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Anti-Racist Activism and the Academe

How can we talk about academic activism and what forms can it take? For some ‘academic activism’ may sound like an oxymoron. There are many reasons why, but here is one. Academics are known to exist in their own head a lot. Using ideas to think through issues and concepts draws academics into cerebral rather than practical frames of reference. Thinking draws you inwards and can sever the ties to your own body, the violence your body does to others and how your body is violated against. Thinking can obstruct our affective connection to our lived experience and this does not necessarily make an academic very good at making changes that might have a material impact on our working and pedagogic conditions. Activism stands for all that academia is traditionally not. Activism takes change and rule-breaking as a central component of organizing. Rather than develop or extend fields of knowing, an activist hopes to break away or suggest another way of experiencing the world to materially subvert the status quo.

From this conundrum, I follow...

Here are some other things to consider - almost a quarter of the academic staff at my university are academics of colour. That’s a pretty good proportion compared to the Russell Group average. Along with the fact that we recruit 60% students of colour each year, you might think this makes my university a leader in equalities issues. But, it doesn’t. Simply having large numbers of people of colour has not impacted the material conditions our students and staff exist in. We have too many academics of colour at lower ranked and on precarious contracts and very few are being promoted to higher positions. This reflects wider institutional issues to do with race inequality, for example out of the 18,500 professors employed in this country, only 85 are black.

Further, our students of colour do not have the same degree outcomes as our white students – they receive fewer firsts and 2:1s, despite both cohorts entering the university with the same grades at A level and BTEC. This problem is also known as the attainment gap and it is recorded across the U.K. university sector and is not unique to my institution.

From this position of inequality and exclusion, I want to talk to you about how we can hope for change and what we can do to make a change in our place of study and work.

In order to do this, we need to identify what makes the university unique, distinct or at least draw out its defining attributes. I cannot offer a comprehensive definition, and my definition will certainly be partial, but its an attempt to identify what the university stands for and what activism might mean for higher education institutions.

The university is ideally a space where ideas, rather than rules, are given prominence.

Ideas. Thoughts that are carried forward through an exchange of concepts, after reflection and after considering various experiences, histories and evidence.

Ideas. Are made into valuable insights by basing exchange on some kind of deep thinking that may contradict a dominant view or framework.

Ideas. They might shape the way we think about the world, about what is valued in the world, about history and about who we are.

Perhaps then, circulating ideas and making them stick becomes an exercise of power – it becomes a way of valuing some ideas above others, some histories above others, some experiences above others.

The university, in this way, is a political space. Where daily rituals of research, lecturing, seminars and workshops, combine collectively as a way of restoring rules about who’s histories and experiences are valued, who’s ideas are being circulated. But by making rules stick, we must question, whatever happens to the other ideas – the ones that didn’t stick, the experiences that couldn’t challenge taken for granted knowledge and the histories that were ignored and thus haven’t impacted the conditions from which we experience life? By identifying the politics of ideas and the institutions that govern ideas – that is universities – we can see that all ideas are not equal and that some ideas can be institutionalised by universities to sustain inequality between people and histories. Activism in this context, would involve disrupting the rules and to make the university anew.

Let me give you a personal story about how this politics has played out in the teaching and learning environments I have been part of. I am going to give you a reflection about how I was taught at university and how I teach today to draw out similarities and differences. I am also going to suggest that the differences are important and that they are connected to student campaigning and activism that is slowly gaining ground across the U.K. university sector.

I was an undergraduate Psychology student at Brunel University. Brunel is an international university and recruits plenty of students of colour from the U.K. and abroad. During the entire degree, I cannot think of a single module that used theories written by a person of colour. When people of colour or our histories were included in teaching material, it was in a lecture on Anthropology and people of colour were included as an object of study (i.e. how people of colour are ‘different’) rather than in ways that showcased people of colour contributing to our understanding about the human mind.

