On reading the article by Dr Boyce Watkins in Your Black World concerning black scholars and their anger, I felt compelled to reply less as a black scholar and more as an urban criminologist in Britain with a PhD.
As someone who undertakes research with gang members, black men in prison, community people, combined with interfacing with other academics alongside lecturing students, I’m mindful that labelling myself as a ‘black scholar’ is seen by my constituency at times as both authoritarian and driven by status.
I’m still connected to the same black community I resided in prior to obtaining my doctorate. After all, my interviews, data and indeed the foundation for me obtaining a doctorate came from those same community people who are labelled as dangerous, deviant and criminal.
I would suggest to the doubters and those who are now feeling the pain of academic exclusion that black oppression doesn’t stop just because you’ve got a PhD. The assumption that being black, gifted and talented makes you immune from white privilege and black subordination is straight out the pages of a Disney film.
The people I know in the black community have anger located within an understandable socio-historical context, are resilient, brave, courageous and dealing with circumstances that some black scholars may have forgotten on account of having selective amnesia about who we are and how we got here.
Some of us have swapped strong community connections in exchange for building status, profile and validation from the very same people we curse in private. As an urban criminologist I place myself in the world of my participants in order to observe and engage in their lived reality, even if that world is chaotic, messy and dangerous.
Failure to do so will not only render the concerns of those communities invisible but those encounters remain invisible in academia if there is no one to capture those experiences.
At a time when many of our cities (mine included) are under siege, crumbling and imploding daily, I not only have a moral responsibility to look at what’s happening but I am obliged to report what I see as part of a process of reclamation and social justice.
A committed academic must be someone who acknowledges that liberation from oppressive forces must be a key goal both in and out of the academy. The inner city communities I visit and live amongst offer all criminologists an opportunity to engage in dialogue around those same understandings, thoughts, feelings, insights and experiences through telling their own stories in their own words.
My work speaks to those excluded, marginalized and neglected communities who like me, feel it is time for our voices to be heard. Dubois refers to those researchers who do not venture into inner city communities as carwash sociologists.
Namely, the world we inhabit is at times messy, dangerous and chaotic, requiring some extraordinary measures to access these stories as and when they arise. In relation to crime, violence and social disorganisation in some of the UK’s volatile inner cities, events can flair up instantly; shootings, robbery, fights and civil unrest.
What do you do when you are at times stigmatised on account of coming from the same community and cultural background as your research participants? How do you manage the range of mixed emotions that emerge when you are constantly being told that conducting research in communities you are connected to is too risky in spite of having 30 years’ experience and a PhD?
I’m tired of researchers colluding with the othering process where they ‘jump in’ to communities and then ‘jump out’ once they have found what they are looking for. My research encounters take place on street corners, shopping centres, churches and numerous other communal spaces.
The key to gaining access to the lives of my constituency comes through my own real lived experiences which like theirs has also been fraught with danger and fear, although in my case not because of a criminal lifestyle.
A history of racial subordination has made me more vigilant and defiant in the face of continuing and sustainable pressure coming from forces designed to keep me down. I’m personally tired of having to seek permission, gain access, go through intermediaries and negotiate with gatekeepers.
The academic in me wants to change the structure, yet I know operating from that privileged domain weakens my position when working with disaffected people. So in essence, to be true to my own values and sense of purpose I cannot justify being located in an academic environment that doesn’t connect itself in some way to meaningful and relevant political, social and cultural change that will make the world a slightly better place to be.
My existence within academia (which at times felt like being in exile), has forced me to examine how I live and function alongside the changing nature of my relationship to the community where I reside, whilst at the same time wrestling with the challenges of being an academic in a predominantly white institution.
This in essence means there was always an on-going challenge of contesting the pervasive white privilege in academia, alongside having to occupy an uncomfortable space with those who fear my assertion coming from the community.
There are so many times when I have felt angry at the way the black contribution to intellectual ideas and the production of knowledge have been airbrushed out of my university’s canvas, painting a picture that is almost wholly white with a few black dots around the edges of the frame.
There is of course an abundance of black students, a significant amount of black technicians, catering staff and cleaners. However, the management, lecturers, syllabi, library resources and curriculum content remind me yet again, that diverse contributions to knowledge are not only invisible but reinforce notions of white privilege.
So am I angry? Yes! Do I feel disaffected at times? Yes! However, being shrewd, not getting distracted from my research interests and passions and having a clear grounding in my life put the academy into context.
It neither defines me, owns me or controls my desire to improve the position of oppressed peoples. When I am upset I escape to the world of jazz, reggae, hip-hop, poetry and more importantly I walk away, go for a stroll and remind myself that life is bigger than pushing for an academic status that breeds false consciousness.
So in conclusion, I do not see anger as the issue, but its management, expression, location and more importantly where you want to deposit it.