Call: A recent PhD publishes an op-ed in the LA Times about why academics should “blame themselves” for Rachel Dolezal’s fraud. The author leaks his disdain for black women, claiming that, “The notion of black people generally and black women specifically as inherently more authentic, more wise, or more connected to nature are alive and well in many academic and activist contexts.”
Response: F. DeBoer’s belief that RD “clearly believed” that there were rewards for being a black woman in academic spaces may be legitimate. Indeed, the perception of affirmative action and reverse racism was part of a cocktail of RD’s schemes. Unfortunately, DeBoer, who seems to be staking his own territory as a voice of practicality/objectivity among starry-eyed leftist academic altruists, reads RD’s fraud from a place of skepticism about the role of activism and social justice appeals in humanities graduate training.
Perhaps, he simply can’t comprehend why PoC-authored texts and civil rights movements would be featured so prominently as a source of debate in humanities and social sciences fields when the “real work” of teaching writing and doing empirical research gets left behind. It is also possible that he is experiencing major tensions regarding the mystical world of graduate school where rigid professionalism and a shaky job market seem eerily connected to conventions of political correctness that censures failure by censoring budding graduate students’ ability to sincerely learn about what they don’t understand.
When I was in graduate school, I struggled to find meaning and purpose. It wasn’t until I was well into my dissertation writing that I started to more fully comprehend the strategy of using activism and cultural sensitivity as persuasive appeals to gain ethos in uncertain terrain. It helped me understand why many people claimed progressivism in seminars and research articles, but had virtually no contact with black people/women in their ‘personal life.’ If RD learned anything about the life of a black female adjunct professor, it was that access to the black community would probably lie outside of academic spaces.
Similar to other graduate students of any color, sexuality, gender, or social class, I deeply felt the conflicting purposes and function of research. Is it a public service, business, or recruitment/organizing apparatus? How does the humanities “do” research and development, especially in relatively new, interdisciplinary professions like Rhetoric and Composition Studies? In this hyper-sensitive climate, I am sure that folks who wanna get down to the ‘real’ business learning about “teaching effectiveness” and administering core college courses, race, sexuality, class, and gender discussions seemed distracting.
Throughout my entire higher-ed, I observed lots and lots of disgruntled white men who did not hesitate to disclose their sense of marginalization to me during personal and professional gatherings like happy hours, comps and diss celebration dinners, conference receptions, bar crawls, and invitation-only parties. They did not consider their expressions hostile or invasive. They were just ‘chatting.’ They did not have such conversations with others. Just me. And I was always the *only one!*
You see, DeBoer sticks to safe acknowledgments of racism (with no mention of sexism) and the business of discrediting black women’s accomplishments and abilities, as usual. Instead of delving deeper into the connection between RD’s performance and the ways in which many white charlatans have benefited from a tradition of some academic’s romanticization of indigenous and diasporic cultures, DeBoer says its white Academia’s fault for the audacious belief in black women’s agency and intelligence. In one fell swoop, DeBoer claims that YOU, white academics, are being duped by black women’s presence in YOUR space. He says YOU are fools for rewarding black women’s intelligence, for essentializing it, and allowing US in YOUR space. DeBoer fails to mention that WE, black women, who have worked tirelessly for centuries for the one or few seats in predominantly white R1 institution’s graduate classroom spaces are so few in number as to not be part of the logics of his vindication of leftist flakes. Yet, I am one of his colleagues, and thus, I am technically to blame for allegedly creating RD, her attention seeking behavior, and her unconvincing black female on-the-academic-grind drag performance.
Of course, few articles have been written about RD that bother to try to make sense of the immense harm she has done to black women. Who cares about that when we probably faked our way through grad school anyway?
DeBoer’s article provides a vivid example of why we have always had to be more wise, more in tune with nature, and more kick ass than the ‘typical’ academic. Our experiences may provide a feast for white cultural appropriation. Let us not be confused about WHO is rewarded when we talk about black women. Hearing about Black women’s struggles from non-black women in academic texts/discussions is hardly the same as listening to a black woman connect her experiences to her research praxis. If we study language, culture, and communication, WE BLACK WOMEN may seem more “authentic” because black feminist scholarship values experience and testimony as episteme. Consequently, we don’t have the privilege of writing opinions about, ultimately, having no opinion about RD. Fighting against your sheer existence as a crime and asserting dignity alongside professional recognition is simultaneously exhausting and alienating. The ‘notion’ that black women would be rewarded for trying to contribute to scholarship and transform its relationship to communities and lived experience is only upsetting to someone who takes issue with their presence in THEIR space.
If you are buying DeBoer’s specious claims about some vague, amorphous academia creating RD because of its misguided belief in black women’s magical power, think about it again. DeBoer’s op-ed lacks context and a critical evaluation of black women’s status in higher education. If we are rewarded so handsomely for bamboozling in Academia, do we make up the majority of academic space as faculty and administrators (relative to our actual U.S. population)? Do we publish the most? Are we canonized as much as white authors of any gender? Do we hold the most tenured and tenure-track positions? Are we paid as much as our white colleagues (regardless of gender)? If these questions give you pause, it is because we continue to be woefully underrepresented in advanced positions in academia, law, medicine, science, and elsewhere.
I won’t contribute to the literature that attempts to rationalize RD’s behavior. You can #askrachel about that. I only care about four simple facts:
1. A white woman claimed to be black.
2. A white woman “passed” as black through the adoption of what she believed were essential markers of blackness, which included the articulation of lived experiences “as a black woman.”
3. The act is categorically fraud and deception.
4. How will RD’s behavior reveal and perpetuate indifference to and invisibility of the diverse range of black women’s experiences rooted in a common locust of control and fear?
If RD thought being a black woman would give her some cred in academic and civil rights groups, it is because those of us that make it in those worlds are intensely courageous, adaptable, and tenacious–precisely because so few of US do.