The glaring exclusion of black actors from this year’s Oscars nominations has sparked a conversation about the whiteness of the nominating body and of the movie industry at large. The New Yorker’s Andrew Brody elaborates: “The underlying issue of the Academy’s failure to recognize black artists is the presumption that baseline experience is white experience and that black life is a niche phenomenon, life with an asterisk.” This is why movies about white people are just called movies, whereas movies about black people are specifically black movies. White is the default, and everything else is additive.
How does this peripheralization of non-white experiences take shape within our own academy? Just as the film industry produces art assuming a certain white baseline, so too does the university produce knowledge built on a certain definition of excellence. Our academy’s definition of excellence is most visible in the subjects we are taught and texts we read, featured in the syllabi we comb through at the start of each new quarter.
Syllabi, according to a recent New York Times piece on the topic, “represent the best efforts by faculty and instructors to distill human knowledge on a given subject into 14-week chunks.” It follows then, that the most frequently taught texts make up knowledge worth knowing, according to the University. A new set of metadata, which culls one million syllabi from universities across the U.S., reveals the top 10 most taught texts all come from the Western tradition: 1) William Strunk’s “The Elements of Style” 2) Plato’s “Republic” 3) Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” 4) Neil Campbell’s “Biology” 5) Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” 6) Aristotle’s “Ethics” 7) Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” 8) Niccoló Machiavelli’s “The Prince” 9) Sophocles’ “Oedipus” and 10) William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” This list conveys that books worth reading are written by and about white Westerners.
While individual Stanford professors may be aware of academia’s Eurocentric bend, they may not always have the expertise to reorient their fields of study. For example, at the first session of a comparative literature course called “The Novel,” the professor asked us to weigh in on the almost exclusively white syllabus, because admittedly, he specializes in European literature and wasn’t sure who else to include. As we went around the room, each person of color (and a couple of white students too) listed off as many non-white names they could conjure, frantically trying to maximize this rare opportunity to make the syllabus reflect a broader intellectual field. It was clear, however, that the European authors were the baseline, and if we were lucky, a few authors from the alternative canons we presented would make the list.
To some extent, a European professor highlighting literature written by people like him that feature people like him is only natural. If I knew of books about half-Korean, half-Jewish American females, you bet I’d include them in my syllabus. We often value books and movies that depict our own realities. In theory, this is not a bad thing — we are indeed most qualified to speak about that with which we have personal experience.
The problem arises when there is a disproportionate number of professors from the same tradition, teaching the same tradition. At most American universities, that means the European tradition. This creates the illusion of a white baseline and obscures the subjectivity behind our understanding of excellence.
What we are taught depends in large part on who’s teaching us. Learning texts that capture the breadth of human experience requires an equally broad range of professors equipped to teach beyond the traditional canon. Those professors will need to be hired by a university that values their expertise, and the university will only value their expertise once they are hired. But they won’t be hired in the first place if their expertise is not valued. Therein lies the tricky catch-22 of changing an institution designed to replicate itself.
In response to the recent Oscars controversy, the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has committed to “doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.” Many were quick to point out that the problem of minority underrepresentation stems from the homogeneity of the larger film industry. That is, the pool of films to choose from is itself not diverse enough. And that’s because directors and producers are not diverse enough, which is because studios don’t fund projects outside the bounds of “excellence” as determined by bodies like the not-diverse-enough Academy. A familiar cycle emerges.
In both Hollywood and academia, the solution rests on simultaneously diversifying the pool of production (movies and syllabi), the producers (directors and professors) and those who deem the producers excellent (the Academy and older professors/administrators).
In the meantime, the best I can do as an individual is become a conscious consumer of both media and academia. On Netflix, this might look like watching shows by people of color about people of color, like “Master of None” or “How to Get Away with Murder.” At school, this might look like choosing classes that center non-white experiences taught by professors with those experiences, like Jeff Chang’s “Who We Be: Art, Images & Race in Post-Civil Rights America” or Allyson Hobbs’ “Racial Identity in the American Imagination.”
Contact Madeleine Chang at madeleinechang ‘at’ stanford.edu.