Art Historian Steven Nelson on #BlackOnCampus and Art Historians

A blank, black chalkboard, waiting.

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Steven Nelson, a full art history professor at UCLA and the director of the African Studies Center, is weighing in on the current #BlackOnCampus hashtag rippling through Twitter and his own experiences being a person of color not only on campus, but as an authority figure and teacher at a university. According to his research, Nelson is one of only six full professors in art history who are black.

Recently, Nelson tweeted these statistics using the hashtag. In an interview with Hyperallergic, Nelson says that he was spurred to think about his own career and position in the collegiate and historian worlds by the hashtag, which people are using to talk about what it’s like to be black on university campuses and in society at large. “Seeing this conversation unfold made me start to wonder about what it was also like for me to be black and on a college campus,” Nelson said.

The art historian believes he is one of only six or seven black full professors in the U.S. He made two lists of names he knew: one for African-Americans in art history, and one for people of African descent. He counted 13 people in total and only 6 full professors, though Nelson acknowledges that there may be names he missed in his research. All but one of these professors is in art history.

When asked about why he made the lists, Nelson replied, “I began to think about why there are so few and came to realize that the process of being promoted is laden with bias—but structural, rather than personal, bias.” Nelson believes that the reasons for this are multiple: there’s a perception that art history is a white field and a privileged endeavor; many people who enter the field do not go above associate professor; and there are fewer people of color hired in the first place.

“Sometimes it pisses me off that more people of color haven’t achieved [full professor rank], and that more people aren’t concerned,” Nelson says. And more shocking? “I’ve had a total of four black students—two men, two women—in 15 years of teaching here.” Two of these students dropped out, one is likely to, and the other is currently finishing his degree. “Black students may well want to pursue art history, but will be discouraged if they get the sense that their colleagues or professors don’t value that.”

The number of professors and students who are people of color is startlingly low when compared to the numbers of white teachers and students. Lack of diversity has no place in art, in its creation or its appreciation.

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