Thursday, 8 January 2015

A Comment on the Epistemic Violence of White Academic Privilege - Part 2

Blind Spots
During a presentation at a conference in Oslo in 2014 anthropologist Richard Wilk discussed the topic of 'the negative terrain of discipline' and in the process exposed significant weaknesses in the discipline of anthropology. Richard made three arguments pertinent to this discussion:
  1. What we do not study can be more informative than comfortable and conventional topics.
  2. Sometimes the hardest thing to see is what is right in front of your face; what D. Miller calls the 'blindingly obvious'. And
  3. These zones of wilful blindness are always worth investigating (because 'open fields' are liberating).
In this blog I want to focus on the first statement, but before I do so I want to deal briefly with statement 2:

In previous blogs I have dealt with the Eurocentrism and white privilege that provide the ideological and epistemological basis of much of western criminology's engagement with Indigenous peoples and their 'issues'. The evidence of racism and the practice (and its effects) of white privilege within the Academy is extensive (see Aguirre, 2000; Cobb-Roberts, 2011; Iverson, 2007; Jeffries, 2006; Johnson-Bailey and Cervero, 2008; Miller, 2008; Moreton-Robinson, 2002; Myers, 2002; Smith et al, 2006; Stanley, 2006; Takara, 2006; Ward and Weems, 2010) - it is an empirical reality for many 'scholars of colour' who work in the academy. The racist, white privileged conduct of members of the academy touches on significant social (justice) issues including racism, discrimination, disempowerment, sexism and unethical conduct. All these 'issues' receive significant attention by criminologists and other academics; except it seems when their own colleagues conduct themselves in ways that disempower Indigenous scholars. In my experience members of the white privileged academy are much less interested in turning their critical gaze to a) the historical and contemporary role their discipline plays in the subjugation of Indigenous peoples, and b) exposing the racist, white privileged conduct of their colleagues. In my view:

the issue of racism and white privilege within academic criminology is one of the significant empirical blind spots of the discipline.

This blog utilises preliminary results of recent and ongoing research project to offer insights into the racist and white privileged strategies deployed by members of the western academy, and especially of members of the discipline of criminology, against Indigenous scholars.  

The Academy's Approach to Indigenous Peoples: Ignorance or Arrogance?

"One of the significant features of white [privileged, academic] ignorance is that it involves not just knowing but not knowing what one does not know and believing that one knows" (Applebaum, 2010: 13).

I recently engaged with work by non-Indigenous scholars on research they conducted in Indigenous communities. Two issues stood out from their work:
  1. The researchers had little background in researching on or with Indigenous peoples, and needed to engage Indigenous advisers on how to research Indigenous communities. And
  2. The advisers seemed to know little about the communities in which the research was being conducted, and so most of the information given to the principal researchers before entering the communities was inaccurate.  As a result they had to learn how to appropriately research in these communities post-entry.
First of all, hats off to the academics for recognising they had issues and needed to do better in the future. However, two thoughts came to mind while I engaged with their work:
  1. Why would white middle class academics with no meaningful experience of researching with Indigenous peoples believe they have the right to apply for this contract and carry out the research?  And
  2. Why would the contracting government agency give them a contract when they demonstrably lacked the necessary experience and knowledge?
The short answer to question two is that officials from contracting institutions often go for the 'familiar' when deciding who can/should do research on their behalf; meaning they go for academics who look, think and talk like they do.  In the majority of research funding situations, Indigenous academics and the research institutions they work for are less likely to be trusted with sensitive, politically charged topics, unless they are overseen by members of the white, privileged academy. It is also likely that contracting officials lack the critical knowledge and experience to be able to recognise that the individuals involved are not suited to carrying out the research.

The answer to question one is much more complex: How do you explain the fact that a group of non-Indigenous academics lacking both experience and knowledge, still apply for the research contract?

