There are new calls for fundamental changes in academic disciplines this month to address systemic racism. At Oxford, music department staff is calling for the removal of sheet music from the school’s curriculum as a relic of the “colonial past.” In a leading anthropology journal, two professors have criticized forensic anthropology and the traditional study of skulls to determine ancestry as inherently racist. The calls are indicative of fundamental changes demanded in many of our academic disciplines. Such debates are good for academic institutions, but only if faculty and students feel comfortable in challenging such claims. On many of our campuses, there is a palpable fear about speaking out at the risk of being labelled racist or insensitive on such issues.
According to The Telegraph, the proposal at Oxford would remove sheet music from the curriculum because such music notation has not “shaken off its connection to its colonial past” and shows complicity in “white supremacy.” The staff further argue that such training to read music is a “slap in the face” for students of color. They also argue that any requirements on learning how to conduct orchestras or playing piano serve to “structurally center white European music” and cause “students of color great distress.”
In an article published by the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, professors Elizabeth DiGangi of Binghamton University and Jonathan Bethard of the University of South Florida applied critical race theory to challenge the very premise of forensic anthropology that skull size and shape can help trace ancestry due to the shared traits:
“Conceptualized in response to entrenched racism in the American legal system, CRT attempts to address and redress systemic wrongs by interrogating how racism has become normalized in our legal and social structures and its resultant practical consequences . Reticence by local and state governments and citizens to abolish persistent Confederate symbols in our public spaces is one example of a problem that CRT is uniquely suited to address, because this disinclination is a symptom of structural racism. The body of theory is therefore used as a mechanism to elucidate and dismantle the structures that uphold white supremacy and privilege, and as systemic, pervasive, and embedded in global institutions to include science, anthropology, and the academy.”
In applying CRT, the professors conclude that “the practice of ancestry estimation contributes to white supremacy.” They argue:
“in addition to the discussed scientific problems, the main point is not whether or not we are consciously or purposefully perpetuating the biological race concept, or whether ancestry estimation “works,” or whether researchers have created more sophisticated ways to demonstrate that it works—the point here is that by providing an ancestry estimate grounded in traits of the skull, we are reinforcing law enforcement and the public’s belief in the concept of biological race. “
I do not agree with the challenges to sheet music and forensic anthropology, but I would be interested in listening to such a debate. The problem is that there is little faith anymore about the ability to debate such issues. While many insist that “we need to talk about race,” academics are routinely fired and investigated after engaging in such discussions. Indeed, intent often does not matter in the use of terms challenged as offensive in classes or writings.
In their column on forensic anthropology, Professors DiGangi and Jonathan Bethard note that their challenge is likely to make many uncomfortable but insists that such feelings are just the residue of racism coming forward:
“We anticipate that this discussion may displease some readers and/or make them uncomfortable. The irony is that this reluctance and discomfort are part and parcel of the insidious nature of structural racism, as discussed earlier. Our white privilege allows us to not see it unless it affects us directly and therefore we deny or downplay its existence and/or significance, even though it is hiding in plain sight.”
However, there is also the discomfort of any faculty that they cannot challenge such racism claims without putting their careers and future academic opportunities at risk. The result is a silence that is reinforced by canceling campaigns. Many professors actively target dissenting voices on campuses and, in so doing, intimidate others from speaking out. This statement is an excellent example. While saying that they want to have a debate, DiGangi and Bethard dismiss any expressions of discomfort “as part and parcel of the insidious nature of structural racism.” In other words, feel free to disagree but your objections will be treated as evidence of the hold of structural racism on you and your institution.