Updated: Jul 21, 2020
Art by Fernanda Ponce
Professor Mufwene is the Frank J. McLoraine Distinguished Service Professor of Linguistics and the College. He is also the Interim Faculty Director at the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Have you had any specific experiences at the University of Chicago that have made you reflect on race?
There are numerous situations. In 2002, I went to Harvard as a visiting professor. UChicago was worried I would stay there at Harvard, so they promoted me to a Distinguished Service Professor. Now you have to wonder: is it because I’m so good, and the university appreciates me? Or is it because I’m good, but Black too, and the university wants enough Black people at UChicago? Do I know the answer? No. Should I dwell on this question? Probably not, because I would be wasting my time.
Another example is when you think that you are qualified [for an important position]--but you were not nominated, and somebody else that you think has fewer qualifications was nominated, and that person is white. How do you interpret this? You might speculate that a white person has been preferred to a Black person. But there might be other interpretations, like maybe that white person is good at networking, and I am not as good at networking.
Life is so full of ambiguities that make it difficult to deal with the issue of race. And because race is not discussed explicitly, how would you know that a situation is about race?
What is the effect of this kind of self questioning?
There are moments of insecurity, but also moments of indifference. If you’re too preoccupied by such questions you can be paralyzed and overwhelmed by the kinds of questions you ask about yourself.
But then there are other situations. For example, I have a white colleague, and I know he is very bright, but I was appointed as a Distinguished Service Professor before he was. And that again is one of those moments of discomfort. Is it because I’m Black that I was appointed to this position; is it because at that time I was at Harvard, and people felt that I might not come back? These are [also] the moments when you also say, wait a minute, I shouldn’t be addressing these issues in terms of race. Because there’s the luck factor: I was lucky enough to be recognized as particularly useful to the university at that time, and he was not.
How do you feel about the University of Chicago’s atmosphere for students of colour?
It’s been a long time since I was a student at UChicago in the 1970s. At that time, we were a very small minority. There weren’t as many people of colour as there are now. Now students are more organized [in cultural organizations], and every group tries to promote and defend their own interests. Having a space where they can socialize alone, that’s important for them, and a space where they can practice their own subcultures, that’s significant. But also I expect them to deal with issues of insertion in the majority population at the university.
I came from Africa, the Congo, and I had never been in an environment where white people were the majority. But here, all of a sudden, in class I was the only Black person-- or if not the only Black person. We were a very small minority, compared to the rest of the white class. In my case, I had a very thick accent. Every time I spoke, people would turn around to try to understand me. Attracting attention like that makes me uncomfortable.
For anyone who relocates to a place, there is a whole lot of culture to learn, and in the vast majority of cases, people don’t offer you classes about the host culture. You learn by trial and error; you make so many mistakes, and you learn from your mistakes.