Ethnic Studies in the Face of the Liberal Hydra

15 Jan 2020

In this final installment for the Ethnic Studies Rise roundtable, Nelson Maldonado-Torres (Rutgers U and Fanon Foundation) and Yomaira Figueroa-Vásquez (Michigan State University) situate Ethnic Studies in longer histories of struggle for justice in and outside of the U.S. academy, and against the white supremacy and Eurocentrism of the modern university. They foreground the marginalization of Ethnic Studies scholars and curricula in the university and highlight the potential of ethnic studies scholars and women of color feminists to decolonize the university.

Nelson Maldonado-Torres | Writes:

Any decent history of the university in the United States, and indeed in the Western world, will have to count Ethnic Studies as one of the most original and influential contributions of the U.S. academy to the array of fields and sciences that constitute the modern Western university. Likewise, any decent history of the university in the United States will have to count the academy’s response to the constructive challenges posed by Ethnic Studies as one of the greatest failures of the U.S. university.

There was a reason why students in the Third World Liberation Front proposed the creation of Third World Colleges, instead of only departments of Ethnic Studies, in the late 1960s. Something along the lines of a Third World College could have been in a potentially better position to face the coloniality of university education, including the liberal arts and sciences, where Ethnic Studies have been for the most part located. For, what the students found was that emancipation from slavery, the Civil Rights struggle, and the various revolts against settler colonialism and coloniality were incomplete without major innovations in college education and research, among other areas. They also believed that neither conservatism nor liberalism were well-equipped or prepared to take the lead in the needed transformations. They discovered that education remained largely an education for whites and from the point of view of their white ancestors. Thus, from this perspective, the arts and sciences could have been better referred to as “white arts and sciences,” making the creation of a new school needed alongside the effort to decolonize the existing arts and sciences.

The struggles of indigenous peoples, African Americans, and other people of color in the U.S. include facing the imposition of Western schooling—for the purpose of eliminating indigenous languages and knowledges, for instance—total exclusion from schooling, limitation of schooling to practical and vocational education, and various forms of segregation, including in education. The early cases against school segregation in California such as Alvarez vs. Owen in 1931 and Mendez vs. Westminster in 1946, as well as the landmark decision of the Supreme Court in the 1954 case of Brown vs. Board of Education in Kansas, opened up a door, the ramifications of which are still seen today.

Looking back, it should not be a mystery that college campuses became sites of students of color actions a decade or so after Brown vs. Board of Education and after scenes such as Dorothy Counts entering Harding High in North Carolina in 1957. For, it was not only bodies of color who were now entering the privileged spaces of white education, but also their minds, memories, aspirations, questions, and concerns. The stage was set for a confrontation between a system of education founded on racial liberalism, and students that would get to directly experience the contradictions and hypocrisies of liberalism and of the up to now established liberal arts and modern Western research and education framework.

Today, the demands of generations of students of color are arrested by an impasse between racial conservatism, racial neoliberalism, and racial liberalism. One is invested in “making America white again,” as the late Toni Morrison put it, another on reducing public goods, particularly when and where the public becomes increasingly composed of people of color, and the other on justifying ideas of excellence that keep demands for changes at bay and protect what Gloria Wekker and others refer to as white innocence. The three ideologies (racial conservatism, racial neoliberalism, and racial liberalism) are in tension as much as they also work together against three rallying cries from minoritized sectors: desegregation, reparations, and decolonization—of bodies, structures, symbols, and knowledge. These cries come together in the idea and search for decoloniality, which, in line with Ethnic Studies, is also an unfinished project that counters racial conservatism, racial liberalism, and racial neoliberalism in the academy and beyond. This gift of communities of color cannot but represent a threat and a poison to the racial liberal academy, including the arts and sciences.

It is therefore no mystery either that college campuses, which conservatives consider excessively liberal, also seem to be “excessively” racist, by which I mean that they have become some of the most prominent spaces where one finds vulgar racism and affirmations of white supremacy—e.g., most dramatically recently at Syracuse University. Contrary to the presumptions of the liberal establishment, and as generations of students of color have suggested, if not made explicit, vulgar racism is not some kind of unique and strange experience for them, but rather a natural extension of their day to day life in dorms, libraries, and classrooms. Faculty of color arguably have similar experiences in their day to day activities and interactions in department meetings, exchanges with Deans and senior administrators, and even in their own classrooms. It adds insult to injury when the collective achievements of students and faculty of color are then taken by universities to showcase their alleged success, when some of these very students have to drop because they can no longer pay for school, or when faculty are easily dismissed or denied tenure after they make titanic efforts to maintain their intellectual and ethical integrity in the highly racialized space of the academy. However, what is an injury to them is taken as pure consistency by academic leaders. The claim of consistency cannot be denied: the consistency of liberalism, the liberal arts, and the predominant modern Western approaches to knowledge production to contain and keep at bay demands for desegregation, reparations, and decolonization of bodies, structures, symbols, and epistemologies that emerge from the imperatives and vision of Ethnic Studies and decoloniality.

While conservatives complain about liberals, and liberals oppose what they see as narrow views of conservatives at universities, it is arguably liberals who keep the door open for the most racist forms of conservatism to return in force. They partly do this through actions that go from rejection to containment and commodification of intergenerational demands by students and faculty of color in their universities. In the last presidential elections, Cornel West described the difference between the two candidates for the presidency, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, as one between a “neoliberal disaster” and a “neofascist catastrophe.” While political liberalism and academic liberalism are not exactly the same, one cannot but wonder if the distinction between disaster and catastrophe also applies to the dynamics between conservatives and defenders of liberal education and knowledge production at university campuses.

The blindness of the university as a whole is linked to its hubris and arrogance. As the most recognized institution that fosters knowledge and promotes civility in modern nation-states, the university is conceived as both rooted in (liberal) traditions that must be preserved and also as always ahead of its time. It is therefore anchored in a glorious past that must be assumed, not questioned, and already presumed to exist in a future to which everyone must catch up. In this context, the voice, views, and demands of the racially disenfranchised are seen as doubly undisciplined and erratic: they are viewed as if they have suffered the past, more than made any significant history of their own, and considered therefore to live in large ignorance and resentment. At the same time, this view of their ignorance and resentment makes them considered ill candidates to lead anyone to the future, as they are traumatized and stuck in the past as a result. Instead, they have to be led to the future that can only be achieved through disciplining into the racial liberal order of being/power/knowledge. It is believed that the university is the premier institution through which this mutation can be achieved.

Ethnic Studies, when it has preserved its emancipatory impetus, has always been and must continue to be something beyond “ethnic studies.” I have proposed conceiving Ethnic Studies as a form of decolonial transdisciplinarity—see the wonderful special issue on the 50th anniversary of Ethnic Studies in the Ethnic Studies Review co-edited by Xamuel Bañales and Leece Lee-Oliver. The “trans” indicates both the transgression and the transcendence of established disciplines, while decoloniality points to commitments with the projects of desegregation, reparations, and decolonization without which knowledge production remains skewed and racism rampant in universities and contemporary societies.

Ethnic Studies must lead the way to more comprehensive and demanding meanings of excellence and to epistemic justice. In order to do this, we cannot be satisfied with only asking for the creation and integration of Ethnic Studies in the established humanities or social sciences. We should consider other possibilities such as creating new and strongly supported schools, hubs, centers, and institutes for decolonial and transdisciplinary projects along the lines of what the Third World Liberation Front conceived of as Third World Colleges and demonstrating the strategic priority of Ethnic Studies by having strong undergraduate and graduate degrees in multiple Ethnic Studies and intersectional areas, among other efforts. The goal is not to keep a new College, institutes, or a strengthened Ethnic Studies in isolation, but rather to put them in the position to help infuse the entire arts and sciences and the university with central questions in Ethnic Studies and related areas like women of color feminisms and relevant artistic and social movements. The strategies of prioritizing diversity initiatives in traditional fields and putting Ethnic Studies in second place, or having Ethnic Studies negotiate arrangements with other areas as a condition for tenure lines or resources, are as misguided as they are inefficient. They also often pretend to hide a more sustained strategy of containment and perpetual epistemic minoritization.

