Razing the Anti-Ebony Tower: An Academic ‘Grammar Book’

Rahsaan Mahadeo

Pursuing my PhD is the most selfish endeavor I have ever undertaken. This was the self-told refrain for most of my first year as a doctoral student, for I knew that every book I read and every paper I wrote (including this one) was largely for personal gain. Not coming from academic lineage or economic privilege, I could not escape the profound sense of guilt of leaving so many behind in the everyday struggle to live, labor and learn in a school that is less of a land-grant institution and more of a land-grab institution; an educational system that is more private, than public; a corporation that presents students with more educational opportunists than educational opportunities; and a tower that is as anti-ebony as it is ivory.

Heeding Hortense Spillers’ (1987) warning about the limitations of language and the dangers of solecism,[1]“Solecism” refers to both grammatical incorrectness and also the transgression of particular social norms. this paper offers a potential introduction to a new academic “grammar book.” With such an offering comes the possibility of upholding a key task of black studies, namely the need to “rewrite knowledge as we know it” (Wynter 1994: 68).  A new academic grammar book requires substantive engagement with those concerned with the limitations of language and the contingency of what we conceive as “human.” Attending to these prerequisites, I illustrate, vis-á-vis Spillers and Wynter, the intimate connection between grammar and “being human as praxis” (McKittrick and Wynter 2015). Part of developing “the human as verb” (McKittrick 2015: 8) entails (un)learning how to speak.

Without grammatical correctness, insurgent intellectuals are left with the “master’s tools” which “will never dismantle the master’s house” (Lorde 2011). All of my courses include both learning and unlearning objectives precisely because of the enduring legacy of  what Charles Mills (1997: 18) describes as an “epistemology of ignorance,” and academic jingoism committed to silencing dissent and repressing all threats to all alleged truths of the current episteme. Initially, I introduced unlearning objectives to account for the miseducation of a K12 system that celebrates the “discovery of the Americas,” the myth that Abraham Lincoln “freed the slaves,” and that America is a “land of immigrants.” Mills understood that epistemologies of ignorance were not isolated to K12 schooling. In fact, Mills saw the university as arable terrain for producing epistemologies of ignorance. Hence, I offer this paper as a provocation and invitation to co-author a new academic grammar book.

This paper intervenes in research on racism in higher education (Ladner et al. 1973; Feagin et al. 1990; Margolis and Romero 1998; Solorzano 1998; Marable et al. 2000), the “incorporation of minority difference (Ferguson 2012), and the function of “diversity” in the university (Ahmed 2012). For “negatively-racialized”[2]In the essay, “Strategic Anti-Essentialism: Decolonizing Decolonization,” Nandita Sharma (2015: 175) uses the term “negatively racialized persons.” I borrow the term to illustrate the role of … Continue reading students attending predominantly white institutions (PWIs: pronounced pēē-wēēs),[3]There are multiple terms used to describe Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs or pee wees). In this paper, I use “pee-wees” and the “anti-ebony tower” as functionally comparable to convey … Continue reading the ivoryness of the tower is ostensibly clear. What remains unclear is how the ivory tower thrives on that which it is opposed to, namely its less apparent ebony-side. The permanence of the anti-ebony tower is not contingent on the admission-denial of a single form of difference. Rather, it is sustained by mutually-constituting, yet distinct forms of oppression. Hence, the anti-ebony tower incorporates multiple differences while remaining anti- Indigenous, anti-brown, anti-Arab/Muslim, anti-Asian, anti-women, anti-queer, anti-trans, anti-disability, and anti-ambiguity/ous.

Using metaphor, ridicule, contradiction, and ambiguity which are often most conducive to multiple possibilities, this paper serves as a “powerful solvent of the pretensions of hegemonic power” (Scott 2014: 62). Because “poetry is not a luxury” (Lorde 1982) and biography is integral to the “sociological imagination” (Mills 1959), the claims I make in this paper are grounded in and substantiated by experiential evidence—a threat to all “reasons-of-state ethics” and thus what is accepted as “common sense” (Wynter 2013: 298). As a student of struggle, organizing and activism remain key sites of knowledge production and knowledge producers. I am referring to the rich and radical knowledge generated from being in struggle with and for others. Through an emphasis on meritocracy and cultivating a possessive individual, the university prohibits this sort of co-creativeness. Thus, working against what we are within (Hardt and Negri 2000) remains a prerequisite for many seeking to reconcile the contradiction of being in and not of the anti- ebony tower.

In the first section, I begin with a proposal that negatively-racialized students reject the notion that learning, laboring and living in the anti-ebony tower is a privilege. There are countless encounters with systems of violence and domination that serve to remind them that they are not in fact privileged. However, the specious allure of fellowships, awards, publications, and academic service (i.e. diversity committees, task forces, etc.) make negatively-racialized students feel even more indebted to a system that owes them more than they owe it. Section two is concerned with the proliferation of euphemisms in the anti-ebony tower and their function in universalizing experiences and naturalizing racialized violence. In search of effective ways to navigate the anti- ebony tower, negatively-racialized students are forced to learn to survive in a setup. Hence, in the third section I ask whether survival in the anti-ebony tower is a paradox or an effective incorporation of minority difference or both. In section four, I illustrate the futile quest for (un)intelligibility within higher education, while offering an alternative reading to the dreaded “impostor syndrome.”