We could start to answer the question by acknowledging that people working in the contemporary academy are expected to apply for grants as part of performance management. The increasing commercialisation of the tertiary education sector means that applying for (and hopefully attaining) commercial monies is a key performance indicator for contemporary academics. The fact that the pool of contract research monies in many western, neo-liberal contexts is steadily diminishing, and the political nature of the grant decision-making process makes the chances of success minimal, are largely ignored. Most of the academics and university administrators involved know this to be the case, but pretty much everyone ignores it and so the act of simply applying becomes the key measure of success. Therefore, one could argue that the fiscal imperative is such that academics apply for grants they are wholly unsuited to because the pressure of being 'seen' to be attempting to fulfil the required performance measure means they apply for any grant regardless of their suitability. On paper it reads like a tidy rationale, but in my experience it is rarely the reason for applying for grants they are unsuited for.  

Perhaps the academics in question don't realise they are the wrong people to be carrying out research in Indigenous communities? Maybe they are so blind to their weaknesses that they genuinely believe themselves to be appropriate, when in reality they are not? In which case perhaps we should be forgiving and gently take them by the hand, sit them down for a quiet chat about their inadequacies and offer to help them to achieve the knowledge necessary for carrying out the research?

Sorry, but that excuse simply won't fly either, although I acknowledge having dealt with a number of academics in the past 20 years who were totally ignorant of their shortcomings in engaging with Indigenous people. No, the main reason why they apply is not ignorance but arrogance; an arrogance born of their white privileged position as members of an institution and of a discipline (in this case, criminology) that too often treats 'coloured folk' as methodological, financial and reputational cannon fodder; as sources of research grant monies to enhance their chances of promotion.  

In my experience, white privileged academics, especially those from the discipline of criminology, apply for research contracts on Indigenous issues for which they are unsuited because they genuinely believe they are entitled to do so. In this situation obvious personal shortcomings in method, methodology, theory, epistemology, etc, are overcome by seeking advice from one of their brown mates, regardless of that persons suitability for the role, or by simply reading a methods text book (although it is unlikely the book will be Linda Smith's 1999 Decolonising Methodologies!). The philosophical framework that emboldens these academics can be summarised in two words, white privilege - a state of mind and being that fosters their belief in the inherent superiority of the western, middle class academic environment; one that provides them the right to research brown people and their issues despite their lack of knowledge and experience. Having worked for a number of years in the academy, and carrying out research on the experiences of other Indigenous academics of working in this environment, none of this surprises me - the academy is replete with racist, white privileged conduct.

This brings me to the preliminary results of my ongoing research on racism in the academy, and especially within criminology.  In 2015 and 2016 I will be seeking to publish journal articles and book chapters that provide more detailed discussion of my findings.

Racism - the Epistemological Foundations of the Western Academy
Throughout my academic career I have experienced or observed a number of acts of racism and disempowerment perpetrated by white colleagues against Indigenous scholars. Over the past 18 months I've had discussions with 12 Indigenous scholars in Australasia and North America on the issue of racism and the academy as part of an ongoing research project. From this research I have discerned a half dozen or so actions/behaviours that commonly occur when white academics are seeking to empower themselves and, as a result, disempower 'colleagues of colour'. In the following section I discuss three of the 'actions' identified so far:

We own your name, we own you
One of the most common racist and disempowering acts is to place our name on research funding proposals without our consent.  I've experienced this behaviour in the past, as have four of the scholars I have spoken with thus far. In all instances white colleagues added our names to research grant applications without our permission. Why? Because the research topic either touched on Indigenous issues or the application form instructed them to explain how they will ensure their research is "culturally appropriate" (note that such forms rarely if ever ask the applicant if they will ensure their research is culturally grounded and empowering). How to deal with this? Simple - add a brown name.  

One of my research participants who works in a New Zealand university, recounted how one of his colleagues informed him his name had been added to a grant application as they were passing in a hallway with the words 'just thought I'd let you know that I'm doing research on such-and-such so I included your name on the application because I thought you'd be interested and we need a Maori presence'.  

