Do You Have To Say That You Are Black?

Matiangai Sirleaf reflects on the importance of rendering whiteness visible in scholarship, connecting this to the aggressions of whitesplaining and whitewashing – and how both function to stymie Black intellectualism in international law and beyond.


TWAILR: Reflections #43/2022

Whiteness, as the unspoken baseline, never needs to be stated. Rather, it is assumed and backgrounded as the norm.1 This template then functions to other those that do not conform. The role of whiteness is rendered invisible in academia. Indeed, whiteness is presumed as neutral. It dominates and governs. It dictates what it means to be an academic and to have one’s work considered sufficiently scholarly. Against this background, Black and other scholars of color are deemed almost inherently too close to their chosen subject matter, especially when writing about issues that implicate race.  

This is the double consciousness of which DuBois spoke of in the Strivings of the Negro People, the ability to look at oneself through the eyes of others, ‘measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.’ Makau Mutua elaborates on this double consciousness. He poignantly describes the profound discomfort and alienation that comes from reflecting on the history of international law, which ‘makes me feel as though I am an afterthought to the discipline, as a ‘thing’ that international law defines, accommodates, exploits, tolerates and controls. It is ‘their’ international law, a discourse that calls and treats me like a savage and strips me of my dignity and humanity.’2  The duality of being an insider-outsider captures the conflict of existing as a Black scholar in international law, of being within and without simultaneously. It encapsulates so much of the struggles faced when #TheorizingWhileBlack. 

This duality and the tensions of double consciousness have become increasingly magnified given the current backlash in the United States against accurately discussing and teaching about the role of racism in history.3 I remember vividly the cognitive dissonance I experienced when I saw critical race theory “trending,” only to realize that instead of an overdue recognition of the importance of understanding hierarchies of subordination, some have sought to frame this anti-racist theoretical methodology as “racist.” The attempts to gaslight society into believing that critical race theory is the problem in the United States have persisted even in the wake of the targeted killings of Black people in Buffalo, New York and the slaughter of Latino children in Uvalde, Texas.

In this reflection, I connect the importance of rendering whiteness visible in scholarship, to the aggressions of whitesplaining and whitewashing, and how both function to stymie Black intellectualism in international law and beyond. I conclude this reflection by ruminating on the metaphor of racism as a distraction and querying what it would mean to take positionality seriously.

Rendering Whiteness Visible 

As James Baldwin eloquently put it, ‘If I am not the nigger here, and if you invented him. You, the white people invented him. Then, you have got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.’  This illustrates Nell Irvin Painter’s observation about how ‘[W]hite Americans have had the choice of being something vague, something unraced and separate from race. As banal as it may seem, capitalizing ‘White’ challenges that freedom, by unmasking ‘Whiteness’ as an American racial identity as historically important as ‘Blackness— which it certainly is.’ Capitalizing White challenges conventions informed by anti-Blackness and white supremacy that seek to race certain groups of people and leave whiteness untouched.

For these reasons and more, I always capitalize the “w” in White in my scholarship. I have had several exchanges with editors and colleagues on this matter and often must justify my choice. Yet, I have found comparatively far less resistance to capitalizing the “b” in Black when getting feedback on my work.4 Sometimes, I simply state that the Chicago Manual of Style allows capitalization of “w,” if an author or publication prefers to do so.5 I elaborate that when I capitalize the “w” in White, I am not erasing the complex histories and hierarchies of how different groups came to be assimilated and understood as White. Instead, I capitalize the “w” in White to render whiteness discernible and to avoid unparallel terms. 

When that does not suffice, I cite to the work of scholars like Cheryl Harris and Eve Ewing, who have argued that ‘Whiteness is … a specific social category that confers identifiable and measurable social benefits.’ The Center for the Study of Social Policy has recognized that to ‘not name ‘White’ as a race is, in fact, an anti-Black act which frames Whiteness as both neutral and the standard.’ Increasingly, several organizations are acknowledging the importance and need for capitalizing the “w” in White. 

I have also referenced the arguments of writers such as Kwame Anthony Appiah, who explains that ‘[r]acial identities were not discovered but created … and we must all take responsibility for them. Don’t let them disguise themselves as common nouns and adjectives. Call them out by their names.’ Bucking the convention of distancing and rendering whiteness invisible in writing helps to trouble the status quo in the academy. 


