Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

Dignity: (noun) The state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect.

I think it’s confusing, for most people, when I say that Ethnicity, Race, and Migration, in its current state at Yale University, is not a dignified field. This is Yale University after all: any major that we put on our diploma will bear the name of this prestigious place. That is the purpose of a liberal arts education, the freedom of interdisciplinary study paired with the respect and dignity of a rigorous academic institution. Yet in my major, African American Studies, most of us are double majors. I don’t think this is because the major is easy; we have a year-long thesis, just like many other humanities departments. But I personally believe this phenomenon arises because the field of Ethnic Studies — which encompasses African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Latinx studies, and Ethnicity, Race, and Migration — is not dignified at this school, in professional settings, and in most places across the country.

I think that I must first distinguish that dignity at the institution manifests both explicitly and implicitly. Explicitly,by the amount of resources we dedicate to certain fields and the facilities they are able to inhabit demonstrate the priority placed on them by the University. Yet, there is also implicit, coded language beneath this dignity. We tend to not take the field of Ethnic Studies seriously because we do not respect the history and people it talks about. To most people, Ethnic Studies appears to be self-explorative. The students and professors are exploring a history that “must be interesting” but isn’t particularly important. I believe people suppose that its appeal is a “contemporary one,” valued by those with the “right identity” to study it.

That’s not entirely untrue: many students, like myself, have found that these histories are very close to us, often too close for comfort. In fact, I remember the first time that an African American Studies course brought me to tears.

AfAm 125: The Long Civil Rights Movement, Prof. Crystal Feimster

A _________________________________In lecture

Documentary on _____________Front Row

Recy Taylor ____________I was sitting

She appeared on screen

And god, I swear she looked like my Grandmother

My Grandma _____________________In lecture

Recy Taylor ___________________Front Row

raped_________________ I was sitting _________crying until the movie ended

I ran out of class and felt a combination of fear, interest, and overwhelming danger — I had a stake in this now. History was rushing at me, closing the distance. I could run from it, or confront it.

Many of us have a personal stake in ethnic studies. In my class year, every student in the African American Studies major is Black. But personal stake should not be used as a means of delegitimizing the study. It is easy to mistake our passion for self-absorption, when it is really the rigorous study of the material that charges our energy. Our fields have been tasked with discovering history that has been unseen and suppressed for centuries. African American history is a history that has been, and is currently being, erased [by X], and that historians are, today, re-constructing. They are recovering the names and biographies of slaves, making sense of sexual violence during Reconstruction, and discovering the economic effects of the managerial economy on Black communities today. I am fortunate that, when I feel that my field is being misunderstood and delegitimized, or when the amount of trauma I am exposed to in class becomes overpowering, I can take comfort in the incredible group of scholars in my field doing valuable and respected work.

Crystal Feimster, the professor who showed our class The Rape of Recy Taylor, announced the following semester that she had finally received tenure. She came into our class, Critical Race Theory, where she found flowers and desserts to honor her accomplishment. I remember her recounting the difficulty she had, as one of the few Black female professors on campus, in navigating Yale’s nearly impossible tenure process — a process that took her almost two decades. Just recently, I listened to many of the core professors of ER&M lament the loss of their colleagues who were reviewed by panels of almost all-white professors, and denied tenure.

I was forced to reckon with a very serious academic distinction. African American studies is a department; Ethnicity, Race, and Migration is not. It is far more difficult for professors who have dedicated a bulk of their work to a program such as ER&M to achieve tenure. Departmental status allows for a field to have full hiring power, review their professors for tenure, and create coursework that is distinct and supportive of the different interests of its students. On the other hand, when the field is a program, the University forces professors to be dual-appointed in the program as well as in a more “dignified” department. The work they do in the program is unpaid, extra work. In Ethnic Studies, this distinction is exacerbated: most professors in the field are Professors of Color, whose place at the University is already one of stress and alienation. What this dual appointment most commonly results in is professors of color doing twice the amount of labor, and not receiving the proportionate amount of recognition or compensation.

Yet, aside from the tangible effects of departmental status, we must again consider the subtextual. This action, or rather inaction, embodies a decision by Yale to dignify the field of study; to respect and give honor to the material. I will not argue that ER&M is important, or that its study is, without a doubt, worthy of distinction. But when we refuse to grant ER&M departmental status, the Yale administration is refusing to address a serious situation. The professors of color on campus are not being respected, they are being overworked. The students of color on campus are not being respected, they are being overlooked. The histories of people of color are not being academically dignified, they are being suppressed. And, if we are not careful, the histories will be erased. As an African American Studies student, I am invested in keeping this history and field of study dignified. As a campus that upholds the dignity of each other and our passions, this should be a concern for all of us.

At the Coalition for Ethnic Studies’ pop-up library, Cross Campus

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