Saturday, February 24

Misinterpretation of professors’ tweets leads to accusations of racism


It’s been a tumultuous year for American society, especially with a series of race-related and racially-motivated incidents that have rocked suburbs and communities around the country. We have been forced to reconsider the salience of race and how that affects what it means to be American.

That these incidents have been occurring with astonishing regularity also means that sociologists, especially those who focus on race – such as myself – have been having something of a field day, as the topics and phenomena we study, be it affirmative action, police brutality or mass incarceration among communities of color, are being articulated in real time as incidents occur and the lawsuits unfold.

Naturally, when the subject matter of something that is being covered nationally in the media happens to be in your academic purview, you get excited. So, many academics have taken to Twitter to express their ideas through sharing links, research and delivering commentary – all in 140-character blurbs. Also naturally, when your ability to opine on issues as complex as institutional racism and race relations in the United States is limited to a few sentences at a time – condensed from thousands of pages of reviewed scholarship and journal articles that are between 20 to 50 pages long – lots of things get lost in translation.

Which is exactly what has happened to two black, female sociologists of race – Saida Grundy and Zandria Robinson. Of Boston University and the University of Memphis, respectively, both have been embroiled in Twitter controversies over expressing what mainstream America thought was “race-baiting” and “racist” commentary but sociologists and African American scholars see as social scientific consensus. Their experiences tell us how great the social and intellectual distance is between the so-called “ivory towers” of academe and the Average Joes and Jills in the Midwest or Deep South – and most importantly, how truly awful Twitter is as a platform of expressing complex and multilayered sociological theories, regardless of profession or ideology.

Grundy, a new hire at BU, was forced on the defense late May for her Twitter comments about race in America; most notably, she labeled young white males a “problem population” and explained that all whites bear some responsibility for the long-abolished institution of slavery. It does not take much explaining to see how these tweets were seen as outrageous or outright racist to some people, especially conservative bloggers. However, the concepts she talks about are uncontroversial and have been widely accepted for decades among sociologists. By “problem,” she presumably meant that white men (think fraternity brothers) are standard bearers of both race and gender privilege and unless they are able to frankly acknowledge and work toward dismantling social systems that afford said privilege, they are not working toward creating a more just society.

As with slavery, the abolition of such has not eliminated startling inequalities between black and white America; in addition, the non-consideration of African Americans as persons 150 years ago and continued discriminatory policies (such as redlining) means that African Americans, as a group, own significantly less in assets.

That BU administrators momentarily caved in to accusations of hate speech and thought that Grundy’s tweets, which are admittedly unwieldy and lacking nuance, required censorship puts the protections of academic freedom in question – similar to the Steven Salaita controversy, where the then-University of Illinois professor-to-be’s job offer was retracted after backlash toward his inflammatory commentary regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the 2014 conflict in the Gaza Strip. Grundy has since closed her Twitter account, though her position is intact.

More recently, Zandria Robinson was the subject of a similar controversy because of her comments following the shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C. As with Grundy, she is also a woman of color who studies race whose comments were fodder for the conservative outrage” machine. Her outrage-inducing soundbites? Tweets that “Whiteness … is terror” and that when “whiteness is all white folk have left as property … racial terror + paranoia rises.” In an twist of confusion, however, people thought she had been fired by her former institution in Tennessee, which delighted her detractors. Only when she issued clarifications – also on Twitter – through an interlocutor did people figure out that, no, she had gotten a new job at another school.

To break down her comments like with Grundy’s: In the first, she talks about the oppression of living through social discrimination and institutional racism in white-dominated society that few whites can lay claim to experiencing. Her second claim is a contemporary articulation of UCLA law professor and pioneering critical race theorist Cheryl Harris’s seminal article on the material ownership of whiteness as a tangible expression of privilege and power. Though heavily cited in academe and even a source of pride for UCLA, Harris’s theory is undoubtedly controversial.

When acts of unthinkable violence and tragedy, like the Charleston shooting, occur among minority communities, it is completely reasonable that individuals who identify with and experts who study the community express their thoughts. So it is a bit unsettling that minority women like Grundy and Robinson are being chastised or even censored by administrators or by fragile whites – the very figments of society that they seek to critically understand.

But maybe, above all, they teach us a simple lesson regardless of profession, ideology, or creed: Even if you have a good point, don’t write stuff on the Internet that will be grossly misinterpreted.

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