Ethnic Studies Now

19 Dec 2019

In this strong exchange, Frances Negrón-Muntaner (Columbia U.) and Roopika Risam (Salem State U.) discuss why Ethnic Studies now. Negrón-Muntaner discusses how universities approach Ethnic Studies as a threat precisely because Ethnic Studies seeks to overturn the status quo as an “insurrection” from within and without. Roopika Risam continues in the same vein by outlining the imbrication of the university and racial capitalism and declaring the university as we know it “indefensible.”

Frances Negrón-Muntaner | Begins:

For some, Ethnic Studies is an academic discipline; for others, an interdisciplinary field. To me it is neither.

After nearly six decades of non, partial, and peripheral institutionalization, Ethnic Studies simultaneously constitutes a series of intellectual fields, methods of inquiry, theoretical praxes, and political projects with a range of goals. Among these: to affirm the knowledge produced by racialized people in the United States and globally; to upend colonial (including white supremacist) epistemologies, institutions, and power structures; and to generate decolonial narratives, subjectivities, and forms of organization.

Ethnic Studies is also a place-making practice with the capacity to design autonomous and “undisciplined” sites of knowledge production and association. This power is often negatively recognized by the state and academic institutions: Just the discursive “threat” to found Ethnic Studies spaces may trigger formidable resistance. Unsurprisingly, the desire for Ethnic Studies as well as a different university and society frequently takes the shape of actions to occupy, unsettle, and reconfigure physical and discursive institutional space.

Not all Ethnic Studies praxis, however, is equally complex or resonant. This accounts for why some practitioners have incorporated the terms “critical,” “intersectional,” or “decolonial” to describe and distance their work from what can be termed “DEI” (diversity, equity, inclusion) regimes and accommodationist politics. But when pushed to its epistemological and political limits, Ethnic Studies—alongside, and in relation, to other akin post-disciplinary praxes such as decolonial theory, intersectional feminism, and queer of color critique—is insurrectionary. By using the term “insurrectionary,” I mean to underscore that Ethnic Studies is not only a critique of Eurocentric or white supremacist universities but also a transformational praxis that includes the knowing subject, epistemological formations, and social relations more generally.

While according to recent statistics the number of Ethnic Studies job postings is currently on the upswing, both the perceived destructive and constructive potential of Ethnic Studies accounts for its containment in higher education. As evidenced by the two well-publicized denials of tenure to Latinx studies faculty at Harvard and Yale that have galvanized scholars, activists, and students over the last year, this outcome is not due to a lack of information or failure to understand Ethnic Studies as an epistemological and political project. Rather, it comes from understanding it too well. University leaders know that, at its most radical, Ethnic Studies practices aim to make the university incapable of reproducing itself as it is. That is, Ethnic Studies seeks to bring forth a shift in not only who teaches but how, what, and why. It also enacts other forms of belonging and enjoyment, and a refusal to be neatly “arranged” according to the needs of capital and governing elites within and beyond the university.

Accordingly, institutions attempt to restrain Ethnic Studies through formal and informal mechanisms, including the denial of tenure, budgetary restrictions, and the constant vetting of whether a faculty member and their practice is a “good fit” or meets the standards of “academic excellence.” When institutions fail to grant tenure, it is then not really a “failure,” but the result of a modular but effective apparatus built to limit, marginalize, and expel Ethnic Studies faculty.

Of course, as with all power, institutions do not always say “no.” For various reasons, including as a strategy to demonstrate a university’s pluralist values and commitment to inclusivity, some Ethnic Studies faculty, including radical scholars, may be incorporated and even rewarded.  The irony is that one way to quell the insurrectionary possibilities of Ethnic Studies would be to fully institutionalize it in a contained fashion as a discipline of study just as sociology or history. But that is unlikely to happen.

Whereas institutionalization is normalization and therefore subjection, this approach would also mean making significant resources available to people of color for actions conceptualized and led by them. This overtly conflicts with the institutional logic of “opportunity hoarding,” as scholar Lázaro Lima has put it, or the allocation of most assets and prospects to those who are perceived as the best positioned to uphold the prevailing relations of power. Moreover, as Ethnic Studies’ politics seek systemic disruption beyond the national space, greater access to resources may lead to not only more possibilities for “domestic” minorities, territorial subjects, and racialized immigrants but also a greater capacity to collaborate and connect with others at a global scale. For the elite and their institutions, to provide resources to Ethnic Studies is both a “waste” and a risk not worth taking.

At a time when the current order concentrates resources in increasingly fewer hands and imperils all forms of life, Ethnic Studies is insurrection. It is a refusal to be delimited or confined; a desire to learn otherwise; and a daily praxis to live a non-extractive, non-hierarchical, and free existence.

That’s why we need it.

Roopika Risam | Responds:

The university is indefensible.

The university in the U.S. emerged to educate a class of white men to take up self-appointed positions as leaders of a new nation. Complicit in nation-building, the university consolidated national identity and citizenship as the inheritance of whiteness. The university is thus a defender, a creator, and an arbiter of racial hierarchy.

The university cannot be separated from its relationship to settler colonialism, racial capitalism, and enslavement—from its plantation politics. The lands on which the university stands never belonged to the white people who built academic buildings, dormitories, and athletic fields upon them. They remain stolen lands, lands with which Indigenous communities live and lands from which they have been removed and estranged, alienated by the violence and broken promises at the heart of the nation-building project of the U.S. The university built its campuses on lands that were plantations, sites of racial terror and violence. Stolen labor on stolen land generated capital for the university, wealth produced through the oppression of Indigenous and Black people, the essence of racial capitalism.

