Image credit: Osmosis by Dr. Fahamu Pecou (2020), Acrylic on Canvas.
Cathy J. Cohen is the David and Mary Winton Green Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science, the former Deputy Provost for Graduate Education, and the former Director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago. She burst onto the scene with the first study of AIDS as it manifested in African American communities, The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics (1999), becoming one of the leading scholars of Black politics in the modern United States. A longtime community activist, she has been involved in numerous Black, queer, and feminist organizations and is the founder of the Black Youth Project, a website devoted to Black youth.
A few months ago, we sat down to talk about how to create a university where Black students and faculty can not only survive but thrive—and why that university would serve all of us better.
Claire Potter [CP]: Cathy, could we start with how you became a scholar?
Cathy Cohen[CC]: I come from Toledo, Ohio, and I have a working-class background. Neither of my parents finished college, but both believed deeply in education as a route to social, political, and economic mobility for their children. They also believed deeply in community. With education came more demands and more responsibilities to build community, to share what you know.
I suspect many Black people have a similar trajectory: I did very well in school, particularly high school, which meant I was bound for college. My brother went to the University of Toledo and stayed at home, and I decided to go to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio because it wasn’t far from home.
There, I was impressed by both Black and women professors. I wondered, “Huh, how did they do this? How did they get there?” I worked for a couple of years after graduate school, and then I thought, “I want to go into political science because I want to study politics.”
I went to the University of Michigan and found supporters and colleagues there. Like at Miami University, most of the students—and even most of the Black students—at Michigan were third- or fourth-generation. Their parents had gone to college, and often their grandparents. By comparison, I think there were some faculty who thought, “Oh wow, she has great potential.” And others who thought, “Why hasn’t she read this already?”
But I did well, passed my exams, and landed on a dissertation that animated me. I found committee members who said, “This is a great dissertation. Even though it isn’t traditionally what we do in political science, it will have an impact.”
CP: That project became The Boundaries of Blackness.
CC: Yes. I remember getting on an elevator with a faculty member, and they said, “That’s not political science, Cathy.” It was like, oh yeah. But when I think about my trajectory, I have studied how people on the margins think about politics, freedom, and political activity. I have fought to center their activism as something the discipline needs to pay attention to.
Fortunately, my first job was at Yale, a joint appointment in political science and African American studies. I think that joint appointment kept me in the academy. It was the ability to be talking to someone like the brilliant Hazel Carby, who encouraged me to incorporate Black feminism and theories from American studies. I would then go over to political science and be rooted and anchored in a discipline.
I found a home in that joint appointment. I felt empowered to challenge the discipline but also a niche in political science. After Yale, I was recruited to Chicago, and because I studied Black people, I thought, “There’s probably no better place to do that work.”
It was also four hours from home in Toledo, Ohio.
CP: How did you find community as a first-generation student?
CC: Out of necessity. Miami University is a great liberal arts institution, but in my time, it was not just predominantly white but predominantly, predominantly white. As a first-gen, you don’t really know how to pick a school. My cousin went to Miami, he ran track, and he invited me to visit. I met all his friends. All his friends were Black. I thought, “Okay, this will be kind of cool.”
Then I got there. It’s like, wait a minute. This is not the university I visited. Then you ask: How am I going to survive here? The answer is you seek out people who are similarly positioned.
That meant Black students, but it also meant queer students. Then, that meant lesbian and gay students, so I volunteered at a mental health hotline with a bunch of lesbians. You attach yourself to institutions that facilitate this kind of bonding, places where you can say: “This is who I am. This is my full self.”
You find institutions that already exist, and you build ones that don’t. At Michigan, I joined other, mostly Black, students engaged in political activism and making demands on the university, and we built an organization called United Coalition Against Racism (UCAR). Many of those people are literally my family, my best friends still.
As we know from social movement literature, you build bonds through activism that are meaningful, both in terms of your political activity, but also in terms of who you are and how you want to be seen and supported. But I have also found white faculty who were supportive of my work and invested in me. At Yale, political science was great. I will always be deeply appreciative of their support.
But AFAM (African American Studies) was still such a critical institution. Interacting with Hazel Carby allowed me to say, “I’m going to write ‘Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics’” (1997). If I were just in poli-sci, with its truncated understanding of what is political resistance and what is political theory, I’m not sure that article would have been written. But in AFAM, where people think more broadly, the assumption is of course, you’re going to center Black subjects in all of their complexity.
