Discrimination Still Exists, and So Should Identity Studies


"But it's just not fair!"

The phrase slipped out before I could catch it. I'd been attending the Women's and Gender Studies committee meetings as a student representative, and the frustration had been festering for months. I couldn't take it anymore, which resulted in my impassioned (albeit rather child-like) declaration. While some faculty members looked at me empathetically, others gave me a "you're just realizing this now?" kind of expression. 

My fervent reaction stemmed from listening to countless conversations regarding limited funding and lack of support by the administration for the Women's and Gender Studies program at my university. This lack of funding for the program (not officially recognized as a department ...) results in the following: limited to no hiring of new faculty (the program relies on those in other fields to teach extra classes), lack of variety and limited number of classes offered, no tenure track for those working solely for the program, and limited funding for educational events.

Believe it or not, students are interested in Women's Studies. The Introduction to Women's Studies course at Georgetown University has become so popular among male and female students alike that there is an extensive wait-list.

So, what gives? In the United States, university administrations and scholars, such as Christina Hoff Sommers and Bruce Bawer, have called into question the necessity of the "identity studies": Women's Studies, Black Studies, Native American Studies, Chicano/a Studies, and Queer Studies, to name a few. This skepticism is reflected in a lack of administrative support due to (I boldly argue) an inherently-biased structure that continues to value disciplines such as STEM over the humanities. Yet the reason for my outcry in the beginning of this article comes from a deep-rooted belief that the identity studies are crucial. They provide us with a critical lens that sees through power structures, identity formations and social constructs and can serve as a catalyst for positive change and societal growth. 

After discussing these ideas with my professors and peers, the two most common arguments against the identity studies seem to be the following:

Argument #1:  Racism and sexism aren't as bad as they were before, so we don't need to study them.

My response: Racism and sexism are built into our systems and institutions; therefore, unless we have a major societal overhaul there is an urgency to study them.

In her book, Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Beverly Tatum describes the difference between active racism and passive racism. Active racism, what we think of when we think of the KKK, is when a person is an outward bigot and intentional with his or her sentiments. Passive racism is less obvious: "laughing at racist jokes, avoiding race-related issues or letting exclusionary hiring practices go unchallenged." This concept, also applicable to sexism, illustrates that while people in 2013 may not seem as actively racist or sexist as they were in 1950, racism and sexism are still embedded within our institutions. 

Argument #2:  By studying "identity," you're only perpetuating victimization and isolating those who fall under specific identity categories.

My response: The unfortunate reality is that these identities do make a difference in our day to day lives. For example, I'm an avid runner, but I don't go running alone at night because I'm a woman. The possibility of sexual assault is part of my reality. Studying systems through the lens of identity can serve as a catalyst for empowerment. Women's and Gender Studies, specifically, has brought to my attention the intersection of race, class, gender, sex, and ethnicity which has fostered a genuine empathy for others and a drive to work towards justice. In studying these systems, students are often left with a heightened awareness (contrary to popular belief, this is NOT a "man-hating" or "white-bashing" perspective) that they will later apply to their respective fields and professions.

Upon reflecting on the past four years (at two different universities), I've come to see college as a smaller version of our broader society. The two arguments I've listed above illustrate how many individuals feel about identities on a larger scale. This further proves why we need the identity studies: to serve as a check for mainstream thinking.

Although universities are meant to foster curricula that challenge current beliefs about the world, it seems as though these very institutions are keeping certain disciplines (and ideas!) from flourishing.

But alas, there is hope! Some universities are beginning to note the value of an interdisciplinary education, which cultivates deep analytical and critical thinking skills and can also provide students with the flexibility to work in different areas after graduation. I can only hope other institutions follow suit.

The identity studies wield an enormous amount of transformational power because they lead to a deeper understanding of our society through the framework of human experience. Being a Women's and Gender Studies major has inspired me to dedicate my life to social justice. I want to see what it does for others.