As a student of colour studying and writing essays about Psychology, I remember feeling completely alienated and ashamed by my markedly different experiences of growing up racialised other than white in the U.K. I remember trying to write essays in my first year and feeling the need to pretend to be someone else, literally inventing a new language and voice with which I wrote essays about renowned theorists such as Freud, Lacan and Maslow. I also remember becoming closer to one academic in particular – a woman of colour – who I began to identify with and through this connection, started to find my own voice. I can reflect now on how deeply affecting it was to have that experience of being taught by a woman of colour in my first year. I can also recall how I disagreed and de-valued her lectures at first; perhaps it was a way of de-valuing her brownness and its occupancy of the white professor’s role?

Fast forward 20 years, and today I am a woman of colour teaching at a School of Business and Management where students of colour make up around 60% of annual enrolments . I am teaching a module on Corporate Social Responsibility. It’s a topic that looks at the relationship between corporations, like Nike and Exxon, and society including consumers, local communities and employees. And so, it garners quite a bit of controversy. When I started the job, I was given a textbook to teach from, and I wasn’t expected to change that textbook. That management textbook did to black knowledge exactly what my Psychology degree had done 20 years earlier. The chapters are dominated by research published by European, American and often male scholars for a white European audience. And when the textbook makes an attempt at being international, it draws on case studies from the ‘developing world’ to show how exploitation and corruption are rife in those regions. People of colour and our histories, continue to be de-valued in the classroom because the ideas that stick and circulate, tend to centralise American-European ideas about the world, rather than present perspectives from the Global South.

If I was to teach from the textbook as it stands, I would not teach students about the persistent exploitation of people of colour in the labour market, nor would I be able to reflect on how the Global South pays more money to the Global North through monetary flows compared to the amount of aid and development that the Global North donate to the Global South. These are just a few counter-narratives to the general thrust of the textbook that is, on the whole, painting Europe and corporate America as problematic, but on the whole trying to be benevolent, progressive and wanting the best for the world and the Global South and its people as deficient, lacking and backward.

But, despite these similarities and continuities with the past, something is very different today, compared to when I was a student 20 years ago. Today, students of colour are challenging the ways universities value knowledge and student movements across the world are making universities reconsider how they teach and who is doing the teaching.

Two campaigns: Why is my curriculum white? and Why isn’t my Professor black? started in 2015 and 2014 respectively. Both these campaigns question why black histories, black scholarship and black philosophy are missing in lectures, reading lists and textbooks taught in U.K. universities. The Why is my curriculum white campaign formed in South Africa, after black students initiated a de-colonizing campaign on campus. The U.K. campaign was launched in solidarity with student movements in South Africa, and it continues today as a rejection of a British university education that centralises Western European and American philosophy over the rest of the world’s scholarship and histories. These campaigns have highlighted the need for universities to question the ideas that are being taught as taken for granted and as legitimate.

The Why isn’t my professor black campaign was launched by a small group of academics at UCL. This campaign highlights the lack of black undergraduate students going on to enrol onto postgraduate courses and PhDs, as a mark of the lack of academic role models black students have when studying at universities. The campaign identified race inequality, experiencing racism and a lack of career progression as reasons why academics of colour feel compromised or unable to do well in their chosen careers. You can YouTube the discussions occurring at the initial meeting and follow the campaign via the twitter hashtag blackprofessor.

The campaigns make it clear that simply enrolling or employing people of colour at universities is not a mark of equality – for people of colour to be given the same opportunities as white people, what, how and who teaches in the classroom needs to be balanced.

Are the campaigns making a difference in my classroom? Yes, I think they are. I can sense it as a change of attitude among students of colour, but also importantly, there is a marked different in the kinds of ideas that are being shared in the classroom by students.

This year, perhaps for the first time in my ten-year academic career, the lecture theatre felt like a safe space for students to raise questions. Students of colour asked for their histories and continents to be recognized and taught. They shared their experiences of race, religion and colonialism in the lecture room when I taught them about global supply chains and workplace diversity. Those conversations spilled out into corridors and stairwells and often continued through email.