It is similarly important to name and render visible the practice of “whitesplaining” in academia. “‘Splaining (derived from mansplaining/Whitesplaining) is an act in which a person of a dominant group speaks for or provides rationale to people of marginalized groups about topics related to oppression or inequity.” Whitesplaining is particularly infuriating when it combines the privilege that comes with not “seeing race,” with expounding to you at great length concerning something that you have done significant research on. Studies on whitesplaining have unearthed the ways in which this and other secondary microaggressions, “wherein people from historically dominant groups negate the realities of people of marginalized groups” cause psychological harm through these behaviors at interpersonal and systemic levels. Similarly, Arline Geronimus’ weathering hypothesis seeks to account for the biological effects of racial and gender subordination and explain how the effects of these stressors from material hardships add up to a phenomenon she calls “weathering” or premature ageing. Thus, the consequences of micro- and macro-aggressions are anything but trivial for Black and other scholars of color. 

Whitesplaining is particularly infuriating when it combines the privilege that comes with not “seeing race,” with expounding to you at great length concerning something that you have done significant research on.

I remember vividly being admonished at workshops that the response to the Ebola epidemic was not influenced by race. Some commentators strongly encouraged me to remove references to race in my piece ‘Ebola Does Not Fall From The Sky’. The reluctance to acknowledge race was particularly striking when even the satirical publication, The Onion, could see the racialized responses to Ebola, running a mock headline in October 2014, which read, ‘Experts: Ebola Vaccine At Least 50 White People Away’.

The case of the first Ebola-infected patient in the United States, Thomas Eric Duncan, is particularly instructive. Mr. Duncan, a Black man from Liberia, contracted Ebola while helping with carrying a young woman ill with the disease. He did not have symptoms of infection when traveling to the United States in 2014. Mr. Duncan fell ill and sought emergency care at a Texas hospital. He complained of stomach pain and a high fever. He was uninsured and released with antibiotics and pain medicine. He subsequently became severely ill and required ambulatory care. The hospital placed him in isolation and diagnosed him with Ebola. His girlfriend, Louise, publicly pleaded, in a CNN interview with Anderson Cooper ‘asking the American government the same medicine they’re giving people that come from Liberia, the Ebola people that came …  please help him save his life. He is too young to die.’ She wanted him to be given the same experimental ZMapp medication that two White American missionaries who were flown back for treatment in the United States received. The pharmaceutical company stated there was no longer any ZMapp left for Mr. Duncan or any other victim. As a result, Mr. Duncan’s condition got worse. Medical personnel placed him on another experimental drug, brincidofovir—an oral nucleotide analog that was shown to be potentially active in vitro against the Ebola virus. Despite these efforts, Mr. Duncan died shortly thereafter. 

There is no evidence that hospital staff personally denied Mr. Duncan treatment due to purposive or invidious discrimination. Yet, racial animus is not necessary for race to influence the health outcomes in his case. Ebola had been ravaging people in the West African sub-region and spreading at unprecedented rates for several months, yet it was White Americans who were amongst the first to get treated with ZMapp. The painful image of charter flights rushing White people out to receive treatment in the United States and Europe, while Black people were left to die in West African countries is symptomatic of the centering of White Western interests in global public health.

Mr. Duncan’s experiences must be understood against the tendency to marginalize Black pain explicitly or implicitly and to relegate Black and other people of color to substandard care.6 His case is part of a legacy that I have argued reflects the ‘disposable nature with which our lives are regarded.’ This history can be traced ‘from J. Marion Sims conducting unanesthetized fistula surgeries on enslaved Black women’s bodies based on the stereotyped belief that Black people have a high tolerance for pain; to the notorious Tuskegee syphilis experiments, wherein health authorities deliberately failed to treat and misled 600 Black men about the nature of their care; to the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks in research;’7 to present day issues with structural racism in medicine.

Mr. Duncan’s illness and death must be contextualized against the tendency to normalize the suffering and vulnerability associated with diseases that disproportionately impact Black and other people of color.  In my research on the racialization of disease I capture how:

Racialized fears of contagion in the United States manifested with children of African immigrants in Dallas taunted as ‘Ebola kids’ and two students from Rwanda (2,600 miles from West Africa) sent home from a New Jersey elementary school for 21 days. Additionally, a Texas college sent out letters to prospective students from Nigeria informing them that they were no longer accepting applications from countries with ‘confirmed Ebola cases,’ despite the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring Nigeria ‘Ebola-free.’ A middle school even placed a principal on paid administrative leave for a week for attending a funeral in Zambia (2, 770 miles from West Africa) despite it also having no cases of Ebola. The Ebola epidemic resuscitated historical images of Black African bodies as uncontainable and disease-ridden and sparked racialized fears. This transformed Ebola from a regional disease in Africa, to one that concerned countries in the Global North. Consequently, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa was converted from an unfortunate situation in a neglected region to a significant public health emergency of international concern.8

The Ebola epidemic resuscitated images of Africa as the “Dark Continent” and a barren waste land. Of course, nothing medically makes one race more vulnerable to Ebola than another. Yet, the disease was consistently racialized as “Black.” 

