The whiteness of academia, the “post(-)” and the “de” colonial

© Evelyn Corr, Honi Soit, the University of Sydney (2016)


This is a blog post that I’ve had in mind to write for several months now, but my ideas have now crystallised as a result of being back in an academic environment full-time. It’s more necessary than ever to address both the role of white activists in student activism, and the role of white academics working in anti-racist, postcolonial scholarship. I also importantly welcome all comments on this post and fully admit that I am learning and trying to check my privilege as I go, as a white PhD student engaged in university-level activism and in research that aims to counter some of the prejudiced scholarship of the past.

Since starting my PhD I’ve been involved in a really great student activist group who are working to incite real change by decolonising university curricula (through discussion events, petitions, and subject-specific working groups). At the same time I’ve also been attending academic-led discussions on postcolonial thought, anti-racist scholarship and decolonising academic disciplines, and the impact of both forms of activism are starkly disjointed. While student-led activism fosters real change in the present day – whether by changing reading lists or diversifying the alumni present in iconography around campus – the white critical race and postcolonial scholars all too often appear stuck in an echo-chamber of inactive resistance yet simultaneously benefit, both financially and professionally, from their lack of real activism.

As a white woman I am eminently aware that in the twenty-first century UK I have almost nothing at stake in my involvement in decolonial, anti-racist activism, and it’s not my voice or opinions that need to be privileged in such discussions. I do it because it’s necessary as universities continue to perpetuate real colonial violence both implicitly (by excluding BAME voices, perspectives and thought from curricula and academic disciplines) and, often, explicitly (by retaining colonial iconography, against which the Rhodes Must Fall Movement most notably fought). If the university system continues to systemically perpetuate racial inequality and discrimination it ultimately inhibits any learning and teaching that is actually accurate, fair and, quite frankly, useful.

White activists and activist-academics working in a university environment ought to consciously and consistently reflect on their position within a given movement or a given academic field. Of course it’s better that decolonial activism and postcolonial approaches to academic disciplines get done rather than not, but at the same time it’s important to acknowledge that as a white person your very presence and  voice could be preventing BAME voices from coming to the fore. It’s also difficult to strike a balance, because it should not be the responsibility of BAME students and staff who have suffered and still actively suffer from the inequalities perpetuated by the colonial structures inherent in the UK education system to educate their peers on why this is wrong.

An additional point of contention is the existence of an emerging – and quite frankly worrying – trend in the humanities (I cannot speak for social sciences) of more and more white scholars becoming incredibly prominent figures in race studies and postcolonialism, fields that are by definition inherently interdisciplinary. Their interdisciplinary and ‘radical’ nature (in that they question received ideas prominent in the academy) thus appeal to funding bodies as “new”, “innovative” and “necessary” research. Yet when a funded academic project on the subject of decolonisation or postcolonial thought in the humanities is headed up by a white person, alarm bells should start to ring.

Although the aforementioned white scholars are pursuing useful research that often challenges systemic racism in the academy, the racism that they challenge is mainly that which is present in scholarship – that is, tacitly found in academic writing. They produce novel readings on historical periods, literary works or philosophical currents that work to counteract ‘hegemonic, western-centric approaches’. This is all well and good. I totally understand why this is necessary, and perhaps later on down the line these will become core parts of curricula. The problem comes with the status, jobs and monetary rewards, granted to white academics who do such work. They essentially profit off exposing the struggle that BAME academics and students have long acknowledged, but have struggled to fight against because of systemic inequalities in the education system.

Statistics collated by Advance HE, formerly known as the Equality Challenge Unit charity, show that last year only a small fraction of professors in UK universities were from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds, with women especially poorly represented.  Despite the number of BME staff doubling over the last decade in academic institutions, the data collected from official sources also showed that BME staff remained more likely than their white peers to be in junior positions, to be less well paid and to be employed on fixed-term rather than permanent contracts. BME academics – at least in the UK- are thus not doing this work because they simply have not been given the opportunity to. There is also a glaring and persistent attainment gap affecting BME students, along with the well-documented access issues across UK institutions, but particularly Oxbridge. Overall, nearly 80% of white students were awarded a first class or 2:1 degree, compared with more than 66% of BME students.