One of the reasons to come to Chicago, although there was there was no AFAM, was the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, which I joined, then directed, and which encouraged me to build relationships outside the institution. I could be involved in political activity and building community that wasn’t in any way dependent on, or limited by, the university.
CP: You were first-gen, working-class, Black, a woman, a lesbian. One of the features of academic white supremacy is the assumption all Black students are marginalized in the same way, and some will be more empowered than others.
CC: Let’s start with the complexity of white faculty. There are colleagues who see white supremacy, understand its reproduction, and are committed to transformation and change in the academy. There are also nice, wonderful, liberal, white scholars, many of whom supported me and who also may not understand the academy as a site for the reproduction of white supremacy.
I think it might even be more difficult at this moment to provide white faculty with a sense of the complexity of Black people entering the institution. For example, when we highlight programs to elevate students of color, like the Odyssey Program, which focuses on first-generation [students], then that is the messaging about who all Black students are.
But some Black people come with deep levels of privilege, or at least familiarity with the university as an institution. That was something that surprised me. When I went to graduate school, I realized, “Wait a minute, all these people understand the university because they have family members who finished their BAs and went on to graduate school.”
So, I think it is difficult for white colleagues who want to lean in and be supportive of students of color to also appreciate the complexity of students of color.
CP: But there may be privileged Black students who confront the tyranny of low expectations for the first time, right?
CC: Oh, I hear from undergrads all the time about the assumptions: of course, you’re going to have some difficulty with writing, or of course you’ll have difficulty with understanding this material, or calling one young Black woman another Black woman’s name—because it’s too much to be able to distinguish them.
Here’s a place to tell a story about the complexity, though. In my first year at Yale, I was a hard teacher. I’m a Black woman, first-generation, I’ve got to show my chops. Then my chair calls and says, “This is weird, Cathy, but a student and her parent has made a complaint about you. Don’t worry about it. You’ve got great course evaluations.” It turns out that I’d given the student a C, and I agreed to meet with the parent.
I walk in the room and—it’s a Black woman. And she said, “You gave my daughter a C. She’s trying to go to law school. She can’t have a C.” Just a Yale thing. And her view was, “Professor Cohen doesn’t like middle-class Black people.” I thought, “How perfect,” right? So, I think it can be hard for white people to see the complexity and the different positionalities of Black people in the academy.
CP: What could get white people to even be aware that there are things they need to know? Because I think many are terrified of being told they are being, or saying, something racist, and it becomes a barrier to engagement.
CC: This is hard because at some level I feel like I don’t care. I mean, look, y’all figure it out. But I think one thing is hiring senior Black people who can say, “Wait a minute, do you understand what you’re saying? It’s wrong.”
I’ll give you an example. We have amazing students of color in the political science department at Chicago. They’re located in American politics, but many study race. In a meeting, a colleague said, “We don’t have enough grad students in American politics.”
I responded, “What are you talking about? We have great students. They’re getting great jobs. They may not take a lot of your courses because they’re interested in the study of a race, but they exist even if they’re not working with you.” It was unintentional racism, but I think it’s critical to have people of color with power who can interrupt it.
And it isn’t just what individual faculty members do. What does the curriculum look like? What are our hiring procedures? How do we evaluate candidates? Why are we using citations and teaching evaluations in promotions when all the literature tells us that these systems are biased against women and people of color?
There are systemic ways in which unintentional, and unchecked, racism gets reproduced in departments and universities, and there can be interventions. Colleagues must build relationships in spaces where they can raise these issues. At the University of Chicago, we’re creating a new Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity. We’ve asked different centers where there might not be lots of faculty of color to engage in a conversation about what this department could mean to them.
And where there are sites with more radical or conscious white faculty who have the power to control resources and dialogues, these colleagues have to be responsible for engaging in discussions about racism and white supremacy in the academy, anti-Blackness, and the roles they can play to make change.
Then, how do we create mechanisms for students to report the anti-Blackness and white supremacy that they experience in a classroom so that we can intervene and engage faculty members about why that behavior has to stop.
CP: One issue you are raising is the taxonomies of knowledge, ones that have been contested by Black scholars since the nineteenth century. Why has the university been so resistant to reopening them?
CC: Well, look, the disciplines have a long history, and the language of “discipline” is the appropriate language, right? They are about disciplining you into a certain kind of canonical understanding of what is relevant, what is the literature, and so on. That is an area that has been controlled by white scholars for a very long time.
When you introduce faculty of color who want to explode that, it is perceived as de-legitimizing and, undoubtedly, taking power away from those who believe they have expertise in the canon. It then becomes a question about power.