The needed changes cannot be achieved by Ethnic Studies students and scholars alone. It will also require leadership from Presidents, Chancellors, Deans and other senior administrators. They will have to be committed to creating a new ethos of innovation at their universities. For this, they will have to be open for a critical engagement with the established rankings, instead of guiding some of their most important decisions on that basis. The reason is simple: the established rankings of disciplines for the most part exclude Ethnic Studies areas, and, more importantly, they tend to reflect established criteria for productivity and excellence in scholarly work that fails to properly consider the critical implications of the knowledge that is produced in and through Ethnic Studies and related fields. The coloniality of the rankings often combine with the coloniality of racial liberalism to maintain the status quo. Neither the rankings nor a questionable desire to defend racial liberalism in face of conservatism and neoliberalism should be used as an excuse for failing to respond to intergenerational students and faculty demands for a better education and more critical knowledges.

As I have pointed out elsewhere, university leaders and defenders of the liberal arts and sciences will do well to realize that supporting the vision of Ethnic Studies might be one of the best possible tools in the academy against the increasing force and presence of neofascism in the U.S. and other parts of the globe. It is time to seriously consider the idea that liberalism does not provide an effective response against fascism, neofascism, or apartheid; rather, it is entangled and maintains serious continuities with it. Liberalism writ large creates impediments to post-genocidal and decolonial projects and initiatives in the form of disruptions, divisions, cooptations, and permanent delays. For this reason, while liberals often feel moral superiority over fascists, sometimes it is not clear whether fascism is a form of high intensity liberalism, or whether liberalism is a low intensity expression of a fundamental fascism. How else to explain the indifference to dispossession and murders, land theft, constant displacement, colonialism, and the perpetual war over bodies of color in the modern Western liberal order? And how to interpret the persistence of the idea that colonization brought civilization? Ethnic Studies emerged as part of a rallying cry against this order. Therefore, it is not coincidence that it is often perceived as a threat.

Liberalism and the liberal order of knowledge in the academy have to change and become something else. They can start doing this by providing serious support to a plurality of visions and projects that seek to explore and to oppose the deep roots of fascism and coloniality in the modern world. These visions and projects need to substantially engage, if not directly emerge from, the intergenerational and intersectional struggle of the dispossessed. This can be a form of starting to assume responsibility for settler colonialism, for colonialism, and for a long history of minoritization of multiple groups. It can also be a way to responsibly respond to demographic changes in the U.S., among other geopolitical spaces in the Global North, in the 21st century. All of this points to a substantial engagement with the vision and mission of Ethnic Studies in the academy. This vision and mission, grounded in struggles for emancipation and decolonization in the U.S. and across the Global South, including the south in the north, and oriented by the desire for “building the world of you,” to cite Frantz Fanon, continue to be offered as part of the solution. It is time to take Ethnic Studies’ fields and projects with the seriousness that they deserve.

Along with efforts to eradicate neofascism and to challenge racial neoliberalism, including the increased costs of education, this rethinking of the university with and through Ethnic Studies—to paraphrase Johnella Butler’s view of Ethnic Studies in her splendid anthology about it, as well as to evoke Sylvia Wynter’s view of the New Studies and the much needed overcoming of Western modern/colonial humanism—could help make university campuses the intellectual homes and engines of excellence in knowledge production and creativity that they should be. Why not come together and join forces in the support of the Ethnic Studies imperative and its vision of what South African student activists have called a “free and decolonised” education for an-other university, an-other society, and an-other world?

Yomaira C. Figueroa-Vasquez | Responds:

Responding to this post is thrice a labor of love. By taking on this task I acknowledge the role of Ethnic Studies as a transformative transdisciplinary and transnational project, I align myself with Lorgia García Peña and those who stand beside her decrying the unjust and egregious treatment she has received at Harvard University, and I respond in kind to the words of my advisor and mentor, Nelson Maldonado-Torres, who first introduced me to Ethnic Studies as a field of research and liberatory practice as a graduate student.


