On Thursday, December 17, 2020, the American Council of Learned Societies presented the latest event in its Humanistic Knowledge in the 21st Century series, “How Do We Get There? Accelerating Diversity in Slow-To-Change Humanities Fields.” A global audience of close to 400 people logged in to this Zoom event to hear a candid discourse exploring the history, current state, and solutions addressing humanities fields that, despite years of institutional efforts in diversity, remain mostly white and male. 

Sharing their experiences and perspectives for this roundtable were Anita L. Allen, Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, the first African American woman to hold both a PhD in philosophy and a law degree, and the first to be elected President of The American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division; Philip Ewell, Associate Professor of music theory, Hunter College of the City University of New York and 2020 ACLS Fellow for his work in critical-race studies in music; and Cord Whitaker, Associate Professor of English, Wellesley College where he conducts research, writes, and teaches on medieval English literature and the history of race.

“ACLS lives by the principle of inclusive excellence. That is, we believe that a core element in excellent scholarship is the broad participation of, and leadership by, people who bring diverse voices and perspectives to the work,” ACLS President Joy Connolly stated in her welcome. “It’s also our civic responsibility to figure out how to change starting by listening to and heeding people of color.”

Discussion moderator Pauline Saliga, executive director of the Society of Architectural Historians, which has been actively addressing ways to advance diversity in its field, noted SAH’s commitment to “putting everything on the table, so that we can carefully take things apart and reassemble to serve equity culture.” 

The discussion began with a topic facing many fields of study, organizations, and society in general: the conflation of the terms “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) and “anti-racism” and the challenges that arise from eliding these two stages of work.  

Professor Allen spoke of how the many discourses around diversity in higher education have evolved in the past half century, from talk of racial integration in the 1960s, to affirmative action in the 1970s, to diversity in the 1980s, multiculturalism in the 1990s, diversity and inclusion in the 2000s, and anti-racism today. 

“What I’ve seen is that the only thing that works is hands-on direct action. So I’m very encouraged by the emphasis in anti-racism on not thinking that sitting back and not doing bad things means that you’re doing good things.”

Professor Whitaker concurred. “I think it’s really important to think about diversity equity and inclusion, and anti-racism as, as in a kind of evolutionary relationship to one another,” he explained. “In my experiences as a medievalist, anti-racism has required the platform of diversity, equity and inclusion… Many of the pitfalls of the way that white supremacy can be deeply embedded in my field were not fully revealed. They were not able to be fully brought to light until there became a critical mass of scholars of color working in medieval studies.”

Recognizing the evolutionary arc in terminology and the need for DEI and anti-racism efforts to work hand in hand to continue progress, Professor Ewell was more cautious in his optimism. While applauding the progress and the contributions to it by Allen and Whitaker, he shared skepticism based on his experiences in the field of music theory. “I find that DEI initiatives, not always, but often represent something of a smokescreen…[a] kind of performative allyship, checking of boxes…Whereas the anti-racist work, which is uncovering white supremacist roots, whether it’s medieval studies or music theory, that’s hard work…There are some bitter pills to swallow. The closer I find that you actually get to uttering the word white, and the closer you get to utter the word male…the harder it is for power structures, which are in fact often white CIS gender men…to make these changes that we’re talking about.”

The roundtable continued with a wide-ranging discussion of several other topics including:

Personal motivations in pursuing their work and the barriers that persist that need to be removed to foster and sustain progress

Professor Whitaker: “One of the reasons that in my work I deal not only with medieval evidence itself but also with medievalism, the modern understandings of the period that are often laden with white supremacist prejudices, as well as CIS gendered prejudices, is precise because I was told in any number of ways that the middle ages were not for me professionally…I had my other networks that I was able to turn to…[but] I have since talked to others scholars, some of whom have left scholarship entirely, who were interested in becoming scholars of the Middle Ages until they too had a similar experience [and] they did not have the robust networks [and] it’s those kinds of networks that, that we have to build.” 

Areas in graduate education that need to change to advance equity 

Professor Ewell: “The curricula that have been handed down in music theory are absolutely representative of that 19th and 20th century white supremacy and patriarchy…[and] is still deeply, deeply rooted in that past…I’m critical of classes that literally feature 100% white men to be studied. I’m critical of placement exams that place your commitment – let’s be blunt – your commitment to whiteness and your commitment, maleness…because they are the things that people of color look at [and] say to themselves, ‘Why would I want to go to graduate school in that when the only thing it’s going to do is police and enforce the whiteness and maleness of the field?’”

Addressing the argument that the real diversity and inclusion problem in 2020 is a problem of “viewpoint diversity.”  

Professor Allen: “We know that with racial and ethnic diversity comes a variety of perspectives and those perspectives are needed and welcome. Oftentimes in my universities – I’ve been at Penn, Georgetown, University of Pittsburgh, [and] Carnegie Mellon full time, and at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, [and] in many other places across the world on visiting appointments – usually when people start asking for ‘viewpoint diversity,’ they’re actually asking, ‘Can we hear some conservative viewpoints?’ or ‘Can we hear about religious viewpoints?’ And I do think that conservative, libertarian, and even far right-wing perspectives have a place in a university, as do religious perspectives. But they’re not a substitute for or superior to the kind of viewpoint diversity that comes when you have a richly, ethnically, and racially diverse faculty.”

Additional Reading and Resources