In preparation for a group discussion about critical research methodologies in gender studies, I went back and looked at hours of footage from Rebecca Skloots, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as well as other research about race, Black women, and medicine/science. I had been particularly inspired by Karla Holloway’s ability to relentlessly give Skloots DA BIZ’NESS for constructing a research study for mainstream audiences that, in fact, re-enacts violence against the Lacks family, a Black family who for the most part still live in abject poverty. Henrietta Lacks, known by the medical/science industry as HeLa, was a poor Black tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 for developing what we now know to be the vaccine for polio and the central tools for cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Her cells have made billions of dollars but her family, then and now, do not even have health insurance. Meanwhile Skloots enjoys the big dollars from Olympic-styled endorsements, media showings, and a New York Times bestseller. Despite her economic wealth, I wouldn’t ever want to be Skloots given the criticism, rightly deserved, that she has endured by formidable critics who link the central fetishization, exoticism, violence, and exploitation of her research/methodology to the kind of minstrel show we get on Bravo television when Black women’s bodies are the subject. Whew, so glad I ain’t Skloots! I wouldn’t even be able to wake up in the morning with a morsel of self-respect.
Academic Flip-Floppers have always been quite perplexing to me. Perhaps I am just too naive and keep expecting more when I ought to know better by now. Flip-Floppers are those scholars who tag along with the newest trope, fad, or jargon in the field and then spit it out whenever they can. Treated like flip flops, ideas become something of mere discardable convenience that don’t require real support or substance. This is because the new idea isn’t something the Flip-Flopper really agrees with or lives by because word is not bond right here. The new idea just has to be a trope that can get the Flip-Floppers some attention, accepted conference panels, or publications. I have in mind right now the folk who I have seen on panels and whose work I have read about code-meshing, when just a few years (or months) prior, they espoused very vociferous public claims about the inevitably (and therefore their embrace) of teaching standardized English, a platform totally incompatible with politics surrounding code-meshing. I am not saying folk can’t change their mind and get turned around but that’s not what’s going on here. I usually just get up and leave or stop reading when it comes to Flip-Floppers like this; I can’t waste my time with people who don’t believe in what they are saying, do something different from what they profess, and just want to commercialize and commodify thinking and research.
The Flip-Floppers are the more benign players in the academic, neoliberal hustle though. The Tuskegee-Experimenters are closely related but in much more dangerous ways.
It’s almost a cliché to now claim one’s scholarship is connected to social justice. But for the life of me, I often cannot figure out what on earth many people mean by this. When graduate students ask me how to do educational scholarship and social justice, I try very hard to get them to hold on to the here-and-now. They usually want to talk about the big movements, protest campaigns, and activist groups way OUT THERE that we can join and create (all of which are certainly critical). But what I also want to focus on are the interventions we can make RIGHT where we are because the barriers and oppressions of the world are always right there in front of you. You never have to travel far or wide.
Here’s what I mean. I have never taught a single semester in these last five years where young black women didn’t come to me to describe the kinds of mean-spirited, violent, racist diatribes thrown at them by faculty and staff on campus. These are not isolated experiences— but are systematic, systemic, and routine. And for those who are not accosted outright, they just feel like something ain’t right: when they talk, the room goes silent, like their presence is tolerated but never really desired. The examples are too countless to name. And so I wonder about these folk who are wondering so much about what kind of activist projects they need to do way OUT THERE somewhere when the oppression they assume they are analytically aware of is right there surrounding them each and every day. How do you acknowledge, resist, or transform systems you do not see? This is where the Tuskegee-Experimenters come in. I am talking about the multitude of people who I see, especially white scholars but more increasingly scholars of color too, who write about students of color, “diversity,” critical theory, anti-colonialism, or anti-racism, but do not notice, much less act on, the everyday violence inflicted on students of color in our institutions. And by saying Tuskegee-Experimenters, yes, I am invoking “The Tuskegee Study of Syphilis in the Negro Male.” I do not mean this as a kind of hyperbolic statement but as a kind of historical fact about the ways that research on black bodies has consumed those bodies, in fabulously parasitic and/or deathly fashion, without ever truly helping black folk or even intending to help them. That tired mantra everyone uses today about one’s publication shedding light on a subject and, therefore, helping communities of color is just that: TIRED. You can’t solve social injustice if you bask in the privilege of never seeing it.