In the fifth section, I ask what happens when “the scholar denied” (Morris 2015) becomes the scholar admitted. In order to mitigate these risks, negatively-racialized students have no other choice but to remain on guard. Defense strategies and reactivism,[4]I conceptualize “reactivism” as a form of political organizing that hampers self-determination, self-definition, and the overall creativity of various social movements. The anti-ebony tower … Continue reading however, are sustainable only for so long. Thus, the final section is dedicated to insurgent intellectuals committed to maintaining, what Harney and Moten (2013: 26) call, a “criminal relationship” to the university.

Rejecting the notion that we are “privileged”

The anti-ebony tower was designed without negatively-racialized students in mind. However, the opposite is also true. The foundation of the anti-ebony tower is constructed in response to the threat of those classified as an always already racialized, gendered, and classed “other” (Ferguson 2012: 85). Hence, in addition to being designed without many of us in mind, the anti-ebony tower was designed precisely with us in mind. We were exactly those who were not supposed to be granted admission. It is no surprise why “privilege” is then one of the most effective universalisms employed by the anti-ebony tower to homogenize difference and conceal abuse. Whether it be faculty and administrators telling negatively-racialized students “it is a privilege to be here,” campus security monitors who roam the campus after hours and on weekends and harass negatively-racialized students by demanding identification, or actual campus police who arrest them for their activism, there are numerous signs and experiences to remind negatively-racialized students they are learning in a space that was designed without them in mind. The most salient reminder is the immense gap between the place they currently learn (i.e. the anti-ebony tower) and the spaces that taught them the most (i.e. non-academic space).

Many negatively-racialized students experience a profound sense of guilt upon leaving their communities to embark on a career in the anti-ebony tower. Lest they forget about their “privilege,” they are awarded scholarships and fellowships to remind them of the academy’s benevolence. I reject the notion that access to the anti-ebony tower is a “privilege.” It’s not a privilege to be an “exceptional _____________,” to go from dysselected to selected. It’s not a privilege to be so distant from your community that when loved ones are harmed by the same state terror you study, you are overwhelmed with guilt. It’s not a privilege to attend academic conferences abroad and have the TSA cut up the inside of your suitcase and leave a note with a Department of Homeland Security logo as a souvenir. It’s not a privilege to be racially profiled, searched and criminalized[5]Here, I acknowledge the contingency and limitations of terms like “criminalized.” Criminalization is understood in reference to who or what has been constructed as “criminal” over the course … Continue reading by university police who construct you as guilty before proven less guilty. It’s not a privilege to be maced for trying to prevent fascists and white supremacists from coming to campus. It’s not a privilege to be charged for destruction of destructive property or arrested and jailed for remaining committed to anti-oppressive work. By definition, if it is a “privilege” to be somewhere then certain groups aren’t supposed to be there. In rejecting our “privileged” positions in the anti-ebony tower, we create greater opportunities of being beholden not to the university, but to each other. In doing so, we create a sense of fellowship that requires no competition.

Can we please let D.E.I. D-I-E?

The proliferation of euphemisms is partly responsible for negatively-racialized students feeling “privileged” to be in the anti-ebony tower. “Diversity,” “campus climate,” “multiculturalism,” “inclusion,” and “community engagement” are some of the euphemisms popularized within the neoliberal and financialized university. The function of euphemisms within academic space does not differ much from their use outside of it. Euphemisms stand in for that which is less appealing, making them ineffectual attempts to conceal unflattering language. In addition to masking that which is unsightly, euphemisms also preserve systems of power and domination.

Whenever one encounters euphemism in language it is a nearly infallible sign that one has stumbled on a delicate subject. It is used to obscure something that is negatively valued or would prove to be an embarrassment if declared more forthrightly. Thus we have a host of terms, at least in Anglo American culture, designed to euphemize that place where urination and defecation take place: john, restroom, comfort station, water closet, lavatory, loo and so on (Scott 1990: 53).

Absent from James Scott’s list of spaces used for the release, collection, and disposal of public excrement is the many spaces of the anti-ebony tower including the classroom, faculty and administrative offices, auditoriums and virtually any other part of the university. Euphemisms obscure the dual function of the university as both learning environment and refuse container. Minimal sensory training is required to detect the pernicious toxins exuding from euphemisms. Allergic reactions to such bullshit are common, but can be alleviated by limiting exposure to saccharine discourse, like “campus climate” and “diversity.”

Take for instance, “campus climate.” Drawing on the work of Toni Morrison, Christina Sharpe (2016: 106) uses “the weather” to illustrate how “antiblackness is as pervasive as climate.” Sharpe (2016: 106) describes the weather of being “in the wake,” as part of “the atmosphere: slave law transformed into lynch law, into Jim and Jane Crow, and other administrative logics that remember the brutal conditions of enslavement after the event of slavery has supposedly come to an end.” Though meteorological “weather” may be unpredictable, Sharpe’s ontological forecast suggests that antiblackness is quite predictable and extends well beyond 5-day or even 10-day projections.

In addition to emphasizing the need to divest from fossil fuels, demands must be made for the university to divest from whiteness, colonialism and antiblackness. While limiting greenhouse emissions/carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million, there also exist ways to create a cap on whiteness. For example, students can begin to enroll in more classes taught by nonwhite faculty, and perhaps limiting their whiteness intake to one white professor per semester or one white person seeking to “decolonize” themselves. Here I am referring to the many scholars who claim to do work on whiteness without working on whiteness. By working on whiteness, I mean performing the labor to undo and eviscerate it. In taking these steps, racialized students can feel good about their efforts to leave a smaller whiteness footprint and contribute to what a potentially positive form of climate change. However, other euphemisms within the “campus climate” require attention.

