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Taking an Afrocentric perspective of Western imperialism

12 Oct 2020 | Fezile Sibanda October is Black History Month and at Advance HE we are proud to share stories of Black success, experience and action in higher education.

UCL alumna, Fezile Sibanda, shares a letter outlining an Afrocentric perspective of Western imperialism and the potential use of an Afrocentric paradigm as a means of decolonising practices within the academy.

Dear Vice Chancellor,

I would like to share a reflection with you that outlines an Afrocentric perspective of Western imperialism and the academy.

Within the British academe, perspectives that emanate from outside the Western hemisphere are often marginalised (Mangan 2012). When embarking on my postgraduate research, Western imperialism and the academy: an examination of the experience of Black and Minority Ethnic academics working in British higher education institutions, I sought to challenge and expose epistemic inequalities in higher education. I found Asante’s (1980) Afrocentric paradigm compelling. The notion of Ma’at, the “quest for justice, truth and harmony” (Reviere 2001:711) became central to the research and informed my methodology. My findings exposed themes of race and the current decolonising debate in the academe. I would like to share some of the findings of this research with you, as they have formed the basis of my recommendations that could redress some of the structural inequalities that currently persist in higher education.

Race

An important finding from my research was the way in which academics of colour became forced into particular roles within their institutions. Participants articulated how institutions or other academics would often impose race / diversity-based roles onto them, only encouraging or validating academics of colour when they centre their scholarship around areas of race or inequality.

I call this a process of raceification. – the manner in which a role becomes fixed and forced on a person of colour (POC), particularly in white-dominated spaces. The imposition of these roles is difficult to challenge. My conception of raceification supports Bell’s (1992) rules of racial standing which are also maintained through whiteness. Through the Afrocentric canon of Ukweli (truth), reflecting on the process of raceification allowed me to deepen my understanding of the persistence of structural inequalities within the academy. As an aspiring academic this presented a dichotomy. Although I felt validated in this area of research, it also made me realise the barriers to achieving my aspirations. If BME academics are only being validated in specific areas, their knowledge and perspective on topics outside of race and inequality may be suppressed, and their contributions within many fields may become limited. I believe this may render academics of colour as perpetual race experts and nothing else.

In order to dismantle some of the oppressive structures in higher education institutions (HEIs), I recommend that the formation of raceification and race-based  language used to maintain inequalities in HE is challenged. Race-based and diversity-based roles and positions should not be imposed on BME academics. Rather than seeing BME academics and their scholarship being solely focussing on race inequality, their positions and scholarship should be held in the same esteem as their peers. Although, scholars such as Solórzano and Yosso (2002) and Delgado and Stefancic (2017) argue drawing on critical race theory that the voices of people of colour should be centralised within discussions pertaining to race, I would defend this position while also arguing that the responsibility should not be solely on people of colour to relieve ourselves of our own plight. Institutions must actively avoid the process of raceification in order to dismantle structural inequalities in the academy.

Decolonisation: not decolonise but democratise

Within HEIs globally, there is currently a focus and interest in the decolonising HE debates (Heleta 2016). Prior to conducting the research I was optimistic about current movements aiming to decolonise HE, particularly in the British context. I thought that challenging the hegemony of (elite) university spaces would signal the start of strategies to dismantle structural inequalities. Based on the work of William and Filippakou (2010) and Reay (2018), I saw elite British universities as spaces that need to challenge the notion of coloniality, particularly in respect to their epistemologies.

Through research, I found that decolonisation, particularly of elite institutions, occurs in a way that still serves the dominant group.  I would argue that decolonisation, much like diversity has become a marketable buzzword for some institutions. I think the process of decolonisation has become lost in the neo-liberal British HE system.

Institutions have become less focused on dismantling oppressive structures but more interested in the marketability of being perceived as inclusive, liberal and progressive spaces (Arday and Mirza, 2018). The current decolonising practices seen widely amongst institutions often campaign to include more scholars from racially minoritized backgrounds onto reading lists, increase the number of academic staff from minoritized backgrounds and advocate for the removal of statues and monuments named in honour of controversial figures such as Cecil Rhodes.

Although these practices challenge inequality, I contend that their focus is not to decolonise but to democratise. Some may argue that over time, a democratised system may lead to the dismantling of inequality. I would remind those of the process of raceification, and how POC can often become fixed in roles, unable to progress or challenge the status quo, maintaining the oppressive system.

 

Fezile Sibanda

Concluding thoughts

There must be a radical transformation in the way institutions consider decolonisation. Authentic decolonisation can only take place when the dominant group challenges their perceptions of the oppressed. Within HE, this would see an examination of the dominance of Eurocentrism within the curriculum, particularly in relation to the way other perspectives are viewed and legitimised.           

When examining the experiences of BME academics in the white-dominated spaces this sense of inferiority (or the idea of inferior knowledge/culture) that became apparent in my findings echoed conceptions of Fanon (1952) regarding blackness and the black perception of self in white (elite) dominated spaces. Participants spoke of barriers to the maintenance of optimum mental health and wellbeing when working within HEIs. They spoke of the stress and trauma that can manifest as a result of being among the minority within the academy. In order to redress these inequalities in HE, academics of colour need to be equally represented. Representation will normalise POC’s narratives, thus challenging this notion of marginalisation that currently exists. Underrepresentation needs to be critically examined and tackled strategically. Provision needs to be offered by HEIs at all levels within the academy in order to ensure that students of colour understand their potential and see academia as a realistic prospect.

Vice-Chancellor, I urge you to consider the perspective outlined in this reflection and adopt a position that centers truth, justice, harmony, community and commitment when attempting to challenge the structural inequalities that prevail within British institutions.

 

Fezile Sibanda is alumna from University College London, IOE. Fezile’s scholarship area focuses on marginalisation and (British higher) education, with particular interest in academics of colour and their experiences within the academy. Her scholarship aims to tackle the hegemony of British academia and inequalities she believes to persist for minoritised communities.

 

References

Arday, J. and Mirza, H.S. eds. (2018) Dismantling race in higher education: Racism, whiteness and decolonising the academy. Springer.

Asante, M. K. (1980) Afrocentricity: The theory of social change. Buffalo, NY: Amulefi Publishing.

Bell, D. A. (1992) Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. Hachette UK.

Delgado, R. and Stefancic, J. (2017) Critical race theory: An introduction. NYU Press.

Fanon, F. (1952) Black Skin, White Masks, tr. Charles Lam Markmann

Heleta, S. (2016) Decolonisation of higher education: Dismantling epistemic violence and Eurocentrism in South Africa. Transformation in Higher Education, 1(1), pp.1-8.

Mangan, J.A. ed. (2012) The imperial curriculum: racial images and education in the British colonial experience. Routledge.

Reviere, R. (2001) Toward an Afrocentric research methodology. Journal of Black Studies, 31(6), pp.709-728.

Rollock, N. (2019) Staying Power: the career experiences and strategies of Black female Professors, London: UCU 

Solórzano, D.G. and Yosso, T.J. (2002) Critical race methodology: Counter-storytelling as an analytical framework for education research. Qualitative inquiry8(1), pp.23-44.

Reay, D. (2018) Race and Elite Universities in the UK. In Dismantling Race in Higher Education (pp. 47-66). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Williams, G. and Filippakou, O. (2010) Higher education and UK elite formation in the twentieth century. Higher Education59(1), p.1.

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