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The Relevance and Legitimacy of Black Studies

Even after her dismissal from The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Brainstorm blog, Naomi Schaefer Riley’s words continue to be debated, turned over, torn apart and even defended. Ineptitude aside, Schaefer Riley stirred up an interesting conversation around the legitimacy and relevance of black studies, women’s studies and gay and lesbian studies.


These are academic disciplines that carry with them a unique “social mission”. These disciplines, perhaps more so than others, are fraught with the social and political climate of our times. According to a blogger at Brainstorm, this living relationship between the real world and the academy brings the legitimacy of such disciplines into question, that “any academic discipline that assumes a social mission for itself is always going to have a legitimacy issue”.

Now, that seems particularly counterintuitive; because what then is the point of academia? You can’t study medicine without taking into account the issues of the time. The same goes for business, law, political science, public policy, and the list continues. All academic disciplines are living and evolving and they should be. And their legitimacy and relevance shouldn’t be called into question until the time that they have no bearing on the world at large. When humans are immortal and disease no longer exists then we have no need for doctors and the study of medicine. When humans are no longer ignorant and prejudiced against others because of race, sex or sexual orientation then we have no need for race, gender or sexuality studies. But as we have not arrived at that critical and glorious point in human history, let it continue on.

Let me agree with this post and say that all disciplines do and should carry some social responsibility or social mission. Those who question black/women’s/sexuality studies really have no qualm with the disciplines per se, rather what they symbolize in academia and what is not offered in society right now: a generally positive space where Blackness, womanhood and queerness are discussed critically but not criticized and in some cases even celebrated. Social missions don’t bother Naomi Schaefer Riley and Mark Bauerlin, that’s not the case. The potential of these disciplines to continue to challenge society and attempt to carve out positive spaces for Blackness, womanhood, and queerness, bothers people like Naomi Schaefer Riley and Mark Bauerlin.


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