“Diversity” acts as a proxy for substantive engagement with difference and the structural violence linked to the distinct value ascribed to such difference. The anti-ebony tower’s treatment of difference is marked by incorporation, display and disappearance. Here I am thinking with Jodi Melamed, who in Represent and Destroy, describes how within an era of “neoliberal multiculturalism,” the incorporation of minoritized differences requires exceptional nonwhite people to esteem themselves at the expense of other racialized people. “Esteeming some people of color of the same race, according to conventional categories, makes it easier to accept that others of that same race may be systematically treated unequally” (Melamed 2011: 153). So contrary to liberal thought, “representation” is not synonymous with “liberation.” Rather, as the title of Melamed’s book suggests, “representation” functions as a tool not just for destruction, but for the obliteration of certain racialized people. The university uses discretion when deciding how to best showcase or erase difference depending on the “minoritized subject.” Those who get the most shine or display are “colonized intellectuals” (Fanon 1963: 158) whose scholarship legitimates the ongoing material and epistemic violence against negatively-racialized subjects, pioneered by white social scientists.

Many negatively-racialized students at pee-wees are part of a touring exhibition of difference. Similar to installations at museums, they are defined by a transitory existence of difference that is always already “coming soon” to an anti-ebony tower near you. The anti-ebony tower promotes cosmetic diversity using images of negatively-racialized students in admission catalogues, videos, websites, and other marketing materials used to solicit interest from prospective students and their families. What cosmetic diversity obscures is the racialized realities behind the faces that grace the covers of such promotional products.

I use “cosmetic diversity” not to suggest that there is a truer or purer form of diversity that is less problematic. The reality is that “diversity” is itself no better. In fact, Jodi Melamed locates early histories of the term to eugenics movement:

….Liberal political philosophers ranging from John-Jacques Rousseau (1762) to John Stuart Mill (1869) advocated the free play of the “good” diversity of European talents, interests, and beliefs as the means and end of a free society. In contrast, the race sciences of the period were concerned with controlling “bad” diversity, conceived as the biological inferiority of non-white races, through sterilization, termination, incarceration and exclusion. Harry Laughlin, for example, America’s leading eugenicist in the first half of the 20th century, argued in the context of debates over the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924 “progress could not be built on mongrel melting-pots but is based on the organized diversity of races” (Laughlin 1939). The naturalization of race in relation to the category of diversity is what made credible these otherwise contradictory frameworks for understanding human difference. Concepts of diversity and race worked together to define “the white race” as so superior to others that freedom and self-cultivation were only beneficial and available to them…(Melamed 2015: 85).

Melamed helps us to rethink the function of “diversity” (Ahmed 2012), while questioning its beneficiaries. Whether “mongrel melting-pots” are being civilized by whites or nonwhites are being sprinkled against a predominantly white canvass, namely the anti-ebony tower, diversity is enacted and performed in service of those whose identity would remain hidden (Doane 1997) and “cultureless” (Perry 2001) without it. As “diversity” becomes more salient through a process of whiteness enrichment, it exploits the labor “diversity workers” through extraction, cooptation and evisceration.

Exposing the continuities of incorporation within and exclusion from the anti-ebony tower, Ferguson (2012: 204) notes, “Diversity thus works to manage the redistribution of sensible notions of minority existence—particularly ones that frame minority incorporation as institutionally possible and beneficial, thereby limiting the redistribution of material and social relations involving ‘minoritized subjects’ and thus secreting tactics for minority exclusion.” In other words, the admission of negatively-racialized subjects into the university is a specious measure of “progress.” Rather, “diversity” legitimates the unequal treatment of those granted access to the anti-ebony tower, while fortifying the walls of the academy to protect against further infiltration. Increasing the legibility of minoritized subjects within the university legitimates new forms of violence against members of this dysselected category.

In an analysis of the “Join LAPD” campaign, Dylan Rodriguez makes clear that Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) regimes do more to legitimate racialized violence in policing than eliminate it. Rodriguez (2021: 48) shows how inclusion initiatives like, “Join LAPD” function as “counterinsurgency” strategies used to incorporate minoritized difference, while simultaneously naturalizing state terror against members of the same racialized groups who join the ranks. In turn, “diversifying the force,” becomes a key indicator of “justice in policing” because when a black or brown cop is brutalizing a black or brown person, race can’t be a factor, right? Hence, the inclusion of more black and brown cops will always come at the expense of marginalized black and brown communities. At a time when more and more public sociologists identify as disciples and protectors of DEI, I wonder whether DEI regimes require our defense. Are we courageous enough to let DEI D-I-E? As a site of racial capitalism and academic opportunism, DEI programs remain highly coveted and profitable for all those committed to establishing a false baseline from which transformative change begins.

Given the differences within difference, “students of color,” as a category, is deployed as both a euphemism and universalism within the anti-ebony tower. By privileging already privileged “students of color” at the expense of those who don’t come from academic lineage or socioeconomic privilege, the anti-ebony tower constructs the ideal “safe minority.” Under global capitalism and empire[6]Through its incorporation of minoritized difference and expansive reach into local, often economically depressed and disenfranchised communities, the university upholds key attributes of what Michael … Continue reading, every difference is an “opportunity” (Hardt and Negri 2000: 151) and the anti-ebony tower finds ways to naturalize the marginalized positions of negatively-racialized students through the tokenization of particular “minoritized subjects” who have subscribed to the title of “exceptional ___________.” However, as Cherrie Moraga ably writes, “social change does not occur through tokenism or exceptions to the rule of discrimination, but through systematic abolishment of the rule itself” (Moraga 2015: xviii). Tokenization does not only involve favoring the exceptional ___________. It also legitimates violence against the un- tokenized, nonwhite person. By dint of the token’s immersion in white space, they satisfy a maximum nonwhite consumption requirement. In turn, whiteness fashions itself in the image of empire, allowing for the horizontal, as opposed to hierarchical, diffusion of power.  The potential to reproduce much of the violence we aim to dismantle reminds us that making the anti-ebony tower and other predominantly white space more ebony is but a start to a much longer process.