In his post, Maldonado-Torres traces the histories of the Western Euro-centric neoliberal university, the fight for Ethnic Studies by students in the 1960s, and the continual battle to bring the histories and struggles of people to the fore of movements for justice and self-determination. These students, and generations of students since, recognized that it was not them, their families, their communities, or their ancestors who lacked value, the capacity for humanity, and generosity. Instead, it was the violence of Western society, born and sustained through coloniality, that was the “decadent” and “dying civilization” and therefore ill equipped to solve the problems of its own creation, as Aimé Césaire so eloquently argued in “Discourse on Colonialism”. Maldonado-Torres points out that “Contrary to the presumptions of the liberal establishment […] vulgar racism is not some kind of unique and strange experience.” Instead, students of color experience such racism as “a natural extension of their day to day life in dorms, libraries, and classrooms.” Faculty of color, by extension, “arguably have similar experiences in their day to day activities and interactions in department meetings, exchanges with Deans and senior administrators, and even in their own classrooms.” This keen observation does not even account for those in our communities and families who do not and cannot inhabit these spaces of privilege within the ivory tower.

What’s more, many Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other scholars of color who come to the university from non-elite socioeconomic sectors contend with both the covert and overt racism of the institution and the systemic and state-sponsored racism of society writ large. The dissonance between the liberal elitism and conservative racism of the university and the scholar who was never meant to survive in those spaces (or any space), is precisely why Ethnic Studies is more than a political demand or transdisciplinary area of study. Ethnic Studies is a lifeline, an insurgent emancipatory project, a mode of survival in the fullest sense, and a necessary practice that, should it be taken seriously within the self-proclaimed hallowed halls of educational institutions and their innumerable administrators and leaders, would lead to a transformation of knowledge itself and enable liberatory political and social projects to be undertaken in earnest with the seriousness they deserve.

Sylvia Wynter, Maldonado-Torres, and others have long-argued that Ethnic Studies is a heretical intellectual and political practice that questions and decenters the foundational mythologies of the Western arts and sciences and of Western man who has overrepresented himself as The Human and as the sole model of modern progress and humanity (relegating all others to a sublimated derivative status). As Maldonado-Torres’ essay shows, the heresy of questioning the mandates of the neoliberal modern/colonial order has been met with much resistance and often vitriol from both “liberal” and “conservative” institutional stakeholders. Furthermore, as Wynter has noted, Ethnic Studies has found itself placed philosophically, as well as in policy and in practice as vestibular to the university. In addition to many existing departments and programs being placed at the edges of the university (and in cramped quarters), Ethnic Studies also is treated as a peripheral endeavor or as an invasive pathogen that will necessarily rot and die through a designed process of resource starvation, hostility, and neglect. While Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other scholars of color are asked to join the ranks of the professoriate at various institutions, often through the demands of students of color protesting, they are subsequently asked to attend to a myriad of problems, projects, and initiatives that leave them overworked and undervalued. If and when these faculty burn out, leave these institutions, or are denied tenure, the existing problems that were never really systemically addressed in the neoliberal university are then presented to a new slate of faculty to “solve.” This is a deadly and seemingly endless cycle, and we know of too many examples of universities leading to the premature death and mental and physical collapse of faculty of color in general and of women of color in particular.


As a first-generation working-poor Afro-Puerto Rican undergraduate student at Rutgers University I gravitated toward English, Women’s & Gender Studies, and Puerto Rican and Hispanic Caribbean Studies because in each of these units I found critical threads for understanding the histories of my family and communities, as well as new ways of understanding the world at large. In these classes I found myself able to articulate and understand the experiences of injustice, racism, histories of dispossession, and the theories, politics, and practices of women of color feminists. The content of these courses resonated with me because they enhanced what I knew so intimately, what I had experienced first-hand. In English, while there was a strong emphasis on the European and white American canon, I was able to find refuge in the many African American literature courses offered. In Puerto Rican Studies I was able to excavate more fully why I came to grow up in the tenements and public housing projects of Hoboken, NJ to a “multi-racial” family, the daughter of two immigrants from the colony of Puerto Rico. I was able to trace how my siblings were tracked out of educational attainment and what sociopolitical and economic structures made it possible for me to be the resident translator for my parents at government, medical, and financial institutions. In Women & Gender Studies I pieced together how violence against women was both a key story in my own life and in the lives of women on both sides of my family on the island and in diaspora. I also learned how women of color have always been at the forefront (albeit often invisiblized) of social and racial justice movements. As an undergrad I had built myself an interdisciplinary constellation of study that would lead me to my graduate program at UC Berkeley’s Comparative Ethnic Studies Department. It was there that I learned that Ethnic Studies is about problems - the fundamental problems of dispossession, enslavement, colonization, and coloniality. I learned that the conditions of our lives are the remnants, evolution, and perpetuation of systems of inequality and hierarchization of humanity endemic to the colonial project. Most importantly, I learned that identifying these problems and responding to them as well as imagining other ways to understand ourselves in the world is the central project of Ethnic Studies.