Students have asked me about decolonizing campaigns and how they can get involved. They have asked me if they can set up their own consultancies to work with the local Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets. They want their experiences as students of colour valued and incorporated in what we do at the School of Business and Management.

This year, my students drew on American campaigns such as Black Lives Matter, Oscars So White and NoDAPL as alternatives to neo-liberalism. They began to highlight a range of possibilities for modelling future businesses, ranging from democratic governance to socially conscious capitalism to anti-capitalist forms. The students did all this with a conviction and energy that I haven’t witnessed before.

When I asked a young black student what’s going on in the university, she said without hesitation: “Everything is going on! Black Lives Matter, political movements – social media has revolutionised the way we see race, crime and social injustice. There is a re-awakening for everyone. Everyone is involved in something – in some kind of politics.”

I want to just pause here and think about what might be the cause for change. So far, I have referred to a hashtag, twitter campaigns, and movements like Black Lives Matter that used social media as a tool for activism. Social media and digital technologies have the power to disrupt taken for granted and dominant ideas about the world. Their power is not just one that challenges orthodox views of the world, online campaigns are affecting off-line identities too. That student went on to say: “Social media has changed the way we see ourselves and how we allow people to treat us. When you've been marginalised you don't have much self-belief – you forget that you’re from a different culture and think you have to be assimilated into another culture.” Campaigns like Black Lives Matter has provided an alternative politics – one that democratizes the field in which ideas are exchanged.

Disruption is possible – here’s what’s worked for me and at my place of work:

DIGITAL disruption – social media supports academic activism and it can form modes of solidarity that are difficult to sustain in the neo-liberal ‘post-racial’ university. Talking about racism in the workplace is a social taboo and it is therefore difficult to share experiences or simply talk about them with colleagues. As well as causing social awkwardness or silence about the issue, there are material implications for bringing up race in the workplace.

As a person of colour I could face discrimination, harassment, demotion, career stagnation, exclusion, gas-lighting, invisibility, violence and termination of contract if I was to call out racism in the university sector. It is not safe to discuss racism openly and in this sense, online media and social media have helped to break the silence about racism in universities. Social media has enabled less-nown research and writing about racism in the Academe to circulate on various platforms and sites and to be shared widely. The outcomes of such online activity are complex and multi-faceted. But, one positive contribution social media has made to academics of colour who recognise racism and experience it is that it has lifted us out of alienation. Knowing that you are not alone in this is possibly the first step towards validating your subjectivity and asking for institutional change.

LOCAL activism - the most successful campaigns have tended to be local campaigns. This is not to say that national change is impossible, but it is more meaningful to start with a local cause and then build on the momentum to influence other stakeholders. Departmental or module curriculum audits, leaking or floating information with colleagues, releasing statistics to departments or research groups, sharing evidence that provides a counter narrative to the ‘post-race’ myth are all local forms of activism that can gain momentum and garner wider interest. These local acts have the potential to disrupt the post-race self-image U.K. universities promote about themselves - locally designed campaigns can make a new institutional space for a more realistic image of academia to emerge.

Solidarity WORKS! Bridging the elitist divide among professional services, academics and students is vital for nourishing an anti-racist consciousness. University management can benefit from a fractured university community because weak ties among students, faculty and admin means we do not understand each other’s perspectives and we cannot find common ground or patterns of discrimination.

As academics, we have resources and practices available to us that can help to bridge divides. We have sources of funding, an imperative to conduct interdisciplinary and impactful research (see, Stern Review and REF21 recommendations). We can design student-led research projects that have interventionist strategies worked into the objectives and aims of our study. We can turn the scope of study towards ourselves and use the university place to measure change, understand institutional dynamics, trace power relations among stakeholders. We can do all this by including students, young people, professional staff and community groups in our research. We can test the limits of our own discipline by working with other like-minded academics in other fields and departments.

In doing all this, we can urge universities to turn the gaze back on themselves; that as white institutions of power they must hold themselves accountable for perpetuating the attainment gap, for impeding black staff from thriving, for curtailing the opportunities for a liberated consciousness to flourish.


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