Race in Academia

So, it’s 1:30 and our neighbors are having a party. We live in the multi-cultural theme housing, but I rarely see or talk to any of my neighbors. I think the most cultural aspect of this little neighborhood is the “black music that they are playing right now. Yeah, all night has been hip hop. It is pretty weird, especially in this rather mono-ethnic environment.

Outside my department or the organizaitons such as Black Graduate Students Association or Muslim Student Awareness Network or ISSU, hardly anyone ever speaks to us or bothers to get into a conversation. Outside of some ethnic or religious commanality, there is always some awkwardness in making any bridges. The thing that makes it strange is that I grew up in a well integrated area. I even lived in a multi-racial household. So, I actually am pretty adept at moving back and forth between black worlds and white worlds. But Stanford has this special class divide.

Last Summer while I was in a summer program my lil Brazilian sis and I went to the Lake with our white classmate. This white sister kept saying that she now knew how we felt in all white Middlebury as the only black girls in the program of 120 students. She was not the minority because two of us were black. She stated that she felt awkward when my sis and I were cracking jokes about being ashy. Maybe it is not normalized for them to be the minority, but everyday I cycle through campus, I am aware that I am rather an anomoly. I think that it is an opportunity to learn and develop one’s patience. Perhaps more people should experience that awkward feeling.

Last year, my roommate and I were invited to one of the grad get togethers organized by one of my neighbors. I think two people came up to me and my roomate and tried to strike up some awkward conversation. White students approach the Black Graduate students tables at the student organization fairs all scared. We have offered free water and candy. They will venture near for some water or candy saying something like, “I’m not black but I’d like some water.” I said several times, “Hey you are welcome to some water, just as you are welcome to join us at a number of our events, such as barbecues, meetings, lectures, and cultural events.” I also said, “This organization is open for anybody who is interested in black culture or issues.” They wouldn’t sign up to learn anything about the few black people on campus concentrated in one geographic area. Even at the end of the year BBQ, they would be all scared, and walk by staring. At times, some would come by for a hamburger and scuttle off.

For a long time, I would get annoyed and would want to not think how much race seems to matter to people. But every so often, in unsuspecting moments it comes up. Like the last day I was leaving Durham England and in a brief conversation a British dude told me that because the color of my skin people would treat me differently. Plus, all attempts to touch and comments about my hair. Or asking some old dude the time and him saying “I don’t talk to n—-s.” Or sitting in Arabic class and the teacher pointing out, “Aziza is black, her skin color is black, she’s black black bliggity black” I was irritated, I said, “No, my color is brown.” “I am of African descent” “The name of my people is Black” and they he ignored me and for days to demonstrate colors, he said, “Like Aziza there is no one like her her color is black.” (these are translated from the Arabic) Meanwhile, in Arabic, there are names for people who are tan, people who are fair with blonde hair, and people who are ruddy. So black encompasses a million shades of brown. For a language as subtle as Arabic, I find the lack of distinction between ethnic groups and the infiinite variety in black people very obnoxious. Finally, I looked at the sketches of the suspects who jacked two stanford students. The descriptions and sketches sort of resemble two business school students. So, not only do they have to worry about getting jacked, but they will always be the usual suspects.

Final shady note, one friend pointed out that in white neighborhoods that have those shady XXX video rentals, you will always notice how the black porns are always sold out. So, it sort of makes me wonder about the weird voyaristic fantasies that people have with the “Dark Continent” and peoples of African descent.

Tonight’s party reminds me what a strange world we live in where people seem to love black music, obsessed with black sexuality, and black sports stars, but they don’t like black people. Well, if you don’t try to get to know us as real people with hopes, dreams and aspirations just like you, then you don’t have to humanize us, right?

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6 thoughts on “Race in Academia

  1. “Tonight’s party reminds me what a strange world we live in where people seem to love black music, obsessed with black sexuality, and black sports stars, but they don’t like black people. Well, if you don’t try to get to know us as real people with hopes, dreams and aspirations just like you, then you don’t have to humanize us, right?”
    I remember an excerpt of Comedian Paul Mooney when he took questions from the street and this white guy asked: Why do people walk like this? It was some sort of “bop” he was demonstrating and Paul Mooney’s response (and I don’t generally listen to a bunch of comedians but borrowed a co-workers’ DVD at the time)”Because the black man has style..” and basically everyone wants to imitate the black man and is curious about black people but then disrespect black people. He summed it up by saying “No body wants to be a n***** but everyone wants to be a n*****.” It was unfortunate to use the “n” to describe the ignorance of black people and then use the same “n” to describe the style, culture and attractiveness of being black.

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  2. Wow! That’s deep. As a black person in academia I can relate to the situations you highlighted above. But, I wonder, do you still feel the same way after yet another year steeped in the culture/atmosphere… does it every become second nature? ( maybe this is more of my hope than any clearly defined reality).

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  3. I am the only African-American in my entering class studying African-American literature. Let’s just say this has granted me a degree of intellectual solitude!

    On the other side, I am “visibly” Muslim. I wear long shirts and cover my hair in different styles. For the undergraduates that I teach they feel so comfortable with me (especially if they are Muslim) or talking to me about my religion. Many of my own professors and cohorts don’t really speak to me about “these things.”

    Margari, correct me if I am wrong, but I have felt envy for people in other disciplines like history, sociology, anthropology who seem to not ignore, or be as dismissive of, religion or race as much as literature folk. All of our deconstructionist, secular and post-modern impulses seem to make race and religion taboo in literary studies. A colleague of mine, interested in queer studies, told me, “Why study Af-Am literature. Race is so dead.” Do you get similar sentiments or no?

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  4. Kudos Miss Samira,

    Yes I discovered the true meaning of loneliness and isolation by becoming an academic. Maybe lit studies has taken on post-modernism too much. LIke certain things are real and meaningful in people’s experiences. I think they lean toward solipism, which makes their work irrelevant. On the other hand, what you are doing and who you represent is truly meaningful and transgressive. Oh my gosh, can we slap that colleague, I experience race all the time. They need a rality check. History is a conservative field, and I don’t necessarily think that they have developed adequate ways of studying religion, identitify, and consciousness. Please shoot me an email and remain in contact. It is imperative that we support each other’s work.

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  5. Thank you for the contribution. The academy….that’s all I can say sometimes. As Pierre Bourdieu argues it is a conservative force. It is not the great equalizer, but It reinforces inequalities. It excludes thost who would challenge the assumptions of that privileged group. They let a few in only to further legitimate the system. That gives me reason to be defiant and try harder. It is the reason why I won’t give up, insha’Allah one day I will be on search committee to make sure that we are not excluded because of the color of our skin, our gender, or personal convictions. But I know it is an uphill battle, because I will be subjected to that type of scrutiny. But, for all the hazing I think it is worth perservering. My thoughts and prayers for the sister for remaining strong.

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