Letter of support for #Uju_Anya after she was targeted by Jeff Bezos and her employer for her criticism of the Queen’s commitments to colonial violence
Dear Supporters of Dr. Uju Anya,
Dr. Uju Anya is a world-renowned Nigerian-Trinidadian-American Associate Professor of Second Language Acquisition at Carnegie Mellon University. Her groundbreaking research focuses on the experiences of African American students in world language education. She brings attention to systemic barriers that African American students face in accessing world language education and the marginalization they experience in world language classrooms. Yet, her research isn’t only focused on these challenges. Her work points to concrete ways of making world language education more equitable. The significance and quality of her scholarship can be seen in the fact that her widely-cited book, Racialized Identities in Second Language Language: Speaking Blackness in Brazil (▻https://www.routledge.com/Racialized-Identities-in-Second-Language-Learning-Speaking-Blackness-in/Anya/p/book/9780367197469), was awarded the prestigious 2019 American Association for Applied Linguistics First Book Award (▻https://www.aaal.org/first-book-award).
Dr. Anya has also been at the forefront of leading efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the field of applied linguistics, a field that has struggled to diversify and that remains white dominated. She mentors Black students and other students of color, as well as assume leadership roles in a range of professional organizations, such as the American Association for Applied Linguistics where she amplifies the voices of emerging scholars of color. She has also been able to amass a broad social media presence on Twitter that showcases her love of Black people across the Diaspora, her passion for uplifting the voices LGBTQA+ persons, and a space for collective joy.
On September 8, 2022, shortly before Queen Elizabeth II died at the age of 96, Dr. Anya tweeted her feelings about the queen’s death. As a Black woman who was born in Nigeria, whose family has been directly harmed by the insidious impacts of British imperialism, genocide, and white supremacy, Dr. Anya expressed her pain on her personal Twitter account. Not only did Queen Elizabeth II sit on a throne of Indigenous and Black blood, embedded in the overall legacy of the British monarchy, her actual government presided over and directly facilitated the genocide that Dr. Anya’s parents and siblings barely survived (▻https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-04-29-how-britains-labour-government-facilitated-the-massacre-). This genocide entailed the massacre of more than 3 million Igbo people, including other family members of Dr. Anya. While within public discourse, the term “colonizer” can appear to be an abstract term that people have only read about in history books, Dr. Anya experienced the reverberations of colonial white supremacy first hand. Thus, Queen Elizabeth II was not figuratively but literally her colonizer, and the colonizer of millions of people across the world—and particularly countries in Africa, the Caribbean, and Indian Ocean territories. As if these atrocities weren’t enough, during her tenure, Queen Elizabeth II oversaw the brutal detainment camps in colonial Kenya (▻https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/09/world/africa/queen-africa-british-empire.html), banned ‘’coloured or foreign’ staff in the palace (▻https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/jun/02/buckingham-palace-banned-ethnic-minorities-from-office-roles-papers-rev), and committed her career to the “service of our great imperial family’’ in a 1947 speech in South Africa (▻https://theconversation.com/five-ways-the-monarchy-has-benefited-from-colonialism-and-slavery-1). Over the course of more than 70 years, the imperial reign of Queen Elizabeth II was inextricably tied to the legacy of the British Empire’s commitment to white supremacy and colonialism.
Dr. Uju Anya’s tweet, again sent from her personal Twitter account, quickly went viral—largely due to an outpouring of global support from others harmed by the British colonial regime. At the same time, there was also a torrent of criticism as well as targeted harassment directed against Dr. Anya. While “going viral” is not an uncommon occurrence for Dr. Anya or any public intellectual, having a tweet picked up by billionaire Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos was however extraordinary. Bezos did not condemn the words and sentiment of Dr. Anya’s tweet, which would’ve been his right to free speech. Instead, he vilified her by suggesting that her pedagogical, activist, and scholarly contributions are “supposedly” not “working to make the world better.” We beg to differ, as would the many students with improved experiences in world language education and the increasing number of African American students entering applied linguistics because they now see themselves within historically white spaces precisely because of the groundwork laid by Dr. Anya. Although this particular tweet would’ve been highly inappropriate from any person in power, it is particularly pernicious as an attack against a Black Nigerian-Trinidadian-American Professor, coming from a man that has amassed his wealth through global domination and exploitation without regard for the most vulnerable and precarious humans on our planet (▻https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/may/26/amazon-workers-are-rising-up-around-the-world-to-say-enough). This is, frankly, not dissimilar to the British monarchy’s colonial project—Bezos simply remixed the colonial schema through neoliberal racial capitalism, exploitation, and greed.