Rather than embracing euphemisms like “campus climate,” “diversity,” “inclusion,” “community engagement,” etc., it is more useful to question their function in obscuring negatively-valued subjects.

How to reveal what you are complicit in hiding.

One of the most effective means of incorporating minority difference into the anti-ebony tower is through what scholars have called the “hidden curriculum” (Durkheim 1956; Apple 1990; Margolis and Romero 1998; Smith 2004). According to Buffy Smith (2004: 48), the hidden curriculum refers to the “unwritten and unspoken values, dispositions, and social and behavioral expectations that govern the interactions between teachers and students within schools.” The message, both tacit and explicit, conveyed is that fitness for the academy depends on rigor and a commitment to learning and navigating the hidden curriculum. While some negatively-racialized students do so willingly, and others begrudgingly, the outcome is the same: effective incorporation of minoritized differences.

Incorporation is closely related to assimilation and as a framework that uses white, male, and middle-class norms as a reference category to which negatively-racialized students should comport, the hidden curriculum is as assimilative as it is incorporative.

In order to resolve the hidden curriculum problem, retention programs should not focus on refining college students’ “embodied cultural capital,” that is, the students’ dispositions and behaviors formed during the early socialization process, which influence how they perceive and interact with teachers. Instead, they should concentrate on how to teach students the academic cultural knowledge of the institution (e.g., the most appropriate way to engage in classroom discussions), regardless of what type of embodied cultural capital they bring with them to school (Smith 2004: 48).

The paternalistic tone of this passage presupposes a deficit model, whereby negatively-racialized students are constructed as barren vessels of capital (e.g. social, cultural, human), reducing their potential to succeed. The reality is that many negatively-racialized students from dispossessed communities already know that a hidden curriculum exists in the academy. It is no different than the tacit codes that orient most other predominantly white spaces outside of the academy including the labor market (Anderson 1999; Young 2004), education (Fordham and Ogbu 1986), and housing (Massey and Denton 1993). In a culture that encourages “code switching” (Anderson 1999) and shuns code-sticking (i.e. retention of local and indigenous knowledge), negatively-racialized students are treated as potential sites of academic civilization/colonization.

Not only does beginning from such a deficit model stigmatize always already marginalized groups, but it also elides the countless contributions of negatively-racialized students. In critically analyzing traditional epistemologies of the anti-ebony tower, we unearth the vestiges of alternative sites of knowledge production often disappeared and/or coopted by the academy. That is, the “hidden curriculum” is not solely hidden from negatively-racialized students, but is predicated on the elision or hiding of indigenous forms of knowledge negatively-racialized students bring to the academy. 

While hiding local and indigenous knowledges, faculty and administrators in the anti- ebony tower remain in a relentless quest to find an “exceptional ___________”. However, acceptance into the anti-ebony tower does not make anyone exceptional, but rather, beneficiaries of different opportunity structures. There are plenty of leaders without extra initials behind their name from dispossessed and negatively-racialized communities. Yet, negatively-racialized students are trained to forget these faces and spaces once they begin their academic careers. In return for prestigious scholarships and fellowships, the anti-ebony tower expects negatively-racialized students to put up a “front” (Goffman 1959) by remaining obsequious and reproducing a status quo that devalues lived experience and renders local knowledges unintelligible.

Impostor to whom?

Negatively-racialized students within the anti-ebony tower are constantly wrestling with the invisible/hypervisible paradox (e.g. being the only black student in a class). Black students, including many other negatively-racialized students, recognize the potential to be simultaneously visible and invisible in spaces said to be most conducive to their academic success (Feagin et al. 1990). Michelle Wright (2015) argues that it is not enough to ask, “What is blackness?” Instead, we must ask “when and where is blackness?” Both blackness and black people are sometimes hard to find in the anti-ebony tower. Yet, black students are acutely aware of when they become both legible and illegible within the anti-ebony tower’s reading of “difference.”

Similar to Kathryn McKittrick’s (2006: 93) description of black people in Canada, Black students “are presumed surprises because they are ‘not here’ and ‘here’ simultaneously.” In turn, white students “sight/site” their black counterparts, while remaining oriented to a white habitus.[7]Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2010: 104) describes “white habitus” as a “racialized uninterrupted socialization process that conditions and creates whites’ racial tastes, perceptions, feelings and … Continue reading While the blackness of the black student never leaves, its legibility to white students may rely on questions of when and where. Does the student’s blackness emerge during classroom discussion about Black Lives Matter? Does their blackness disappear when all graduate students are the “best and brightest”? The legibility of negatively-racialized students depends on space and time. The anachronistic spacetime of the anti-ebony tower, however, produces a constant misreading of this dysselected class. The pressures of illegibility lead some towards a quest for recognition and intelligibility within the anti-ebony tower. This specious quest to be understood is, however, quite futile because once made intelligible, we are susceptible to being rendered invisible through the processes of extraction, exploitation, erasure, and cooptation. Conversely, Stefano Harney (2015: 125) argues that seeking illegibility within the university is also a pointless pursuit: “I think once you’re trying to be illegible, you’re already legible.”

