Why Race & Minority Studies Matter to Public Knowledge

By Zuleyka Zevallos

In praise of public science, I want to draw connections about why race and minority studies are central to challenging the way general audiences are presented with scientific “facts”. Below is part of an article by students from Northwestern University, responding to a critique of the utility of African-American Studies. The article was published by The Chronicle. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, La Tasha B. Levy, and Ruth Hays defend the anti-intellectualism stance put forward by  by blogger Naomi Schaefer Riley, who derides the importance of African-American Studies. I love seeing students take up the challenge of public social science. Read the whole thing in The Chronicle. You’ll be so glad you did. The authors feel forced to defend why the higher education sector needs courses dedicated to anti-racist, post-colonial ways of knowing.

As black people living in the United States we do not need conspiracy theories or white bogie men to explain the disparities that separate and distinguish the life chances of white people compared to those of African Americans, even with a black president sitting in the White House. We understand that these conditions are driven and shaped by racism and real white men who exercise power and influence in the economic, social and political institutions that govern this nation… Our work is not about victimization; it is about liberation. Liberating the history, culture and politics of our people from the contortions and distortions of a white supremacist framework that has historically denied our agency and subjectivity as active participants in the making of the world we live in.

For the past 40 years, black studies has been instrumental in transforming higher education into a more inclusive, competitive, and rigorous intellectual enterprise. This is a fact. The contributions are irrefutable. But the extent to which Riley chose to assail black studies and the scholarship of black-studies doctoral students is indicative of the desperate tactics commonly used by media pundits. What is she so afraid of?

DNLee in the field. Via Scientific American.

This piece made me think of DNLee’s wonderful post in Scientific American, which I’ve shared elsewhere. DNLee offers a wonderful, reflexive piece about the racism she experiences in the field as a black woman researcher. DNLee is a biologist who studies animal behaviour in a rural town in the USA. Reflecting on the race politics surrounding Trayvon Martin’s death, DNLee notes that her presence in rural fields is unexpected. She dresses casually in a hoodie for maximum comfort as she collects data samples. When people see her going about her work, they do not see a researcher. They do not see a scientist. They see a Black Person Whose Suspicious Presence Must Be Questioned. While her white colleagues do not face the same level of scrutiny, DNLee’s authority as a scientist is primarily questioned because she is non-White. She notes that her presence in academic spaces is notable because no one expects to see her “brown, young female face”. She writes:

Being stopped or suddenly surrounded by authorities isn’t a new thing to many researchers. However, researchers of color who do research in the field (also outdoors men and women) have these kinds of stories to share, often. We laugh about it, but it’s quite sad that something about ‘us’ – hoodie or not, evokes such fear and suspicion… Somehow, no one was expecting to see this face – this brown face or young face or female face or male face or unkempt face or this hoodie-clad face, whatever it may be. Oftentimes, persons of authority and persons of privilege (usually one in the same) have no problem descending upon us, questioning our presence in this place. Asking, nay, demanding that we justify our presence in a place. Behave in an acquiescent manner while we are being held up and distracted from our jobs or simply minding our law-abiding business, lest we be arrested or harmed. And until the possibility that any kind of face could be the one doing science or teaching class or leading a project or walking down the street in a gated-community with Skittles and an Ice Tea, then we’re still likely to have conversations like these in the future.

Academia is plagued by racism, sexism and homophobia. Intellectualism, both within or outside the walls of academia, is not devoid of oppressive structures. Why does America need African American Studies? The same reason why race and ethnicity studies are needed in my homeland of Australia and all over the world. The same reason why gender studies, Indigenous studies, Queer Studies, and other specialist minority studies courses are needed. To advance scientific excellence, by challenging the way knowledge is constructed. To open up minds. To show people in positions of privilege that humanity need not be defined from one perspective. To demonstrate how historical processes continue to impact on social stratification in the present day.

The position of Otherness, which my blog aims to politicise, exists as a result of these implicit assumptions – that minorities and disempowered groups should accept their status as secondary subjects. Public audiences need to learn that science, history and learning are created within power structures. Some points of view become established as “fact” without critical investigation about who produces knowledge, how, why, when and where.

Image via Muslim Village.

Race and minority studies (if they can be collectively labelled) are necessary until that point in time when people know better than to question why race studies are important. White, heterosexual, able-bodied privilege needs to be questioned at all levels of public discourse and across scientific disciplines. Race and minority studies can begin to be debated as passée when researchers are able to move about collecting scientific evidence without being made to account for their legitimacy simply because of the way they look. Today, at this point in time, such courses are sorely needed to force public awareness. Riley and other critics need to know not all scientists, intellectuals and writers such as herself are able to make a public contribution without harassment, without needing to justify their scientific authority on grounds of their social status and appearance.

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