What’s Wrong with Dead White Dudes?

In May 2016, just as Fanning Hall at Connecticut College was occupied by student protestors, students at Seattle University occupied an administrative building in what The Seattle Times characterized as a protest against “too many dead white dudes” in the curriculum. The article quotes a protester saying, “We came here for a liberatory education…We want to be represented, we deserve to be represented, all students deserve to hear a narrative that’s not just white.”

Responding to the protest, the President of Seattle University put out a letter to acknowledge the students’ “very real pain and feelings of being marginalized” and promised to take steps to “make our campus a more welcoming and inclusive community.” The President’s statement seems to have little to do with the complaints of the occupiers, which were not about their “real pain” and “feelings of being marginalized,” but about a very concrete thing – a white curriculum. Either the problem was a white curriculum, or the problem was that the students had gotten their feelings hurt. In the first case, the President could just apologize for his mistake and change the white curriculum, while in the second case the President could acknowledge pain and offer hugs but had nothing to apologize for since he was not at fault. The confused mix of apology and denial in the President’s response didn’t take either stance but was actually designed to appease protesters while refusing to make the changes they demanded, framing their problems as imagined, emotional or psychological.

Corporate responses like the above take an important question off the table. Is the only problem with a white curriculum the fact that it “pains” minority students? In other words, is a white curriculum intellectually the best one, needing to be supplemented only because minority students “feel marginalized” by it? Or are there intellectual weaknesses in having an all-white curriculum? Clearly, the President of Seattle University thought the former, which is why he thought diversity would make the university a more “welcoming community” but didn’t realize that a more diverse curriculum would actually do more. It would make education more rigorous.

There is a dangerous assumption underlying the President’s reasoning, which is this: the only reason to diversify a curriculum is to make minorities feel at home, not to actually make the curriculum better for all.

The podcast “Decolonising the Academy” offers a beautifully crafted challenge to this notion. Discussing the Rhodes Must Fall movement of early 2016 at Oxford University, organizer Dalia Gebrial notes that when students demand diverse curricula, universities automatically reach for their diversity manuals, not understanding that the demand is not for better representation of difference but for a total restructuring of the academic content. Robbie Shilliam, professor of International Relations at the University of London, elaborated, saying that the demand is not to “dumb down” the curriculum, remove all the things white thinkers teach to students, and simply pander to students of color at the expense of any real learning. Shilliam’s explanation is worth quoting at length:

“You got one week and you wanted to understand capitalism, right? If you put a liberal thinker in, you’d understand a liberal take on capitalism. If you put a Marxist thinker in, you will understand a liberal and a Marxist take on capitalism. If you had one week to do gender, put Angela Davis in, you would understand in that one week race and gender. If you put W.E.B. DuBois in the one week you have to do capitalism, you’d understand capitalism and race. If you had one week to do humanism and you put Fanon in there, you’d understand colonialism and humanism. So these arguments about “we haven’t got enough time” and “the canon is too small” are all spurious…when you reveal this kind of white supremacy, in the domain especially of theory, what happens is they [supporters of white curricula] suddenly realize or they get an inkling that their capital, their cultural capital, their intellectual capital as theorists is extremely compromised…they start to feel very provincial.”

Shilliam makes it clear that deeper intellectual engagement, coverage of broader scope of issues, and smarter students are to be produced through diverse curricula. This underscores the fact that knowledge produced from the margins must necessarily and always engage with mainstream theory in the process of going beyond it. It seems that the problem with a diverse curriculum is not the dumbing down of content, but the inability of teachers of “the canon” to teach anything beyond the canon and the resultant loss of their authority in universities.

On Wednesday, Nov. 30 I attended the American Studies Faculty, Student and Staff Seminar for a book discussion of The Intimacies of Four Continents by Lisa Lowe. This event exemplified the way in which “diversity,” both that of intellectual content but also that of faculty, is not an add-on to good thinking, teaching and learning but in fact the way to make academic engagement more rigorous.

Professors Rijuta Mehta and Francisco Robles from English, Elizabeth Reich from Film Studies and Sheetal Chhabria from History served as discussants for Lowe’s book. The event description read: “In this uniquely interdisciplinary work, Lisa Lowe examines the relationships between Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth- centuries, exploring the links between colonialism, slavery, imperial trades and Western liberalism. Reading across archives, canons and continents, Lowe connects the liberal narrative of freedom overcoming slavery to the expansion of Anglo-American empire.” Director of American Studies and seminar organizer Prof. James Downs concurred, saying that the book had set a new tone of thinking more globally about America.

