Social Inequalities and Social Ordering

Anti-Racist Scholar-Activism: Pockets of possibility?

Written by Dr Laura Connelly, University of Sheffield and Dr Remi Joseph-Salisbury, University of Manchester

Anti-Racist Scholar-Activism Cover Image

Anti-Racist Scholar-Activismpublished by Manchester University Press in late 2021 – was initially borne out of our frustrations as PhD students with an academia that we saw as being disconnected from the urgent issues of the real world. Perhaps most of all, we were frustrated by our inability to navigate Higher Education in a way that bridged the gap between our own scholarship and anti-racist activism. As we have come to know the university a little better, we have become more attentive to the contradictions within the system: the pockets of possibility that we might exploit. We have also become more aware of and inspired by those that occupy the margins of the university, finding ways to use their scholarship in pursuit of social justice – those whom we might understand as scholar-activists. It is the experiences of 29 such people that we centre in the book.

The book offers a firm critique of what we refer to as the neoliberal-imperial-institutionally-racist university. Yet, we write in a spirit of cautious optimism that we hope readers will share. The accounts of our participants attest to the fact that there are many committed to fighting back, finding the openings to exploit, and using the resources, status and privileges that come from affiliating with power to work in service to community of resistance (Sivanandan, 2019). Here, we briefly reflect on three key ideas from the book: working in service, reparative theft, and constructive complicity. In so doing, we point to some of the pockets of possibility that anti-racist scholar-activists might find within the university. 

Before we do, it is worth noting that the term scholar-activism is slippery and contested and there is no one way of doing scholar-activism. We use the term to point to the dual role occupied by academics that combine their scholarship and activism. In some ways, anti-racist scholar-activism describes an approach that is vastly different to, perhaps even antithetical to, traditional approached in academia. Yet, in other ways, specific praxes overlap with other approaches within academia. We therefore tread a fine line between employing a definition of scholar-activism that is so narrow that it draws only on idealized and frontline versions of activism, and one that is so broad it overinflates the concept, emptying it of its definitional power. We also suggest that it is better to understand scholar-activism as a verb, rather than scholar-activist as a noun – that is, as something we do, rather than something we are.

Working in service 

One of the key ideas we unpack in the book, and which we suggest is a foundational tenet of anti-racist scholar-activism, is the notion of working in service; an idea we borrow from Ambalavaner Sivanandan (2019), the former director of the Institute of Race Relations and key voice in Britain’s radical anti-racist tradition. For our participants, putting the working in service principle into practice often involves a deep embeddedness in communities of resistance. This principle guides their praxis in a number of ways, including in relation to questions around accountability (are we accountable and, if so, to whom?), usefulness (is our work useful and, if so, to whom?), and accessibility and reach (is our work accessible and reachable and, if so, to whom?) The crux of the matter lies in the question of to whom or to what we are in service. Although the dominance of neoliberal technologies of Higher Education threaten to see academics work in service to performance metrics, and there are tendencies amongst many scholars to work with and for those with power, a scholar-activist orientation highlights the importance of breaking with this norm. Anti-racist scholar-activism involves working within (formal and informal) anti-racist groups in service to the dispossessed – that is, working in service as a duty to those who bear the brunt of racism’s effects, and to those who seek to resist racism and its intersections with other systems of oppression. Thus, anti-racist scholar-activism invokes a radical reorientation that is forged collectively through study, praxis, reflection, and involvement within communities of resistance. To borrow from Harney and Moten (2013), crucially, this positions anti-racist scholar-activists as being ‘in but not of’ the university.

Reparative theft

The idea of theft is one we take from Harney and Moten (2013: 26). They argue that ‘one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can…abuse its hospitality…spite its mission…be in but no of the university.’ Understood through this lens, the significant resources of the university present opportunities for anti-racist scholar-activists to leverage those resources in service to anti-racism. That universities are largely unwilling to relinquish their wealth and status, particularly for more counter-hegemonic ends, makes the redistribution of resources an act of subversion: an act of ‘theft’. For our participants, this theft is entirely justifiable: the imperial university’s wealth is ill-gotten, amassed in part through the exploitation of minoritised groups, particularly people of colour. In this sense, theft can be thought of as a form of redistribution, or even reparation. Theft from the university to benefit – or in service to – communities of resistance can be understood itself as an act of racial justice.

There are a range of resources that anti-racist scholar-activists seek to redistribute to communities of resistance. Most obviously, there are those that are immediately economic in nature: we can write community groups into our funding bids and make use of community engagement and Impact streams. We can steal ‘work time’ to work on activist projects and in doing so, push against the neoliberal forces of academic productivity. Through printing, sharing resources such as (paywalled) reading materials, and providing spaces for community meetings, there are a whole host of ways (some requiring more subterfuge than others) that we can, with a clear conscience, steal from the university for the sake of communities of resistance. Theft may also involve us taking the education we have gained in the institution and using it, or repurposing it, to work outside of the university. Put another way, the ultimate theft may be the theft of ourselves: our leaving Higher Education to take up radical community alternatives. 

Image Credit: Sandra Seitamaa

Constructive complicity 

Despite their construction as spaces of enlightenment, universities have never been truly open or levelling spaces and are instead active (re)producers of a deeply unequal order. By the very virtue of our presence and regardless of how committed we might be to radical alternatives, our participants noted that those of us working in the academy are implicated in a range of harms that are antithetical to our utopian visions. This is an uncomfortable truth but one with which we must grapple. We cannot, however, let this uncomfortable truth lead to a passivity of guilt.  Rather, in Spivak’s (1999) terms, we must use our complicity constructively. To do this, we can seize the pockets of possibility presented to us in our institutions, putting our affiliation with power to work in service to communities of resistance. 

Recognition of our complicity requires that we engage in meaningful reflexivity. It enables us to reflect on the extent to which we are fulfilling our commitments to working in service to communities of resistance and to the broader anti-racist project, and to reflect on the vested self-interests we each hold. This, in turn, involves us reflecting on and refining our strategy, not only as individuals but as collectives. Central to this process is a praxis of questioning both ourselves and the power structures that we maintain. With this in mind, we should heed Cann and DeMeulenaere’s (2020: 13) call to consider if we are being ‘co-opted by the system. Selling out’? To reflect seriously on this question requires that we think about our own relative positions of power, be they attributable to race, class, gender, disability, sexuality, or any other structuring force. Reflexive positionality has to be at the heart of anti-racist scholar-activism. Ultimately, it urges us to always consider our role in the academy, to never become too comfortable, and be attentive to the possibility that we might be more effective from elsewhere.

Concluding thoughts

Higher Education is fraught with problems and many of these problems are deep rooted and worsening. Our participants therefore grapple with the role that they play in propping up the neoliberal-imperial-institutionally-racist university. Yet, the university is not a monolith, and it does present opportunities – pockets of possibility – to those of us who are committed to anti-racism specifically and social justice more generally. With such enduring racial, environmental, economic and gendered injustices nationally and globally, it is vital that those of us within the academy find ways to contribute to resistance movements. All the while, we must struggle where we are to reshape, or rather radically overhaul, the contemporary university in our collective vision. We must also bolster existing, and build new, alternatives to the university.

Cann, C. and DeMeulenaere, E. (2020) The Activist Academic: Engaged Scholarship for Resistance, Hope and Social Change. Gorham, ME: Myers Education Press.

Harney, S. and Moten, F. (2013) The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Brooklyn, NY: Minor Compositions.

Sivanandan, A. (2019) Communities of Resistance: Writings of Black Struggles for Socialism. London: Verso.

 Spivak, G.C. (1999) Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s