Black scholars, racial justice and public prominence
A thought-provoking article in the Times Higher by Daniel Matlin, an American studies lecturer at Kings College London, asks whether black intellectuals must talk about race in order to achieve the same level of prominence as white scholars.
Focusing on the US, Matlin observes that the most famous African American scholars are those for whom race has been their central focus of inquiry and who have been publicly outspoken in matters concerning racial equality.
These include the likes of WEB Dubois, Kenneth B Clark, Alice Walker, Cornel West, Bell hooks, Michael Eric Dyson, Toni Morrison and Henry Louis Gates, to name but a few. However, according to Matlin, the pursuit of racial justice comes at a price, not only to the academic but also to their field of study.
He cites as examples Kenneth B Clark, who abandoned his interest in neurophysiology to pursue a doctorate in social psychology as he felt it had a more direct path to the pursuit of racial justice.
In another example, Julian Lewis, instead of devoting his most productive years to scientific research, wrote a book called The Biology of the Negro at great cost to the biological sciences.
This is not the first time I have heard that argument. I recall at a ‘BME’ conference last June hosted by the Black Educational Researchers Association, the keynote speaker and sociologist, Professor Harry Goulbourne advising a predominantly black academic audience not to be distracted by race issues.
I did not heed his advice, hence the launch of Black British Academics in April 2013. Devoting a large chunk of my time and energy towards getting it established has probably delayed the submission of my doctoral thesis by four months.
However, whilst I agree with Matlin on one level that the pursuit of racial justice comes at a price; firstly it is a price worth paying and secondly, there are huge gains, not purely on an individual level, but also on a collective level for black communities and at academic/disciplinary level.
In the first instance Black British Academics and the Black academic community in the UK would not have been mentioned in Matlin’s article were I not to have followed the path of racial justice, as I would not have launched it in the first place.
Race equality in higher education has been high on the agenda this year and in several mainstream articles black academics have been articulating the issues from our own perspectives and advancing solutions. We will continue to assert our right to influence policies that have social and economic consequences for our communities as well as for career development.
The second point to make is that whilst my pursuit of racial justice took priority over my doctoral thesis for a few months, in fact there is no clear separation of the two objectives. Advancing new ways of understanding African Caribbean people in the UK lies at the heart of my thesis. Therefore many of the theories and conceptual frameworks that are applicable in the race equality arena are equally applicable to my media and cultural studies thesis.
When I returned to working full-time on my thesis at the beginning of October 2013 I felt empowered and had a much sharper critical focus. I completed three major chapters within two months and won an award at a media and politics conference in November 2013 for a research paper based on one of my chapters. My thesis is richer for the time I devoted to racial justice and apparently so too is the discipline.
All too often issues of race within the academe are marginalised and research that acknowledges the impact of race within many areas of human existence is unexplored and under-valued.
While I do not believe that research around race should only be undertaken by people of colour, it is often the case that when we are studied by white researchers we are framed as social problems and are decentred by whiteness.
The critical studies that expose white racial power and privilege or that have emancipatory aims are often undertaken by us. Challenging the dominance of European epistemologies helps to generate new levels of understanding that informs and promotes activism at different levels of society that over time can lead to social change.
In some disciplines it is admittedly easier to accommodate critical and emancipatory studies that include a racial justice focus, whilst still pushing the boundaries of new knowledge and innovation. I have come to regard my understanding of race and racism gained both through scholarship and lived experience as a component of my broader knowledge of the discipline.
For some disciplines such as the biological sciences, pursuing research with a racial justice focus, or engaging in activities that promote race equality may indeed amount to a sacrifice or compromise of a promising academic career. It is a choice that each individual must make for themselves through grappling with profound questions about one’s purpose in life.
There are immense gains as much as there are perceived losses. I would like to think that in his lifetime and through his legacy, Kenneth B Clark contributed more through his field of psychology to racial equality within and beyond the US, amounting to significant achievements that he might not have made within the field of neurophysiology.
Is it really more important or of more human value to treat or cure neurological disorders than it is to demonstrate the effect of racial prejudice and discrimination on the psychological development of young children, or is it simply a question of the value attached to each?
Is it not the case that Clark rose to prominence because he was an outstanding psychologist and scholar who made major contributions beyond his discipline that had and continues to have a major impact on the lives of people around the world? I certainly think so.
The fact that black scholars who do not choose to tread the path of racial justice have less visibility is ironically, one of the aims of Black British Academics – to challenge hegemonic whiteness and the power and privilege that it confers, which results in the marginalisation of black scholars across all disciplines.
In answer to Matlin’s question as to whether black scholars must talk about race in order to achieve public prominence, the answer is that some black scholars must talk about race and pursue racial justice so that others can achieve the recognition they deserve in their chosen fields.