The strength of Bezos’ platform is no secret either. With over 5 million followers on Twitter, Bezos has the capacity to impress hundreds of millions of people with a single tweet. Bezos also utilizes his reputation and mass fortune to support university projects across the globe. In the last decade Bezos has made donations to countless universities, including Carnegie Mellon University—Dr. Anya’s home institution. This financial paper trail is highly relevant to Professor Anya’s treatment and the university’s subsequent statement. Now, Dr. Anya faces violent threats, harassment, and abuse.
Reflections on CMU’s Statement on Dr. Anya’s Tweet
As colleagues at other institutions, one thing that sticks out to us is that universities have nothing to gain by calling out individual employees on free speech—especially when they can be seen doing it selectively—as is the case for CMU. Professor Anya’s twitter clearly states: “Views are mine.” Yet, her institution took up the charge to admonish a Black woman professor, calling her response to her lived experiences of the real and tangible impacts of colonialism and white supremacy, "offensive and objectionable.” This is unacceptable and dehumanizing. Simultaneously, the institution arguing that Professor Anya’s critical reflections were "not representative of the level of discourse at CMU ’’ forces us to ask: Where is the space for this sort of discourse if not within the free speech that academia purports to uplift? Where else is it safe for students, scholars, and thinkers alike to openly express the horrors of white supremacy, colonial atrocities and genocide? “Who is the ‘we’ referenced here?” asks UPenn Professor, Dr. Nelson Flores (▻https://twitter.com/nelsonlflores/status/1568217467058544643). And, importantly, “What are the standards of discourse when somebody is speaking truth to their oppressors?”
We also note the strikingly different institutional response to the social media activity of Richard Grenell, a CMU-affiliated senior fellow and Trump official who used his Twitter platform to spread hateful messages and conspiracy theories that have been characterized as sinophobic and antisemitic. When student groups and community members expressed outrage and alarm, CMU President Farnam Jahanian refused to condemn Grennell’s statements and instead expressed strong support for his first amendment rights (▻https://www.cmu.edu/leadership/president/campus-comms/2020/2020-11-18.html).
As a counter example to CMU’s deplorable response, Syracuse University’s Chancellor and Dean issued a statement in support of their colleague and employee (▻https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/09/14/syracuse-offers-unequivocal-support-targeted-professor), Dr. Jenn Jackson (another Black woman violently threatened and abused after a viral tweet). Her institution immediately denounced the violent threats against her, refused to sanction or discipline her, and honored her right to free speech. While we by no means think this process was or is perfect, we cite this to note that other peer-institutions have responded in more humane and supportive ways to their Black female faculty. CMU had a choice and their response was a deliberate betrayal against one of their own highly regarded and respected scholars. It has further exposed her to threats of violence.
Forward and Onward
The British Monarchy and “The Royal Family” are much more than the weddings, the kids, and the racialized intrafamily drama that American pop culture has seen over the past decade. The British Monarchy has caused and is directly responsible for widespread irreparable harm in the past, now in the present, and likely in the future because the impacts of white supremacy and settler colonialism are insidious. It is inappropriate, harmful, and ahistorical to admonish colonized people or “tell them how they should feel about their colonizer’s health and wellness” as University of Michigan tenured professor, Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas astutely tweeted.
More than our thoughts and prayers, we request actionable support to be shown towards Professor Uju Anya. We ask university officials at CMU to consider what harms are both elided from critical discourse and reproduced in the classroom when they choose to stand on the side of the oppressor. Universities must be intentional about how they respond to public discourse and critically evaluate who they are targeting and/or harming by their response or lack of response. We call on universities to stop being reactive when issues of structural oppression are called to their attention and take seriously its impacts on staff, faculty, students, and families.
In closing, we echo Dr. Nelson Flores’ tweet from September 9th (▻https://twitter.com/nelsonlflores/status/1568242131067625472), which asks, “Whose deaths are mourned versus ignored or celebrated,” and who gets to decide?
Chelsey R. Carter, PhD, MPH (Assistant Professor, Yale University)
Nelson Flores, PhD (Associate Professor, University of Pennsylvania)
Sirry Alang, PhD (Associate Professor, University of Pittsburgh)
Crystal M. Fleming, PhD (Professor, Stony Brook University)
Dick Powis, PhD (Postdoctoral Fellow, University of South Florida)