Why We Need Experiential Scholarship to Better Understand Racial Inequality

It wasn’t until I started doing a degree in gender studies that I was told it was OK to use the first person. In fact, we were actively encouraged to bring in our own experiences and knowledge into our academic writing. All my lecturers were women of colour and understood that academe had long placed far too much emphasis on reason, empirical evidence and the quantitative method. They were trying to counteract the limiting and limited modes of inquiry first put forth by the Enlightenment. By carrying on the tradition of ‘the personal is political,’ they were empowering us to bring ourselves into the research and listen to our peers’ experiences, allowing us to see where they converged and to see the nuance in our differences.

Edward Said in his book Orientalism criticises the idea of an apolitical or objective knowledge, especially in the arts and social sciences. He points out that the structures of power that influence government policy are the same ones that dictate what stories we read as children and what literature we consume as adults. It is the same power structures that ensured the white male subject effectively became the universal subject through which we must understand all human experience. The academy and our systems of knowledge production are not exempt from this, and there is no method of research that can circumvent this pitfall better than the first-hand research conducted by scholars who do not fit the “universal” mould of the white male subject.

Once this realisation hit, I started looking up the authors of every piece of academic research before I read it, especially if it was research that dealt with race, gender or sexuality. Positionality counts in research as much as it does in our private lives and interactions. So while it is important to understand the structural nature of racism, the academy must not ignore the autoethnographies of black scholars, researchers and educators. In daily conversations around race this becomes a double-edged sword where some might dismiss personal experiences with racism as a one-off incident or an individual problem, for others it is a necessary frame to understanding how structural inequality affects the lived experiences of people of colour. It’s disheartening to realise that unless the listener can empathise on a personal level, they are more likely to dismiss the statistics and studies that elucidate the wide scale reach of the problem. This is particularly true of black people in higher education, who are wildly underrepresented and underappreciated by academic institutions that are majority white.

That means that in pursuing anti-racist objectives in higher education, institutions cannot solely focus on their research output. They must also look inward and listen to the experiences of their black students, staff and academics. They must value and respond to autoethnographic work, anecdotal conversations, petitions and other forms of communication around racism equally. As a starting point, I as an employee of an academic publisher and a graduate student, decided to start searching for articles written by black scholars on their experiences in the academy and here is a short selection of what I found:

Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, discussing how black doctoral studies were introduced as a response to racist and Eurocentric disciplines that had previously tried to erase and distort discussion around black life: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0021934718786124

This article is a critical reflection on the experiences of two male black authors teaching race and white privilege at the collegiate level: https://journals.sagepub.com/stoken/default+domain/10.1177%2F2153368716689490/full

Offering a self-reflective approach, this article guides educators on building the emotive capacity to have difficult conversations around race: https://journals.sagepub.com/stoken/default+domain/10.1177%2F1045159518805890/full

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Lina Ashour

Lina Ashour is an Egyptian writer, poet and community organiser. Her studies have included political science, journalism and mass communication, and gender studies.

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