The Chronicle of Higher Ed’s Naomi Schaefer Riley: Tyranny of White Privilege

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each woman’s dissertation (none of which she had read) and basically characterized their work as useless, “irrelevant,” outdated, and predicated upon victimization.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.


  1. second!

    What I really don’t understand intellectually is her whole complaint about “blaming the white man.” She quotes one candidate as saying she researched black midwifery because there was so little about nonwhite birthing experience in the literature. Right? Then she mocks, “It’s scandalous and clearly a sign that racism is alive and well in America, not to mention academia.” But nobody said anything about racism, only that there’s not a lot of research in the area.

    From what I can tell, the only dissertation that actually addresses current racism is the one on housing policy and subprime lending. Riley says, “The subprime lending crisis was about the profitability of racism? Those millions of white people who went into foreclosure were just collateral damage, I guess.” But it’s true that the damage fell disproportionately on people of color. So what’s Riley’s complaint?

    At the risk of showing my ‘country’ upbringing – hit dogs holler. Or, to put it more elegantly, “the lady doth protest too much.”

  2. cordoba blue

    Any history of African Americans is absolutely integral to the history of America. Slavery made it possible for the country to export millions of bales of cotton and then to supply this cotton to northern factories. So both Union and Confederate states, in many other ways, benefitted financially from slavery. Free labor to support a growing nation in any way the white populus wants to use it. Such a deal. Interesting to imagine exactly how this nation would have progressed without slavery isn’t it?
    For one, and this is the ultimate irony, there would not have been a Civil War. And that war decimated more white lives than all the American wars fought combined. So just when America thought they were using human beings to their advantage, even if it caused outrageous suffering, they died by the thousands themselves. Poetic justice if there ever was.
    The point is Black Studies, when looked at through the lens of objective history, is truly American studies. The “invisible population” should not have an opportunity to examine their role in our history? You cannot discuss, in good faith, American history without discussing race relations. It was such an integral part of the way America functioned, it’s a sham to ignore it.

      • cordoba blue

        “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.”
        A question for you bfsolgr: How can you characterize Black Studies as irrelevant? How can you characterize Black Studies as outdated? How can you characterize Black Studies (which I was explaining is irrevocably intertwined with America’s past and present functioning) as merely victimization?
        She was fired because her remarks (I’m just guessing) were not only insulting to a very large group of American citizens but extremely short-sighted and just plain facetious. Was she serious?
        Not exactly an astute analysis of the role of racism in America. Would you disagree? This woman does not sound very sophisticated regarding the ramifications of America’s long history with race, politics, the huge differences in the way the south functioned agriculturally for centuries versus the industrialized north, or anything else for that matter. A historian she’s not!No Pulitzer prizes for her this month.
        If someone writes for a “higher education” journal, and comes across as having a 5th grade mentality (“Why discuss race? It’s…irrelevant in terms of American history…Like..I don’t get it!”) wonder she was told to clean out the proverbial desk…Like.. a shame she has to throw away all her Soap Opera Week magazines. Poor Naomi. Try reading Bruce Catton, honey, or Jeff Shaara, and maybe you’ll actually come across as having a 3-digit IQ.

        • bfsolgr

          When did I characterize black studies as outdated or irrelevant? I asked what I believe to be a valid question. Because Mrs. Riley was critical of the dissertations and what she believed was the lack of academic rigor why does she deserved to be fired? Is it because she is white and would dare to speak her mind? What if the writer had been black would he or she deserve the same fate? If the only reason that she should is she happened to be whit an stated an unpopular opinion that on its face is racism pure and simple.
          I have always assumed that the purpose of higher education was to provoke thought and discussion especially concerning that thing with which we might disagree. True scholarship can withstand the challenge it.
          As for your assumption as to my IQ; the true test of intellect is the ability to engage in a reasonable dialogue with a subject you might not agree with or like. While doing so might be an unpleasant experience ,resorting to name calling or labeling renders your arguments invalid.
          As for the reading list, you might want to add Thomas Sowell and Booker T. Washington to yours.

