Positioning Blackness, Necessarily, Awkwardly, in the Canadian Academy

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Guest blog by Handel Kashope Wright, Professor and Director of Centre for Culture, Identity and Education, The University of British Columbia

This blog is based on a paper presented on the panel #Black Professors Matter: Experiences in White Academe at the 2019 Canadian Sociological Association Conference. The paper is an abridged version of “The Awkward Presence of Blackness in the Canadian Academy,” a contribution to The Nuances of Blackness and the Canadian Academy, a forthcoming book co-edited by Awad Ibrahim, Tamari Kittosa, Malinda Smith and Handel Kashope Wright.

The Canadian academy at the present historical juncture, like much of the academy worldwide, has become the neo-liberal academy in a time of extended austerity. Academic work is now highly stressful, marked by work intensification and time pressures for those lucky enough to be on tenure track and increasing casualization for many well qualified others. On the one hand, much of the administrative labour of running universities as institutions has been downloaded onto faculty while on the other university administration has become bloated, with administrators earning exorbitant salaries. All of this has led to, among other things, a marked rise in burnout among academics (Malesic, 2016). It is hardly surprising then that there has been a notable uptick in the numbers leaving academia, a phenomenon documented and reflected in the growing literature that has been named “quit lit” (Dunn, 2013; Coin, 2017).

A principal characteristic of critical discussions of the neo-liberal university in times of extended austerity is that its primary subject and indeed audience is the tenure track academic. When it does deal with diverse constituencies it considers the place of faculty versus administrators or the fate of tenured and tenure track faculty versus non-tenure track sessionals and only very rarely does it address graduate and undergraduate students. And when it comes to the disciplines, the focus is, rightly, on the precarious position of the humanities and to a lesser extent the social sciences. What this literature does not address is the specifics of the sociocultural identity of these constituencies; of administrators, academics, staff and students as embodied subjects and the politics of difference entailed. My position is that it is both crucial and urgent that we introduce sociocultural identity politics, and the politics of difference into the discussion of the neoliberal university in a time of protracted austerity and that we also introduce the neoliberal university in a time of austerity into our discussion of Black Canadian Studies and the representation of Blackness in the academy. In other words, what is needed to understand the position of Blackness in the academy is the imbrication of critical anti-racism and/or critical race theory and the critique of neoliberalism.      

The Canadian academy is a true part of the Great White North — with serious problems around hiring, recruitment, retention and promotion of racialized faculty and staff, including Indigenous peoples and Blacks. The university in the West, including in Canada, was originally intended for the education of white middle class and upper middle class males and these institutions of higher education continue to be predominantly white. Indeed the very fact that diversity efforts are now both prominent and ubiquitous at institutions of higher learning in the West (Ahmed, 2012), including in Canada, is proof that there is a chronic, perennial problem around diversifying universities at all levels. The Canadian Employment Equity Act identifies four designated groups for proactive hiring, namely women, people with disabilities, Indigenous peoples and visible minorities, and given that Canadian universities have been stubbornly predominantly white, one would expect that equity policies and diversity work would put emphasis on the racial diversification of the university. Instead, diversity work in the Canadian university has largely resulted in what Malinda Smith (2018) has identified as “diversifying whiteness” (p. 55). The result for Blackness is that the black body is still what Lewis Gordon, drawing on Frantz Fanon, has referred to as an illicit presence — a body that does not belong, in this case a body out of place on campus. As I pointed out in 2003 about teaching cultural studies within a College of Education at the University of Tennessee, “As an African and even as a black person teaching at a decidedly white institution, I am the unexpected colleague and teacher…..the unexpected pedagogue teaching the unexpected discipline” (Wright, 2013, p. 818). The Black academic in Canada is, similarly, the unexpected professor, received, not with the crude shocked exclamation that greeted Fanon’s Negro at large: “Look Mama, a Negro!” but rather with a polite translation of that shock and discomfort into the raised eyebrow, the furtive second glance, the studied avoidance or token inclusion, subtle affective reactions in which institutional white privilege and anti-black racism both melt into thin air, even as they permeate everywhere (Tate, 2014; Gordon, 1995).

Given the neoliberalization of the Canadian university and the exacerbated effects on Black and other racialized and minoritized groups (e.g. underrepresentation on tenure track faculty and especially in leadership positions, overrepresentation in sessional positions), Black academics might be forgiven for eschewing institutional politics and concentrating on career advancement or indeed mere survival within the profession. Some of us, however, cannot not be politically engaged, even as that means a considerable additional burden. We hold a radically different view of the nature and function of the university, captured most succinctly in Stuart Hall’s trenchant assertion that: “The University is a critical institution or it is nothing.” (Stuart Hall). Given his perspective, Hall therefore advocates that critical academics go beyond academic work to undertake intellectual work and sees the two as being both distinct and complexly related.

