Reflections on Black Study, Black Struggle

‘Black Study, Black Struggle’ by Robin D.G. Kelley

This is the first in a series of posts for my graduate course, Race Critical and Decolonial Sociology offered during my Hans Speier Visiting Professorship at The New School in New York (Spring 2017). See the syllabus here.

In Session 2, we discussed Robin D.G. Kelley’s article in The Boston Review and the responses to it from the perspective of the current challenges facing the United States and the world unleashed by the white supremacist Trump regime and asked what the role of the University could be from a race critical perspective.

Jenny Munro and panelists at the launch of the Free University of Western Sydney. Photo by Adriana Abu Abara.

In April 2016, the Free University of Western Sydney was launched by a group of local people – activists, teachers/educators and students – critical of the neoliberal university’s capacity to be a site for free study. I was honoured to be in attendance at the launch event which purposefully was a panel discussion between Aboriginal activists to address ‘the foundation of Australia’s racist architecture to aid in the development of a collective understanding of racial oppression.’ The discussion addressed the truth that, just as white Australia was built on the systematic dispossession of Aboriginal land, people and culture, its knowledge structures, including those within the university, serve to perpetuate these dispossessions. As such, no learning within the university, no matter how radical in purpose or tone, can on its own dismantle the structures of domination on which the persistence of Australia as a white settler colony depend. To think of an example that is relevant in my own teaching, in the context of my undergraduate course at Western Sydney University, The Racial State, it is insufficient to critique attachments to ‘Australia Day’ often displayed by students or to question the frequently repeated misconceptions about Aboriginal people (e.g. all Aboriginal people are given university places above members of all other groups irrespective of their attainment) in a room where Aboriginal students are either absent or in an extreme minority. It is insufficient to acknowledge country or even welcome Aboriginal speakers into the classroom to (for example Aunty Jenny Munro who came to talk about the struggles of the Redfern Tent Embassy) without asking why I, a recent migrant to Australia, with a European Union passport, is teaching on the continuities of race and racism rather than any number of Aboriginal scholars.

These are not only questions on ‘identity politics’ (a problematic term), or representation (which does not mean I am discounting the significance of representation) but material ones. They do not only have resonance in Australia but across ‘western’ societies; for example, an article in The Guardian on January 19 2017 claimed that no Black academics have worked in senior management in any British university for the last three years while more Black staff were employed as cleaners, receptionists or porters than as lecturers or professors.

“Putting together UK-national and non-national academics, we find that 92.39% of professors (15905) in the UK are white, and 0.49% (85) professors are Black. The percentage of professors who are Black is significantly lower than for any other minority. So in both absolute and relative terms there is a massive under-representation of Black professors, especially Black women who perhaps count for just 15 of those 85 Black professors.”

Robbie Shilliam, The Disorder of Things

Many Black academics have moved from the UK to the US over the last two decades to escape the institutionalised racism of UK academia where, as Robbie Shilliam put it, Black students and academics ‘want to be challenged, and to enjoy the challenge. They want to feel comfortable in university because it should be their place too,’ but where they often can’t because of the fact that their mere existence is regularly seen as incongruous, as ‘matter out of place.’ However, while several Black British academics, such as Barnor Hesse or Ben Carrington, have forged rich careers in US academia, we cannot say that the challenges facing Black academics and students are over in the United States. After all, even the most radical African American or Ethnic Studies programme has to exist within a racially determined societal context where today, the veneer of celebratory liberal postracialism is quickly slipping to reveal the unabashed face of white supremacy.

White Innocence by Gloria Wekker

All of this is to say nothing of the abject failure of academic institutions in the rest of Europe to even begin to address the question of the necessity for academic institutions to reflect the multiculturality of the populations which they serve. These questions, where they have been addressed, have come from those posing a challenge to the University either from the inside, from a position of precarity within, or from the unique position of the lone Black academic in a sea of white. The veteran Afro-Surinamese-Dutch feminist scholar, Gloria Wekker addresses these questions in her book, White Innocence in which she discusses, in Chapter 2, ‘The House that Race Built’, her dual roles in government and the academy in The Netherlands. The chapter takes her to what she terms ‘the toxic substructures upholding the worlds of policy making and academic knowledge production’ unearthed also by Essed and Nimako in their 2006 article on ‘Cultures of scholarship and public policy on immigrants/minorities in The Netherlands’ which served as inspiration for my 2014 study of the elision, neglect and denial of race in European migration, ethnicities and minorities scholarship, ‘Postracial Silences.’ Given that Wekker describes, following Essed and Nimako, how taken for granted assumptions about race neutrality and tolerance obscure ‘well-established patterns of racist exclusion’ in her sphere of influence, Dutch women’s studies, it is unsurprising that some of the most vital thinking on race in The Netherlands comes from outside the academy altogether: Flavia Dzodan and Engbert Alejandro Martina’s work being foremost in my view.

