Without Black Studies, what would we know of black protest of Jim Crow, slave revolts (and white suppression of records of these revolts), or the medical exploitation of black and brown bodies? Who would chronicle not just the struggle, but the achievements, creativity, and joys of black lives and experiences? Do naysayers really imagine white scholarship, on its own, has given an honest account on these topics? Or are such accounts simply irrelevant to them?
If anything is intellectually fraudulent, it’s scholarship that, consciously and not, excludes POC scholars or ignores race and ethnicity as categories of analysis. We all, white people included, need Ethnic Studies. Both academic scholarship and our understanding of the world are better, more honest, more robust with them than otherwise.
None of this is to say that black studies is perfect. Like many academic disciplines, it can be deeply bound to “traditional” approaches that marginalize scholarship from or about women, queer, and/or trans people. But it’s also the case that substantive critiques of Black Studies by scholars who take race and racism seriously (i.e., not Sowell and Steele) already exist. That critics are wholly ignorant of both the contributions and critiques of Black Studies is an example of what Spelman anthropologist Erica L. Williams describes as the “emotional labor” PoC scholars “must perform … beyond our job descriptions” and not just in the humanities. The considerable stresses of educating and producing scholarship are compounded by the suspicion and racial hostility PoC scholars routinely face.
PoCs are constantly expected to be emotional midwives to white people. Attempts to claim space or identity for ourselves—without deference to whiteness—are inevitably met with suspicion, anger, fear, and guilt (witness white anger over the President’s racial self-identification). We’re expected to have a conversation on race and racism that centers and assuages white emotions, to speak about race in terms and frameworks that are neither by, for, or ultimately about us. What little space we’re afforded in mainstream media is taken up with 101-level education, demands that we justify our existence, and prove the merit of our perspectives and accomplishments beyond the shadow of a doubt. White critics and, occasionally, other people of color, often feel a casual entitlement to pass judgment on PoC narratives of our own experiences, and on our scholarship, without putting in the effort to learn about or engage with either.