Why Didn't You Take a Black Studies Course in College?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

During my conversation last week with Bria Godley, a black undergraduate at Yale, she theorized that “the disconnect between how Yale presents itself and the reality of racial strife at Yale is partly due to students’ tendency to academically self-segregate.” She explained:

...black students are overrepresented in Af-Am Studies classes. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, I cannot help but roll my eyes when white students defend themselves by saying that they simply “don’t understand” what it is like to be a minority, as if the minority experience is not well documented in current events and in literature. The people of color at Yale can articulate injustices, no matter how nuanced, not only because of their lived experience but also because of the vocabulary and theoretical framework that these classes and the articles they read have given them. But, it seems as if white students tend to shy away from the topic of race because they not only lack the experience, but the educational and theoretical foundation to address it.

Although Yale projects this image of a diverse community in which people are smart enough to avoid offending others with their ignorance, due to this self-segregation, many students of color at Yale feel isolated and disrespected by the majority population.

One needn’t hold any particular view in the long-running debate over the optimal role of black studies on campus to see how students at the same institution, but enmeshed in different texts, frameworks, and academic approaches, might feel isolated from one another or talk past one another in ways that cause some to feel disrespected.

And I wondered, how do Yalies decide whether or not to take a black studies course, anyway? Yale graduate Christopher Finney emailed one answer:

I have a master’s from Yale, and based on my experience there, this seems like an easy question. There are many fascinating courses available at any university, more so at a place like Yale. And there is no lack of important, timely, fundamental issues to learn about. So the answer is easy: people have limited time, they have majors to pursue, they have their own areas of interest, and it’s unreasonable to expect people to be fully conversant in the “theoretical frameworks” of everything.

African American studies is important, and I don’t mean to minimize it (within my own field––conservation––environmental justice is a framework I take into consideration regularly because I took a class at Yale, which points toward Bria Godley’s idea). But if she thinks every undergrad should have to take a class in African American studies, or read certain books or articles, then that implies priorities, which implies importance. But is African American studies more important than understanding the philosophical underpinnings of liberal democracy, or the likely effects of climate change, or the impacts of oil prices on U.S. policy in the Middle East, or the feminist critique of modern capitalism?

Those are important too, and it’s awfully hard to really understand even one of them, let alone all of them. No one is fully versed in everything, and they shouldn’t have to be to have a respectful dialogue. If people like Godley (who seems to be preparing to dedicate her life’s work to this field) only see room for meaningful discussion of these issues with people who took the right classes at Yale, well, thing have a long way to trickle down before we see a better police force in Ferguson.

Now, that actually goes beyond the view that Godley expressed; she made a more narrowly drawn point about why she believes there is a disconnect between how Yale presents itself and how it is. Taking her out of it, I thank the reader for articulating a view that some other Yalies no doubt share. One aspect of his thinking tracks my own: it’s really important for people who have different ur-theories of race in America to find discrete, constructive ways to converse and work together. Beyond a tiny elite, most people will never take the same college coursework.

That insight isn’t actually inconsistent with Godley’s argument: that black students at Yale would feel less isolated if more non-black students took black studies coursework. And I remain curious about why other college students and college graduates, at Yale or beyond, did or didn’t enroll in ethnic studies classes themselves. I suspect that, lingering in the answers, there are insights as to whether or not broader participation would be salutary and, if so, how it might be achieved.

Email me if you’re up for explaining your decision and whether you think it was the right one.