Resisting Racism in the Academy

Resisting Racism in the Academy

Katy Sian

My recent research on racism in British universities documents the everyday and structural patterns of discrimination experienced by racially marked academics. I interviewed 20 female and male academics from a range of racial, religious, and ethno national backgrounds, based at Russell Group and Post-92 universities. From day-to-day office politics, to challenges around teaching, and barriers to career progression, the fight against racism in the academy is unrelenting. In a climate whereby racialized bodies are scrutinized, undervalued and marginalized, what are the strategies developed to resist?  From my interviews it was clear that resistance took different forms. For some, resistance was to cope, whereas for others, resistance was to be part of a movement to transform structures of power.

Informal networks
As the academy increasingly excludes racially marked academics, collective groupings become crucial for providing a sense of belonging, protection and support. These grouping can take any shape and might include going for coffee, meeting as a more structured group, or talking over the telephone. These may appear on the surface to be very mundane acts, but the development of a space to talk, laugh, cry and let it all out can be incredibly powerful. My respondent’s spoke about the importance of these spaces for facilitating connections:

“We create these ad-hoc groupings with others in similar situations, but these are not formal arrangements within the institution. I found these groupings massively important, we’d have conversations, even if nothing practical was to come out from them, to say and share what we were having to deal with was important”

The development of these informal networks is key to establishing a sense of safety and solidarity among racially marked academics. They serve as important spaces to help each other navigate racism in the academy. Another respondent commented:

“We have had to almost cultivate a hidden network of people that is completely outside our own universities. Knowing that we have that support with each other from outside is so important, it makes me feel less alone”

In her research on Native women in the academy, Michelle M. Jacob similarly found that her respondents spoke of the necessity of having Native friends in university spaces in order to survive. There was a familiar emphasis on the significance of building collectives across universities, which serve as key sites of support, particularly in times of crisis (2012: 247-48). As the next interviewee points out, these collective relationships offer strength and hope to racially marked academics:

“I think it’s only through each other we can survive this space. It makes a statement that we can actually be in this space together. Finding each other in these spaces makes things so much better; it can save us from attrition”

Undeniably the relationships that we forge with other racially marked academics are fundamental to our survival in the academy. It was clear from the interview data that just the very presence of racially marked academics in one university can be empowering for other racially marked academics in another. Whether we have one person or ten people to talk to, the heart of resistance lies in the creation of a sub-space where we can find acceptance, respect and cooperation, in a landscape of exclusion and oppression.

Resisting Through Knowing
By virtue of being a person of colour, whatever environment we find ourselves within, our histories and our lived experiences will most likely (often instinctively) arm us with the political tools to critically engage, unpack and question our positionality. Whether or not we choose to be ‘woke,’ our trajectories, as people of colour, will have some form of impact on our overall outlook. Through the art of knowing we increasingly engage with, develop, and build upon scholarship that has provided a home, and voice, for many of us (e.g. critical race theory, decolonial studies, critical Muslim studies, postcolonial studies, black feminism, etc.), as one respondent commented:

“It’s great that we’re building a body of scholarship around these issues and we need to continue doing this. Resisting comes in our knowing. My ancestors didn’t get as far as I did, and I’m using all the tools that I’ve learned to try and pass on that knowledge through my work, so that the next black or brown academic behind me can take it up and take it further, and eventually change the system”

Retelling our narratives is not only strategic, but also in many cases it can be transformative. As Daniel G. Solorzano and Dolores Delgado Bernal point out, “although the act of political writing can be a form of internal transformational resistance, once it is published or made public, it can be a very powerful form of external transformational resistance” (2001: 326). Our knowing therefore has the potential to make real shifts in the university:

“I think the ground swell of the so-called ‘undesirables’ of the academic world is really making an intervention because we’re loud, we don’t just write for academic outlets, we engage with the media and community spaces and we’re part of third sector organizations. I know we’re still marginal but I think we are making change in our own ways”

The next participant picks this up and speaks of the way in which our scholarship offers the potential to facilitate change within the academy:

“I think people of colour can resist and raise our issues and concerns through the tools we’ve already learned from our own work and scholarship. So applying them through writing, campaign work, through lobbying, and crafting spaces within our own institutions to talk about racism in the academy”

Resistance in the academy through knowing gives racially marked academics a degree of power to shape knowledge production and in doing so we are able to challenge discourses of racism in our universities. As bell hooks reminds us, “our words are not without meaning, they are an action, a resistance” (1989: 16).

