On the Whiteness of Academia

On the Whiteness of Academia

by Girish Daswani

This essay is an updated and expanded version of #EOTalks 2 = The Portraits on the Wall: On the Whiteness of Academia given in the summer of 2020.

I want to share three stories about the Whiteness of academia with you. These stories are personal. They are set in the three institutions located on three different continents (Asia, Europe, North America) in which I have studied and worked in over the past 25 years. Together, they show how my own intellectual upbringing has been constructed through Whiteness. They also allow me to reflect more broadly on what – and who – academic power is currently about, and how we can do better.

To be clear: This post is not about the individuals who work in these institutions, but rather about the Whiteness of these institutions and how it endures and continues to live in and through us, even when we don’t identify as racially White. Neither is it a narcissistic cry for attention. While these stories are mine (to tell), I am deeply aware that others who share these experiences, and suffer far worse forms of exclusion, are not in a position of privilege that allows them to speak up. By opening up about my own academic journey into Whiteness, I hope to shift the focus away from the stories we usually share about ourselves – the ones through which academics (re)produce the fantasy that we are similar to each other or strive toward the same ideals. Instead, I conceive of this post as an invitation to open up spaces of conversation that will allow for other, more occluded, stories to emerge, and cut through the many silences and the exclusions that we have ignored for far too long.

Story 1: The National University of Singapore (NUS)

I remember knocking on your door. You were one of my favourite professors. A feminist, a Brown woman, and from Singapore. You inspired me. Your course in Sociological Theory made me want to continue my studies. To go to graduate school. You were one of two Brown female instructors I had at NUS, who made me want to read Foucault and Nietzsche, to understand Weber’s fascination for music, that his “iron cage” was really a “steel cage” and more flexible that I had imagined. You made me question my assumptions of gender and sexuality – to the amusement of my heteronormative male friends. I was in my Honours year in Sociology and I said that I could see myself doing a Masters’ and maybe a PhD. I enjoyed qualitative analysis. Maybe I should do Anthropology? I was still unsure of myself. After all, I had struggled in primary and secondary school. I was a less than average student – what in Singapore you might call “Normal” (a stream that you are put in when you don’t do as well in your studies at age 12). And it was only later (when I was 15 or 16) that I applied myself, got into junior college, and worked my way into University. My grades were not always the best, but I knew I enjoyed studying and I wanted more. You gave me the best advice you could – at the time. You told me to leave Singapore and to apply to certain universities in the U.S. or in the U.K. Only then, and only after a PhD from one of these universities, would I have a chance of getting a job or of having a career in academia. After all, even NUS mainly hired Singaporeans with a U.S. or a U.K. degree. Their PhD scholarship program for local undergraduates had recently ended and my mother (a single parent and a working mum) only had enough money for one year of overseas education. I took a year off, applied, and got into the LSE, and then off I went. This was the year 2000.

Story 2: The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

I never noticed the Whiteness of the place. My friends and peers were from everywhere – Lebanon, Egypt, Brazil, Canada, South Africa, Jamaica, the U.S., India, Malaysia, Italy, and many other places in Europe. We were “International” – dare I say Global? I was in one of the best institutions and departments in the world – okay, in the UK. I never noticed the Whiteness of my department – my lecturers loved and lived Anthropology, they shared their passion of the discipline and its possibilities with us. I never noticed the Whiteness of the syllabus – the Whiteness of the men I had to read and become familiar with – and I never noticed the Whiteness that was to become me. It never occurred to me that we never or hardly ever invited non-White speakers to our weekly Friday seminars. It never occurred to me that it was not funny when a senior anthropologist, who was giving a Friday seminar, laughed at her own description of a veiled woman who also happened to be a diver – that others who shared her nervous laughter were somehow sharing her Whiteness. It never occurred to me that we were rarely introduced to non-White thinkers in our conversations and in our readings, that the portraits on the walls of the room I took my afternoon naps in were all White – colonialism was in our past, I was told, and we/you had moved on. They simply stayed on our walls. The walls of an institution that introduced me to the lives and the worlds of the colonized and the previously colonized peoples (including those that come from parts of the world that myself and my extended family come from). That – in order to return to, have authoritative knowledge of, and accumulate social capital in the places I come from – I had to gain this information, from you, first – my White anthropology professors.

None of this seemed strange to me then.

Now, I want to speak about you – my dear friend in graduate school. Recently, we had a heart to heart conversation about Whiteness. You confessed to me that you might not have given the same respect to our teachers had they not been White. That their Whiteness mattered. Like me, you are Brown and would be labelled South Asian. Unlike me, you are British and did your research in South Asia. You eventually left academia. You never intended on leaving – never wanted to leave – but after year after year, after year, of trying to find a job, of having one postdoc after another, of being shortlisted several times, every time being told how much they loved you but not enough to give you a job or a place amongst them, and every time finding that those who ended up getting these jobs were white, you were convinced to leave for good.