This detour allows me to re-enter Robyn Kelley’s argument through the back door if you will, asking what relevance the distinctly US-American discussion of the role of Black activists in and outside the University has for those involved in race critical thought and action beyond the US. The contexts and challenges, as I have shown, are quite different, yet the attention paid to debates within the US, particularly on matters of race, from around the world meant that Kelley’s Boston Review piece and its discussion had resonance for many far beyond the US academy/social justice arenas. At one level, Kelley’s problematisation of the language of trauma as a mode through which to read the experience of Black students and academics to the detriment of a discourse of strength and resistance in the spirit of Black radicalism past speaks to those beyond the US who (simplistically at times) identify the individualisation of racism and of the proposed responses to it as a uniquely US-American development. It is unavoidable perhaps, given the dominance of US traditions of critical race theory and their carry-over into the world of Twitter scholarship, that younger students in a multiplicity of locations incorporate what are after all context specific readings of race in America into their own analyses of how the dynamics of race play out in their local contexts. This is problematic to be sure if it elides a focus on the specificities of racial formations in their own contexts. I am thinking here in particular of the meaning of Blackness in the US as opposed to Australia in debates that have emerged between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal Black people of migrant origin in Australia (see for example here and here).

Having said this, it is short-sighted, in my view, to regard the discussion of collective trauma, as one that is unique to the relatively privileged spaces of the American university. It is one thing for Robin Kelley to express frustration with how this lens might stop Black and other racialised students (and we could say too women, LGBTIQ students) from engaging in resistance, which as he insists ‘is our healing’. It is quite another for activists, particularly those on the white Left, in other countries to dismiss this focus as the privilege of the American middle class cossetted in the comfort of the university as if these too were not the sites of violence (riot police, arrests, and disciplinary actions). From my perspective, to widen the focus beyond Kelley’s immediate concerns, it is interesting to note when the discourse of collective trauma is seen as admissible and when it is not. I am writing this on Holocaust Memorial Day. The State of Israel and the official Jewish communities of the Diaspora frame their raison d’etre around a discourse of trauma that is a principal ideological pillar in the legitimation of the continued domination of Palestinians. Yet, rarely is the Jewish people’s right to define itself in relation to the horrors of the Shoah called into question. Therefore, asking whether or not collective trauma can be a starting point for resistance appears to me to be the wrong question to ask. After all, it was W.E.B. Du Bois who, reflecting towards the latter part of his career, on his changing approaches to the ‘concept of race’ said,

‘But the physical bond is least and the badge of colour relatively unimportant save as a badge; the real essence of this kinship is its social heritage of slavery; the discrimination and insult; and this heritage binds together not simply the children of Africa, but extends through yellow Asia and into the South Seas. It is this unity that draws me to Africa…’

W.E.B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn (1940: 59).

W.E.B. Du Bois

In other words, race is meaningless in and of itself; the sense of unity it creates is only as a shield against retraumatisation. Du Bois would have been the last person, however, to take from this that the solution can be found in sheltering within a cocoon created by the knowledge of shared trauma. Kelley rightly points out that ‘to identify anti-black violence as heritage may be true in a general sense, but it obscures the dialectic that produced and reproduced the violence of a regime dependent on black life for its profitability.’ In other words, and this too I take as Du Bois’s more general point, Black people who descend from the enslaved cannot be reduced to that experience as though their resistance was not coterminous with their enslavement. Black people knew that their labour could not secured without the constant threat of death, and this too was a form of power that they wielded over whites in the perverse context of chattel slavery. White power was dependent on its utter immorality (which is why in parenthesis it is interesting to note the tendency often displayed by those who reject ‘identity politics’ to do so on the grounds that they are moralistic). I agree with Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor’s arguments in response to Kelley that the inequalities struggled against by racialized students on campuses are emblematic of the wider system of racial inequality which gave them life.

We are participating in these debates at a time which many here in the United States perceive as unprecedented. The executive orders issued by the Trump regime to ban citizens of seven Muslim countries from entering the United States are rightly seen as a step up the ladder towards full-blown white supremacist/ethno-nationalist fascism. However, the discussions about how to respond, including for those of us working or studying at universities, both in the US and elsewhere, dovetail with the questions opened up by Robin Kelley in his BR article. One of the questions, already hotly debated on social media, concerns the timing of when an issue gains currency for a particular population. For example, Crystal Fleming has been pointing out that concern for Muslims among many Democrat supporters only appears to have begun with the travel ban.