On White Allies
Within the university environment, friends, colleagues and coalitions can play a significant role for racially marked academics. White allies represent those who have both recognized and critiqued the privilege attached to their whiteness, and they can be important for developing a wider network of resistance. They are aware of their power, yet will use their positioning to support racially marked academics and challenge structures of inequality. These acts of allyship represent those who have (to paraphrase Les Back) ‘reckoned with whiteness’ (2004: 4). My respondents spoke about the importance of having white allies:

“Some white members of the academy have done extraordinary things for people of colour, so cultivating positions or a climate where it’s viable that people of colour are competitive for various positions, or ensuring that they find a footing in senior positions. And all this is important, it is necessary for our growth and sense of belonging”

This was picked up by another interviewee who also recognized the value of white allyship:

“It’s certainly good to have and find white allies, because sometimes you get to tap into whatever social capital is available to you, and that’s important because we’re all negotiating power. But they’re only one person”

While white allies are important, the reality for many racially marked academics is that there is a lack of opportunity or interest to actually develop these relationships extensively within universities. Furthermore, in most instances, cultivating those connections is often the outcome of our labour, and the energy that we invest. Barnor Hesse (2012) gives us an important insight into the logics of whiteness, which is particularly useful here in order to understand the different positionalities that our white colleagues may adopt in the university (and beyond) in their (non) showing of solidarity.

In his development of ‘8 White Identities,’ Hesse argues that there is a regime of whiteness constituted by a set of action-oriented white identities. Those who identify with whiteness typically fall into the following categories:

  1. White Supremacist: Preserves, names, and values white superiority
  2. White Voyeurism: Would not challenge a white supremacist; desires non-whiteness because it is interesting, pleasurable; seeks to control the consumption and appropriation of non-whiteness; fascination with culture
  3. White Privilege: May critique white supremacy, but maintains a deep investment in questions of fairness/equality under the normalization of whiteness and white rule; sworn goal of ‘diversity’
  4. White Benefit: Sympathetic to a set of issues but only privately. Will not speak/act in solidarity publicly, because they are benefitting through whiteness in public
  5. White Confessional: Some exposure of whiteness takes place, but as a way of being accountable to People of Colour after; seek validation from People of Color
  6. White Critical: Take on board critiques of whiteness and invest in exposing/marking the white regime; refuses to be complicit with the regime; whiteness speaking back to whiteness
  7. White Traitor: Actively refuses complicity; names what is going on; intention is to subvert white authority and tell the truth at whatever cost; need them to dismantle institutions
  8. White Abolitionist: Changes institutions; dismantling whiteness, and not allowing whiteness to reassert itself

If our white colleagues are serious about showing solidarity, they must adopt categories 6 – 8. In doing so they are demonstrating that they are willing to both use and critique their privilege as a way to dismantle racism at any cost. Categories 7 and 8 are perhaps the least adopted even by those who might be considered more critical, precisely because they depend upon the relinquishing of ones benefits and require action. White allies can be important sources of support for racially marked academics. However, so long as universities continue to construct and reproduce whiteness as the norm, these acts of solidarity will be of marginal significance. To form meaningful resistance our white colleagues must recognize their own role in perpetuating whiteness and they must actively organize and commit to embedding structural changes that seek to abolish racism. In doing so an environment that benefits all can not only be envisioned but also actualized.

As my research shows, racially marked academics are often involved in complex negotiations around how they might resist racism in the academy [1]. Resistance is subject to ones context and capacities, thus tactics can range from organizing, documenting, supporting, and survival. It is clear that together we have the ability to represent a vehicle for change so long as we are driven by a collective spirit, rather than individualistic objectives, after all, “it is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism” (Davis, 2016: 47).

Back, L. (2004). Ivory Towers? The Academy and Racism. In I. Law, D. Phillips, & L. Turney (Eds.), Institutional Racism in Higher Education (pp. 1–6). Staffordshire: Trentham Books.
Davis, A. (2016). Freedom Is a Constant Struggle. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Hesse, B. (2016) ‘8 White Identities,’ 10 November.
hooks, b. (1989). Choosing the Margin as a Space of Racial Openness. The Journal of Cinema and Media, 36, 15–23.
Jacob, M. (2012). Native Women Maintaining Their Culture in the White Academy. In G. Muhs, Y. Niemann, C. Gonzalez, & A. Harris (Eds.), Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (pp. 446–501). Boulder: University Press of Colorado.
Solorzano, G., & Bernal, D. (2001). Examining Transformational Resistance Through a Critical Race and Latcrit Theory Framework: Chicana and Chicano Students in an Urban Context. Urban Education, 36(3), 308–342.

1. For further details of this discussion see: Sian, K. (2019) Navigating Institutional Racism in British Universities, Palgrave Macmillan: Cham


Dr Katy Sian is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York