White Supremacy in Sociology

In June 2017 in the USA, a White woman sociology professor was fired for harassing a Black woman student. The student had merely questioned the logic of a quiz question about slavery, but this escalated with the professor challenging the student to present evidence to the class. She did a great job, and the professor retaliated with a series of threats on Facebook. This may seem like an extreme example of racism, but it’s only because the student went public. White educated people, including in sociology, hold an image of themselves that they can’t be racist, even though they reproduce racism in their teaching. I wrote about this at the time, and now reproduce my discussion of the abuse of power by this White educator and the concept of pedagogy in relation to racism.

White woman soc prof abuses power when Black woman student challenges quiz on slavery.  Black student, Kayla Renee Parker, argued that, while some enslaved families were kept together, they were structurally kept apart (correct)

In email exchange, Prof Judy Morelock asks for evidence and Parker presents this from class textbook set by Morelock. Prof Morelock argues her view on slavery is more correct and sullenly concedes to give everyone extra points. Asks Parker to do presentation. Parker’s presentation is strong; she draws on Frederick Douglass, linking to arguments in “The New Jim Crow.” In video, we hear Prof Morelock use the phrase “sociology, *my* discipline” 3 times to devalue Parker’s presentation- delineating authority.

This is a discoursive device: on surface, it is a senior scholar invoking her higher knowledge of her field; deeper it is White supremacy. This is a White professor who, when challenged about texts and research outside her expertise, reclaims on grounds of Whiteness.

Pedagogy is a concept that examines teaching philosophies and styles, learning practices and dynamic relationship between student and teacher. Sociological pedagogies emphasise self-reflexivity for teachers and students, as this is central tenant to sociology paradigms. Feminist postcolonial pedagogy in sociology also emphasises the historical, racial and other power relations that shape sociological knowledge.

Parker offers a Black historical perspective missing from Prof Morelock’s teaching. Instead of reflecting and embracing, Morelock undermines. Prof Morelock invites Parker to present not in spirit of pedagogy but in an attempt to humiliate: “A dissenting voice is appreciated.” Prof Morelock says she relies on sociology textbook in 7th edition, asserting it is up to date, though it excludes newer race scholarship. Prof Morelock paternalistically refers to Frederick Douglass as a “historical figure.. bravest most articulate person of his generation.” “Articulate” is a descriptor used by White people to patronise Indigenous/Black and other people of colour; it draws reference to negative stereotypes.

Prof Morelock then dismisses Douglass as a valid reference “Sociology did not exist at that time, it was still in its infancy.” Morelock refers to 1970s research on historical documents, citing African American scholar. Uses older Black studies to dismiss her student. Prof Morelock ends by saying “No one has to accept the sociological point of view… everyone has the freedom to make up their own minds.”

Again, this is an assertion that White supremacy in sociology is the authority of all sociological theories, methods and evidence. It is not.

Prof Morelock then engaged in public critique of her student. She refers to students as entitled and insubordinate. Prof Morelock was fired. Aside from cruel public comments, her abuse of power in the classroom is an example of White supremacy.

Indigenous and other people of colour in sociology have long emphasised how colonial perspectives need to be confronted and removed from theory and practice. The issue remains that many White sociologists do not see how White supremacy influences their work.

Sociology is not unique; all disciplines suffer from colonial, cishet, ableist and patriarchal perspectives embedded in the heart of academia. This may seem like an extreme example, but it’s only because a Black woman student went public. Let’s stop these biases.


This post was first published on Twitter on 14 June 2017.

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