Decolonising the academy: the only way forward: 1

An eye-opener of a sojourn?

My recent visit to Canada, to attend the two largest academic events in political science in francophone and Anglophone Canada, was an eye opener, and a stark reminder of the ways in which racial, socioeconomic and political hierarchies operate in academia. It was also a fulsome confirmation of the ways in which knowledge production takes place in the field of international politics. The near-totality of research work on peace processes, power-sharing, peacebuilding, conflict management, IR theory is, pace a handful of rare exceptions, all done by cis white people in the global North. After a few months of field work in x and y location in the global South, they structure their arguments, present papers at conferences, publish in scholarly journals and academic publication houses, and the knowledge they produce thus becomes the ‘status quo’ knowledge. It is this body of work that serves as ‘the’ reference to their very powerful and influential Western governments, supra-national bodies and, appallingly, to the large majority of governments in the global South. To the so-called urbane, Westernised ‘civil society lobbies’ in countries in the global South (especially in deeply divided societies), the work produced by cis white academics in the global North is, no kidding, the word of God. This academic lobby also seeks, in its own micro-aggressive ways, to demean, if not undermine and relegate to the margins, the work of academics from the global South, especially those who uphold positions different to their own. This is something I have felt, and have had to put up with, all my PhD work since 2008. At one point, it was so toxic that I seriously considered abandoning the whole thing, and taking a different path. I ultimately resorted to a ‘middle path’, running away from the university where I was doing my PhD to another country, to teach in a different university system for a couple of years.

Eurocentric ways taken for granted?

Many cis-het-white folk in international politics academia who ‘specialise’ on locations in the global South, take their tremendous positions of privilege for granted, take pride in them, and do not see anything questionable in them. This is largely because the heavily unequal world we live in has been kind to them, and placed them in the highest position of privilege. In the large majority of cases, they never take a second to question their positions of enormous privilege. As one international relations academic said to me at the CPSA conference dinner, she did not see ‘anything wrong’ in the fact that knowledge production in IR and world politics is near-exclusively done by the cis-het-white scholar from the global North.

A global South perspective?

To me, a transwoman, Sri Lankan, with a Franco-British education and leading an existence of exile, everything about this structure is most fundamentally wrong. People simply assume that an x number of months’ fieldwork in x or y country, and ‘advocacy’ for the apparent ‘welfare’ of marginalised communities in x or y country in the global South, make them experts and frontline scholars in that x or y country. In the panel in which I presented, not ONCE did any of the cis-white presenters admit their positions of privilege, that their ‘whiteness’ is their biggest passport and asset to engage in research in the global South. That especially in the African continent, a black scholar (irrespective of their nationality or level of access to bits of white privilege) carrying out research into deep-seated socio-political divisions is prone to have a much tougher ride than the white academic. They take their privilege for granted, and expect the world to respect their privileged position, without questioning the inherent inequalities, duplicities, inconsistencies and sheer violence in the system that puts them in their positions of privilege. One IR scholar told me that during her PhD programme, she benefitted from two very prestigious scholarships (high-profile foundations — one named after an infamous former Canadian Prime Minister and another with generous money), and that her PhD programmes was a comfortable, financially secure venture. She even purchased a flat in the city where she completed her PhD, all while being a graduate student. In the other end of Canada, attending another conference, I met a tremendously intelligent, multilingual, and in the truest sense of the term, very smart academic, who happened to be from a country in central America. She is an international student in Canada, and has two young children, and gets only one grant that involves a much lesser sum, despite her family charges, academic credentials and professional experience. She has to fight for every single thing, has no access to healthcare (and hence has to purchase private health coverage), and purchasing her own property is not an option, to quote her own words ‘because we are foreigners [with temporary residence] in this country’. The cis-het-white explanation would be ‘of course that’s very normal. It’s like that everywhere. It is different for foreigners/much harder for foreigners in any country). I beg to differ, and fundamentally disagree.

It is not so hard for the cis-white scholar from North America who pursues a PhD in Western Europe. I have come across so many people in that category, and in comparison with the foreign scholar from the racialized, non-white global South, they have a relatively smooth ride. They are immediately accepted in academic circles, made welcome, and after PhDs, access grants and positions with less red tape. Even the tough immigration bodies treat them in a fairly straightforward way.

The burdens of the Southerner?

All this changes for the scholar from the global South, who studies in universities in the global North — especially in the social sciences. They have to prove themselves harder, justify their existence, and undergo fierce and simply violent regimes of control imposed by colonial structures in place. The International Office in Queen’s University Belfast, for instance, was, I say it out loud, the most unwelcome body I’ve ever come across in my entire academic and professional parcours, which involves three countries other than my own, three different university systems, two ‘international’ languages, and providing undergraduate and postgraduate teaching solutions that were highly appreciated by my students 99% of the time (except in conservative and bigoted student circles in a province with its own trajectory of hatred and occupation). If a white postgraduate student were treated that way, they would have had so many channels to voice their opposition, make their voice heard, build support networks, cry their eyes out, and get added value to their white tears, which have a very high market value and selling price.

Duplicities in research structures?