You admitted to me that – until recently and after having left academia for a while now – you had never questioned your own Whiteness or your inability to reproduce it perfectly. You admitted to feeling like you always had to do more, to say more, to prove yourself – that you were asked questions at social events that other White anthropologists were never asked, like “Where are you from, really?”, “You study India. Are your family from India?” and “Did you do research on your hometown or did you have to learn to speak the language?” You were constantly legitimating yourself, always correcting, and qualifying your place in Whiteness. Your right to belong – your middle-class background, your research and its overlap with a perceived understanding of your origins – was always in question. “What was I doing wrong?” you asked yourself. How much of this feeling of self-doubt was because of your own failings and how much of it had been put on you? You then noticed something you could never previously articulate. That you had internalized Whiteness – that these feelings that weighed upon you were shackles, that you could only see once you had left academia and found others like you – not portraits hanging on the wall, but – people sitting around the table with you. You finally told me that we were still imperial subjects and that the stories we were expected to tell of ourselves were different from our White colleagues. That our place in Whiteness was not simply earned. It had to be qualified.

Story 3: University of Toronto (UofT)

I remember feeling excited at getting a 3-year contract to work at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) in 2007. I considered myself lucky, to move from having just defended my PhD into a job, and to come to a city that appeared as multicultural as the other places I had lived in. At the time, I did not realize how different settler-colonialism was than the other colonial histories I was more familiar with. I did not realize the significance of the North American (i.e. settler-colonial) context. Nor was I aware of how being in Canada was truly a different entry point into Whiteness. How blind I was to the violence of Whiteness that graced me with open arms: with a career and an income to take care of myself and my loved ones. I had moved from one prestigious institution to another and I assumed that my LSE credentials would easily convert into a form of social and cultural capital through which I would find a new community of scholars to belong to. But things are not always as they seem or as they appear. For I also remember not being able to fit in, completely. My subjectivity (my middle-class, Singaporean and non-American orientation) somehow prevented me from truly belonging. There were obviously people who were welcoming and kind. Colleagues who were gracious and who went out of their way to make me feel comfortable. So, why the discomfort? I truly had the best students and was finally able to start paying off my loans and send my family money. I had “succeeded”. So, why the unease? I later realized that most of my colleagues had received their PhDs in the U.S., and from a selective number of places. I had the social capital (a PhD from the LSE) but not the cultural capital – not the social networks that came from going to certain prestigious universities in the U.S., or the social class that these networks are usually built on, nor the performative/neoliberal habitus which American academia is infused with.

There was a performativity that I could not (even though I tried to for a while) replicate. I had entered into a new system of Whiteness – one that was American and based on a different structure of imperialism, hierarchy and self-admiration. My British/LSE training did not cut it. There was a heightened attention to certain Continental theorists and philosophers. To gain the respect of my peers, I learned more about these (mainly White and male) theorists. I certainly learned to up my game – but I was late to the game. I was not truly American nor British nor European enough. Even though my PhD was from the LSE, I remained, in this North American academic context, the anomaly that had managed to sneak in. Like my dear friend in London, I could not figure out what I was doing wrong. Was it me or was it something else that I had little control over?

It was not till after I got tenure that a graduate student letter to the whole department interrupted the cozy image that my department had of itself. It was then that I realized that there was more to how I had been feeling. I remember sitting in meetings and having conversations with my colleagues about that student letter. The letter that brought our attention to the very Whiteness of our department – to the need for unconscious bias training, to the lack of diversity among our ranks, to the need for more sensitivity to how students were admitted, addressed and sometimes tokenized in the classroom, to the lack of reflexivity of our own White privilege and how this disconnected us from them. I understood. What I did not understand was the hesitance and the resistance. From “Our department is not white”, to “We do not need anti-racist or unconscious bias training”, to “I am a White academic and do not see myself as the enemy” to “I am not useful to this conversation”, to “this is just a small group of students”, to simply, and loudly, silence.

Why did I take all this personally? I remember being upset that something so clearly true, obvious even, and easily fixed would be met with discomfort and reluctance. I volunteered to lead the newly formed “Decolonization and Diversity Committee” – a name that I hope will change, to drop the word “Decolonization”. With the support of my Chairs, some faculty, staff and graduate students, things slowly shifted. Yet, it was not enough. We still take our cues from our graduate students and their well-articulated demands for more change, and at the time I was on it, the Diversity committee remained mostly a committee of mainly pre-tenured and female faculty with lots of determination and will but with little power to change things. Only now are we having conversations about how we consider diversity when we admit students and how to de-Eurocentrize the syllabus. We have yet to unpack what “decolonizing” means in a settler-colonial context. Anthropologists (especially those of us who work and live on settler-colonial states) need to stop talking about decolonization or about decolonizing the discipline and our departments without paying attention to the nuance, the lived politics, and the polysemic application of that word. As the seminal paper by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne (2012) makes clear:

“Decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools.”

