A Memo from a White, Female Hip Hop Expert

A sociology job candidate, writing under a pseudonym, discusses his experience as a white scholar of race over at the Chronicle.  As he relates, on his CV, he lists his membership in the Association of Black Sociologists and in a historically black fraternity.  In combination with his research interests, he believes prospective employers are surprised to realize that he is white when they meet.  He notes that being a white man studying race has myriad advantages: he is assumed to be smart, granted authority in the classroom that his black colleagues would find wanting, and his access to whites provides him with data and insights that would be more difficult to obtain if he were not assumed to have homophilious attitudes (toward race).  But, he writes,

“Being white and studying race has been simultaneously enabling and constraining for my academic career.”

He is often told he should study some other (whiter) topic.  It is this,

“myopic tendency to expect a racial correlation between research and researcher”

to which I intend to return, later in the post.

His main focus of critique is other sociologists, who, while they profess a commitment to dismantling structures of prestige and interrogating relations of power, reinforce or ignore these same structures.  According to his research, only 7% of American Sociological Association members are black.  Unfortunately, only a short breath is devoted to some of the specific actions taken by sociologists to reproduce white privilege in the discipline.*  The author quickly moves to note that his experience suggests how racist our expectations are of scholars of color (“they must study blackness/Hispanic family life/Filipino handicrafts/etc.”), and resolves with a sour quip about printing his CVs in color.  (Wah, wah…)

I promised to return to this question of the racial correlation between research and researcher.  If you know my scholarship, and my persona, you know that I am a white woman who began her research career with a dissertation on rap music.  Like the author of the article, I feel a responsibility to acknowledge that my ability to do this research and obtain an Ivy League Ph.D., and then get a job at a fine R1 institution, and to publish that research in the top journals…all of these choke points were eased because I am white.

It is also true that, like the author, I have (probably thousands of times, at this point) been treated as a traitor, a curiosity, a poseur, a colonist, and (in one memorable event) a sex-crazed miscegenationist by my colleagues and acquaintances.  In addition to the racial paradigms that give rise to this sort of treatment, there are relevant gender regimes as well that made it hard to me to gain access and trust to respondents in the music industry, difficult to present my research at professional conferences of music critics, and produced that same myopic tendency noted above.**

In fact, just this week I have been invited to lead a professional workshop on how my discipline teaches and does research on gender.  I had to respond to the invitation by declining because I am by no means an expert in this area (I don’t teach it & don’t include gender in my research).   In fairness, it was a friend that asked me, and I suspect that he simply has confidence in my intellect and comfort using me as an emissary from my department.  However, it fits neatly into…as I say…about a thousand other, similar situations in which I have found myself as an academic.

It is worth noting that today the post at Org Theory finally saw the light of day: “Where are all the female OrgTheorists?” I have indicated to Brayden, after his kind invitation, that I will seriously consider accepting the guest blogger post this November.  My expertise is unquestionably in organizations, and I think even more than my gender, I will bring to OrgTheory new ideas about the application of organizational theory and questions to topics of aesthetic and cultural production.  But I will note that it is a set-up.  Especially in the shadow of this post (and OMG am I dreading what folks will write), the next female blogger over there will be viewed as a token, pure and simple.  (Ed. Please note that I have tried to clarify what I meant by “set up”, over at Org Theory.)

I’m not interested in wrapping this up with a quippy “What color paper will I use?” comment.  This post is about seven years in the making.  I’m surprised that the time has come–it is something I imagined I would either never address publicly…for fear of the trolls to come…or that I would address in some grand gesture, after I had realized some brilliant insight viz the causes, the solutions, and my role in both.  Sorry, but I haven’t got that, yet.

* In fact, there are lots of specific actions we take which might feed into these outcomes.  Let’s stick with the proportionally low numbers of AA’s in the discipline (and set aside the fact that we might expect a higher-than-proportional number in such a field as ours).  Sociologists are born in undergraduate classrooms.  What do we know about how our instructional methods and advising works to dismantle racism in the classroom?  Moreover, do we use any of the techniques shown to improve minority performance in the classroom and to promote advanced study?  How many of our institutions have “bridge” or “feeder” programs to provide students from HBCs and other resource-poor institutions with the additional coursework and professional assistance they might need to gain acceptance to graduate schools?  Once in graduate school, what specific advising techniques and instructional methods do we encourage so that these students succeed?  Do we have faculty of color that can help them to do the important work of building social networks with other scholars that can assist them with career goals?  Do we ensure that these students are encouraged to take on “big impact” questions, and engage in rigorous data collection and analysis so they can have successful publishing and research careers?  Do we help junior faculty of color to avoid some of the university service that leaves them with less time to do research and mentoring than their white peers?  These are just some of the questions left unasked in the article, but which might be asked by a scholar interested in race in our discipline.  I look forward to reading your additions to the list.

**Just so that no one gets a free ride here: Despite my clear expertise on race and hip hop, I am not welcomed into relevant trans-institutional centers, I have never been invited to any of the conferences on hip-hop or rap, I have never been invited to include my work in the collected editions of works now being compiled in record number.***  Perhaps this is because my work is sometimes quantitative, and clearly social scientific (and most…if not all…of the other scholars in the field are working in humanities disciplines), but wouldn’t this make it a valuable addition when constructing a survey of a field?  Don’t cry for me–I’m doing fine without these invitations–but I do wish I had more and different kinds of mentors, and more and different interlocutors for my work.  This is less an issue now that my research interests are drawing me away from rap, although the above is part of the reason I’ve made that decision.

***I just realized the one exception.  The Brooklyn Museum of Art invited me to be one of the Junior Scholars leading tours of the first hip-hop art/history installation that circulated among museums in the early aughts.  That was a singularly useful experience, for me, in part because it was the first time I was called out to my face and forced to articulate my position in these complex social dynamics.


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4 responses to “A Memo from a White, Female Hip Hop Expert

  1. Is this only a problem in the area of race and gender? It doesn’t seem to me that we see the same kinds of identity issues in the study of sexuality and we certainly don’t see this in class/income studies. Why is it that race and gender are the two areas of sociology that exhibit this kind of boundary maintenance?

    BTW, Jenn, the expectations at orgtheory are high indeed, but only because we’ve never had a hip-hop expert as a guest before. You will be the first.

  2. Jenn Lena

    Remarkable timing, Brayden, since I was just discussing this with a student who wanted to run through the insider/outsider debate viz her plans to study FTM individuals (Female-to-Male). This student had just gone to the Southern Comfort Conference and was both encouraged and concerned that she was treated as an FTM individual.

    The next project I’m planning is specifically designed to take advantage of the fact that I “read” as elite. Although it does happen less often (than research assumptions made on the basis of my gender), more than once colleagues have suggested that I study elites since I could “gain access easily” and would “understand what was going on.”

    I suppose I’d have to think more about it to tease out the differences between scholars expecting (rightly) that research sites are more accessible to some, and scholars expecting you would choose to study them, and then the ghettoization of minority scholars into those sites. Maybe someone else could throw their hat in the ring on that issue.

    And I am so glad to be on the other side of this sturm and drang over My Status As White Hip-Hop Scholar. Used to be, I would yearn for the day when I’d be teased about it. Thank goodness that day is here. Seriously.

  3. This is a classic subject/object, epistemology question.

  4. Pingback: making a scene: what silicon valley programmers have in common with punk rockers « orgtheory.net

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