April 2021 Faculty Spotlight
Hear from new faculty member, Associate Professor Angie Beeman who tells us about the problem with certain progressive attitudes toward people of color, how she addresses the themes of racism and inequity in her teaching and how she believes race-based education will evolve in the near future.
Can you tell us about your research on liberal tropes and why they are so harmful?
Liberal tropes are harmful because they reproduce racism while appearing to do the opposite. They silence the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, usually redirecting the focus to the white progressives who espouse them. Much of my work is about color-blind ideology as a modern day form of racism. One example of this is when someone states, “When I look at you, I don’t see you as a person of color; I see you as a human being.” This statement is meant to affirm a kind of humanism, but in actuality it is very dehumanizing. Usually a person of color hears this claim when they are communicating their very real, human experiences with racism. The reaction they receive shifts the focus away from their important experiences to the person trying to assure themselves, and others, that they are not racist. For white progressives, in particular, there is a fear of addressing racism explicitly and having to confront one’s own racial biases.
In my work, I try to unpack the complexities of what is happening in these situations. It is important to begin with conceptual clarity. I argue that scholars conflate three separate issues in the concept of “color-blind racism.” First, there is systemic racism, which Noel Cazenave and Joe Feagin have defined as a centuries’ old and highly organized system of race-based oppression that operates at every level of society. Second, there is color-blind ideology, which helps to hold that system in place. Color-blind ideology rests on the seemingly positive belief that we should treat everyone the same, regardless of skin color. In fact, we should not notice skin color at all. Third, there is racism evasiveness, which is the negative consequence of the seemingly positive color-blind ideology. Claiming not to see color results in refusing to see or talk about racism. I conceptualize color-blindness as a dominant racial ideology in contemporary society that impacts organizational culture and results in racism-evasive responses.
Within academia and other organizations, this racism-evasiveness takes many forms. White progressives may point to the fact that they have bi-racial children, live in diverse neighborhoods, send their children to diverse schools, or that they have traveled outside the U.S. and therefore have special knowledge on racism. They may also use the language of systemic racism, pointing to the institution as the problem, to divorce themselves from any individual responsibility in addressing the issue of racism in their workplaces. What I and other scholars find is that organizations tend to operate from what Joe Feagin has called a dominant “white racial frame.” From this framework, people of color who bring up issues of racial inequality are seen as angry and divisive. This white racial frame affects the kinds of issues that are addressed explicitly and those that are consistently ignored. For instance, I recently wrote an article on the liberal reaction to Amanda Gorman’s poem read at President Biden’s inauguration and the liberal focus on unity and healing. These themes are important, but they can also be used to downplay discussions on racial inequality, because they are viewed as too divisive.
Unity and healing were not the only messages in Gorman’s poem. She spoke about survival and resilience against oppression and the courage to continue to break silences. It takes a great deal of courage to openly name and address racial inequality, especially in predominantly white spaces. People of color who do so may face increased hostility and racial aggression.
My work addresses how these liberal tropes can impact decisions in grassroots interracial organizations as well. What my research found is that activists were aware that they downplayed racism as a central issue in favor of seemingly more unifying issues such as class oppression. Here, racism-evasiveness was engaged strategically for the sake of solidarity. However, racism-evasiveness can be used intentionally and strategically for more nefarious purposes–to obfuscate problematic practices either by individuals or in the larger organization.
How do you use address the themes of racism and inequity in your teaching?
It is very important for students to think deeply and conceptually about race and racism. As with any scholarly issue, the study of racism requires that students (and faculty) do the work. If we truly want to understand these issues, we have to read more than just the popular books covered by the New York Times.
Students come to my classes with different understandings of inequality and racism. Most of them are committed to learning more about the history of these issues, how to communicate more effectively as well as how to form research questions on these topics. I share with my students that when I began researching racism, it was a challenge just to get people to understand systemic rather than only individual racism. I found few references to this term in mainstream media. The term is more commonly used now. However, I am not convinced everyone understands the different components of this concept or why it is important. In my classes, students learn this history and then apply it to contemporary inequalities in education, housing, employment, healthcare, policing, and other institutions. Students come away from these lessons with a clear understanding of how racial ideologies evolve over time, how racism can take overt and covert forms as well as how the denial of racism can be strategic. This process should be studied, because different kinds of racial ideologies can inform policies that impact everyone’s lives.