Others have pointed out Barack Obama’s deportation record paved the way for the Trump administration’s plan to deport undocumented migrants and others including potential dual citizens of the seven countries named in the executive order. More generally, Black activists in particular have been making the point that their knowledge of systematic racism in the United States and their recent experience of retaliation against the movement for Black Lives in particular means that they held no illusions about what a Trump presidency would look like for racialized people. This for example from Mikki Kendall on Twitter.

The question then is not whether study can be connected to struggle for those for whom this is not optional. A focus on demands for safe spaces on campus has become caricatural, as though it were not occurring in response to the burn-out experienced by student-activists as result of these constant struggles which includes, but is not exclusive to the struggle with administrations. The question that should be asked – and this is crucial in these times particularly – is whether more people than those directly affected can see the ways in which their study and their struggle are connected. Education has been sold as a commodity for so long that it is almost impossible to ask students to regard it outside these terms. Indeed, seeing education as ‘a right and not a privilege’, as the chant used to go, appears now to be the luxury for those who need not worry about the bill or for those whose life chances are better secured due to their positioning on the race/class hierarchy. One of the reasons that the Free University of Western Sydney has attracted so many participants during its first year is because the official university is not seen as a place in which critical discussion is either something that students feel they can freely engage in or an activity which garners material rewards, or to put it colloquially, is ‘worth it’. On the one hand, faculty and management in our overwhelmingly white institutions do not reflect the racial and class make-up of the majority of students; a fact that is increasingly the case with the expansion of higher education and the ‘widening participation’ strategies of many universities in ever more competitive markets. Students do not, therefore, feel supported to discuss their life experiences nor are afforded the means to connect their learning to these experiences due both to a disconnect with faculty and the predominance of the ‘white curriculum’. On the other hand, university is a means to an end, a route to the hallowed promise of ‘employability’. And critique is not only a diversion from that goal, but in the age of unprecedented surveillance, a dangerous activity that places those who engage in it at risk, both potentially from law enforcement, and future employers. This affects racialized activists first and foremost, but has also included activists across the left as well as faculty targeted for speaking out against injustice. Recent high profile cases such as that of George Ciccariello-Maher or Steven Salaita have either received little to no protection from their academic institutions or been actively pursued by them for what are essential matters of academic freedom.

But these faculty have social capital in a way that marginalised students, especially those who do not attend elite universities (i.e. the majority) do not. Several things have to happen for study and struggle to be connected. Structures need to be put in place for this to be seen, not as an option – an additional luxury available to students without pressing material concerns – but as a necessity. Many students are quite simply unable to do both. The vast majority, in my experience, prioritise university as a means to an end over study in the deep liberatory sense that Kelly advocates. They too are ‘in, but not of’ the university. They are fugitives of a different kind, but we should not be cynical towards them. Rather, we should ask what additional frameworks can we put in place to make study truly transformative. This can include more conduits from the formal university into the informal study group/free university. These can happen both within and outside universities themselves and can include using university resources (books, electronic resources, rooms, media, copying, etc.) to service deep learning that is free of assessment and the shackles of ‘employability’. We can widen participation in the true sense of the word by providing childcare in-class, opening the classroom to non-enrolled students, gathering resources from those who work for pay to fund non-salaried experts to teach (i.e. rather than relying on the good will of activists etc. to give guest lectures etc.). These are not new suggestions and they sit alongside long-term commitments of many educators to work within marginalised communities or for example in prisons. However, in an age where ‘community engagement’ has become a currency for universities and, by extension, for faculty eager to use evidence of their ‘engagement’ for promotion, winning research grants or other prestige points, it is an act of resistance to refuse for one’s commitment to be coopted.

We should also take seriously the demands to decolonise the curriculum. The recent furore over demands at SOAS to decolonise the curriculum was reinterpreted in the media as a call to ‘drop dead white philosophers’. Instead, as Deborah Gabriel pointed out, the aim was to reflect the cultural diversity which SOAS is representative of and to show how the university has been implicated in colonialism. Arguably to do this it is necessary to teach the white ‘canon’ alongside its critics, for to teach the former uncritically would be to let stand the racist, sexist and colonial assumptions at the core of much of their work and to fail to interrogate the reasons for which European, and not African, Asian or Middle Eastern thinkers have been placed at the centre of thought. The criticism that decolonial thought merely replicates the work of European (Eurocentric) critical theory or that an analysis that is attentive to race displaces one that focuses on, what is proposed to be more all-encompassing emphasis on class, ignores the fact that race and class cannot be thought separately, either historically in terms of their conceptual and contextual development or contemporarily in terms of an understanding of who, in the US in particular, is most deeply affected by class inequalities. Some of these will (perhaps now, perhaps in the future) be our students or ourselves; therefore these are questions that cannot be relegated to the theoretical bust must find ways to be translated into plans of action.






Leave a Reply