Jamillah R. Gabriel, Unit for Criticism SCT Fellow, Summer 2019

A Reflection of My Time at SCT

When I learned that the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory would be funding my participation at this summer’s School of Criticism and Theory, I was beyond excited for the opportunity to immerse myself in critical theory while learning from scholars whose work I admire and aspire to.  As a doctoral student in the School of Information Sciences, I have found that critical theory is largely absent from much of the scholarship that is produced in my discipline. Consequently, I have had to seek opportunities outside of my program to supplement my studies with courses that demonstrate how to implement critical theory in my own scholarship. To that end, I embarked upon six weeks of study on the Cornell University campus, eager for what was to come and determined to take advantage of as many seminars, talks, discussions, lectures, and whatever else SCT had to offer. I was certain that this would be an unforgettable experience. And it was. But what I did not expect was how the experience would be marred by incidents that were indicative of racism at worst, and white privilege and fragility at best.

At SCT, I had the opportunity to attend the Black Life seminar that was expertly facilitated by Dr. Alexander Weheliye during which participants discussed intellectual ideas around the ontology and epistemology of Blackness. I expected this seminar to provide a deep dive into Blackness and its global impact, and I was not disappointed. Knowing that spaces such as SCT and Cornell University lack diversity and continue to be predominantly white, I was particularly pleased to discover that there was a record number of Black attendees at SCT this year, many of whom were in the Black Life seminar. Not only was I immersed in critical theory, but the seminar also provided a sustained study of intellectual writing within the Black radical tradition—critical theory that actually speaks to the realities of Black people and people of color. I attended the seminar knowing that we would explore difficult topics around race which would hopefully open up avenues of scholarship that I had not previously considered. I was prepared to have conversations that could be potentially uncomfortable and awkward simply because discussions about race can often be so. What I was not prepared for was the exit of several white participants who decided to drop the seminar rather than discuss their positionalities as white scholars doing Black Studies. I certainly could not have predicted how this, among other incidents, resulted in an environment that suggested that I and other Black participants were unwanted. I was left feeling disappointed by how the SCT leadership handled these incidents, although I was thankful for the support provided by Jim Utz and unexpected allies also attending SCT.

Academic institutions are representative of the hegemony I write about in my current scholarship which examines how hegemonic institutions continue to perpetuate and uphold inequities of race, gender, class, etc., particularly in the ways they are structured and in how they impact marginalized people. Unfortunately, SCT is no different and I urge its leadership to examine how it can move beyond the strict confines of the Frankfurt School model of critical theory towards one that more readily acknowledges other types of intellectual thought and minoritarian knowledge systems. While I can say that my seminar in Black Life with Dr. Weheliye was the highlight of my summer, I feel that SCT made certain to remind me of my otherness at every turn. I also cannot ignore the fact that there are serious issues around diversity and inclusion in terms of content, participants, and faculty that need to be addressed in order to insure that the academic environment so carefully cultivated by SCT is indeed one that is welcoming and emotionally safe for ALL people.

Despite these circumstances, I am beyond thankful to the Unit and Dr. Koshy for the opportunity to attend SCT and for supporting my development as a budding scholar of critical theory. I would also like to thank my professors Junaid Rana and Candice Jenkins whose Unit courses were the perfect preparation for SCT.