“It is not uncommon to hear speakers refer, almost casually, to the need to “decolonize our schools,” or use “decolonizing methods,” or “decolonize student thinking”. Yet, we have observed a startling number of these discussions make no mention of Indigenous peoples, our/their struggles for the recognition of our/their sovereignty, or the contributions of Indigenous intellectuals and activists to theories and frameworks of decolonization”.

Tuck and Yang 2012: 1-3

The metaphorical emphasis on the need to “decolonize” is still embedded in and continues to reinforce the settler colonial state and its institutions – it replicates “settler moves to innocence” that can problematically seek to reconcile settler guilt and complicity. We have yet to recognize our complicity in settler-colonialism, in Whiteness and in its reproduction. Theories of decolonization in the US and in Canada ought to “bring together critiques of settler colonialism, borders, and conceptualizations of antiblackness” (Tuck and Yang 2019: xii). The University’s attempts to “decolonize” and “diversify” could very well serve the purpose of maintaining White privilege and of acting in order not to change the institutional structures that do harm onto Indigenous, Black and racialized peoples.

What is Whiteness?

So what holds these three stories together? To me, the central theme is British colonialism and American imperialism, and their general occlusion from our conscious understanding of what academia is, or – to quote Ann Stoler – of how “colonial entailments endure in more palpably complicated ways” (Stoler 2016: 35). Whiteness in academia is certainly not limited to people of Euro-American backgrounds or our own cultural and identity politics. It is a political and existential reality inhabited by us through this recursive colonial history and through specific geo-political centers of gravity. Whiteness is systemic and institutional and in plain sight but usually not recognized or simply denied by those who seek to replicate it. As Stoler has also written, “to posit a colonial presence” is not to speak about leftovers or legacies of another time/place and neither is it “to suggest that the contemporary world can be accounted for by colonial histories alone. It is rather to understand how that presence – especially when effaced – yields new damages and renewed disparities” (Stoler 2016: 345).

What I seek to understand, or identity, is that recursive history that uses the language of rights, recognition, meritocracy, diversity and choice but which continues to commit injury and to exclude; that continues to create hierarchies of race, gender, class, and ableism (that intersect in a multitude of ways); and that allows the universities of the global minority (in the US and in the UK) to dominate and colonize the global majority. So, why should we understand Whiteness in the first place? What “good” does it do?

Well, understanding Whiteness helps us:

(1) To understand why our curriculum “continues to reflect historical biases against women, Indigenous and racialized scholars” (Smith et. al 2017: 279) and why there is resistance to alternative forms of epistemologies and histories.

(2) To explain why racialized people, people from workingclass backgrounds, and women find it harder to “fit” in or “do” academia correctly (Leighton 2020). In her recent article “Myths of Meritocracy, Friendship, and Fun Work: Class and Gender in North American Academic Communities” (2020), Mary Leighton (doing research with American archaeologists) explains how it is important for newly arriving academics to be seen to be able to “fit” into the existing institutional culture – how this is an important consideration that employers use, consciously or unconsciously, to justify hiring or promoting those who are similar to them, particularly in “elite” professional careers such as ours. That “exclusion can be an unintended consequence” of something that seems benign such as informal ways of creating friendship/social networks. To quote from another article in the American Anthropologist by Kawa et. al (2019) entitled “The Social Network of US Academic Anthropology and Its Inequalities”:

“Faculty are more likely to hire individuals with academic backgrounds/degrees similar to their own, in part because they can gather more information about candidates through their personal networks… As a result, highly qualified prospective faculty members from institutions outside their network may be passed over”.

The authors of this article go on to describe what has been called described as an “academic caste system.” “He [Burris] argues that across many academic fields, a high correlation can be found between the prestige of departments in which individuals received their degrees and the prestige of the department where they serve as faculty (see also Barnett et al. 2010)”. They also share another study “by Clauset, Arbesman, and Larremore (2015), which examined nearly 19,000 faculty placements in computer science, business, and history departments in the United States, showed that only 25 percent of institutions were responsible for producing 71 to 86 percent of all tenure-track faculty in those fields…(Oprisko 2012).”

(3) How the economic interests (of a “moneyed class”) rather than educational obligations or considerations of equity drive the policies and practices of many Universities – who serve to maintain their own interests (or their donors’ interests) rather than truly facilitate change.

