission papers.
Fortunately, as Black folks, we have learned to multi-task—to resist our oppression and defend ourselves and our labor even as we go about our research, teaching, and daily lives. Yet, the fact that we must do both speaks to the very nature of the racial inequality Naomi Schaefer Riley claims has all but disappeared.