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Leah N. Crowder is a doctoral candidate and Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford. In June 2020, she and Mimi Borders founded Black Grad Mentors to connect aspiring Black graduate students with scholars in their field. Leah teaches Introduction to Humanitarian Aid at The University of Arizona, where she is a Visiting Scholar of Human Rights Practice. Connect with Leah on Twitter or LinkedIn.
Note from Leah: This post should not distract from ongoing work against police violence. For a fresh, reliable voice on the abolition movement and the roots of American policing, please follow @MsChelsea_J on Twitter.
I don’t think my colleagues knew or thought about my background until I wrote a think piece on criminology’s race problem. After living through a brutally suppressed uprising in Turkey as an exchange student, I focused my research on the Middle East. Some acquaintances assumed my family was from the region. Most (rightfully) didn’t care. But, surprise! I’m *descendant of slaves and sick of this BS* Black.
Passing in criminology means seeing how people discuss race-dependent issues when they aren’t pushed on questions of anti-Blackness. Four hours before I watched the video of George Floyd’s murder, I sat through two research presentations on how to increase trust and legitimacy in US policing. Race did not come up once. This was right after the murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery sparked nationwide calls to action.
I came up with a list of questions about participant demographics, the collective grief of police violence, police reliance on petty fines from predominantly Black communities, and the impact of mass incarceration on police-community relations. We ran out of time in the Q&A and none of these issues came up.
I do not research any of these issues. They are just part of life in both the United States and the United Kingdom. In a Zoom call full of professional policing, sentencing, and incarceration experts, nobody mentioned that race may be relevant in a conversation about police trust. I do not believe any individual on that call is actively racist. But the collective blind spot made it clear that my academic field reinforces institutional racism.
After I publicly stated my Blackness on the department blog, a few scholars and media outlets asked for my “expert opinion” on how to fix policing in the United States. I declined and referred them to longtime activists because I don’t represent all Black Americans and my work does not focus on US policing. Still, a few white academics replicated my arguments and spoke for the entirety of Black America. They were lauded as “insightful” and “brilliant”.
Nothing in my piece was new or rooted in “expertise.” I repeated the same points we have been making since Black women launched #BlackLivesMatter in 2013. Since LAPD officers beat Rodney King in 1991. Since the NAACP took on Jim Crow in 1909. The people who live this reality are too often left out of the conversation. My cousin, who lived through Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, explained the uprising better than I ever could. Nobody is asking for her expert opinion.
Last month, I was discussing Black liberation texts in an all white reading group. I argued that the revolution the authors discussed will not come from the academy. Instead, it will come from people who are tired of being spoken about and not having any institutional power. Just last month, this was a controversial opinion. Today, people around the world are rising up against the institutions that reinforce oppression, toppling monuments, and burning police precincts known for dehumanizing practices. In Oxford, England, 3,000 people showed up for the first of many Black Lives Matter protests and #RhodesMustFall is trending again.
I am a palatable Black face that, until now, has just been grateful to have a seat at the table. But what is the point of sitting at a table built on the exploited trauma of marginalized communities? Where everyone who got there, myself included, translated human suffering into career progression? Where “giving back” means sending research participants a book copy but doing nothing to address the issues we write about?
At this point, I will probably never have a Black professor. But I have worked with a long list of scholar-activist mentors who encouraged me to translate my anger into both academic work and advocacy. If you want to be that person but you’re not sure how, please read the list of action items I’ve included below.
How non-Black academics can make the ivory tower a little more welcoming:
- Continually open discussions and listen to Black students and faculty before grievances become a collective list of demands.
- Don’t assume that Black students would be better off with mentors who look like them. It is not fair to expect the few Black faculty members to do the unpaid labor of supporting every Black student who comes through the university.
- If students have questions about race in academia that you just can’t answer, refer them to @blkgradmentors for a free one hour discussion. Please try to offer general support first.
- Center Black works and embrace messy discussions about race. Saying the wrong thing can be embarrassing but silence leaves a deeper impact.
- Support your colleagues if they get reported for discussing race in class. This happens frequently and most department heads just tell them to apologize.
- Don’t expect Black students and faculty to be experts on all race-dependent issues. Many of us welcome respectful requests for personal reflections, but a quick google search will get you the statistics you’re looking for.
- If you have ever used the word “oppression” in your research, help dismantle the structures you study. Not as an academic. As a person.