In Anti-Racist Scholar-Activism, Remi Joseph-Salisbury and Laura Connelly explore how anti-racist scholar-activists navigate the challenges and leverage the opportunities of the university in pursuit of social justice. Illuminating the complicated, often uncomfortable position of the scholar-activist, this book is a valuable resource for anti-racist struggle both inside and outside academia, writes Camila Andrade.
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Anti-Racist Scholar-Activism. Remi Joseph-Salisbury and Laura Connelly. Manchester University Press. 2021.
Is it possible to be an academic and an activist at the same time? One could engage in both spheres of action, for example, through writing and highlighting research on a particular community or subject matter in academic spaces. There is not always a clear boundary between the two, though scholars can be accused of sitting at a remove from the causes they write about and the direct action employed by grassroots activists.
Anti-Racist Scholar-Activism by Remi Joseph-Salisbury and Laura Connelly considers the distinctions and overlap between these categories in relation to anti-racist practices. Anti-racism is defined as radical, self-organising and emancipatory initiatives, connected with other resistance movements. The authors “understand anti-racism to be most powerful when it is cross-community – when solidarity cuts across race and class divides, and is local, national, and international in nature” (10-11).
Although Joseph-Salisbury and Connelly have published on this topic before, they wrote this book in the context of increased discussion around racism and anti-racism sparked by high-profile incidents including the murder of George Floyd in the US in 2020. Floyd’s death exemplified the systematic racist practices carried out by the State, in this case the police, and the various types of violence suffered by non-white populations in their daily lives. While the US was grappling with the issue of police brutality, the same violence raged through Brazil’s favelas, refuting the famous phrase “não existe racismo no Brasil” (racism does not exist in Brazil).
The authors do not set out to create an anti-racist scholar-activism manual (…) but a starting point for reflection.
The authors do not set out to create an anti-racist scholar-activism manual – though they do share a manifesto on the subject – but a starting point for reflection on the use of the compound expression. The book contains a wealth of empirical data that contributes to an understanding of how academics operate within the institutional apparatus when acting in favour of causes outside it. In addition, there are contemporary discussions about anti-racist practices in Higher Education Institutions.
The book’s discussions are divided into six chapters, in addition to the introduction and the manifesto. Each chapter focuses on concepts connected with anti-racist scholar-activism, compiling secondary research on the subject and primary research through interviews with scholars and activists. The establishes a theoretical framework utilising three critical categories of analysis: anti-racism, scholar-activism, and the neoliberal-imperial-institutionally-racist university. Regarding this last category, it is worth highlighting the role of the university as an apparatus for legitimising colonial ideals, historically rendering research and knowledge “a colonial commodity” (21). The authors thus question the role of universities in the anti-racist fight.
The introduction does an excellent job of situating the reader within the history and reach of the relationship between scholarship and activism, bringing in a diverse range of authors including bell hooks, Angela Davis, Lélia Gonzalez and Patricia Hill Collins (Black Feminisms); Paulo Freire (Pedagogy); Frantz Fanon and Walter Rodney (Anti-colonialism). In doing so, Joseph-Salisbury and Connelly present an analytical framework that goes beyond European scientific limitations to spotlight ex-centric and anti-establishment perspectives, enriching this book’s value as a tool for the anti-racist struggle inside and outside academia.
Chapter 1, “Problematising the ‘scholar-activist’ label: Uneasy identifications”, addresses the complexity of defining and identifying the “scholar-activist” label, analysing the testimonies of contemporary scholar-activists on the subject. It seeks to understand whether a scholar-activist identity exists, and which terms or concepts are used by people who identify as exercising anti-racist practices. Throughout the testimonies, it is interesting to note different perceptions around the meaning and use of the words in anti-racism scholar-activism. The interviewees recognise some of their peers as scholar-activists but when asked about themselves, they prefer not to be considered as such. They perceive “scholar-activism as something that one does, rather than scholar-activist as something that one is.” (51), building upon the difference between “walking the walk” and “talking the talk” (52). From this, the authors take account of “the shift from being a scholar-activist to doing scholar-activism situated scholar-activism as a process” (52).
How scholar-activists go about serving communities and establishing anti-racist practices that overcome the institutional barriers of the university.
Chapter 2, “Working in Service: Accountability, usefulness, and accessibility”, illustrates how scholar-activists go about serving communities and establishing anti-racist practices that overcome the institutional barriers of the university, like taking advantage of institutional spaces to organise community groups and constructing research projects that are socially useful. Such work for the benefit of the community leads to greater accountability, usefulness and accessibility.
Provided that a substantial portion of academic debate is exclusively in English, limitations regarding which knowledge is viewed as legitimate and which audiences are reached are an issue, as the authors elucidate, “this has implications for which voices, and which forms of knowledge, are valued. It creates disadvantages for those academics for whom English is not a first language and feeds into unequal (academic) power relations (77).”
Which voices, and which forms of knowledge, are valued.
Therefore, it is crucial to think about whom we are writing for (target audience), how we are transmitting knowledge (using academic jargon?) and what tools we are using to disseminate knowledge (only scientific papers behind paywalls?). In areas of the Global South, for example, it can be difficult to access foreign bibliographies, because of the language barrier and the cost of books, which may end up being more expensive than in developed countries and above most students’ purchasing power.
The fact that the authors present theoretical contributions that go beyond European and North American parameters is of great value; they question claims of neutrality in research and the dilemmas faced by non-dominant groups in academia. No matter how much space they occupy, they are still not part of the dominant group, hence the term “Outsider Within” coined by Patricia Hill Collins.
The authors consider different aspects of identity or culture that affect scholar-activists’ lives and practices, such as ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality and class.
Throughout the chapters, readers can identify an intersectional approach to analysis, as the authors consider different aspects of identity or culture that affect scholar-activists’ lives and practices, such as ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality and class. As the authors point out:
Staff and students of colour are forced to contend with a range of issues, including: underrepresentation and stifled progression, an awarding gap, ethnocentric curricula, and everyday racism. Many HE (High Education) institutions are direct – financial and material – beneficiaries of the transatlantic trafficking and enslavement of African people. (180)
Chapter 6, “Uncomfortable truths, reflexivity, and a constructive complicity”, is an important moment to recognise the complicity with institution:
(…) although we might champion the principle of free education and organise against economic inequality, our university employment means that we play a role in maintaining and legitimising a neoliberal system that extorts huge fees from students and saddles them with staggering debt. We are implicated too in the commodification of knowledge, the construction of the university as the site of knowledge production, and the reproduction of inequalities through the privileging of accreditation. (179)
So, what can we do to counteract this? According to several interviewees, “(…) disengaging is not an option” (187). We need to acknowledge the complicity but not allow it to immobilise us, accepting that the position of the scholar-activist within the academy is an uncomfortable one.
We need to acknowledge the complicity but not allow it to immobilise us, accepting that the position of the scholar-activist within the academy is an uncomfortable one.
Despite a seemingly academic target market, Anti-Racist Scholar Activism is for everyone who is interested in the history of intersectional struggles and their legacy in contemporary anti-racist movements. Providing a rich overview of the ideas and challenges around scholar-activism, this book shines a light on the difficult wok of those agitating for change within the systems and institutions that uphold racism.
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