Can you imagine the sh*t that would hit the fan if I as a male academic walked past a female colleague and said 'hey, I'm doing some research on Maori and since it might involve Maori women I added your name cause, you know, we need a female presence'. How long do you think it would take for the formal complaint paperwork to come through; at the very least you can expect the HoD to have a quiet but firm word in your ear?  So let me ask the obvious question: why do white academics, both male and female (2 of the perpetrators of this conduct reported during my research were women) act as if they have the right to conduct themselves in such a condescending, patronising way? Surely it is because they believe they are empowered to conduct themselves in this way by their white privileged colleagues, the discipline they belong to, and the institution they work in?

Any person of colour will do - as long as I get out of work
Another disempowering behaviour consistently reported involved colleagues using Indigenous colleagues to get themselves out of work. A number of the academics I interviewed reported receiving emails from colleagues or the chair of the workloads committee, informing them that 'wouldn't it be good for you, an Indigenous scholar, to sit on such and such a committee because it would be useful to have an Indigenous perspective', etc, etc. Now, this argument probably stands up for a teaching and learning committee which oversees what is taught and how (to ensure units or courses cover Indigenous issues), but academics I spoke to for this project reported being placed on four or five committees for which a specific Indigenous perspective was not paramount - it was simply a case of colleagues using the 'Indigenous perspective' argument to get themselves moved off committees they had no interest in attending.

If you disagree with me you are angry, aggressive and violent
This was one of the most powerful strategies identified by participants, one that most of the eight men I spoke with had experienced, or observed another Indigenous/black scholar experiencing. If you are an academic of colour and you disagree with white colleagues, and especially if you pull them up for unethical or racist conduct, there is a good chance this strategy will be used to silence you. Participants spoke of being accused of being verbally aggressive for calling out colleagues for racist conduct - regardless of the 'tone' in which they delivered their rebuke, and two found themselves placed under surveillance by university security because colleagues they had challenged subsequently reported feeling 'threatened'; a strategy WIlliams (2001) discusses with some vigour in her piece entitled The Angry Black Women Scholar. Two Australian scholars I discussed this strategy with made interesting observations that are pertinent to this discussion: one said in response this issue "aren't we always angry? No matter how we respond, or what language we use, it will be represented as anger; it is a simple a way of turning attention away from their conduct". While his colleagues response was "so what? Sometimes we have the right to be angry when we are faced with racism. Why are we expected to keep our cool in the face of white privileged arrogance".  

An interesting aside to this issue is the fact all bar one of the participants who discussed this issue reported that senior officials at the institution where they worked failed to do anything significant when they reported the white privileged, racist conduct of their colleagues. Instead, the institutional response focused on their response to the racist conduct, or officials tried to channel the complaint away from the formal disciplinary process and into informal 'mediation'.  

We decide when you are Indigenous and when your work is important
Another strategy employed by white privileged academics to 'own' us is to control when we can/cannot speak or work as Indigenous scholars. In two instances participants related how they had been redefined as non-Indigenous so that work they had previously been doing could be offered to someone else. 

Three of my respondents reported experiencing what can only be described as non-Indigenous colleagues deciding when they can speak as an Indigenous person, and proscribing when they can no longer do so. In two instances respondents reported being stopped from giving a lecture on Indigenous perspectives so a colleague could instead lecture in their place. One incident involved an Indigenous scholar being stopped from giving a lecture on the topic of Indigenous women's experiences of prison, an issue they had actually done research on, and replaced by a white colleague who had not. 

Another reported debating with a colleague on the suitability of people shortlisted for a lecturing position. The colleague argued that it was imperative that increasing the number of women be the top selection criteria. The Indigenous scholar described the resulting interaction thus:

"I responded by pointing out that as I was the only Indigenous scholar on staff it is equally important to consider increasing the Indigenous quota.  Her response was 'I'm surprised you say that, I've never heard you speak as a Maori before'.  Initially I was shocked, but then asked her 'I'm surprised you say that; have you actually read my research, my publications?' To which she replied 'well ok, but you've never spoken openly here about Maori issues'. I got the feeling that I was supposed to earn my Indigenous badge everyday; everyday I need to wear the Tino Rangatiratanga t-shirt and lecture everyone on Maori issues, just to remind them of my ongoing commitment to Maori issues".