          • cordoba blue

            Don’t get confused. You did not characterize black studies as outdated or irrelevant. Mrs. Riley did. She claimed their work was “outdated”. You see, much of this discussion is truly a question of semantics, is it not?
            Plus, by your own estimation, name calling invalidates an argument, correct? Doesn’t this “lack of courtesy” apply to Ms. Riley? I do not believe she should be fired IF she merely stated an opinion backed up with some academic teeth.
            However, since she herself admitted she never even read the documents in question…well, golleee..that doesn’t make her an erudite young lady does it? Nor a very professional one.
            Yes, it could be construed as racist, or at least uninformed regarding American history, to dismiss the subjects of these ladies’ dissertations as irrelevant. And no I don’t think she should be fired for merely being white, just like a black person shouldn’t be fired for merely being black. But I do think a little more sensitivity and understanding of American history wouldn’t hurt in this case. By the way, I was recommending that Ms. Riley read Bruce Catton, not you.
            You sure do take everything personally. Please read comments carefully before you go quoting Booker T. Plus, the IQ comment was in regards to Ms. Riley also! PlEaSe ReAd DiRecTiOns CaReFuLly BeFoRe UsInG.

          • bfsolgr

            A sense of humor too!! I like that. You will pardon me for jumping to a conclusion since it appaerde you were respondinding directly to me at on point.

            I read her artilce I found nothing in it unprofessional. it still it comes down to not liking what she wrote.
            I take none of this personal I enjoy the debate.

            The question still stands what in the article would be justification for her to be removed from her position.

  3. Abigail Sewell

    I’m wondering if white privilege alone is enough to call for a sustained boycott of CHE services. The Chronicle has issued an apology since (yesterday). Still, the positivistic ploys used by the Chronicle, right-wing ideologues, and left-wing sympathizers is deceptive. Debating the validity, function, and quality of Black Studies is an earmark of structural inequality. We do not debate the use of the English language in classrooms or the pledge of allegiance to the American flag.

    • For real!

      It’s like the ethnic studies injustice in Arizona. Either teach the total sum of experiences and perspectives or shut up when we ‘others’ teach our own.

      What I have yet to process is how just researching a previously unresearched area like birthing experiences of nonwhite women is tantamount to making accusations of racism. Especially is someone tells me Riley is Christian and an observant Jew. (cf Exodus 1)

      • Abigail Sewell

        Under Riley’s logic, studying any non-racial act (e.g., birthing) from the perspective of the racialized other (e.g., the natural birth experiences of Black women) is racist.

        This logic is dangerous because it aids and abets a colorblind ideology. Logics like this pervade European countries like Germany, where the very mention of the terms race and racism is limited to very specific instances in history (e.g., the Holocaust) and very sensationalized instances in contemporary society (e.g., neo-Nazism homeland terrorism). While this logic, and the discourse it feeds, may be recurrent (see Fabio Rojas recent blog at for citations of earlier conservative attacks on Black Studies, linked below), the lasting impact of this rhetoric is the silencing of whole areas of discourse (e.g., ethnic studies in Arizona). That rhetoric is given credence when it operates within the bounds of an elite institution like the Chronicle and when it is in line with the common sense understandings of everyday people.