Attempting to form a sense of belonging in the anti-ebony tower, many negatively-racialized students suffer from what some call “impostor syndrome,” which represents a sort of existential crisis based on questioning one’s fitness and qualifications as a student, instructor, etc. Upon learning this definition, I realized that my own was incorrect. I thought impostor syndrome reflected the sense of being an impostor not to most of the performers in the university, but to the dysselected cast of people constituting one’s community outside of the university. I shudder at the thought of becoming an impostor to members of my family and community.

For far too long the agony of negatively-racialized students have been on display for the ivory tower. To quote Renato Rosaldo (1989: 202), “as the Other becomes more culturally visible, the self becomes correspondingly less so.” The “self,” Rosaldo refers to, is the white, Western-self, while the “Other” represents its negation. Rosaldo is highlighting the way “diversity” and displays of difference enriches the lives of the privileged and powerful while also relieving them of any responsibility to be accountable for the construction of the “Other,” and the state of “Otherness.” White people then resign themselves to a comfortable position as spectators of difference, as opposed to active participants in anti-whiteness work. Negatively-racialized students can no longer be the only ones to work on whiteness. Teaching people about difference is an emotionally, psychically, and physically exhausting exercise that negatively-racialized subjects perform every day. Attempting to help the selected understand the struggles of the dysselected sometimes feels like a largely futile quest.

In Towards a Global Idea of Race, Denise Ferreira da Silva critiques postcolonial studies and critical race and ethnic studies (CRES) for an overemphasis on the exclusion of the racial other from modernity and post-Enlightenment knowledge projects. Critiques of the racial subaltern’s exclusion behooves scholars to imagine possibilities for inclusion. But it is precisely such a curiosity that Ferreira da Silva criticizes for producing Europe’s affectable racial “other” in relation to the (white) “transparent I.” As Ferreira da Silva (2007: 162) writes, “…race relations has produced racial subjection as an effect of the fundamental impossibility of certain strangers’ becoming…modern. Not only does this produce blackness as an impossible basis for formulating any project of emancipation; it suggests, that because it always already the exclusive attribute of a transparent I, the racial subaltern’s desire for emancipation for inclusion in the dominant (white Anglo-Saxon society), is fundamentally a desire for self-obliteration.”

When “the scholar denied” becomes the scholar admitted

The abuse of negatively-racialized students by white faculty and students is typically expected in higher education. I am not surprised when white faculty make condescending remarks about my position in the academy. I’m not surprised when faculty ask me to be careful about what I say because of my “visible presence” in my department. I’m not surprised when we are assigned readings that construct first generation and other “disadvantaged” students as scapegoats for the devolution of intellectual rigor in the academy. I’m not surprised when my department asks to pass off my activism as its own. I’m not surprised when white faculty steal my ideas and present them in ways that seem more legible to others. I’m not surprised when white faculty esteem the “safe person of color” while devaluing the unsafe ones. I’m not surprised when I sense that I am viewed as a threat (both intellectually and otherwise) to white faculty. I’m not surprised that white faculty refuse to relinquish their “possessive investment in whiteness” (Lipsitz 2006).

What do we do though when other racialized subjects appropriate the logic of neoliberal multiculturalism[8] In addition to bringing attention to the scholar denied, I feel there also exists a need to consider the denied scholarship within sociology. For example, what are the implications of making Du … Continue reading to further our sense of marginalization and isolation in the academy? Most negatively racialized students have enough sense to appreciate the struggles of most “faculty of color” in the anti-ebony tower—performing an immense amount of invisible labor under the guise of “service”; offering counsel to negatively-racialized students inside and outside their discipline; being subject to ongoing forms of violence because of their legibility and hypervisibility within the anti-ebony tower. Upon entry, faculty of color are quickly isolated and quarantined from their counterparts to thwart the possibility of coalition building. Pee-wees are designed to promote self-preservation as opposed to cooperation among negatively-racialized persons. By hiring individual faculty of color from disparate disciplines, the anti-ebony tower fosters a sense of isolation and vulnerability. According to James Scott (1990: 128), “Imperial traditions of recruiting administrative staff from marginal, despised groups were designed precisely to create a trained cadre that was isolated from the populace and entirely dependent on the ruler for their status.” While Scott was describing the efforts of rulers to reign through social control and surveillance, the anti-ebony tower also governs through such methods of force and domination. With emotional armor as their main source of protection, faculty of color are inured into a perpetual state of self-preservation under repressive conditions in the anti-ebony tower. There is, however, a thin line between self-preservation and selfishness. With negligible support from their departments and aid for having to work twice as hard to be half as good, subscription to the  “exceptional ___________” persona becomes a convenient identity some faculty of color assume.

In The Scholar Denied, Aldon Morris argues that W.E.B. Du Bois is the founder of American scientific sociology and implores the discipline to acknowledge what many black sociologists already knew. Using rich archival data and methods, Morris makes the case that Du Bois be placed among canonical sociologists—Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. Morris’ compelling work implicates several prominent sociologists in the extraction, exploitation, and intellectual theft of Du Bois’ ideas and research. In addition to imploring sociology to acknowledge Du Bois’ countless contributions, Morris also exposes how the keepers of the canon systematically kept Du Bois out of the discipline’s history. I agree with Morris on this point, while pushing for answers to another important question: What happens when the scholar denied becomes the scholar admitted?[9]In addition to bringing attention to the scholar denied, I feel there also exists a need to consider the denied scholarship within sociology. For example, what are the implications of making Du Bois … Continue reading Here, the concept of “admission” serves as another double entendre. I explore the “admission” of particular negatively-racialized subjects and also the anti-ebony tower’s lack of admission when it comes to acknowledging its harming negatively-racialized students and professors. Whether admission is granted for prospective students or those entering the ranks of the professoriate, the transition from being denied to admitted requires earnest reflection over the terms and conditions of entry. In a space where there are so few negatively-racialized subjects in general, some of us expect there to be some solidarity expressed for our linked struggle. We expect faculty to remember what it was like as undergraduate and graduate students attending pee-wees.