What I learned in those English, Women & Gender Studies, and Puerto Rican Studies courses as an undergrad and later in Comparative Ethnic Studies as a graduate student required that, in ways big and small, I theorize and practice liberation in relational and ethical ways. This revelation is something that I experience as a sort-of déjà-vu each semester I teach Ethnic Studies courses in the English Department, African American & African Studies Department, and Chicano/Latino Studies Program at my institution. I not only recall my own “coming to consciousness,” but I see my students grapple with these ideas and come to more firmly believe that attaining the tools to understand colonial modernity is no trifling feat, but a vast and necessary endeavor for individuals and whole communities.

Rather than related to Ethnic Studies, I contend that the concerns and thought brought forth by Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and women of color feminists are central to Ethnic Studies as a field and as a politics of being. This because women of color have been the backbone of the various movements for justice that propelled Ethnic Studies projects. Without the heresy of women of color feminisms the praxis of liberation will be decisively partial, the philosophies and the poetics flimsy, and the violence that disappears and kills women of color will remain untouched. Just as we laud, recuperate, and recover male political, artistic, and philosophical figures that have been instrumental in developing liberatory projects for those most affected by colonial modernity, we must tend to the most vulnerable, to those who are often cast to the periphery. This is fundamental to any Ethnic Studies project in its fullest and most insurgent liberatory embodiment. We must recognize that one of the fundamental mechanisms of colonialism—as María Lugones, Xhercis Méndez, and other decolonial feminists argue—was the imposition of gender binaries, racialized gender hierarchies, and racialized gender-based violence as modes of controlling bodies, territories, minds, and spirits. Ethnic Studies is incomplete without the contributions of women of color thinkers and artists, for they make meaning of survival and make imagining different futures possible. They have made a politics out of the practices of identifying interlocking struggles and forging relations across difference in the fight for liberation.

Nelson Maldonado-Torres

Nelson Maldonado-Torres is Professor in the Department of Latino and Caribbean Studies and the Comparative Literature Program at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, and a member of the Executive Board of the Frantz Fanon Foundation in France. He is particularly interested in the crossings of different genealogies of thinking, and their appearance in different genres of writing, discourses, artistic expressions, and social movements. He is the author of Against War: Views from the Underside of Modernity (Duke, 2008), co-editor of Latin@s in the World-System: Decolonization Struggles in the 21st Century U.S. Empire (Routledge, 2006), and some of his essays on decolonial theory have been collected in La descolonización y el giro de(s)colonial (Universidad de la Tierra, 2012). He is currently working on two book-length projects, Fanonian Meditations and Theorizing the Decolonial Turn.

Yomaira C. Figueroa-Vasquez

Yomaira C. Figueroa-Vásquez is Assistant Professor of Afro Diaspora Studies in the department of English and the African American & African Studies program at Michigan State University. Her work is centered on 20th century U.S. Latinx, Caribbean, Afro-Latinx and Afro-Hispanic literature & culture. Her current book project, Decolonizing Diasporas: Radical Mappings of Afro-Atlantic Literature, focuses on diasporic and exilic Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, and Equatoguinean texts in contact. Her articles have appeared in Hypatia, CENTRO Journal, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, and sx salon. She is also the co-founder of the Women of Color Initiatives Project at Michigan State and co-organizer of the Electric.Marronage set of workshops, lectures, and labs.