  4. cordoba blue

    Just another interesting historical perspective I actually ran across while teaching. The issue is whether Black Studies is a extraneous part of American history or essential to the “main course”.
    The Battle of Antietam during the Civil War was the first Union victory. It was the 3rd battle. The first two were won by the Confederacy. Lincoln was starting to worry seriously if the South might just win this contest until Antietam. Thousands of men died at Antietam, the likes of which Americans had never seen Ever. The relative “modernity” of the weapons compared to the American Revolution, and the fact that so many men congregated at this location made every other battle in American history seem inferior in casualties and vicious fighting. Within 3 hours, approximately 6,000 men were dead. It shocked the nation.
    One of the main points discussed on this you-tube analysis of this battle is why the southerners were willing to suffer this kind of carnage even if they didn’t own slaves themselves. One scholar stated that “Everybody in the South had a stake in maintaining slavery. This was because poor white farmers without slaves knew that if slaves were suddenly free, they would have to compete with former slaves who could own farms and thus sell their crops at competitive prices. That translates into millions of new farms and the price of your produce, be it cotton, tobacco or rice, would diminish.
    Also, whites knew how poorly they had treated blacks for two previous centuries. They were afraid of millions of black men suddenly at liberty. They had reason to believe their very lives were in danger.
    They also felt a racial superiority to African Americans. Which meant they did not want to see blacks shopping at the stores whites frequented, or walking the town streets freely, or going to restaurants or taverns, or even speaking to their family members in a familiar basis (like whites speak casually to whites). Living with blacks on the SAME SOCIO-ECONOMIC level was foreign to Americans, especially in the South. They just didn’t know how to handle it.
    And this doesn’t even address how the more affluent farmers who actually owned slaves would suffer financially if they were forced to pay wages to formerly free-labor people.
    A strict separation of race on every level dictated the life of every single southerner. If a southerner did befriend a black man, he was subject to ridicule and scorn by neighbors and friends, sometimes even ostracized. So the societal pressure was enormous to just keep the status quo and treat black people as sub-human.
    The result was the bloodiest war in American history. So how, Naomi Riley, do you justify labeling “Black Studies” as superficial? If you don’t understand race relations in the United States, you are not studying American history…you must have been thinking of some other country. Sorry you are suffering from Alzheimer’s. I will happily give you the name of a very competent doctor who is attending my aging aunt with this disease. Hope the medication reduces your symptoms! Best Wishes, Cordoba.

  5. Cherise Author

    Hi All,

    Thank you for your thought-provoking comments.

    For the most part, I agree with what you’re saying BLAQUE SWAN (love the handle by the way!). In terms of the midwifery dissertation, you’re right in that it seems that racism wasn’t directly mentioned, but we know that it is a form of institutional racism that leads to the topic’s omission from the literature. I think Riley understood that as subtext, but the idea was so uncomfortable for her and so destabilized her notions of a post-racial society, that she dismissed the work along with the entire area of study. She can do that because she enjoys that type of privilege– the privilege to dismiss issues that are of importance to people of color. I agree with you as well that this is the Arizona reactionary logic that puts all area studies and scholarly exploration of folks of color in danger.

    ABIGAIL, I agree with you that “debating the validity, function, and quality of Black Studies [–ed. PERIOD!] is an earmark of structural inequality.” Absolutely right! Excellent point. For me, it’s also that she is able to sit in judgment and have it published in CHE and that the judgment was made on so little information.

    CORDOBA BLUE, the history you bring up is another argument for why Black Studies needs to exist. These are important facts often omitted from history books. I know that many often have little awareness of these episodes and issues. It does merit critical and scholarly thought.

    JOE, I saw the “protests” from the right. They seem to be very weak and boil down to, “It’s not fair!” and “How do you know she’s a racist?” Both seem to be a function of the post-racial school of thought. They seem to complain that she was fired for doing what she was hired to do. If they had an understanding of the presence and pervasiveness of (structural, individual) racism, there wouldn’t be a question about why it’s problematic for a writer to denigrate three Black graduate students and an entire field of study pertaining to Blacks on the flimsiest of evidence and have it published in something like CHE. There a multiple layers of wrong there. And, if they understood that racism often comes from otherwise really nice people who love their families, attend the neighborhood block party, and serve on the PTA, then that complaint might go away too. But since we limit racism to hate groups, that connection is always missed.

    Anyway, I just wanted to take the time to weigh in really quick and thank you all for taking the time to comment!

    Happy Wednesday!


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