Concluding Comment
It is my experience and that of the majority of my participants, that institutions rarely live up to the marketing rhetoric of their 'Aboriginal Strategy' or code of conduct, by holding white academics formally accountable for the types of conduct discussed in this blog. In relation to the criminal justice system Cunneen (2008: 37) argues that "the current direction of the criminal justice system is one that could be regarded as criminogenic to the extent that it fosters and compounds Indigenous anger". I argue that a similar statement can be made about the way in which academic institutions often fail to safeguard Indigenous scholars and hold academics accountable for employing racist strategies like the purposeful construction of Indigenous resistance per se as acts of aggression and violence, using our names and CV's to enhance grant applications without our permission, or redefining us as non-Indigenous in order to remove work from us and empower themselves. Andrea Smith (2011) once gifted us an Indigenous Feminism Without Apology. In similar fashion I offer this blog and future publications resulting from this research without apology, as part of an evolving Indigenous (Warrior) Criminology, in the hope that one day Indigenous scholars are able to participate in the academy free of the disempowering, unethical conduct discussed here.    

Aguirre, A (2000) Women and Minority Faculty in the Academic Workplace: Recruitment, Retention, and Academic Culture. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Applebaum, B (2010) White: On the Possibility of Doing Philosophy in Good Failth, in G. Yancy (Ed.) The Centre Must Hold: White Women Philosophers on the Whiteness of Philosophy. Lanham (MD): Lexington.  
Cunneen, C (2008) Indigneous Anger and the Criminogenic Effects of the Criminal Justice System, in A. Day; M. Nakata and K. Howells (Eds.), Anger and Indigenous Men. Leichhardt: Federation Press: 37-46. 
Iverson, S (2007) Camouflaging Power and Privilege: A Critical Race Analysis of University Diversity Policies, Educational Administration Quarterly, 43: 586-611. 
Jeffries, M (2006) Centering the Edge: Addressing Institutional Racism and Habitual Exclusion in the Academy, Du Bois Review, 3(2): 481-484. 
Johnson-Bailey, J and Cervero, R (2008) Different Worlds and Divergent Paths: Academic Careers Defined by Race and Gender, Harvard Educational Review, 78: 311-332. 
Miller, D (2008) Shades of Grey: An Autoethnographic Study of Race in the Academy, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 21: 347-373. 
Moreton-Robinson, E (2002) Talkin' Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press. 
Myers, L (2002) A Broken Silence: Voices of African American Women in the Academy. Westport: Bergin and Garvey. 
Smith, A (2011) Indigenous Feminism Without Apology, Unsettling America: Decolonisation in Theory and Practice, available at 
Smith, W; Yosso, T and Solorzano, D (2006) Challenging Racial Battle Fatigue on Historically White Campuses: A Critical Race Examination of Race-Related Stress, in C. Stanley (Ed.), Faculty of Colour Teaching in Predominantly White Colleges and Universities. Bolton (MA): Anker: 299-327. 
Stanley, C (2006) Colouring the Academic Landscape: Faculty of Colour Breaking the Silence in Predominantly White Colleges and Universities, American Educational Research Journal, 43: 701-736. 
Takara, K (2006) A View from the Academic Edge: One Black Woman Who is Dancing as Fast as She Can, Du Bois Review, 3(2): 463-470. 
Ward, A and Weems, M (2010) Speak Truth and Shame the Devil: An Ethnodrama in Response to Racism in the Academy, Qualitative Inquiry, 16: 310-313. 
Williams, C (2001) The Angry Black Woman Scholar, NWSA Journal, 13: 87-97. 

1 comment:

  1. Truly phenomenal blog post! A perfect review and referencing plus tone of writing! The same kind of academic writing I got it from