Interrogating our Institutions: Why We Have to Hold Black Studies Accountable

by Ariana Brown

I entered the white world of collegiate education as a first generation college student, a working class AfroLatina. Immediately, I found myself unable to relate to my peers, people who spoke multiple languages because of their “summers in Paris,” not out of necessity; whose parents paid their tuition out of pocket; the children of CEOs, investment bankers, engineers. Feeling erased, I came to Black Studies because I knew I could not survive the next four years without it.

I want to consider the danger of this situation ­-- that I was so thoroughly convinced I could not sustain myself that I invested my spirit and trust in an institution, albeit Black Studies, in the hopes I would earn a supportive community of educators, advisors, and administrators who advocated specifically for my survival, a feat no institution in the history of the United States has ever accomplished or even attempted.

My first few years in Black Studies proved to be thrilling.­ I attended department events, became close with my advisor, and engaged reciprocally with academia for the first time in my life. I entered classroom environments in which Black students were free to learn, laugh, and cry in pursuit of our own liberation. I am now a fifth year senior and my personal relationship with Black Studies began to dissolve in the past year because, thanks to my courses within the department, I started to notice the inequality I am now trained to recognize.

While it may not come as a surprise to some that even within the field of Black Studies, the most privileged members have more power, it came as a blow to me. Aside from general professors’ habits that disadvantage working class Black students, a few things became apparent: courses analyzing the struggles of black men frequently participate in transmisogyny, homophobia, colorism, and sexism; indigenous erasure is a common practice (e.g. statements like, “our oppressors killed all the natives and then oppressed us”); professors often excuse white students’ lazy attempts to engage with the material, which creates hostile learning environments for Black students; and Black Studies has formed the assumption that because it evolved from the most racially oppressed group in the world, it cannot be critiqued for its shortcomings as an institution.

Let’s be real for a minute. Black Studies emerged as an uncompromising student movement in the late 1960s at San Francisco State University. Spurred by exhausted Black students, the Black Studies movement held administrators hostage in campus buildings, installed community members, poets, and activists as professors, and offered free tuition to Black locals.

It is because I have seen the potential of Black Studies when it focuses on Black students, and, to bastardize a James Baldwin quote, because “I love [Black Studies] more than any other [university department] in the world… I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” I ask: H​ow can we begin to draft the framework for liberation when we are being educated by the most privileged members of the oppressed group we belong to? How can we hold these institutions accountable for their lip service to “the struggle” and failure to protect our most vulnerable members? ​H​ow can I, and my dark­ skinned Black classmates, be expected to concentrate on our studies when our department chair is a white-passing non­-ally who insisted our department building be named after him?

This summer, I was accepted to study abroad in Nicaragua. While most study abroad programs are offered through the official university international office, this program was only offered through Black Studies because, as I was told, it was cheaper for students. Once in Nicaragua, I quickly realized that my safety was not a priority for my two male administrators. The study abroad location had been chosen primarily because our department chair’s research was based there, not because it was a safe destination for ten Black female students to study and live for five weeks. After discovering the ceiling of my room and the kitchen where all of our meals were being prepared were infested with rats, and being looked in the eyes while our department chair told my roommates and I, “It will be hard to find a place in this city that doesn’t have rats,” even though he was staying in a different hotel than any of the students, I listened to my gut and booked a return flight home.

For the next two months, I requested a refund for the $5,000 trip, fighting with the department as they ignored my emails and my parents’ phone calls, misinformed me so that I missed deadlines for withdrawing from classes, all the while sending me a clear message: This department of the university does not care about you. You are on your own.

While the department eventually allowed me to keep my scholarships (still putting me out of pocket by about $2,000), I began my final university year dealing with residual trauma from the trip. My experiences included living and showering among rats, having cash thrusted in my face whenever I travelled downtown, and hearing administrators’ remarks that because we were grown women we would receive zero supervision outside of class attendance and field trips. Administrators coddled the one white student on the trip for her Rachel Dolezal aspirations, and I assuaged the multiple panic attacks my roommates faced due to the trip, while feeling unsafe even though I speak Spanish and have travelled abroad before. The apathy of my own Black Studies department was concerning not only to my physical well-being, but my mental and emotional well-being as well.

If we are to critically analyze my experience, we must acknowledge that when Black Studies fails to center student perspectives and address student needs, Black Studies fails us as an institution. If my refund money went to promoting and giving a raise to the study abroad coordinator (which it did), not to investigating the department chair who had oversight on the Nicaragua program, Black Studies has failed. If my classmates’ experiences studying abroad left us feeling so isolated that we are triggered walking by the Black Studies building on campus, Black Studies has failed. If the study abroad program was approved so the department chair could continue his research in Nicaragua, not because it is a secure location with infrastructure to enforce safety and health regulations, Black Studies has failed. If the department discourages conversation and transparency about its intentions while alienating students who disagree with the department’s politics, YO ­­-- who is Black Studies even for?

After my study abroad experience, I personally do not believe I can trust the Black Studies department as a whole on my campus anymore, which has made adjusting to campus life extremely isolating. Even as I write this, I am concerned about the personal backlash I will receive from the department. Because I exist at several intersections ­­-- queer, 3rd generation immigrant, female, non­white passing, working class, -- I have no choice but to insist on a Black Studies which serves the needs of a diverse Black student population, some of whom have less privileges than I and therefore need more protection. Classrooms and curriculum built for Black students should not empower or privilege the administration at the expense of the student, nor should they make us unwelcome in a space that has always been ours.

We must further acknowledge that when Black Studies operates as the subset of an institution and not an institution of the people, black women suffer most,­ especially those of us who have intersectional identities as black women who are also trans, queer, non­-Christian, disabled, undocumented, etc. In this case, Black Studies replicates the systematic oppression of black women globally by reminding us that we are not, and have never been, a priority for those in power, even the leaders in our own communities.

Photo: Shutterstock

Ariana Brown is an Afromexicana writer from San Antonio, Texas. She is majoring in Mexican American Studies and African & African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and is a recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize.

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