This is also the case when it comes to publishing and research grants. Sometime back, I had an appointment with the director of a research institute specialised in conflict transformation, based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. At the time, I was considering carrying out a research project in Myanmar. The first thing this person said was something along the lines of “when it comes to Sri Lanka, that’s fine because I see that you are Sri Lankan, but the question arises as to your expertise or knowledge about Myanmar. Have you been there?” I bet that the reaction would have been fundamentally different had I been white. If I were cis-white and if I said “oh yea, I spent three months doing some travelling in Myanmar, and then in Laos and did some interning/volunteering with such and such [Western, cis, very largely heteronormative and essentially white supremacist] x or y NGO in Yangoon, I bet that the same person’s reaction would have been very different. The fact that I have developed strong networks among Buddhist networks in Myanmar, have developed links with several academic institutions in the country, were all irrelevant to him. Had I been white, I doubt it if any such question would have been asked in the first place. I have met some senior academics who manage multi-million pound projects focused on countries on which they have no concrete research specialisation whatsoever. They certainly do not speak the local language, and in one such project, the academic demi-god employed ‘research partners’ in local universities in every country, paid them to do the work, and translate the research findings into English, and then the demi-god sits and writes a book based on those findings. If this is the carry on that research funding bodies perceive as laudable and deserving of research grants, this alone is proof of the extent to which such bodies are discriminatory, obsessed with whiteness, seeing the white academic (read cis white male academic) as more capable of ‘managing’ multi-national, multi-million-pound research projects. In another university in mainland Britain, an anthropologist who apparently ‘specialises’ in all things Sri Lankan has developed a long tradition of bringing in Sri Lankan PhD candidates to work under his supervision. There have been next to no cases in which his students have strongly disagreed with or challenged the said academic’s work. Basically, everybody agrees with what this academic demi-god has to say! Western (very especially Western European) academic circles working on locations in the global South provide the most poignant examples of patronage politics and neo-colonial politics of knowledge-controlling.

Decolonising: the top-most priority?

There’s no denying that ‘whiteness’ is a reassuring force in academia in the social sciences — very specially in international politics and IR. Whiteness reassures hiring committees, reassures publishers, and committees making decisions on research grants. In focusing on white-privilege-related duplicities in the academy, the point I am trying to make is that it is absolutely crucial to ‘decolonize’ academia. As Professor Achille Mbembe recently noted, the Eurocentric canon is one that attributes truth only to the Western way of knowledge production. The central importance attached to the Eurocentric academy has resulted in creating structures of hierarchical domination and control. It is generally taken for granted, for example, that it is a privilege for someone from a country in the global South to carry out their higher education in a ‘good university’ in the global North. In the New Commonwealth, for instance, being educated in the UK, especially in Oxbridge and other prestigious universities, is strongly associated with upward social mobility and social status. From day one, people are trained to look up to the West, Western universities, Western ways of life etc. and consequently hold every other form of non-Western knowledge production, way of life, academic structure and languages as of a lesser value than everything Western. Some white academics in Western universities take pride in this structure, and thrive on it. For many British universities, this structure of hierarchical domination forms a tremendous source of income, charging very high tuition fees from students from outside the European Union. At yet another level, in many countries in South Asia, for instance, an education in what is termed as ‘international schools’ (where the primary medium of instruction is English) is systematically considered as more prestigious and ‘useful’ and ‘valuable’ than being educated in a national language.

If one is to take a more equitable and decolonizing approach, it is very important to question and challenge these colonially established structures of education. As opposed to some superficial observers, this by no means implies a total rejection of existing university and knowledge production mechanisms. The priority lies in engaging in a sincere and collective interaction on challenging these dominant currents in knowledge production and education. How can more equitable structures be put in place, and white supremacy in academia be addressed? How can increased value and equality be accorded to non-western modes of knowledge production? What about making scholarship accessible to people across continents, languages and economic circumstances? Most importantly, how to accord non-Western modes of knowledge production their pleine place in secondary and tertiary teaching? How best can the dominant positions of Western languages in knowledge production be challenged? What can be said about changes already taking place, such as what some scholars describe as the rise of ‘Eastphalia’?

These are all challenging questions, and it takes a great deal of forthrightness, sincerity, and a strong willingness to critically question one’s positions of privilege if any constructive answers are to be found at all. This is where a transfeminist approach to decolonising can be extremely relevant, and provide a useful analytical tool in critiquing the ways in which things are done, and highlighting the importance of change. A transfeminist perspective is marked by a strong emphasis on equality, inclusivity and critical engagement, and the advocacy of social justice (which, despite the apparent commitment of some academic bodies, cannot be realised in the absence of a strong emphasis on non-western modes of knowledge production, and critically questioning the privilege of the white western academy, and creating spaces in western academic institutions where critical voices from the global South are given spaces for academic reflection. Apart from initiatives such as the University of Colour, based at the University of Amsterdam and perhaps the global South chair at the Centre d’études mondiales of the Fondation maison des sciences de l’homme in Paris, there is very little emphasis in the European academy to seriously engage with non-Western approaches to knowledge production, and delve into perspectives from the global South. Yet another research body that engages in useful work is the Alice project at the University of Coimbra. Very often what one comes across are structures in which the scholar from the global South is compelled to comply by dominant practices, processes of whitening intersectionalities, gets talked over, or forced into intellectual, methodological and professional ‘compliance’. There’s work to be done in further conceptualising ideas such as that of a ‘pluriversity’ — process of knowledge production that is open to epistemic diversity, that Achille Mbembe has developed. Indeed, there’s a lot more to write on this issue, and to quote Robert Frost, ‘miles to go before I sleep’.

To be continued.