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Higher education: a market for racism?

by Malcolm James and Sivamohan Valluvan
25 Apr 2014 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [10] | Commons

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” – Audre Lorde

Over the recent weeks a number of articles have addressed the racist realities of higher education.[1] The continued absence of black and minority ethnic professors, the re-made forms of institutional university racism, and the subsequent cover-up provided by hollowed-out institution’s equalities policies have all been addressed. More recently, important contributions, including Dhanveer Singh Brar’s piece carried on this site,[2] have started to address the broader context of neoliberalism which underpins some of the racisms in higher education. This brief article joins the dialogue at that junction. It is not so much a response to Brar’s piece, which poses much wider questions for the future of higher education, but it does develop one of the points he leaves hanging. Assuming a different but related tack, it focuses on the mutual embrace of racism and neoliberalism in higher education and posits that it is not possible to unmake one without unmaking the other. Focusing largely on the humanities (and the study of racism), it addresses the structural and subjective dimensions of racism in neoliberal higher education, in addition to addressing the problems of white patronage, entrepreneurship and the denigration of theoretic endeavours. Through these means, it argues that when humans and humanities become mere products in the marketplace, racism provides a logic that sells.

Marketisation, white patronage and the ivory towers
As figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show higher education is a white place. 1 in 13 (7.7%) of professors are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds whereas black and minority ethnic academics fill 13.2% of other posts. 85 of our 18,510 university professors are black (0.5%),[3] compared to 3.0% of the UK population.[4] This is the statistical verification of the Ivory Towers – the university as a place of white privilege and rarefied elitism.

As has been noted in contributions such as Absent from the Academy[5] this has clear implications for the kinds of knowledge being produced, and the role of education as a cultivator of freedom and political participation. However, in order to properly understand the place of racism in higher education, the neoliberalisation of the university needs also to be addressed. Initially this can be approached through the forms of patronage that operate in our increasingly marketised work places. As is widely known, higher education is nepotistic and academics often help people like themselves. This works in terms of getting jobs, getting book contracts, getting speaking slots, getting promotions and even getting through the (so called ‘blind’) peer review system. While this can work in small ways to subvert the white status quo, it more often works to preserve it.

In recent years higher education has suffered a bruising encounter with neoliberalism, in the forms of enforced austerity and the latest transition from public ownership to the market. In this context funding has become tighter, competition more intense and, accordingly, big white elbows have become sharper. A recent ‘anonymous’ testimony by a Russell Group academic revealed the subtle ways in which this exclusion plays out. It revealed how academics of colour are withheld the promotions they would ordinarily have come to expect, and how their labours are not rewarded to the same extent as their white peers.[6] As Sara Ahmed has noted,[7] and as the corporate backlash[8] against the I, too, am Oxford[9] campaign made clear, these experiences are perniciously denied by diversity policies promoted by the same institutions. In a nepotistic system of marketised and racialised reward, this has laid stark the meritocratic conceit. It is perhaps not difficult to see why Heidi Mirza (one of Britain’s first black female professors) reaches the simple conclusion that in neoliberal higher education “BME people often don’t fit.”[10]

Marketisation, white patronage and the student experience
Another area of debate has been of how students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds experience these white rarefied places. This matter cannot be overstated when demographic trends mandate that younger student cohorts are considerably more ethnically diverse than the cohorts from, for instance, even just a decade ago.[11] It can also not be understood aside from the neoliberalistion of higher education.

Interviewed for Absent from the Academy, Paul Gilroy illuminates the issue at hand. In neoliberal education the relations of patronage have evolved to place increased symbolic value on the ‘role model’ or mentor. With attention removed from structural disadvantage and emphasis placed on individual success (or failure), the ‘role model’ provides the horizon and capacity for social mobility. Brought up in this system it is understandable that young people invest in the symbolic premium of role models. It is also understandable that when they do not gain through this, they internalise the failure. In this context, in departments where minority backgrounds are poorly represented, it takes no great imagination to conclude that black and minority ethnic students are likely to feel disenchanted, and that their relative immobility in this system reinforces personal anxieties and public stereotypes relating to racialised categories of failure. This has a corrosive impact on the future standing of academia itself. The failure of the humanities to generate an academic make-up even loosely reflective of the streets from which its student intake is sourced renders even its future neoliberal profile unfit for purpose.

Keen to attain the neoliberal white successes lauded by dominant society, this system also leads many black and minority ethnic students to undertake courses which replicate the status quo, and away from disciplines (such as those that address racism) which have a less than clear market value. Whilst it is clear that everyone would benefit from undertaking a study of race and racism, it is telling that the students who stand to benefit most from the unmaking of racism’s intricate logics are encouraged to think elsewhere. In this context, future critical engagement with neoliberalism’s pervasive racial structures looks bleak.

Marketing racialised goods and selves
Academics too are wittingly and unwittingly complicit in this racist praxis. First, academics are increasingly instructed to approach their research as entrepreneurs, focusing on what the market will find exciting and saleable, and this is especially the case among younger academics struggling to find non-exploitative employment.

When the market is the logic, concerns for the dehumanising effects of racism are, at best, ignored and, at worst, promoted.  Terror, community cohesion, and other policy-oriented dictates become the focus, and the forms of state racism that inform these policy directives become more marginal points of concern. Scholars of the city are inclined to discover and sell ever more exotic accounts of multiculture and super-diversity that feed popular colonialist appetites. Scholars of nationalism reinvent themselves as scholars of social capital and community. Scholars working on anti-Muslim racism might be encouraged to rebrand their work as ‘preventing terrorism’. Such refashioning is often the only way of remaining marketable to the ‘big journals’, reinforcing in turn the white populist centre of academic publishing. In the struggle for employment, we are asked to bend our insights towards the centre, and in so doing, risk being complicit in the production of racist ignorance that poses as empirical insight.

Related to this problem is the precise manner in which minority academics within the humanities brand themselves. Let us remember, lest we misunderstand academia as somehow a pursuit nobly removed from the whims of the society which encases us, that academics are among the more enthusiastic proponents of individual brand management (read citation anxiety and impact profiles). We are perhaps one of the more zealous professions in rehabilitating the ‘technologies of self’ associated with neoliberalism. Put simply, academics are in effect self-entrepreneurs, anxiously curating at all times their personal brand/image. Though we find ourselves in the midst of large, putatively public sector organisations, and all the rumbling bureaucracy this state orientation entails, we are also each discrete, self-employed entities, always stylising ourselves as individuals par excellence.

Amidst this twin dilemma marked by, firstly, the individualised measures of academic output and, secondly, the aforementioned scenario where attention to racism has poor asset value, minority academics are sometimes encouraged to mark themselves as ‘authentic’ spokespersons respective to different racialised communities. This is not to say that most academics, if any, uncritically pursue this route, but rather, it is sometimes the only available lever in affirming an academic role.  And unfortunately, this kind of position-taking harkens to a longer tradition of racist representation, where the expressions that racialised people were seen to be capable of were predominantly ‘intuitive’ and ‘cultural’ and little to do with intellectual industry. The problem is revealed by the incredulity that black and minority academics encounter when commenting on social processes beyond those to which they are racially designated.[12]

White academics too are encouraged to sell critical whiteness studies to the market, or seek psychic refuge in the intellectual creation of white working class identities. This patchwork quilt of various authentic, insider inquiries contributes consequently to a self-fulfilled ‘ghettoisation’ and denies the kinds of explorations that are necessary to undo racism in society and in neoliberal higher education. As whiteness studies and studies of the white working class become career paths, they also benefit from the promotion of whiteness in higher education and thus occupy spaces and resources which might be geared towards other potential areas of anti-racist scholarly activity.

If our value as scholars of race and ethnicity lies principally within personal testimony and insights, insights authorised by our ‘authentic’ identities, we are less able to make the interventions necessary to sustain plurality. ‘Our’ entry as a ‘pack’, rather than as racially authentic individuals, is crucial if the humanities are to remain relevant and anti-racist praxis is to succeed.

The Big White Elbows and their silo mentality
These forms of self-policing and ‘ghettoisation’ provide fuel for the Big White Elbows and their invested hostility to the study of racism. Parading justifications ranging from the supposed absence of interested students to the poor impact value of anti-racist scholarship – justifications that are a product of racism in neoliberal higher education – the Big White Elbows further denigrate the study of race and racism as a ‘silo discipline’.

What is meant by this accusation is that the study of race and racism is anachronistic and inward looking, ill-equipped to compete in a market place that demands novelty, interdisciplinarity and conformity. The paucity of this argument is both telling of their participation in the culture of neoliberal ignorance and their unacknowledged compunction to drive forward the whiteness project. It is also, paradoxically, in denial of their own involvement in the stream-lining and massaging of the humanities into silo definitions that fits a dominant US model of scholarship and pedagogy.

