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I am the wrong kind of Black professor

I’ve staked my career on my interest in the dead white men of 19th-century British letters. I can’t count the times I’ve been told what a waste it is that I’ve done so.

"I was . . . advised to study the Black French poet Aimé Césaire rather than Lord Byron." Pictured: A marble statue of Byron in Rome's Villa Borghese park.Cristiano Fronteddu/Adobe

A few weeks ago, Richard North Patterson — a writer of bestselling courtroom thrillers — published an article in The Wall Street Journal explaining the kerfuffle surrounding one of his forthcoming novels, “Trial.” The controversy is straightforward: Patterson, who is an old white man, had the audacity to write a novel about a young Black man. Patterson’s article details how his work was rejected by 20 publishers, who said the book was inappropriate not because it treated race in an offensive way or evinced poor research of its subject matter but simply because he did not share the lived experience of his characters.

As a moonbat leftist, I am not typically in the business of reading The Wall Street Journal. Nor am I an aficionado of contemporary courtroom dramas. But when a family member forwarded Patterson’s article about the resistance he encountered trying to write about a race other than his own, it hit close to home: I am a Black professor who is an expert on 19th- and 20th-century British literature — the infamous “dead white men” of European art and letters. Like Patterson, I have often been criticized for not staying in my racial lane. In fact, throughout my academic life I’ve had to justify my intellectual interests and fight the assertion that I should spend my time researching authors who share my skin color. For as long as I can remember, it has been made clear to me that I am the wrong kind of Black academic.


There was the time in college when a white professor told me that I had “missed an opportunity” by writing a paper on the white American poet Wallace Stevens rather than the Black American poet Langston Hughes. Or the time that a different white faculty member admonished me for writing “yet another undergraduate senior thesis on European modernism and James Joyce” rather than on “a more exciting” topic like the Harlem Renaissance. (“Black people did modernism too, you know.”) Later, when I was in graduate school, I was variously advised to study the Black French poet Aimé Césaire rather than Lord Byron, the Black science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany rather than H.G. Wells, and the Black psychiatrist Frantz Fanon rather than Freud and Jacques Lacan. These Black authors are all fascinating, but they had nothing to do with my chosen specialization: the relationship between British science and British literature.

When I finally hit the market in search of a faculty job — after having written an entire dissertation on the dead white men of the British 19th century — an English professor whom I admired told me that I should try to dash off an article about an African American novelist “to hedge my bets.” English departments “wouldn’t know what to do with a Black Victorianist,” I was advised. If I established interests in African American literature, they said I would become “more legible” to hiring committees.


And such assertions have not waned now that I’m a professor: It was recently suggested to me by a white faculty member that my book project — a history of increasing anxieties about human extinction in 19th- and early 20th-century British literature and science — was not sufficiently focused on anti-Black racism. In other words, it was suggested that I should be writing an entirely different book on an entirely different (read: Blacker) topic.


Over the last decade, I have been persistently dumbfounded by comfortable white (supposedly “woke”) faculty members suggesting that a Black person isn’t sufficiently focused on their own Blackness. With a single exception, every time I have been criticized for studying white authors, it was a progressive-presenting white academic levying the complaint. What makes matters even more galling is that I actually do write, teach, and research issues of race from time to time. I have written both academic articles and articles for popular media outlets about issues pertaining to anti-Black racism and Black representation. But having “some” professional interest in race and racism is apparently not enough. As a person of color, I am supposed to be preoccupied with talking, thinking, and writing about my race all the time.

The origins of this disturbing — and it should be said, racist — attitude are manifold, but I think it is primarily a function of the fixation on “diverse perspectives” that has emerged over the last several decades in higher education. Notice, I say “diverse perspectives,” not “diversity.” (Colleges and universities should be obsessed with increasing the diversity of both students and faculty because they are very, very bad at it.) The principal argument that is made in favor of diversity, however, is not that diversity matters because people with marginalized identities have been systematically and unjustly excluded from the academy for as long as there have been colleges and universities. (They have been, and still are!)


No, rather than making a case for diversity premised on the need to redress the obvious injustice of skewed demographics, the most frequently cited argument is that diversity matters because diverse people can share their minority worldviews with their white-majority peers and colleagues, facilitating “cultural exchange” and “racial understanding.” In other words, elite colleges and universities justify the need for diversity by arguing that the presence of minorities expands the intellectual horizons of the majority group, which is to say, rich white people.

Reducing the value of diversity to diverse “viewpoints” or “perspectives” — rather than justifying diversity for the simple reason that minorities are criminally underrepresented — is not good for anyone. It turns minorities into tokenized resources for white education, while simultaneously expecting well-meaning whites to adopt the rhetorical posture that has become the new liberal stations of the cross: conceding one’s “positionality” while confessing that one can never “truly understand” what it is like to be a minority.

