A Vision for Scholar-Activists of Color

By John Streamas


By any definition of “bullying,” many white administrators have bullied many faculty of color in recent years. This began with the “culture wars” of the 1980s and has escalated in the Age of Trump. Administrators argue that they are merely maintaining neutrality and fairness, or that they are defending the speech rights of campus fascists. But this makes sense only when they willfully ignore white privilege and preexisting power differentials. I relate one of my experiences of administrative bullying, analyze the cultural context in which campus bigots may freely bully people of color, and offer nine modest proposals for change. Without progress toward racial justice, faculty of color may understandably feel compelled to “bully back.”

View the entire article "A Vision for Scholar-Activists of Color."


“White liberalism, the creator of institutional “diversity,” is no better than a smiley face masking a Klansman’s scowl, and if it continues to prevail in our workplaces, then quite possibly a new movement, not just radical but revolutionary, will express our rage in new demands for justice, demands that, if unmet, may result in violence and burning campuses. The time is now to bully back.”
Thus, concludes the Steamas’ diatribe entitled, “A vision for scholar-activists of color.” Streamas’ activism is obvious throughout his article, but one cannot help but inquire, “where’s the scholarship?” Might it be found in his calling those who disagree with him “bigots,” “racists,” or “fascists?” or perhaps in his sweeping generalizations about "bully-administrators" and their pursuit of noxious and unjust goals like neutrality, fairness, and freedom of speech? Packed with incendiary, but ill-defined, terms, the Streamas’ article creates more heat than light. Riddled throughout with what John Stuart Mill (1859/2002) referred to as the illusion of infallibility, it’s tough to find much in this article to recommend it. Certainly, the conclusion cited above is not a harbinger of serious scholarship.

However, his description of a particularly contentious episode with several academic administrators, contains ideas and issues worth considering. One of his syllabi contained this instruction: “Reflect your grasp of history and social relations by respecting shy and quiet classmates and deferring to the experiences of people of color.” Although administrators explained to him that the word “defer” was the problem, Streamas asserts that the real culprit was his inclusion of the phrase “people of color.” Reluctantly agreeing to make a change to his syllabus, but decidedly not the change his administrative inquisitors expected, Streamas’ instruction was modified to read simply, “…deferring to others’ experiences.” Apparently, no one ever checked on the acceptability of this to the administrators, but Streamas seemed to take pride in his own cleverness.

Streamas had argued, apparently ineffectively, that “defer” was a perfectly innocuous word and appropriate to any academic class. Certainly, the aspect of deference reflecting respect for the experiences and feelings of others would be useful for any seminar. However, there is also a connotation of deference which involves yielding to others the authority to decide or conclude. This is where there’s a problem – those in a discussion have a right to their own experiences, perspectives, and opinions; they do not have a right to their own facts or to reach communal conclusions without the consent of all those in the community. Streamas regularly assigns nefarious motivations to whites in general as well as academic administrators. Arrogantly claiming to know the true motivations of others is an impediment to learning and likely to terminate many potentially enlightening conversations.

One of the most insightful and accessible texts on this subject is Lukianoff & Haidt’s (2018) The Coddling of the American Mind; How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. In it, they introduce three very basic bad ideas: the untruth of fragility (What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker); the untruth of emotional reason (always trust your feelings); and the untruth of us versus them (life is a battle between good people and evil people). These three untruths parade so conspicuously through Streamas' arguments, it’s hard to imagine this is mere coincidence. Streamas’ article provides many examples of the challenges likely to be encountered by those of good will sincerely trying to enhance diversity and inclusion while maintaining traditional higher learning’s academic standards.

Professor Porter: If you bother to look at my citations you'll see Robin Kelley, Harney & Moten, and a collection of essays called Teaching With Tension, and almost all are written by scholars of color. Since you seem to respect only white scholars, my guess is that you would never read these scholars I cite because they aren't white. Your idea of "legitimate" scholarship suggests a universal standard, but a basic challenge of my field--and of people of color generally--is to subvert all assumptions of universalism. It is, after all, the standard of universalism that underwrites colonization and racism. As for the word "defer," I brought to my meeting with administrators a good dictionary and read from it. The dictionary supports my usage. These administrators, however, completely ignored the dictionary and embraced the definition given them by Fox News--which is very close to your sense of the word. I am an educator, and the administrators were propagandists for Fox. And Fox presumes to know what's best for us people of color, as do the administrators, as do you. We're sick of "great white daddies" telling us what we need. In fact, what we really need is for the "great white daddies" to stop blaming victims and start cleaning their own house.

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