Frequenters of darkmatter will know that the study of race and racism can hardly be considered a silo-discipline. It has been a home to critical thinkers from across the humanities, alongside their methodologies, approaches and theories.[13] The untimely death of Stuart Hall drew brief attention to this truth, and to the huge contributions of those who worked around him. The problem of anti-racist study for neoliberal higher education is not that it is a silo discipline, but its plurality and therefore its fundamental challenge to neoliberal thinking. It is in fact neoliberal education itself that most embodies the silo mentality – the compartmentalisation and categorisation of units of novel value that can be sold and exchanged uncritically to an increasingly convergent academic marketplace.

Selling empiricism
There remains one final point which receives scant attention and is, as a result, a necessarily more oblique, ill-defined issue. The issue at play here is that the careerism of academia and the according emphasis on impact (policy) has produced an overstated emphasis on empirical research. Research and empiricism itself is not the problem here, and we recognise the importance of empirically derived insights for challenging racism. But, alongside the overstated emphasis on empirical research is an emergent hierarchy that stipulates against a humanities tradition of ’study’ (study as a method in its own right). As a consequence, via the gradual tyranny of impact, policy and research led ‘findings’, there is less of a feel for theorists (and certainly those theorists who often borrow from a more literary and essayistic form of exploration).

It is interesting here that the critical sociology of racism and colonialism found the terrain of literary theory its most fertile companion. In turn, the pressures to produce research led findings results in an unwitting form of racialised exclusion within the sphere of ideas itself. Put simply, at this moment when more minority and race-focused academics have gained some fledgling entry into the humanities, they are equally at less of a liberty to engage the kind of speculative, broad and necessarily unclear theoretical discussions which we took for granted not many years ago. Consequently, we are either limited to using the canonical theorists (who are largely white and/or Eurocentric), already well validated as academic brands in themselves, or of borrowing from a postcolonial theoretical tradition that has not obtained the renewal which a crop of emergent and newly established academics ordinarily would have provided. In this context, the monopoly of research driven pieces is not without consequence for the analytic imagination and its engagement with what is meant to be ‘researched’. After all, what remains of Black Skins, White Masks when prefaced with a methodology section?

This essay has attempted to sketch some of the ways in which neoliberal higher education provides a market for racism. Behind the figures of black and minority ethnic professorial absence, is an increasingly marketised institution that is governed and policed by racism. We are then necessarily involved in a struggle against racism in higher education and a struggle against neoliberalism. This is a struggle for plural anti-racist and anti-capitalist education and scholarship and against white marketised knowledge. It is a struggle against conformity to the neoliberal ‘race to the bottom’ and against the performance of neoliberal defined racial subjectivities in that context. It is a struggle against those that do most to perpetuate this culture, and a struggle for solidarity to support those less able to make a stand because of their precarious position in this pernicious system. Finally, it is a struggle for alternative educational and intellectual spaces, for the tools to dismantle the master’s house, and the traditions and vision to make another university possible. Building on Brar’s invitation to dialogue that is perhaps another chapter for debate.

Thanks to Helen Kim and Naaz Rashid and Victoria Redclift for insightful input and to Naaz Rashid for suggesting the epigram.


1. Please see: Anonymous academic. “My university just pays lip service to equality and diversity.” (February 2014); Jack Grove, “Black scholars still experience racism on campus.” (March 2014); Rachel Williams “The university professor is always white.” (January 2013). [↑]

2. Dhanveer Singh Brar. “Questions for a prospective black professoriate.” (March 2014). [↑]

3. Black British Academics (April 2014). [↑]

5. Nathan E Richards Absent from the academy (October 2013). [↑]

6. Anonymous academic. “My university just pays lip service to equality and diversity.” (February 2014). [↑]

7. Sara Ahmed, On being included: racism and diversity in institutional life, (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2012. [↑]

8. We are all Oxford (March 2014). [↑]

9. I, too, am Oxford (March 2014). [↑]

10. Rachel Williams “The university professor Is always white.” (January 2013). [↑]

11. CoDE. “How ethnic inequalities in education are changing.” (March 2014). [↑]

12. Daniel Martin “I’m also an expert on…” (March 2014). [↑]

13. Ashwani Sharma & Sanjay Sharma, “darkmatter: racial reconfigurations and networked knowledge production”, tripleC, 11.2, (2013):581-588. [↑]

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Malcolm James can be found on twitter @mookron or contacted by email
All posts by: Malcolm James | Email | Website

Contributor biog pending
All posts by: Sivamohan Valluvan | Email | Website

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