All too often do you encounter conference panels or speaker events that are 90% white, yet the topic is “a post-colonial lens” on a particular topic. Another tendency that’s coming to the fore is the appropriation of theoretical frameworks and models that stem from critical race studies, including intersectionality and postcolonialism, without an acknowledgment of the context in which these frameworks emerged. Ultimately, white academics need to acknowledge their privilege in the ironically yet aptly named ‘ivory tower’, for  nothing is at stake for them to debate these issues and propose solutions in a purely theoretical sense. In fact, post- and decolonial scholars often write in an almost bemused tone, wondering why nobody else has yet realised how right they really are. And of course they are right. But they often refuse to properly take on the structures that allowed what they are saying to be so ‘radical’ in the first place, for fear of retribution in the workplace or job market.

Critical race studies conducted by white academics thus more often than not is entirely disconnected from the times of explicit racial violence in which we currently live, and the extensive racial and class inequalities that are continuing to further divide and oppress our society. While white academics can theorise on postcolonial bodies and the postcolonial city, or debate the meaning and necessity of the hyphen in post(-)colonial, they ignore the pressing issues facing racial equality in the university today, such as the aforementioned access and attainment gaps suffered by BAME students, and the systemically-discriminating policy “Prevent” that targets Muslim students.

So what can those in higher education do? As always, the very first step is the acceptance of the damaging effects of white privilege. And from then it is a conscious acknowledgment of the position of white academics in critical race and postcolonial studies, along with related disciplines. If you’re the white academic heading up a grant proposal on decolonising your subject, maybe even with some academics of colour who are further down the bill, or the sole presenter of a conference paper at a nationally-renowned event, question whether you are the right person to submit that proposal or give that paper. While your work is important, are you simultaneously contradicting that work by benefitting from it? Are there academics, or even students, of colour doing similar work but not getting the recognition?

You’ll perhaps notice that I have failed to quote or reference any academic work in the course of this post. I did not want to call out white academics working in race studies explicitly, but rather encourage those that are to be more conscious and check their privilege, whether publicly (in conference, talks and discussions) or in a written form as a prologue to their books or articles on the subject. Because you ultimately cannot depoliticise academia. You absolutely must be political if you’re postcolonial, and if you ignore this fact you’re ironically continuing to perpetuate the structures you are *academically* attempting to deconstruct in privileged forums where radical views earn *academic* kudos while the real world continues to be racist.

Finally, I’ve also needed to do some personal reflection on how these considerations should shape my own research, given I utilised the framework of intersectionality in my MA thesis on medieval Iberia to rethink the depiction of religio-cultural identity in two epic narratives from medieval Castile, and continue to interrogate the idea of Muslim identity as racialised in medieval and early modern Spain. When applying concepts from critical race studies to other academic fields it’s really important to acknowledge where they come from, and to credit those who developed said concepts. I tried to give as much space as I could to the works of Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins and others whose valuable academic labour went into creating a theoretical lens from which academics can understand and deconstruct systemic, intersecting forms of oppression, and giving credit is something that I consistently try and remind myself to do.

I have also framed this blog around the ideas of intersectionally addressing identity in the Iberian middle ages, although I do question the applicability of its title now, as it has not yet become a space for a radical rethink of the study of race in medieval and early modern Iberian literature. In light of my reflections here, though, I’m now adding a section to my blog descriptor in order to not take “intersectionality” for granted. It has a loaded and powerful past, and so much is still at stake with it in the present.


Suggested Reading

Bhambra, Gurminder K., Dalia Gebrial & Kerem Nişancıoğlu. eds. 2018. Decolonising the University. London: Pluto Press

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 2019. On Intersectionality: Essential Writings. New York: New Press

Hill Collins, Patricia. 2002. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Abingdon: Routledge

— 2013. On Intellectual Activism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press

Hill Collins, Patricia & Sirma Bilge. 2016. Intersectionality. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons

Johnson, Azeezat, Remi Joseph-Salisbury & Beth Kamunge. eds. 2018. The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship in Times of Explicit Racial Violence. London: Zed

Rhodes Must Fall Oxford. 2018. Rhodes Must Fall: The Struggle to Decolonise the Racist Heart of Empire. London: Zed

Tuhiwai Smith, Linda. 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed