It seems clear there is a desire to address a problem. The implementation of a Black Studies Program at Newman University, the establishment of the Equiano Centre at University College London, as well as Nathan E. Richard’s incisive piece of film making Absent from the Academy, indicate there is a concentrated attempt to generate pressure around the pedagogical and institutional problem of race within British universities. The study of race, particularly as it is understood in terms of blackness, has never disappeared from academic or intellectual life in the UK over the past decade. It has remained a persistently unruly part of the higher education environment, if only in isolated pockets. The current manifestations listed above though represent a degree of formalisation and collective coherence which is proving impossible to ignore. In this respect, the intensification of organisational activity offers an immense amount of hope to students and scholars of race and those who operate under the heading “people of colour”.
As someone deeply invested in both of these categories, and therefore deeply invested in the hope generated by these projects, I would like to address some concerns that have been shadowing me recently. My own hope is that the expression of these concerns is taken in the spirit that they are intended, namely as part of an internal conversation between those who have stakes in how the pedagogical and institutional politics of race in UK higher education proceeds.
Many of these concerns coalesce around the “Why isn’t my Professor Black?” event held at UCL in early March. Again, to reiterate, the fact that such an event took place signals the necessity for change, yet there were many things left unsaid, not just on the night, but as part of the developing conversation around this issue, that exposes some faultlines in how change is being conceived here. These concerns can be reduced to the question “Why do we want more Black Professors?” By this I mean, do we want more Black Professors in UK universities as such institutions currently operate? What is it that we are demanding our inclusion into? A cursory examination of the current UK university sector might provide us with some indicators.
Last week it was revealed that senior staff at the University of London and the trade union Unison had colluded to undermine the 3 Cosas campaign organised by Latin American workers demanding basic rights to sick pay, holidays and pensions. These actions can be considered as part of a much wider attempt by universities to privatise large sections of administrative services through the aggressive cutting of labour costs in the name of improving student experience. Accompanying this is the suppression of organised student opposition to these measures, including targeting individuals with prosecutions, at ‘elite’ institutions such as University of Birmingham, University of Sussex and University of Edinburgh. Academic staff, as well as being coerced into operating as border agents, are in a pay dispute with universities over a real terms 13% reduction in pay, whilst senior management are awarding themselves massive pay increases. Finally, it appears that the present government’s fees and funding restructuring strategy, which was fully endorsed by Universities UK, is proving unsustainable.
Whilst the intensification of pressure around the problem of race in British higher education – a range of activities which can be loosely gathered under the question “Why isn’t my Professor Black?’ – is necessary, there are some urgent questions that seem, to me at least, left unasked. If we are demanding entry into the university, is the creation of more black professors the end point, or do we carry with us the possibility of overturning the university, and the practice of education, as it currently operates? If we do carry such possibilities with us, upon entry should our expectations not be met, do we have an escape route?
When I ask these questions, I do so with James Baldwin’s warning about the price of the ticket pulling away at me with its insistence. What I mean by this is that in a very simple, but equally exceedingly complex, sense we do not want to lose what it is we already have. The likes of the Black Studies project at Newman and Absent from the Academy are, at least in my view, the outcome of work that has gone on for years outside the University, such as the counter-discourse on the 2011 riots, the London Campaign Against Police and State Violence, Southall Black Sisters, the George Padmore Institute and Black History Walks. If our stated aim is to build an ebony tower there is an accompanying danger that it will lead to the creation of a class of experts in the administration of “the race problem” (something that is arguably already underway under the guise of “Superdiversity”).
To reiterate a point made earlier, I raise these questions in the current spirit of hope, and in the hope they will be received generously. Those are my only intentions. I also voice these concerns as someone who will always remain a student of Black Studies and Black Study. As far as I understand and practice both Black Studies and Black Study with others, it has never been an organisational impulse built around the logics of numbers and representation alone. C.L.R James called Black Studies the study of Western Civilisation, which to someone as dumb and insolent as myself, means whilst its driving edge is the history and life of the black diaspora, that has never been its limit. It is impossible to conceive of Black Studies without the equally troublesome projects of feminism, queer studies, critical race studies and postcolonial studies pushing with and against it. Similarly, Black Studies has never viewed the university as its end point, because it has never completely relied upon the university for sustenance.
I guess what I am trying to say is that in asking “Why isn’t my Professor Black?”, we might end up anointing a black professoriate within the current violent and politically bankrupt university structure who are tasked with resolving what some people see as the race problem. What we might need is a black professoriate who leave the structural accoutrements of such a status by the wayside and overpopulate the university with problems – overwhelm it with them – so that the notion of having a university which can be managed becomes redundant.