I swear I’m a good student, but in this particular class we were playing Bingo. Granted, not an overly well-recognized form of Bingo; instead of numbers we used words like Black, African-American, Womanism, Womanist, Racism, White Supremacy, Oppression, Woman, Feminist, Stereotype.
In this lecture, we were discussing womanist thinker Emilie Townes’ book “Womanist Ethics and the Social Production of Evil,” and I was infuriated. We crossed three squares off our bingo cards during the three-hour lecture.
My professor was using a major womanist thinker’s work, whose main thesis was that womanism, through its attention to the particularity and diversity of the oppressions against black women in America, finds a humanity that is shared among all people and can only be accessed when we work through our own individual particularities. My professor used this thesis without even a casual mention of the particularity of the experience of black women expressed in the book, or the particularity that gave rise to this thesis.
During the discussion of a book focused on how portrayals of black women in America rely on stereotypes imbued with racism and degradation, only once was the word “race” mentioned. In a discussion of a book that explores how those stereotypes constitute and facilitate systemic and personal racism, only once was the word “racism” mentioned. Only once, during the entire lecture, was the word “womanism” mentioned.
Despite the obvious absurdity of this specific example, this type of colonized scholarship is not rare or frowned upon. Rather, it is the process by which privileged academia, academics, and culture mine the work of marginalized communities for its ‘worth’, ‘usability’ and ‘evidence’ that fit into prefabricated ideas – despite the fact that those works gain much of their meaning from the specific context in which they were created.
This lack of appreciation for the context-specific thought process – and for the implications of white scholars swooping to steal the fruits of those thought processes for the purposes of their own research – is astounding. What does it mean when the only black woman author on our course syllabus is spoken of exclusively in generalities? What does it mean that the one author whose background we didn’t examine was a black woman?
For each of the old white men we studied, we were provided with the contextual backdrop of their historical socio-academic setting. Yet when we came to the experience of black women in America, this context was deemed irrelevant. Why is it that we can take their conclusions and assume we understand the process by which it was reached? Because as white academics, we seem to think we can understand and represent these communities within our work.
This focus on the end product is a hallmark of white patriarchal thought. It is the fruits, the fungible and saleable products that carry weight – not the relational journey of consciousness that led to the creation of that thought. As members of a powerful group, we have the privilege of being able to easily assess ideas that fit our contexts. The struggle born of creating ideas that run against white cultural hegemony is one that white academics will not share.
A recent cultural example, the Harlem Shake craze, is just another example of how white culture takes the product and negates the history of its origin. As Melissa Harris-Perry so aptly articulates, what was being represented in the Harlem Shake viral videos is not the actual Harlem Shake. The Harlem Shake has a history embedded in the history of black persons and persons of colour in New York. Just as Townes’ work was forced into the white academic mould by my professor, the Harlem Shake’s title, with its urban & historical cred, was capitalized on by communities that had no idea – or couldn’t care less – about the process of its creation.
The source of ideas matters. Unlike the seemingly random appearance of the dancers in the defiantly-not-the-Harlem-Shake videos, ideas are the product of circumstance, context, resistance, power, and struggle. Telling the story of where they come from means respect that source. It is not enough to take their end products and slot them into our own ideas.