The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Even progressive academics can be racist. I’ve experienced it firsthand.

They refuse to see me as a member of the professional and intellectual community.

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“When are you going to bring out more appetizers?”

I’m a junior scholar of war and violence. I’m also a black woman. It was the former that had brought me to an evening reception for the International Studies Association’s annual conference in San Francisco. I’d come in the hopes that the event would be a sort of academic cotillion. I was presenting my dissertation research on military intervention, the result of 3½ years of training and research. I had meetings scheduled with a host of scholars whose work had informed my own and planned to attend receptions with emerging figures in my field.

This was supposed to be my moment. Instead, an eminent national security scholar was confusing me with hotel staff.

It wasn’t even the last time it happened: Two other attendees asked me similar questions that evening. Never mind that I was dressed just as professionally as they were. Never mind that I was squeezed into heels that would have been ill-suited to anyone carting trays of canapés. What they saw was the color of my skin, and that told them everything they thought they needed to know.

My experience at ISA fits into a pattern of bias within academic communities that is receiving increased attention. At schools such as Yale and Smith, police have been summoned to determine the legitimacy of black women within academic settings. Research demonstrates that high rates of “cultural taxation” are particularly problematic for the career advancement of women of color. In 2016, Carleton University professor Steve Saideman worked with fellow international relations scholars and identified only 11 women of color in Canada and the United States studying international relations who hold the title of full professor. The statistics for diversity in the pipeline of junior scholars doesn’t offer much reason for optimism. A recent placement survey found that 27 percent of the incoming African American doctoral students who participated in the analysis reported receiving no funding, compared with 4 percent of white students.

What I learned teaching at a historically black college

Though my experiences at ISA were maddening, they fit into a pattern of daily slights. Even at my home institution, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, I don’t feel wholly welcome. The school boasts about its depth of diversity, yet members of its faculty have asked me which faculty I provide administrative support for. Some continue to refer to me by the name of another black woman who completed her PhD at the school two years ago. Recently at new student orientation, incoming students asked whether I worked for catering services or university facilities.

It’s not being mistaken for a member of the support staff that troubles me, but what that mistake means. Whether they mean to or not, my fellow academics are betraying a toxic assumption: Even as I move about a university with a messenger bag over my shoulder and a stack of books in my arms, they refuse to see me as a member of the professional and intellectual community I’ve worked to join.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of these incidents, particularly those involving faculty, is that academic training demands that we examine our research for its implicit biases. Recognizing bias and being able to articulate the implications of that bias as well as the means by which the researcher will attempt to mitigate the effect of the bias is a fundamental principle of sound social science research. In my own research on violence against civilians, for example, the authoritative data sets on fatalities and sexual violence contain significant measurement errors that introduce bias into any analysis using those data, unless we approach them vigilantly.

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Despite that, we’re not required to summon the courage and examine ourselves for that same bias, which is likely to influence our interactions with others. Many of my colleagues express surprise upon learning that my research focuses on violence in armed conflict. Inevitably, their point of contention isn’t that I’m a civilian studying warfare; instead, they’re curious why I don’t study African cases or employ critical race or gender theories in my analysis. It’s as if they believe that just because I’m a black woman, I need to filter everything through the lens of my identity. It’s a presumption that disrespectfully disregards the full scope of my intelligence — and my ability to examine a world that exists beyond the borders of my own selfhood. But it also reveals the limits of their scholarly eyes.

Black history is U.S. history — but some of my students don’t want to hear it

When my undergraduate students at Tufts learned about my experiences at ISA, many asked the same question I inevitably ask myself: Is it worth it? I ask it when I think about seminal black female scholar Terri Givens leaving the academy while still working to make it more accessible for all. I ask it when I read George Yancy’s article about the racially motivated threats he has received as a professor. And I ask it when I think back on my experiences at ISA.

I know that my presence in — and contributions to — the academy matter. I know, too, that while the path may be rocky, it’s far smoother than it was for Givens and Yancy. But I also know that things will get better for all of us when my fellow scholars start to recognize that, more often than not, people belong in the place where you encounter them, whether it be a public space or on the job.

Boston hosted the American Political Science Association’s annual conference during Labor Day weekend. The conference yet again highlighted the dearth of scholars of color in the international relations subfield. But the event still served as a forum to speak about these issues with scholars from different disciplines and to determine what efforts could be taken to support students of color in international relations. These open exchanges give me hope that these issues will be recognized. But it’s clear that many within our profession still need to look within.