How did you become interested in these subjects?
I became interested due to my own experiences with racism, gender, and class discrimination and because I had excellent professors, who had the courage to teach critically about these topics. Growing up in a predominantly white Appalachian, coal-mining town with an immigrant mother from Korea, gave me an early education on these issues. I was often targeted in my community. College provided me the space to learn about the history of racism, class, and gender inequality and meaningfully connect this to my own experiences. My scholarly work on race and racism began early. As an undergraduate student, I completed a senior thesis on the portrayal of inter- and intra-racial relationships in films. I later developed this into an M.A. thesis and published an article from this research in which I developed my concept of emotional segregation. I learned a lot from the process of conducting this research, and the objections one faces in pursuing such research. As a result, when applying to doctoral programs in sociology, I sought strong mentorship above all else. This was more important to me than the rank or prestige of the university and it is also why I value the mentorship of junior faculty. Maintaining these connections and continuing to teach and research in this field has only increased my interest over the years.
Let’s step into the future for a moment. How might race-based higher education evolve over the next ten or twenty years?
A critical education on racism is necessary at all levels. In general, children do not receive an adequate education on race and racism. I think we often underestimate the knowledge and ability young children have to discuss these issues. What many children receive in early education is a superficial focus on multiculturalism and kindness and that focus can continue throughout high school and higher education. Throughout one’s graduate education in many of the social sciences, students are not required to learn the theories of Anna Julia Cooper or W.E.B. Dubois. In my education, these works were not offered as part of a core curriculum and Cooper and Dubois were generally not thought of as core theorists. In 2016, I co-organized a panel addressing these issues in higher education and every person of color on the panel had the same story. We all had an advisor or mentor that warned us against pursuing the study of racism at some point in our careers. This panel included faculty of color from various institutions who were at completely different stages in their careers, yet we were all told the same thing, “You are committing career suicide.” That is one change I hope to see in higher education. I hope that we are encouraging, rather than discouraging, students to pursue this research. We should also be including these issues more centrally in our curriculum. Everyone can benefit from developing the intellectual tools needed to understand what racism is and how it plays out in our workplaces and communities.
Curriculum that focuses on critical race and racism theory has been attacked in recent years. President Trump was not the first to attack this education. In Arizona, students and educators fought a legal battle against House Bill 2281, which successfully restricted courses on ethnic studies in 2010. A similar bill was proposed this January 2021. At the same time, students are expressing a desire to learn more about race and racism and a concern for having greater representation of BIPOC faculty teaching these courses and in general. That is where our focus in education needs to be now and several years from now.
There are efforts to expand Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. This is one of the ways academic institutions have responded to the Black Lives Matter protests and student calls for greater attention to the issues of racism and anti-blackness. What concerns me about such initiatives is that DEI can be watered down in a way that includes anything as “diverse” and have nothing at all to do with the issues of racism and anti-blackness that are of central concern to the Black Lives Matter Movement. I have written about the ways DEI initiatives can actually be exclusive rather than inclusive and how they could potentially further racism-evasiveness. Sociologists have shown that DEI can become a selling point and a popular designation people covet. Thus, when academic departments manage their impressions by claiming all their research and courses are DEI-related, they include everything on any “diverse” topic, whether or not these courses have anything to do with the racial inequality that prompted the increased interest in DEI. Given the political attacks specifically on critical race theory, initiatives should prioritize a racism-centered focus. Otherwise, these issues will once again be easily ignored in favor of more comfortable and broadly focused diversity. These are points I cover in my forthcoming book on liberal ideology that I would like to see addressed in higher education. A final point implied in this is that leaders in higher education must address the problem, not just of recruiting, but retaining BIPOC faculty and staff. This is an issue that our students repeatedly state is important to them.