Responding to the way the book was framed as “uniquely interdisciplinary” and “new,” Chhabria began the discussion by saying that Lowe’s argument was not new to scholars of the colonial and postcolonial world, and that Lowe was not the first to discover that slave labor from Africa and indentured labor from Asia were historically connected. “The British knew their colonies were connected to each other,” she offered simply. “Imperialism was the foundation of globality.” She continued to say that global interconnectedness, both past and present, only seems new to us today because we take nation-states and national histories to be natural, forgetting that nations are new inside a globality or world-making process that is much older.

She drew vigorous nods from the other discussants as she spoke. Robles agreed, adding that the book made important but old interventions in the progressive story of slavery to abolition to freedom, reiterating that freedom always comes with unfreedoms and that abolition leads to new unfreedoms. He guessed that the book had been hailed as novel mostly because this may be the first time that an American Studies audience was reading an American history that was connected to the “rest of the world.”

A powerful intervention was already at play in the first ten minutes of the discussion as the presence of scholars well versed in insurgent fields like postcolonial studies, Black Marxism and Latino studies established the trajectory of the discussion. Chhabria and Reich offered that the book was new in how explicitly and well it connected Black Marxism to anti-colonialism. Mehta mentioned the centrality of the laboring body as a new contribution of the book, while also critiquing its characterization and use of C. L. R. James and feminist scholarship. The discussants contextualized, challenged and historicized the knowledge-production that the book engaged in; moving beyond simple or singular analyses and refusing to simply get in line to celebrate the book as new and revolutionary, they brought out the insights and tensions present in the text.

Not only students but even faculty from more mainstream fields seemed to be benefitting from the way in which a critical, rigorous and intellectually productive conversation was modeled. One of the main benefits of the event seemed to be the way in which conversations between scholars of different disciplines illuminated tensions between the disciplines themselves. For example, the Euro-American centrism of American Studies came up in many ways in the conversation. Having a critical mass of faculty who worked in non-mainstream fields in the academy gathered in a room together was important in bringing this out. There were several comments, most by Americanists, which focused most on how surprising the argument was, how wonderfully evidence was used, and how fascinating the connections demonstrated were. But these remained outliers in a conversation that, thanks to the discussants, quickly became a debate about issues like the book’s treatment of indigeneity, labor, liberalism, sexuality and the family, evidence, and so forth.

It was clear how “the cutting edge” of one field may be old news in others. Indeed, Downs, recognizing the historical conservatism and myopia of American Studies, seemed earnest in the attempt to “just be in a seminar room with my colleagues and learn from them,” both personally and as program director. It was heartening to note that at several points, the discussants were asked to provide suggestions for reading to colleagues from more traditional fields. It went to show very clearly that “diversifying” the faculty and investing in scholars from marginalized backgrounds and fields did not at all reduce Conn’s academic quality but intensely enhanced it.

As Susan Sturm notes in her article on Full Participation, increasing faculty diversity and support for socially conscious scholarship leads to greater student successes, deeper community engagements and more inclusive pedagogies. To repeat, scholars who rigorously engage power produce excellent educational outcomes. Even beyond these effects, it was clear from the seminar that faculty diversity is crucial to the intellectual standards of the faculty as a whole, as well as the bar for academic excellence at the College.

Downs explained that “over the years, there have been efforts on campus that focus on teaching, which is an enormous part of our work, but teaching does not exist in isolation of scholarship…There are few places on campus reserved exclusively for intellectual production.” A number of interdisciplinary programs are struggling to create spaces of intellectual engagement as a refuge from the constant administrative and bureaucratic settings that the College often thrusts faculty and students into. CCSRE, GWS and area studies programs are reworking and rethinking themselves to become robust intellectual hubs. As these attempts unfold, it will be critical to remember that interdisciplinarity is not the defining feature of a better intellectual climate. In fact, anti-disciplinarity may be more important. Critical, anti-canonical reading, scholarship, faculty and syllabi will correspond directly with more rigorous, longer-lasting, not to mention more socially conscientious intellectual and academic outcomes for institutions of higher education and all their constituents.  

The event was one of the few on campus not catered directly to students and yet about ten showed up. Downs noted that “there is also a virtue in students listening to faculty debate, disagreeing and learning from each other. It’s how we as scholars work, and I think if they see us in action more, they will not feel so infantilized in class but rather see themselves as partners in the production of ideas and questions. They will have a more sophisticated way of engaging their coursework.” “I would love to see a faculty seminar count as both a course for both faculty and students,” he continued. Such a day might yet be far, but for now it is good to have intellectual conversations happening on campus, especially those which decenter the pervasive white supremacy of theory and academia, and make it clear that “diversity” is not an antidote to the pain of minorities but to the provincialism and parochialism of an all-too-white curriculum.