Appreciating the potential for those most violable to reproduce violence is vital knowledge for any student of color entering the anti-ebony tower with excessive faith in those who bear some resemblance to themselves. As the saying goes, “skin folk ain’t always kinfolk.” My criticism of colonized intellectuals should not obscure the violence of colonizing intellectuals, who are predominantly white, cis gendered, and male. In other words, the mistreatment of negatively-racialized students by faculty of color pales in comparison to the systemic maltreatment by professors who are largely pale and male.

Because of the threat of colonized and colonizing intellectuals, I am forced to sport an emotional armor, even in the company of “colleagues.” Students and faculty have the capacity to reproduce a logic of individualism and self-preservation by appropriating words and ideas for personal gain. When those with existing privileges (e.g. publications, awards) engage in this type of intellectual “boosting,” it is hard to view them any differently than faculty who take credit for the ideas of others. Why would people want to “jack” shit? I am left to assume it is because they know jack shit.

It’s not a surprise that when academics jack shit they tend to produce more scholarshit than scholarship. By “scholarshit”, I refer to research wrought with consistent grammatical errors, including work that overrepresents Man (i.e. white, male, heterosexual, bourgeois, able- bodied) as human (Wynter 2003). Similarly, scholarshit is the product of commitments to “principles of universality,” predicated on the construction and naturalization of “exclusions of racial particularity” (Goldberg 1993: 39). For example, scholarshit makes the mistake of invoking “agency,” when the “ontological problem of blackness is not resolved” (Warren 2016: 63). Here, I am referring to those who study slavery as if it was devoid of “social death” (Patterson 1985) and an “afterlife” (Hartman 2007). Many scholars get stuck in scholarshit when calling for “ethics” (Warren 2016: 65) or “justice” (James and Costa Vargas 2012: 193) as if comprehension of both ideals did not depend on the captivity, enslavement, and brutalization of black people as a point of reference. I am also referring to rampant solecism within criminology, including the study of “mass incarceration.” Given that, as Dylan Rodriguez (2016: 13) convincingly argues, “it’s not the ‘masses’ being criminalized and locked up,” criminological research is wrought with measurement error. “Mass incarceration” is also not merely an issue of too many people being incarcerated. The word “mass” summons calls to “reform” the prison industrial complex by reducing the number of currently incarcerated people or sending fewer people to jails and prisons. The problem with these proposals is that they naturalize the prison industrial complex. As Hartman (2002: 772) notes, “The normative character of terror insures its invisibility; it defies detection behind rational categories like crime, poverty, and pathology” [emphasis in original]. When the criminal-legal system works to decriminalize whiteness and white people, criminological research will inevitably suffer from some form of sampling error. We find scholarshit in research on “terrorism” that consistently abdicates, rather than implicates the state. Similarly, the use of race as an independent variable produces a whole heap of scholarshit precisely because it is not race that results in negative “life chances”—it is the social response to race (i.e. racialization, racism) or what Fanon (1952) describes as sociogenesis. Life course scholars produce scholarshit when studying “time use” without questioning what it means to use time that does not belong to you (Tadiar 2012). Included in the category of scholarshit producers are those who study “human rights” without answering Du Bois’s prescient question.

As W.E.B. Du Bois asked in 1944, if the Universal Declaration of Human Rights did not offer provisions for ending world colonialism and legal segregation in the United States., “Why then call it the Declaration of Human Rights?” (Weheliye 2014: 76).

Sociologists who study “urban” versus urbanized space, who study the ghetto without considering how such space is in mutually-constitutive relationship to the suburbs, who use “social capital” as a proxy for culture-of-poverty discourse, and who examine “environmental factors,” without considering how “antiblackness is as pervasive as climate” (Sharpe 2016: 106) are all complicit in the overproduction of scholarshit under the guise of “scholarship.” Finally, those who study the ivory, rather than the anti-ebony, tower expel an immense amount of scholarshit. The overproduction of scholarshit makes it difficult to determine whether many sociologists are speaking from their mouths or out of their behinds.

The anti-ebony tower feeds on the ravenous appetites of the colonized and colonizing intellectual eager to shine by shading other negatively-racialized students. In other words, gaining clout in the anti-ebony tower often necessitates self-aggrandizing behavior that devalues others. Sometimes it seems as if the ideas of negatively-racialized students are legible only when uttered by colonized and colonizing intellectuals. The construction of negatively-racialized students as dummies reproduces a sort of “academic ventriloquism” (Pavlenko 2003; Bucar 2011; Mayock 2016; Chandra 2017)[10]Stuart Hall (1981: 448) also introduces the concept of “linguistic ventriloquism” to describe the role of popular journalism in coopting working-class language. leaving many of us questioning our contributions as knowledge producers. This ventriloquism is no different than the way women’s ideas become intelligible when conveyed by men. There is an intimate connection between academic ventriloquism and academic plagiarism. Both refer to the theft of ideas. Those who rely on the ideas of others to further their career could benefit from the following message: If you like it, cite it! Don’t bite it![11]“Bite” is a slang term meaning to copy or appropriate.