Despite Hall’s preference for intellectual over academic work, it is important to re-conceptualize the academy as inherently political and hence to recognize that there is crucial work to be done in making institutions of higher learning more diverse and equitable, in imbricating academic and intellectual work, in doing what we might call academic activism. For the critical Black academic taking on certain “service” roles constitutes political work, diversity work which, as Sara Ahmed (2012) observes, “…is hard because it can involve doing within institutions what would otherwise be done by them.” (p. 25).       

As an academic who works on Africana studies I am cognizant that at many Canadian institutions, including here at the University of British Columbia, Africana Studies is at best marginal, located in Spivak’s words (1993), “Outside in the teaching machine.”  But marginality is not all negative. As bell hooks (1990) reminds us, the margins are not only a site of exclusion and deprivation but also “a site of resistance… a location of radical openness and possibility” (p. 153).  So, far from being simply a victim of discrimination and in part in reaction to this, we need to acknowledge activists for Blackness in the Canadian academy, including a growing “Black Canadian Studies Association,” and active contributions by Black scholars to discussions on historical and contemporary race and racism in Canada.

There are various stances that academics take in relation to the justice and representation at their institutions, communities and society at large — some choose to eschew it completely, while others tinker in academic and community activism, and yet others come close to what Gramsci identified as the organic intellectual. I hold that irrespective of whether they choose to engage or not, the Black academic is always already politicized — looked upon variously as a real or potential radical, a mere, probably underqualified equity hire, a niche expert, a grateful conformist, an ungrateful non-conformist, etc. There is no such thing as a neutral Black academic.

The very category “Black academic” is an identity involving the employment of an assemblage of phenotypical characteristics  in a willful homogenization of a very disparate set of subjects, a strategic essentialism employed to create a united front by us and a lazy failure to entertain difference within Blackness by others (and indeed too often by us).

For some of us, especially those of us from what V.Y. Mudimbe (1988) has called an invented Africa, who were not black back there, coming to Canada meant becoming black/Black — in other words, it meant being brought directly under the White gaze and being interpellated into such identities as black, Black, Black-Canadian, African-Canadian, Canadian-African, Afrikan-Canadian and visible minority, and incorporated into a hegemonic, self-congratulatory, celebratory Canadian multiculturalism that is proving incapable of coping with what Steven Vertovec has identified as “superdiversity” and not particularly interested in true recognition and just representation.

So who are African-Canadian academics?  We are francophone immigrants from Africa who (as Senghor declared of himself) speak better French than the best educated Parisian (let alone Quebecois); Anglophone immigrants from the Caribbean for whom, as Marlene NourbeSe Philip (1988) declared, “English is a foreign language, a foreign anguish,” we are Blacks who can trace their ancestry back as far as the Underground Railroad and the Black Loyalists, and contemporary African-Americans recently hired despite all advertisements for academic positions specifying that “preference will being given to Canadian citizens and landed immigrants.”  We are male, female, transgendered, intersexed; we are straight, gay, lesbian and queer; we are the ironic and sometimes ambivalent beneficiaries of the one drop rule: dark skinned, light skinned, creole, browning, octoroon, yalla rose, biracial and multiracial. We are proudly Afrikan (yes, sometimes spelled with a militant K) and passively hyphenated African-Canadian; landed and rooted but never fully belonging in the academy nor in Canada; all of us asked, as Gayatri Spivak (1990) puts it, to “cathect the margins” of the academy “so that others can be defined as central” (p.41). We are those who, irrespective of how long or short our historical roots are in Canada are constantly asked, “where are you from?” We are an awkward presence, the other in position of authority and privilege, supposedly misplaced in the middle class and at the front of the class; we are Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic come ashore on Turtle Island; we are, as Gloria Ladson Billings (2000) puts it, “the children of fieldhands [who] have returned to do fieldwork” (p. 269).

If Blackness in all its diversity is an always already politicized category, it is important to choose a position, an ideological stance from which to operate. The question is not whether — but how — to reach beyond Black identity politics to work with marginalized/minoritized others. As a starting point, I would say we should heed the radically activist and politically sensitive approach advocated by Audre Lorde, namely to work “on the edge of each other’s battles.”

We should choose recognition and just representation for Blacks and Black Studies within and outside the academy and indeed for all, and we should work on that project by forging alliances with and working on the edge of the battles of other progressive racialized and minoritized peoples in a Black version of what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak refers to as working “in the spirit of conjunctural inclusiveness and solidarity” (Spivak, Gilbert & Fisher, 2014). This to me is what a critical Blackness means or ought to mean in the Canadian academy at this historical juncture of the confluence of ineffective multiculturalism, perennial racism, neoliberalism and austerity on the one hand, and on the other, a multiple and pliant Blackness as part of the Canadian super-diversity (Steven Vertovec, 2007); a strategically essentialized Black agency, and collaborative activism. This is how we ought to position ourselves as Black academics in spite of or indeed precisely because of our supposed awkward presence in Canada and in the Canadian academy, so that, to paraphrase Kobina Mercer (1994), “we can live.”


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Equity Matters


Equity Matters