Black Scholars in Critical Dialogue: Confronting Racism in the Academy – Reimagining the Disciplines

This post was contributed by Dr William Ackah, lecturer in Community and Voluntary Sector Studies, who is based within Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies (GEDS). He has just received a Fulbright All Disciplines Award to enable him to research at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

When I was a young man, 16 or 17, doing O-levels and then A-levels in Waltham Forest East London, my dad would allow me to come to central London with my friends to go Foyles bookshop to buy exam past papers and revision guides. He believed education was the key to success in this country, and my parents – who were factory workers and first generation migrants from West Africa – sacrificed a great deal so that we would be successful at school and go on to this mysterious place that I knew little about except that it was grand and important and called university.

So my friends and I would go to Foyles, get the papers and then go into Soho to buy cassettes and second-hand records, and we would talk and share dreams about our aspirations. Sometimes we would pass by some of the hallowed London institutions, such as University of London, London School of Economics and Kings College, and look and think: could these really be places that we could attend. Do black people and ethnic minorities even exist in these places? I think I remember seeing Stuart Hall on television and knew that he was associated with the Open University but that was the full extent of my seeing universities and black experiences associated together.

Looking back on those times, it is amazing to think that some of us actually got to study in these hallowed places and now to actually work in one of them. For Black Scholars to engage in a critical dialogue within the higher education space is in one sense therefore quite remarkable. The paths that we have trod to carve out a space for ourselves in the academy have been long and hard. I can remember that when I graduated it made my family, my church and my community very proud. My Dad, who had very few pictures in the house, always had the graduation pictures of his children hung up on the wall – perhaps they signified a vindication of the decision he took to migrate and the struggles one had to endure in a hostile and racist climate of late 60’s and 70’s Britain.

So some of us have made it into the hallowed university, but here is the rub: entrance and acceptance into the institutional space of higher education has not resulted in freedom, liberation or advancement for many in our communities. We paved the way for black and minority ethnic students to enter into the academy and now as students they are entering into these spaces in droves on a dream of acceptance of advancement. But far too often they are getting a second class experience, feel alienated and not fully accepted and end up with second class results. They look around their institutions and see that their teachers, what they were being taught and the fabric and feel of the institution was white, pale, stale and that possibly they had been deceived. As the words of Bob Marley poignantly stated in his song Babylon System: “Building Church and University, deceiving the people continually, me say them graduating thieves and murderers, look out suckin the blood of the sufferers”.

It could feel for black students, staff and community that on entering the university space their life blood is being sucked out of them. If black experiences are studied at all it is as social, economic, political, health, criminal justice, and environmental problems that need to solved and that blacks do not have the skills and talents to solve them themselves. White academics who have studied us and researched us are the ones to ‘rescue’ us. Universities operating in this vein are reminiscent of colonial spaces, where education, religion and history were flung in the faces of Africans as reminders of how Europe was advanced and other people were backward. Africans needed to come to school to unlearn their heritage and culture and learn to value that of Europe. They needed to get rid of their gods and superstitious practices and adopt the gods of Europe and they needed to understand that they had no history, no philosophy, no academic enterprise that was of any value, and that their history and knowledge production starts and ends with Europe. This was how it was in colonial times and, it might argued, that this is still being replicated in the higher education system today.

That is why Black Scholars, students and increasingly the community are coming together to challenge these notions, and to think about how our disciplines and institutional spaces can be re-imagined and re-shaped to give value and dignity to marginalised minority communities. We want to see a higher education system that gives credit and value to the experiences of people of African descent and others who have suffered mis-education in the university system. We want to move beyond acceptance and access to the colonial mis-education project to recognition, advancement and genuine liberation both within and ultimately outside the institutional space. This is a crucial enterprise, to transform the partial-versity into a truly universal education environment genuinely fit for all.

Dr William Ackah, Birkbeck, University of London organised the Black Scholars in Critical Dialogue event at Birkbeck, University of London on 13 September 2016, with Dr Althea Legal-Miller, University College London and Dr Robbie Shilliam, Queen Mary, University of London and with the support of the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research. A podcast of the event is also available.


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