Bearing witness to the material impact of the harm of the racialization of diseases and then being gaslit when attempting to write and share your research on this very phenomenon epitomizes the conundrum of #TheorizingWhileBlack. As noted above, the gaslighting of being whitesplained does significant harm to Black people’s well-being by forcing you to question your own reality and perceptions. The tragedy for Black scholarship can result in the suppression and silencing of our perspectives and interventions.9  

Decolonize this place. Photo: leesean, flickr

Whitewashing of International Law

This stifling effect is especially pernicious in the field of international law. The difficulties of #TheorizingWhileBlack are pronounced in international law, which is a discipline that has been whitewashed since its inception. Indeed, Anthony Anghie has forcefully demonstrated how international law’s animating purpose was the “civilizing mission” and the project of subordinating people of color through economic exploitation and cultural domination.10 Yet, when you examine international law, the almost complete absence of race is near total.11  As Ruth Gordon argues in her formative work, international law tends to:

Frame hierarchy in terms of economic strength, military power, or technological advancement. Terms such as north/south, developed/developing or ‘Third World,’ are the preferred terms of reference. Nonetheless, the southern, developing Third World is for the most part the colored world, and like the colored world in the United States, it is marginalized, disproportionately poor and relatively powerless.12   

Much effort has been expended by Black scholars and others to subvert the continued whitewashing of international law in the academy.13

In light of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, the Black Lives Matter movement and the effort by a number of disciplines to decolonize and combat institutional racism within the academy,14 international law as a field seemingly remains committed to keeping questions of race at the periphery. For example, James Gathii found that only 1.25 percent of 5,109 pieces in the American Journal of International Law substantially engaged with race in the body of their texts; which is considered to be the flagship journal of international law in the United States.15

Moreover, even the symbolic dethroning of problematic idols seems elusive in the international law academy. I remain taken aback by the continued misrepresentation and idealization of Hugo Grotius through named lectures and other honorifics in international law. In mid-2021, I was struck by the number of international law announcements aimed at recognizing that it had been 400 years since ‘Hugo Grotius mounted his daring escape from Loevestein Castle in his book chest.’ One particular online exhibit is called Grotius, A Life Between Freedom and Oppression. It sought to:

[T]ell the story of Hugo Grotius’ life in four parts, starting with his time as a student in Leiden, before moving on to his life as an advocate in The Hague. The third chapter deals with his trial, the resulting life-sentence he was to serve in Loevestein Castle and what preceded his daring escape from this luxury prison. Grotius’ exile in Paris, subject of part four of the exhibition, is one of the most overlooked parts of Grotius’ life. 

Nowhere in any of this hagiographic description was there any mention of how Grotius, the purported “father of international law”, was a defender of enslavement and subordination of entire peoples.16 This whitewashing of history is maddening. Black and other historically subordinated groups are erased from the narrative, and Grotius’ story is the important one caught between freedom and oppression. His exile in Paris is what we are to understand as overlooked, not his role in furthering colonialism and imperialism.17 The failure to acknowledge in substantive ways the role of race in the field of international law, makes it a particularly hostile space for Black scholars as well as intellectuals from other historically subordinated groups.        

The failure to acknowledge in substantive ways the role of race in the field of international law, makes it a particularly hostile space for Black scholars as well as intellectuals from other historically subordinated groups. 

 University library building. Photo: barnyz, Flickr.

Racism as Distraction 

All this exhausts. Toni Morrison explained how:

The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.18

Morrison encapsulates so succinctly the conundrum of being a Black scholar. How much time do you dedicate to this additional labor? How much does the unspoken costs of #TheorizingWhileBlack impact your ability to do your work? 

Do you have to say that you are Black? This question posed in an academic setting was framed around the utility of using first person versus third person when writing about Black people in scholarship. The query was whether it would not be more effective for the writer to distance themselves by using “they” instead of showing affiliation and group membership by using “us” when referring to Black people. 

This interaction still astounds me. Proposing that Black or other historically subordinated researchers pass as White in their writing and research is not innocuous at all. It is influenced by the privilege of having whiteness backgrounded and ignores the violence of suggesting that Black people shy away from their positionality. Perhaps I have already fallen prey to Toni Morrison’s caution by spending time responding to this provocation. 

Yet, as a Black woman scholar, I see part of my work as occupying and taking up space in academic places that my ancestors and foremothers have been historically excluded from. Even so, Morrison accurately noted that there will always be something else to prove. Thus, perhaps the better question to ask of the discipline of international law, and more generally, scholars, the university, and the academy, is do you have to say that you are White?   

