Posted on February 18, 2015

The Professor Is in: White Male in Black Studies

Karen Kelsky, Chronicle Vitae, February 17, 2015

I am a scholar of African-American history, race, and gender. (And thus well aware of the racial and gender bias that has dominated the academy.) Along with applying for positions in history departments I have been considering openings in African-American studies and in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.

Since I am a white male, should I acknowledge that fact in my letters of application? Clearly a basic Google search of my name would give the search committee that information, but would it be beneficial to provide that information up front?

To my mind, the best thing to do here is to openly acknowledge in your cover letters that you are a white male.

I’m not an expert in your field, and I’m also white, so I definitely have limited understanding of all the politics and agendas that come into play in a hiring situation like this. However, it seems to me that a white (male) scholar who does African-American history without naming himself as white runs the risk of recreating white normativity. I mean the kind of white privilege that suggests that white people are entitled to study any damned thing they feel like, and be considered “experts” at it in the context of a racialized academy in which everybody else’s–i.e., people of colors’–expertise is constantly scrutinized, questioned, and undermined.

Some might think that naming yourself as white would undermine your claims to expertise as a scholar in that field. But I believe it would actually support your claims, because there is no studying black history separate from the devastating histories of white academic and scientific discourses about African Americans that supported racism at every level. To identify yourself as white shows awareness of the structural privilege you enjoy vis-à-vis this history and the academy as a whole. To my mind (again, as a nonexpert in your field) that lends credibility to your claims of expertise.