Is it surprising that negatively-racialized students, who do not come from academic lineage or economic privilege are key targets of academic ventriloquism? Members of this dysselected category know that they are the subjects of their curriculum and who professors refer to in “urban sociology” or “social inequalities” courses. So it should not be a surprise that these students are best positioned to flip the script on all the scholarshit produced by academic ventriloquists. This paper is just one of the many “hidden transcripts” (Scott 1990) in the archives of those whose descent is marked by dissent.

Resistance: Dissent (not decent) is our descent.

I would be doing myself and members of my community a disservice by not stepping up to upset the setup that is the anti-ebony tower. Negatively-racialized students bear a burden of being the first to enter and graduate from college. We are obliged to remember the suffering of negatively-racialized communities we both leave and are extracted from. The value we place on such estimable principles should not, however, obscure the reality that the academic space we currently occupy were borne out of other struggles and fierce resistance against the anti-ebony tower. When we place contemporary contestations within the anti-ebony tower in the context of previous ones, we are forced to keep the pressure on and not let up. For we know that complacency, like conformity, is conducive to hegemony (Gramsci 1971). Systems of power and domination grow stronger when we slack. A key ingredient to hegemony is consent. I refuse to give my consent to those responsible for perpetuating systems of power and domination.

Dissent in the anti-ebony tower has a long history among previous cohorts of negatively- racialized students. Taking over presidents’ offices, disrupting Board of Regents’ meetings, holding teach-ins, walkouts, boycotts, and divestment campaigns are but a few examples of student-led activism. Regardless of the action, students continue to force power to reorganize itself in response to their demands. However, in reorganizing itself, power often becomes more repressive and can potentially chill dissent. Negatively-racialized students are reminded of the risk of dissent when warned “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you!” To this I respond, “When the hand that is feeding you is feeding you shit, you have no other choice but to bite it.” Within the anti-ebony tower, “the hand that feeds you” is often the same hand that abuses you. Thus, when the hand that feeds you shit is the same hand that beats the shit out of you through arrest, incarceration and student conduct sanctions, it is your duty to both fight back and bite back.

For Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (2013: 26), “the only possible relationship to the university today is a criminal one.” However, “theft” is not the only site by which this criminal relationship is forged. The criminalization of dissent, descent, and defense preclude the need to steal from that which is already stolen in order to establish a “criminal relationship.” By criminalization of defense, I am referring to the use of punishment against negatively-racialized students seeking redress for the routinized harm within the anti-ebony tower. Speaking out against such violence is often read as dissent, but seldom recognized as defense. “Defense” better expresses the experiences of negatively-racialized students committed to anti-oppressive work that is always already read as “criminal.”

However, what does it mean to maintain a criminal relationship with a university built on stolen land? How do we steal from that which is already stolen? How do descendants of those stolen steal? What does it mean for sufferers of the empire to steal from an imperial institution? Is it redundant for those whose lineage is already more criminal than academic to maintain a criminal relationship to the university? I offer these questions not to deter insurgent intellectuals from theft. Instead, these questions push the theoretical boundaries of what it means to maintain such a “criminal relationship,” while questioning the potential for one group to make gains at the expense or further harm of others.

Without remaining in communion with Indigenous peoples, the enslaved, and other negatively-racialized and dysselected persons, whose land, labor and life was extracted, exploited, and eviscerated to construct the anti-ebony tower, we risk establishing a criminal relationship with those always already criminalized, as opposed to the university. In other words, to not acknowledge that land on which universities are built were never granted and that many schools are products of slave labor and the many derivatives of “racial capitalism” (Robinson 1983; Wilder 2013) is to risk causing further harm in work intended to be anti-oppressive.

Similarly, without resisting ongoing forms of settler colonialism, the “afterlife of slavery,” and systemic forms of brutality against new cohorts of “negatively-racialized persons,” there exists the risk of reciting violence based on grammatically incorrect texts.

With lineage that is more criminal than academic, being a negatively-racialized subject from an aggrieved community, having labored as a youth worker for over seven years before pursuing my PhD, and retaining a commitment to a form of “study” that is with and for the people (Harney and Moten 2013) requires me and many other negatively-racialized students, to work twice as hard to be half as good. Such disproportionate labor is accepted as one of many sacrifices made upon admission to the anti-ebony tower. Some scholars of color might suggest that access to the anti-ebony tower is the first step towards transforming it. However, as Robin D.G. Kelley (2016) notes:

Certainly universities can and will become more diverse and marginally more welcoming for black students, but as institutions they will never be engines of social transformation. Such a task is ultimately the work of political education and activism. By definition it takes place outside the university.

I am not a medical doctor, but I know you cannot treat a disease (i.e. the anti-ebony tower) with a symptom of that disease (i.e. diversity offices). In the spirit of Audre Lorde, attempting to fix the setup with the tools provided to us by those in power will only support the foundations of the setup rather than dismantle it. We all have the capacity to be better builders. I am interested in organizing from the ground up and invested in change consonant with the etymology of the term “radical” (a derivation of” radix,” meaning “root” in Latin). Far too often, “diversity work” (Ahmed 2012) is a hegemonic tool used to till the soil of oppression without uprooting the sources of such contaminated terrain. Upsetting the setup requires earnest engagement with existing plots of knowledge production planted outside the anti-ebony tower.

