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10 April: Ivory Towers

Published onJul 09, 2019
10 April: Ivory Towers

In the 2002 academic year much ink was spilt over the now notorious outburst of Geoffrey Sampson, Professor of Natural Language Computing at the University of Sussex, who claimed in a paper published on his website that ‘racialism’ is inevitable and universal. ‘Yellow-skinned Orientals tend to be brighter than whites and Negroes tend to be rather less bright’, wrote Sampson. In the Times Higher Education Supplement Ian McDonald observed, ‘Outside the academy, Sampson’s article represents little more than a footnote in the outpouring of racist myths and lies of the past few years. But, unchallenged, its potential power lies in the rationalization of an intuitive sense that many people will hold, namely that preference for racial familiarity is ‘‘natural’’.’

In the aftermath of McDonald’s article a debate was hosted on the (then) THES website. It made for telling reading. A host of liberal-minded academics lined up, shoulder to shoulder with right-wing libertarians and pernicious racists, to defend Sampson’s academic freedom. By turns, ‘racist academics’ were accused of ‘lacking confidence’ in their own arguments, ‘political correctness’ and of not being ‘tough enough to defend principles’. In short, those who were offended by Sampson’s outpouring were accused of being too ‘thin skinned’, not being able to take the ‘raciological’ knocks.

Such forms of counterblast are launched from within the armature of an assumed whiteness – perhaps even invisible to those protected by it – that staked out the terms of the argument. Ben Carrington concluded that those involved in the online debate had ‘virtually nothing to say about racism and how it might be challenged’. For him, this whole incident ‘reveals just how deeply entrenched racism, in its various guises, still is within the HE sector’.

Racism in higher education can take a very crude and brutal form. It furnishes assumptions that black staff will take care of the ‘race dimensions’ of curriculum, or that black or Asian colleagues will automatically be ‘good with the ethnics’. In another sense, whiteness works like an implicit authorization of what is valued and taken to be ‘cutting-edge work’. Perhaps one way forward is to try and identify the kinds of ‘cultural passports’ that are necessary to gain entry to the academy. These boundaries are policed through the implicit knowledge necessary to acquire academic forms of distinction. It seems to me that some of what we might call institutional racism is unwritten, embedded and embodied within the academy’s sheer institutional weight.

Most white academics see it as unthinkable and unreasonable that any accusation of racism should be levelled at their door. For them, the face of racism is that of the moral degenerate, the hateful bigot, or the mad/eccentric, which would include the likes of Professor Sampson. Couched in these terms it becomes unthinkable that such an ugly word could be directed at genteel, educated and liberal dons. Even raising the issue of institutional racism tentatively in HE produces responses such as ‘How could you?’ or ‘How dare you make such accusations?’ Rather than simply hide in the refusal to acknowledge the problem – that is, the rebuff ‘Don’t look at me!’ – the open question that whites needs to embrace is ‘Why not me?’

I am not suggesting that the addiction to white supremacy should be countered by some kind of equivalent to an AA meeting – ‘Hi. My name’s Les. I am a recovering white person.’ No, rather it needs to be acknowledged that racism has done damage to reason, done damage to academic and civic freedoms, and has done damage to the project of education itself. Admitting this means a kind of resolute and ongoing reckoning with whiteness. It is never a matter of an end point, or a smug achievement, be it the form of a rewritten university mission statement or the adoption of a race equality policy.

Rather, it is an ongoing questioning that strives to step out of whiteness’s brilliant shadow. The kind of reflexivity I am arguing for should be troublesome and uncomfortable because, as John Dewey pointed out, it is a matter of embracing a ‘willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance’. This is driven not by guilt but by shame. It is shameful to read in research published by the University of Leeds that black colleagues in British universities are routinely undermined, cut out of the loop of academic communication and subjected to crude racism inside and outside the classroom.

Many who have felt the velvet glove of academic exclusion in the job market are reluctant to speak out because of fear of ostracism or being labelled a ‘troublemaker’. Racism in HE can’t be pushed under the carpet any longer; too much has been deposited there already and there are too many undulations along the faculty floor. If the sheer weight of whiteness that bears down on the academy is to be lifted, there needs to be an open and difficult acknowledgement of the damage that racism has done inside the education system. Then, and perhaps only then, will universities be ready to play a role in producing a post-imperial society that is at peace with itself.

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