Matiangai Sirleaf is the Nathan Patz Professor of Law at the University of Maryland School of Law. Professor Sirleaf writes and teaches in the areas of global public health law, public international law, international human rights law, international criminal law, post-conflict and transitional justice and criminal law. Professor Sirleaf previously served as an associate professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, as an assistant professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law and as a Sharswood Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

  1. Rashmi Dyal-Chand, ‘Autocorrecting for Whiteness’ (2021) 101 Boston University Law Review 191at 191
  2. Makau Muntua, ‘Critical Race Theory and International Law: The View of an Insider-Outsider’ (2000) 45 Villanova Law Review 841, at 847
  3. Kim, Robert. ‘Under the Law: ‘Anti-Critical Race Theory’ Laws and the Assault on Pedagogy’ (2021) 103:1 Phi Delta Kappan 64, at 64–65
  4. Some modern writing style guides capitalize “Black” as a proper noun and as an act of recognition and respect. See David Lanham & Amy Liu, Brookings Institution, ‘Not Just a Typographical Change: Why Brookings is Capitalizing Black’ (23 September 2019) (accessed 8 November 2021). In keeping with that trend, this piece does not use the lowercase “black.” See generally, Lori L. Tharps, ‘The Case for Black with a Capital B’ (18 November 2014) New York Times, (accessed 8 November 2021)
  5. The Chicago Manual of Style, Rule 8.38 (17th edition, University of Chicago Press, 2017)
  6. For further discussion, see John Hoberman, Black & Blue: the Origins and Consequences of Medical Racism (University of California Press, 2012)
  7. Matiangai Sirleaf, ‘Disposable Lives: COVID-19, Vaccines, and the Uprising’ (2021) 121 Columbia Law Review Forum 71, at 80-81
  8. Matiangai Sirleaf, ‘Racial Valuation of Diseases’ (2021) 67 UCLA Law Review 1820, at 1849. For further discussion, see Matiangai Sirleaf, ‘Entry Denied: COVID-19, Race, Migration & Global Health’ (2020) 2 Frontiers in Human Dynamics 1, at 4-5
  9. For further discussion, see Lori Latrice Martin, Biko Mandela Gray, and Stephen C. Finley, ‘Endangered and Vulnerable: The Black Professoriate, Bullying, and the Limits of Academic Freedom’ (2019) 10 Journal of Academic Freedom 1, at 8-11 (accessed 17 November 2021)
  10. Antony Anghie, Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law (CUP, 2005)
  11. Compare Deep K. Datta-Ray, ‘The Interactions of International Relations: Racism, Colonialism, Producer-Centered Research’ (2021) 0:0 All Azimuth 1 (discussing how the erasure of race in international relations results from an aphasia about the racial hierarchy underscoring colonialism, which organizes core-periphery interactions and limits the field’s ability to give a full accounting for or explanation violence) with James Thuo Gathii, ‘Studying Race in International Law Scholarship Using a Social Science Approach’ (2021) 22:1 Chicago Journal of International Law 71 (discussing international law’s historical and continuing complicity in producing racial inequality and hierarchy)
  12. Ruth Gordon, ‘Critical Race Theory and International Law: Convergence and Divergence’ (2000) 45:5 Villanova Law Review 827, at 830-831
  13. See, e.g., ‘Symposium Issue: Transnational Legal Discourse on Race and Empire’ (2021) 67:6 UCLA Law Review 1386-1895
  14. See, e.g., Dorothy A. Brown, ‘The South Bronx Has Something to Say: Symposium Keynote’ (2021) 72 South Carolina Law Review 617 (discussing her book Whiteness of Wealth and how tax policy has a disparate impact based on race); Erika George, Jena Martin & Tara Van Ho, ‘Reckoning: A Dialogue About Racism, Antiracists, and Business & Human Rights’ (2021) 30 Washington International Law Journal 171; Shalanda H. Baker, ‘Anti-Resilience: A Roadmap for Transformational Justice Within the Energy System’ (2019) 54 Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 1; Dorothy E. Roberts, ‘Foreword: Abolition Constitutionalism’ (2019) 133 Harvard Law Review 1; Sherally Munshi, ‘Comparative Law and Decolonizing Critique’ (2017) 65 American Journal of Comparative Law 207
  15. James Thuo Gathii, ‘Studying Race in International Law Scholarship Using a Social Science Approach’ (2021) 22:1 Chicago Journal of International Law 71, at 75, 91
  16. Antony Anghie, ‘International Law in a Time of Change: Should International Law Lead or Follow?’ (2011) 25:5 American University International Law Review 1315, at 1322
  17. Ibid, 1327
  18. Portland State, ‘Black Studies Center Public Dialogue, Pt. 2’ (30 May 1975), (35:46)