Community remains one of the most valuable sites of knowledge production, and there are plenty of intellectuals without formal credentials capable of teaching those within the anti- ebony tower more than they can ever be given credit for. “Being in and not of” means that though we are producers within the anti-ebony tower, we need not be products of it. We can work against what we are within and potentially do without what we are within. Because discourse is power, grammatical correctness is paramount for insurgent intellectuals.

An academic grammar book serves as a resource not only for those concerned with measuring what they intend to measure, but also for those intent on dismantling what they came to dismantle. Destroying the anti-ebony tower and starting anew may seem too great a challenge than any single person can undertake in their time-limited roles as scholars. Rather than seeking a complete overhaul of a fundamentally flawed system, insurgent intellectuals may find greater solace in viewing the anti-ebony tower as a crumbling structure, built on a faulty foundation riddled with fissures of which to expand. Each (direct) action within the anti-ebony tower is then a means of further exposing these crevices with the expectation that what cracks eventually will crumble. Black don’t crack, but ivory towers do.


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Suggested citation:

Mahadeo, R. 2024. “Razing the Anti-Ebony Tower: An Academic ‘Grammar Book.’” In eds. José Manuel Santillana Blanco, Kidiocus King-Carroll, Naimah Zulmadelle Pétigny, and Kong Pheng Pha in collaboration with AGITATE! Editorial Collective. Seditious Acts: AGITATE! Special Volume with CRES: https://agitatejournal.org/article/razing-the-anti-ebony-tower/


1 “Solecism” refers to both grammatical incorrectness and also the transgression of particular social norms.
2 In the essay, “Strategic Anti-Essentialism: Decolonizing Decolonization,” Nandita Sharma (2015: 175) uses the term “negatively racialized persons.” I borrow the term to illustrate the role of racialization in constructing an ontological order through selective ascription of value and humanness. Racialization involves more than what Michael Omi and Howard Winant (1994: 82) describe as the institutionalization of particular groups into “a politically organized racial system.” Racialization involves more than what Michael Omi and Howard Winant (1994: 82) describe as the institutionalization of particular groups into “a politically organized racial system.” Racialization also exceeds “the extension of racial meaning to a previously racially unclassified social relationship, social practice or group” (Omi and Winant 2014: 111). Racialization is a process of ontological ordering in which life-value is guaranteed for some, ascribed to a select few, and denied to others. Racialization is also relational. Thus, differential racialization occurs within an uneven biopolitical distribution, whereby specific categories of the human gain value at the devaluation of others. Though “negative” reinforces an absolute state of abjection, if left alone “racialization” is assumed to possess a universal application across all racialized groups.
3 There are multiple terms used to describe Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs or pee wees). In this paper, I use “pee-wees” and the “anti-ebony tower” as functionally comparable to convey the ubiquity of whiteness and white supremacy within the university.
4 I conceptualize “reactivism” as a form of political organizing that hampers self-determination, self-definition, and the overall creativity of various social movements. The anti-ebony tower prefers student reactivism over activism because it establishes the parameters dictating the terms and conditions for entering into a particular struggle.
5 Here, I acknowledge the contingency and limitations of terms like “criminalized.” Criminalization is understood in reference to who or what has been constructed as “criminal” over the course of history. The overrepresentation of negatively-racialized ontologies as criminal has, in turn, skewed the conceptual integrity of “criminalization.” Recognizing its limitation, I use “criminalized” and “criminalization” with discretion, while remaining in pursuit of greater grammatical accuracy.
6 Through its incorporation of minoritized difference and expansive reach into local, often economically depressed and disenfranchised communities, the university upholds key attributes of what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000: xii) describe as “Empire.” “In contrast to imperialism, Empire establishes no territorial center of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries of barriers. It is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers. Empire manages hybrid identities, flexible hierarchies, and plural exchanges through modulating networks of command. The distinct colors of the imperialist map of the world have merged and have blended in the imperial global rainbow.” As I demonstrate throughout this paper, critical university scholars cannot simply be concerned with the exclusion of racialized subjects from the anti-ebony tower. If we fail to recognize how the university incorporates and manages this range of hybrid identities” in the services of capital accumulation, the university legitimates its status as a benevolent institution committed to granting opportunities to “students from marginalized backgrounds.” Despite the important distinction the authors make between Empire and imperialism, I would be remiss to not acknowledge the role of imperialism/US exceptionalism and the academy. I am referring to the way many international students from the global south are coerced to obtain degrees from some of the very institutions complicit in the spread of global capitalism and the destruction of local economies in their home countries. As Hardt and Negri (2000: 15) remind us, “Empire is not formed on the basis of force itself but on the basis of the capacity to present force as being in the service of right and peace.”
7 Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2010: 104) describes “white habitus” as a “racialized uninterrupted socialization process that conditions and creates whites’ racial tastes, perceptions, feelings and emotions and their views on racial matters.”
8  In addition to bringing attention to the scholar denied, I feel there also exists a need to consider the denied scholarship within sociology. For example, what are the implications of making Du Bois more legible within canonical and “scientific sociology” for women of color feminists and black feminists, in particular, who emphasize the importance of experiential epistemology or embodied knowledge?
9 In addition to bringing attention to the scholar denied, I feel there also exists a need to consider the denied scholarship within sociology. For example, what are the implications of making Du Bois more legible within canonical and “scientific sociology” for women of color feminists and black feminists, in particular, who emphasize the importance of experiential epistemology or embodied knowledge?
10 Stuart Hall (1981: 448) also introduces the concept of “linguistic ventriloquism” to describe the role of popular journalism in coopting working-class language.
11 “Bite” is a slang term meaning to copy or appropriate.

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