The Genre is Horror: Academia as a Never-ending Scary Movie for Black People

constance iloh
4 min readFeb 25, 2021

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Source: Get Out movie poster

For some time, I have felt disconnected from much of the depictions and descriptions of racism and anti-Blackness in academia. Not because the facts aren’t there or even because the premises don’t make sense. Rather, because the terror of being Black in academia is never quite characterized in ways that reflect its gravity. What was missing from these accounts is the maddening feeling that a peril you can’t avoid is around the corner. Absent is the uncertainty of which direction to go when you are encircled by danger. Lacking are the screams for help that may as well be silence as a cruel fate becomes imminent. I discovered through horror films a way to discuss Black academic realities sometimes more gruesome than fiction.

The violence is real

Horror films don’t shy away from the reality of their physical and psychological violence. The blood, breakdowns, bodies, and chilling portrayals consistently reflect the damage. And yet, when thinking about academia’s brutality towards Black people, the violence doesn’t match the way we talk about or address it. Buried under the language of microaggressions, implicit bias and white fragility, are terrors that command more range. Such frail framing does nothing but render racism as a mere mistake or an inconvenience. Horror films often show that violent acts should be named as such and that their devastation can’t be made into something more palatable and pleasant.

The reality of violence allows us to also understand how Black academics’ safety is routinely jeopardized and that more is required than half-baked sentiments and silence in response. Universities can then be understood as disinvested, complicit, and disengaged from protecting Black people if negligent of said violence. Would you ignore the reality that Freddie Krueger keeps killing people, or try to figure out how to stop Freddie Krueger from killing people?

The disregard for losses and casualties

Ever notice how in some horror films people just die and there is no time or space given to recognize or mourn the loss? That the show quite literally goes on as someone else meets their untimely end. Being Black in academia often means experiencing all kinds of loss. And since our humanity is often disregarded, so are our losses. For some, the loss or death is a “spirit murder,” (a concept Dr. Patricia Williams created and Dr. Bettina Love discusses) that erodes our very being beyond the physical. There are also those that see themselves finding no other way to survive but to leave untenable spaces or the academic industry as a whole. Many Black academics are also losing years of life due to the aggregate impact of stress and engagement in toxic spaces. In all this loss, death, and necessity to survive; where is the time and space to truly grieve and reflect on the Black condition in academia?

Additionally distressing is that Black academic losses are frequently accepted and deemed functional to the academic enterprise. By Black academics often being both disparaged and treated as disposable, it is rarely inquired what kinds of environments Black scholars are brought into. As you read this, there is an administrator somewhere plotting a Black faculty cluster hire or Black initiative to distract from obvious casualties of insufferable work environments and non-existent retention structures. Surely in academia, the adage in scary movies that “Black people are the first to get sacrificed or killed” lives on and takes new levels.

The duality of the victim and the villainized

While there is often a clear separation of victims and monsters in horror films, being Black in academia could mean you experience being a victim while treated as a villain. From speaking up about unjust experiences to just excelling and existing in ways people don’t like; you may be mistreated while also depicted as divisive and/or menacing to the space. In some ways, those that inflict harm against Black academics are more likely to be treated with empathy than the afflicted. Conversely, punishment is more likely to occur for the Black academic trying to address injustices than those responsible for them. In all this, you are prey to whoever decides to make you a monster.

This duality of the victim that is vilified is beyond consequential. Rarely do the villainized get to frame the narrative or the legend. This helps to breed and feed an academic culture where it is normalized for no one to address our grievances or want to see us make it out alive.

In their finite story, scary movies possess an enviable point of difference. While one can turn off the Nightmare on Elm Street, Black academics can’t turn off any nightmares awaiting them in the academy.

Dr. Constance Iloh is an anthropologist, visual artist, photographer, and qualitative methodologist. She is an Associate Professor at Azusa Pacific University. Her work has been featured in Photo Vogue, NPR, Politico, and Forbes- who named her to their 30 under 30 list. She has created some lit things, including the Iloh Model of College-going Decisions and Trajectories. Professor Iloh has been invited to share her work with the Tavis Smiley Show, University Innovation Alliance, Telemundo, NBC Universal. You can follow her on Twitter @Constanceiloh, LinkedIn, Google Scholar, Academia.Edu, Instagram, Blog, YouTube, About.Me, and Tumblr; as well as read more about her on her website, www.constanceiloh.com.

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constance iloh

Constance Iloh is an anthropologist, qualitative methodologist, photographer, & visual artist. See more @ www.constanceiloh.com & www.constanceiloh.photography