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.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 22, 2015 at 12:01 am

7 Responses

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  1. I think it’s a mistake to blame disproportionate shaming and panic on the internet, or in this case, on conservatives. Moral panic is a generic feature of groups, an aberration of otherwise routine boundary policing. It’s not any more caused by the internet now, than it was television news before, or gossiping neighbors before that. We all have to reflect on our tendency to get together and eat one another, not blame these episodes on technologies or out groups.

    Liked by 1 person

    Graham Peterson

    May 22, 2015 at 12:21 am

  2. In Vietnam, it is also same now. However internet has bring a new wind to us


    Blog Du lich

    May 22, 2015 at 1:15 am

  3. It’s not “Ron Jonson,” but Jon Ronson.
    In any case, his book does a woefully inadequate job of actually addressing social power dynamics in public shaming. For an awesome take-down, see the brilliant Jacqui Shine’s “This Public Shaming Is Not Like The Other”

    Liked by 1 person


    May 22, 2015 at 2:27 am

  4. lol Graham. It’s not like Fabio didn’t point out that he’s studied black studies departments nor point out conservative opposition to their very existence. That history matters–conservatives have long been hostile to the basic legitimacy of the field, so it’s no surprise they’d be implicated when the legitimacy of one of it’s professors is attacked. This particular moral panic originated in conservative attacks–as Fabio wrote “there is a ready to go outrage machine just waiting for the jarring statement from an ethnic studies professor”

    I can’t help but laugh at the conservative pleading victimhood and/or a false moral equivalency. It’s bull–without conservative thinkers dismissing entire fields of thought, this would have gone down differently. It probably never would have happened. deal with it.



    May 22, 2015 at 1:13 pm

  5. […] As many faculty handbooks across the country likely state, faculty members walk an interesting line between private citizens and institutional representatives. Things get even more complicated when faculty become public intellectuals, advocating for particular causes. These divisions used to be relatively easy to maintain – what one said in private would not preclude one from being employed. Thanks to technological advances, though, even those who are not typically seen as institutional representatives are regularly fired for things that there is now a digital record of (as I’ve noted several times in the past, there is no backstage on the internet). Although I completely understand the reasons that one might want to have a social media presence as an academic, I have to admit that it seems like a good time to be pseudonymous. (Edit: Fabio also connects these cases to internet shaming.) […]


  6. On the internet, the women tend to get about as much crap as everybody else does. The difference is that they aren’t used to it. Consider the recent feminist fan defection from Game of Thrones- how much violence against men did they enjoy watching? For that matter how many sex scenes that could be considered rape or at least deeply un-feminist, in the sense that there were serious power differences/coercion going on?

    We put up with a lot of garbage, and don’t have other men spring to our defense naturally, as is the case when men see a damsel in distress. The problem is that she isn’t a damsel in distress, but an academic who appears to be in massive error, and the appropriate thing to do is to let her rise or fall on the basis on her own intellectual capabilities. The emperor who had no clothes was taken down by a child who had no credentials, no reputation, nothing. Perhaps the emperor should have told the crowd to ignore that child, because clearly he is racist?

    Liked by 1 person


    May 22, 2015 at 1:40 pm

  7. rk: I agree with Fabio and (I suspect) you that the arguments about the studies departments from conservatives are weak. Most of them are simply ex cathedra assertions about the sanctity of classical liberal arts. That right there tells you they’re not listening to the other side, because the argument plays right into the critics: “classical liberal arts and Enlightenment ideas are just belligerent lies about universal rights told by the oppressors to hide and justify oppression.”

    I think these people should calm down and engage critical race and gender scholars. I also think critical race and gender scholars should calm down and engage their critics. Professor Grundy is not doing that, and deserves to be criticized for it. An echo chamber is an echo chamber, whether it happens at Heritage or the African American Studies Department.

    I was just trying to point out that internet moral panic is something we as a society haven’t developed a conscience about yet (though quickly are, I think), and that it disproportionately affects academics across party lines. So it is something we should address as a general phenomenon in order to protect free inquiry, not just when it happens to people like Grundy whose messages are politically popular in the academy.


    Graham Peterson

    May 22, 2015 at 1:51 pm

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