I think the way the university has responded to such demands is predictable: you can have your own department. Right? Because that allows them to preserve the traditional disciplines dominated by white scholars and their writing. And for a very long time, the agreement was, “Okay, you can have that department, but when you hire, it has to be a joint position.” So the traditional disciplines get to weigh in and say, “Does this person have merit?”
What new departments must do is hire the people on the basis of how they evaluate merit and insist on a different approach to the idea of the university. Maybe how we think about curriculum is different, or how we think about teaching is different. We’re going to teach university students, but we’re also going to teach at the state prison, and we’re going to bring those students together.
We’re going to ask our students to not just do service learning, but to act in partnership with the community. We’re going to tell them, “If you want to write your dissertation on social movements, then you also need to be accountable to those movements.”
This pushes on the rest of the university. If new departments exist to exist and leave the power structure unchanged, we can’t reimagine what the university might be.
I want to be careful because I don’t think my work is only about moving white scholars. I build institutions where I can fulfill my vision of what the academy should look like. Some of us understand our work as politicized and see ourselves in struggle in the same way that we support struggles and movements outside the university.
CP: To what extent is building alliances with white faculty who will support the transformation of the university possible and helpful?
CC: For me, the focus should be power. If you think about Robin Kelley’s Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (2003), we all have freedom dreams about what we think universities should be. It’s the ability to have many people from lots of different places access universities, to have students exposed to new ways of thinking, to allow them spaces to reimagine, to foster their collective engagement.
It’s about building coalitions of people who share a vision of what the university might be, what the academy might be, who worry about deep inequality, adjunctification, and the racial hierarchies that exist in the university. We must worry about how universities exploit surrounding, often Black, communities, and the expansion of university police forces.
That’s what I think the university should be. It’s not just a Black analysis. And I don’t assume that all Black faculty agree with my vision. In fact, I am very clear that is not true. I don’t assume that the shared positionality of Blackness or being a lesbian or being a first-gen means that we see things the same. It means that there’s a propensity for us to see things the same.
The question is: Can we do work together?
CP: I want to discuss community support, particularly the importance of your parents’ vision for what you would achieve: that it created the capacity for resilience in a world not friendly to a Black, queer woman coming in and blowing things up.
CC: I would not have made it through graduate school, or that first position at Yale, without the grounding my parents gave me. They taught me that it’s hard out there for Black people, and the way you not just survive, but thrive, is to know who you are, that you have meaning and purpose, and that you have a huge family who loves you and is excited by everything in front of you.
Here’s a story. The first time I got a sabbatical at Yale, I called my parents. My dad answered and I said, “Dad, I got a sabbatical.” I said, “I get the year off. I don’t have to work or anything.”
He said, “They fired you?”
I said, “No, they didn’t fire me, but I get the year off.”
He said, “Cathy, nobody gives you money not to work.”
I always laugh at that, but these moments are a check on reality for me. I can talk to my family and they’re like, “Okay, that seems ridiculous.” Even though it exists in the academy, how does it show up in the rest of the world? How do people make sense of what we do and how do we communicate that? Part of my resilience is knowing I don’t have to be separated from everything that I grew up with just to be an academic.
Similarly, I have a responsibility to students going through the same things: to make sure they understand that I see them, I see their struggle. I went through that struggle. I survived that struggle. They’re going to survive that struggle.
It always saddens me when I hear students say, “Oh my God, you’re the first Black professor I’ve had since I’ve been here.” Now, you could have a Black professor that’s not especially attuned to providing you with support, but what they’re saying to me is: I need to see someone who looks like me, who can validate that I’m here and working hard to be here.
I have a responsibility as a Black professor to build resiliency in my students, to challenge them, to see them as brilliant and to push them, to hear their ideas, to not discipline them into thinking a certain way, but to have them engage their lived experience too.
I don’t think it’s necessarily Black teaching, but it does allow us to see that the university can do exceptional things when we have a diverse group of people in the room thinking together, articulating different lived experiences and challenging each other to think differently about and theorize what can be brought into the classroom.
Part of what I find amazing about being a professor at this moment is watching the change that’s coming, not always from institutions, but from young people and their demands on institutions. Their demands for a different type of faculty in terms of demographics. Their demands for different types of subjects. Their demands to be connected to the communities that are around the university. Their demands on the neoliberal university and their critique of that. I think that then changes everything that I’m able to do in the classroom and how I’m situated at the university.
Cathy J. Cohen is the David and Mary Winton Green Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science, the former Deputy Provost for Graduate Education, and the former Director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago.
Claire Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research, and Co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar.