internet shaming and african american studies
This post is a commentary on the controversy around Saida Grundy’s tweets. Recently, Grundy, posted tweets about the legacy of racism. The gist of Grundy’s tweets was that there is a legacy of racism and privilege that is not addressed in American society. At the AAUP blog, Arianne Shavisi summarizes the tweets well: “Grundy … an incoming sociology faculty member at Boston University, tweeted a set of remarks and rhetorical questions regarding white supremacy, slavery, and misogyny in the US.” The tweets generated controversy because they were written in an informal fashion and were interpreted by some as racist.
I want to focus on a few issues that have so far have not received much attention. Before I do, I want to be explicit about my own views. There is nothing wrong in asking if the majority in this country have enjoyed privilege or if people have truly acknowledged the history of racism in America. It is also not controversial to note that some ethnic groups, such as Whites, may be over represented on some issues. In terms of style, I would have been more careful. Twitter is the type of media where things can easily be taken out of context. What is funny, or witty, in person can go bad online. There is also a bit dispute over the administration’s response. My view is that university administrators should support an environment of academic free speech, but remain agnostic on particular faculty members.
There are two issues that I’d like to address: the history of controversy in African-American Studies and internet shaming. I’ve written previously in the Teachers College Record, and a little in my book, about the pattern of controversy around African-American Studies. This is relevant since Grundy is jointly appointed in African-American Studies and sociology. Since the beginning, the field has been the target of conservative critics who periodically use African-American Studies as an example of all that is wrong on higher education. During the 2012 Naomi Schaefer Riley incident, a journalist plucked titles of incomplete dissertations and made fun of them. One can go through the pages of conservative opinion journals and books to see periodic critiques of African-American Studies from the likes of John Derbyshire and Dinesh D’Souza (see page 238p, note 5 of the book). In an earlier era, scholars like Martin Kilson would go to the mainstream press to air complaints.
What is new is that these critics now have access to the social media output of African-American Studies scholars. An enterprising critic could comb Facebook, Twitter, and blogs to find the most outrageous things. They can quickly go viral and trigger a wave of outrage overnight. Still, one should keep in mind that it still fits an overall pattern of external critics obsessing over African American Studies as a symbol of the liberal rot of academia. The only difference is the speed at which this can happen. Thus, as I noted above, it is wise to exercise prudence in such a hostile environment.
Second, there is an element of Internet shaming happening here. The journalist Ron Jonson has a new book called “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” that describes how in the modern age people can use comments and social media to instantaneously tarnish a person’s reputation. The normal punishment for an off-color joke or poorly worded remark is a mild reprimand. Now, the very same minor offense can lead to losing one’s job and a potentially irreparable mark on one’s reputation. Jonson also notes that Internet shaming often is highly unequal in that Internet rage is often directed at women. Here, the insult is compounded. Grundy is an early career scholar and this incident has already been a serious burden.
This incident reflects a number of factors coming together. Twitter can translate wit into rancor; social media magnifies mistakes; and there is a ready to go outrage machine just waiting for the jarring statement from an ethnic studies professor. I hope in the future that we can better deal with this phenomena and that this scholar can start a fruitful research career.