The university sustained racial capitalism in the U.S. and abroad. Scholars like Craig Wilder, Leslie Harris, and Al Brophy have unearthed these sordid histories of the university. University coffers swelled with the spoils of colonialism and slavery. On Caribbean plantations, enslaved Black people produced capital that was funneled into university endowments. In the U.S., the university profited from what Saidiya Hartman calls the “fungibility” of enslaved Black people, their exploited, uncompensated labor creating profit and serving students, their bodies sold as commodities. All the while, white scholars in the university produced knowledge to ossify the backbone of white supremacy that undergirds the nation.

In this enterprise of knowledge production, born from a dark history, Ethnic Studies provides a critical mediation: the interventions of Ethnic Studies are indispensable because the university is indefensible.

Ethnic Studies, like African diaspora, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian American scholars ourselves, occupies a tenuous position within the university. Vital, necessary, and critical for racial equity and justice in curriculum, faculty composition, and student services, Ethnic Studies becomes institutionalized for managerial directives for “diversity” as it simultaneously threatens to transform the entire operation of the university, as it decenters whiteness. In her piece for this roundtable, Frances Negrón-Muntaner writes with clarity on this issue, of the “insurrectionary” nature of Ethnic Studies and its promise to destabilize ways of knowing and social relations.

Insurrectionary Ethnic Studies is matched by the resistance of African diaspora, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian American scholars who undertake such work in the university. I term this “academic insurgency,” a mode of scholarly practice that emphasizes interdisciplinary scholarship, experiments with genres of composition and modes of communication, engagement with multiple audiences both inside and outside of the university, and continuous negotiation of the relationship between theoretical knowledge and its practical effects on communities that have been systematically minoritized—all in the fight for equity and justice for communities of color. These are the survival tactics forged in the fire of Ethnic Studies, the practices of everyday living deployed by scholars of color simply to exist within the university.

Ethnic Studies, like the insurgents of the academy, has always embodied the maroon traditions of what Stephano Harney and Fred Moten call “the undercommons of the university.” They propose, “In the face of these conditions one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can. To abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony, its gypsy encampment, to be in but not of.” Ethnic Studies and scholars of color alike occupy this bifurcated position—one foot in, one foot out—navigating between complicity in the excesses and exclusions of the university and using entree into that space of privilege to build better worlds. We recognize the power of access to a space where we can create knowledges not on but with our communities, a rejoinder to the knowledge produced about us. Small acts of revolution, indeed, but so threatening to the university that has stolen so much from us.

In the litany of theft that characterizes our relationship to the university—theft of land, theft of labor, theft of our narratives, epistemologies, and ontologies—these tactics are being co-opted by white scholars concerned, of all things, about the continued existence of the university. They advocate for these strategies—Work with communities! Create open access to knowledge! Innovate in method, genre, and publication!—as if these are new, as if they invented them—all to save the university as they know it.

But that’s not the university we know.

When they deploy these strategies, they become the radicals poised to save the university. When we deploy these tactics, which are foundational to Ethnic Studies, we sow the seeds of our own destruction in the university, becoming easy targets for denial of tenure, promotion, hiring. We speak in languages and discursive modes that are confounding to white scholars. We compose in genres they can’t understand. We publish in venues that are not theirs. We value the expertise of individuals and communities they do not see as “academic.” We work double, triple, to meet their standards on their terms while still meeting our own—all to survive in the universities that were never built for us but that we transform by our presence.

Dr. Lorgia García-Peña’s story, therefore, is the story of all of us who work in Ethnic Studies, the story of all scholars of color in the academy. Hers is the story of each of us who have been asked by our evaluators, “Is that really [insert discipline here]?” Who have been told by our departments, “You should be grateful we have two African American literature classes, not just one.” Who have been asked by our colleagues, “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” Who have received student evaluations disputing our command of the English language, even when we’re fluent English speakers. Who have had our right to be in our workplaces and classrooms questioned, not only by our peers and students but by campus police. It’s a story not just of the Ivies but of the deep roots of white supremacy unfurled across institutions of higher education throughout the U.S. and in their global influences abroad. That’s the university we know.

But we should be sowing the seeds of destruction of the university as we know it.

Ethnic Studies, in the insurrectionary mode that Negrón-Muntaner articulates, needs to survive precisely because these are the experiences of scholars of color within the academy. It needs to remain in the “one foot in, one foot out” of the undercommons to resist domestication into the academy’s pallid discourses of “diversity” and “decolonization,” where the presence of scholars of color is tolerated for the optics but not intended to incur transformation of the university itself. The ultimate goal of this work is that it should not need to exist. But it does. We’re a long way from when reparations will be made, when land will be repatriated, when curriculum will be redesigned, when the university will atone for its sins. We’re a long way from when we burn it all down and build back up a transformed university with equity and justice, not racial capitalism, at its center.

Until then, the university remains indefensible, while Ethnic Studies remains vital.

Frances Negrón-Muntaner

Frances Negrón-Muntaner is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, and scholar. She is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Her work focuses on 19th- and 20th-century Caribbean and U.S Latino literatures and cultures; media and popular culture studies; ethnicity and race. Her recent work includes the edited volume Sovereign Acts: Contesting Colonialism Across Indigenous Nations and Latinx America (Arizona 2017), the documentary Life Outside (2016), and the Valor y Cambio (2019) art, digital storytelling and just-economy installation, currently on tour.

Roopika Risam

Roopika Risam is an Associate Professor of Secondary and Higher Education and English at Salem State University. Her research interests lie at the intersections of postcolonial and African diaspora studies, humanities knowledge infrastructures, and digital humanities. She is the author of New Digital Worlds: Postcolonial Digital Humanities in Theory, Praxis, and Pedagogy (Northwestern UP, 2018). Risam is currently working on a book for Johns Hopkins UP recovering the unacknowledged contributions of Ethnic Studies scholars to the emergence of public humanities.