Normalization of Racist “Academia” Threatens Students of Color

Like fashion house Prada’s recent so-called apology for selling racist trinkets, universities and other institutions often only pay lip service to the intent of dismantling harmful structures and tropes that feed racial inequality while their actions reveal their true priorities.

Take Northwestern University, where astute students writing for the student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, revealed Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, is working and thriving on Northwestern’s campus as a visiting researcher in the psychology department. He is widely known as the author of the 2011 Psychology Today piece (now removed and replaced with an editor’s apology), “Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?” — an article that has since been roundly rejected by both the scientific and broader educational communities.

The piece was crafted on poor methodology, and one must also wonder what scientific ideal was being pursued that would justify what amounts to well-worn racist beliefs that linger on without context?

Calling himself a “purist,” Kanazawa has said it is his job, as a scientist, to offend. This is a high-minded way marginalized people like the Black women he targets tend to experience socially acceptable racists embedded throughout US institutions.

We navigate at our own peril.

The “scholarly research” of Kanazawa’s ilk and the institutions that employ them, however, often manifest as thwarted access to jobs and opportunity, neglect in medical care, and lives often starved of physical and emotional safety. In 2018, for example, it took the typical Black woman 20 months to earn as much as a typical White man earned in 12 months. We earn 63 cents to every dollar earned by white men and still lag behind white women. Consequently, at 62.3 percent, Black women have higher labor force participation than white women.

Despite this, Black women “lean in” at work and at school: As Northwestern alumnae, we’ve been leaning in since we were young girls and women functioning in the high-stakes environment that is this highly selective institution. We do this, optimistic that we will overcome persistent racial wealth gaps, knowing society is wound with threads of implicit and explicit bias. Despite leading the charge for higher rates of college enrollment and completion, we still have higher levels of student debt.

These facts in particular are key reasons why Kanazawa should be summarily dismissed from campus. It is not enough that Northwestern has announced that Kanazawa “isn’t teaching, collecting research data or getting paid by the university.” His presence is odious and cannot be allayed by faculty censure, which, in our opinion, is a no-go. What must go is him.

We are clearly too busy to worry about who thinks we’re pretty; the issue is sanctioning racist ideas and exposing students to this mindset. While the firestorm over Kanazawa’s hiring was ignited a few weeks ago, Black women on campus are smoldering and exhausted because our work ethic is not abstract; it is real. Aside from our day job(s), we Black women are in a never-ending cycle of organizing, writing, messaging and participating in listening sessions to petition administrators to create safe spaces where we and our children can thrive.

For instance, the beloved Victorian house serving as a haven of support for Black students on Northwestern’s campus for 50 years, “The Black House,” has once again been repurposed as a general meeting area. The specificity of being Black in the US with its own history and unresolved issues is being erased before our very eyes. Now, and in the recent past, Black alumni and current Black students have implored the university to maintain this cultural space of support — to no avail.

Such centers at universities across the country have proven to help Black and Brown students persist through college completion while providing culturally centered support. Just ask Michelle Obama. In her new book, Becoming, she writes of the sense of belonging she found at the Third World Center (now the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality + Cultural Understanding), where she subsequently held a work-study job while at Princeton University. In Northwestern’s case, Black students in 1968 literally barred the door to the bursar’s office to demand such a safe place on an often-hostile campus.

As Northwestern alumnae, successful in our careers, we donate money and time. We send our children to be educated, and like any other parent, we want our children to be intellectually challenged. But also want them to be safe from damaging people, microaggressions and anything else that might impede their path toward success. We are not only standing up for Northwestern, but also for Black college students — especially Black females — everywhere. Moreover, Deborah Shoola, a neuroscience major, initiated a petition seeking to ban Kanazawa from campus. For Members Only, the Black student union, tells us they will host a town hall next quarter to allow students to speak out about the type of environment created when the welfare of Black women on campus isn’t even a consideration in a controversial hiring.

Universities are where we incubate ideas about the future and where we can make gains in counteracting bias in social and economic systems. We need people in these institutions who have a sense of how things are under the current status quo and includes us in the new world we’re creating.

It is not enough that Psychology Chair Richard Zinbarg has indicated Kanazawa would have to create a “hostile work environment” to be removed. This non-approach defies Kanazawa’s pattern of misogynoir and his fetish for undermining Black women’s dignity. He has already created a hostile environment on campus in that he is in it.

Kanazawa should’ve stayed the afterthought he was following in the original rebuke of his toxic ideas and nonexistent scientific methodology. Northwestern, and universities nationwide, it does no good to talk about diversity and inclusion, and pay for initiatives scattered across your institutions, if you don’t actually believe in inclusivity and creating safe environments for students of color.