This is no doubt why I make some overeducated white academics so uncomfortable — even angry — when I dare to be a Black person who has the audacity to talk and think and write about issues that don’t pertain to my race: I’m not educating them as they were promised!

Islands unto ourselves

The consequences of elite higher education’s obsession with “diverse perspectives” are twofold. For one thing, it produces a new kind of intellectual segregation that we might call “racial solipsism.” “Solipsism” is a term philosophers use to describe the belief that we cannot acquire true knowledge about the external world — that the only things we can know for sure are our own thoughts and feelings. In particular, solipsists assert that we are permanently walled off from other minds, and some argue that we can never know if other minds even exist or if we are alone in the universe.


While there are a variety of forms of solipsism, what they all share is a suspicion of knowledge that resides outside the self, the assumption that the minds and experiences of others are so inaccessible that they might as well be a world away. The attitude that is increasingly present in higher education, as well as in our elite media and cultural institutions, is a kind of racial solipsism or identity solipsism that asserts that — while “diverse viewpoints” are necessary because they “expand horizons” and “promote awareness” — we can nonetheless never “truly understand” what it is like to have an identity other than our own. After all, while horizons can be expanded, they must also, by their very nature, recede from view — what makes a horizon a horizon is that it can never actually be grasped or comprehended.

In the view of racial solipsists, it is deemed illegitimate — inappropriate and even appropriative — to assume that it is possible to understand the lived experience of another. This was Patterson’s great sin (daring to write about a lived experience that was not his own) and my great betrayal (the curiosity about 19th-century British men of letters that killed the legitimacy of the Black professorial cat). And in a trivial sense, of course, this is obviously correct. I will never “truly understand” what it is like to be a disabled woman, or a Ukrainian immigrant, or a tax-avoiding billionaire. But there is a difference between drawing limits to what we can reasonably know about others and asserting that we should all stay trapped in prisons of our own positionality and unable to reason about — or simply imagine — being other than ourselves.

This is an assault on the very idea of literature and art. After all, isn’t the entire business of a poem, a painting, a photograph, whatever, that it is possible to imagine something other than this body I inhabit, in this place where I live, at this time that I find myself?

Yet racial solipsism is a problem not only because it short-circuits our imaginative capacities. It’s also a labor issue. By justifying the existence of minority students and faculty because they can offer “diverse viewpoints” to their majority-white counterparts, colleges and universities add an extra layer of burden and responsibility on people with marginalized identities. Minority students are expected to be both students and oracular others, providing informal education to their privileged peers. Likewise, minority faculty are expected to be both subject matter experts (preferably about a race-based subject) and purveyors of “lived experience” to predominantly white and wealthy student bodies.

That is, superimposed on top of the formal responsibilities that come with being a student or professor are a host of secondary, informal responsibilities that are expected of minorities — expectations often imposed by the same white faculty and white administrators who think they are antiracist progressives. Scholars call this set of informal responsibilities the “minority tax” that is levied in exchange for the opened gate. By being a Black professor whose work does not narrowly focus on Black issues and who is not primarily concerned with sharing his “lived experience” with students and colleagues, I’m actually not doing my job. I’m dodging the tax.

The racial solipsism that increasingly dominates progressive discourse about race in this country only serves to raise this minority tax. It makes it easier for liberal white folks to justify avoiding doing the very justice- and diversity-oriented labor that minorities at elite institutions are expected to do. (”I think this work is important, but as a white person, I wouldn’t feel comfortable . . . " or “I wouldn’t want to speak for . . . “).

To be clear, I believe that we all have a responsibility to do the work of antiracism, to challenge the obstacles to thriving that are structurally imposed on minorities and poor people in this country and that are especially embedded in higher education. This is doubly important at a moment of ascendant white supremacy on the far right, when the very freedom to talk about race in public schools — including universities — has been curtailed in red states across the country. It’s because I believe in antiracism that I reject the stay-in-your-lane, sham “diversity” ethos that increasingly prevails in liberal discussions about race and racism in universities and colleges across the United States.

After all, wouldn’t the world be a bit better if more old white guys spent time imagining what it’s like to be a Black teenager? And is the world made worse because I am a Black professor who is fascinated by H.G. Wells’s writings on human extinction? If we accept this racial solipsism, we risk becoming — to paraphrase the dead white British poet John Donne — islands unto ourselves, unmoored from the greater continent of humanity, able to give one another space and sympathy but no human understanding and no empathy.

Tyler Austin Harper is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Bates College. His writing on culture, politics, and the environment has appeared in Slate, Salon, Mother Jones, the BBC, The Daily Beast, and other outlets.