(4) How career progression is tied to an intersection of race, gender and class origin, an implicit understanding of who will best replicate the institution’s expectations, and the ability to be “friends” with the right people. And that not fitting in exacts an emotional and economic cost on racialized faculty and students and on women who truly want to see the system changed.

(5) Why there are little to no non-White administrators in the higher ranks of my University or why so many Black students on my campus at UTSC drop out before finishing their degrees or why my University refuses to collect data on racialized students and on equity seeking groups.

Less for More? Anglo-American Academic Elitism as Hegemonic Whiteness

In a 2020 blog post, anthropologist Grant Jun Otsuki observed:

“The… highest number of Ph.D. graduates supervising dissertations in cultural anthropology… includes the University of Chicago, Berkeley, Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, Michigan, Cornell, Indiana, Penn, UCLA, Washington, UT Austin, Northwestern, and Yale… The group with the next highest number is notable because it includes LSE, Cambridge, and Oxford, which are the only non-US universities in the top two groups.”

I am still collecting data from other university departments, but preliminary findings show that in NUS, LSE and UofT, a total 64 faculty received their PhDs from North American universities and out of which 78% (50) are from the US. The US universities with the highest representation: Chicago (6), Michigan (5), University of California (5), Johns Hopkins (3), Harvard (3), Yale (3), Washington (3). These numbers match up quite well with the studies above. The department of Sociology where I did my undergraduate degree (1995-1999) has become more American and neoliberal. At present, the NUS Sociology department (which is made up of 14 faculty): 9 have their PhD’s from North America – mainly the U.S. (and especially John Hopkins, University of California, Boston), 3 from Europe and 1 from Australia. Only one faculty got their PhD in Singapore, and none got theirs from Africa. Out of the 18 faculty in the Anthropology department at the LSE, 12 got their PhD’s from the UK/Europe – of which 75% came from the LSE, Cambridge and Oxford – and 3 from the U.S. And at UofT (60 faculty): 63% of the PhD’s come from the U.S (21% from Canada) and of this 63%, 34% are from 3 institutions – Chicago, Michigan and University of California.

These figures capture the exclusionary tendency of certain elite programs/universities and they point to how Whiteness is potentially reproduced within academia and more widely distributed beyond American and British universities.

Yet the truth is, change very often comes from the so-called periphery (and in conversations with other peripheries), not from the so-called center: We are after all, all connected, from the #RhodesMustFall movement in S. Africa (in 2015), to the #GandhiMustFall movement in Accra, Ghana (in 2018), to the tearing down and removal of confederate and colonialist statues in North America last summer. Our stories and actions are connected even though they are not the same.

Ways Forward

So, what can we do? Where do we begin? Can we do better? I suggest three things we need to address – that we can do – in moving forward:

(1) Rethink the canon. Think about the canon and why it continues to be Eurocentric and androcentric (see Alatas and Sinha 2017) – why we often occlude or marginalize certain kinds of scholars and certain forms of knowledge. This is in line with our need to examine our hiring practices, our citational practices, the ways in which we choose to center European/androcentric readings in our syllabus, and how we tell the histories and stories of our very disciplines (Anderson 2019; Daswani 2019). Can we lean into discomfort, stop it with the White fragility, and start accepting that our disciplines are historically connected to our discipline’s complicity in race/racism, other forms of inequality, exclusion and colonial practice?

(2) Say no. I have found that saying “No” is important to interrupting Whiteness. We do not need consensus to move forward. We do not need to share a given definition of happiness or joy. We have to realize that we are socialized into a collective understanding of prestige to protect the Whiteness that gives us our “happiness”. This is to a large extent the reason why we feel we owe the people who helped us along the way and the institutions which employed us, and therefore tend to think we better stay silent. But silence, that resounding silence so many comfortable academics lounge in no matter what, is an incredibly powerful and harmful form of complicity.

What if we follow Sara Ahmed and try to become “killjoys” for real?:

[To be a killjoy] “We have to be willing to be experienced as ungrateful, to use this refusal of joy as an exposure of what we have been commanded not to express… Our emotions are opened up when we refuse the commandment to be loyal and joyful” … “We need to start with our complicity…  Caring for happiness can so often translate into caring for others on the condition that they reflect back an idea you have of how a life should be lived”

“The figure of the killjoy comes up whenever there are difficult histories to bring up”.

Ahmed 2017, 246

If you can speak, speak. If you can champion students and untenured faculty, then do so. If you can articulate matters that make others uncomfortable but are ethically necessary to be said, then so be it. I have spoken up on matters regarding student diversity or questions around intersectionality in my department.  Responses generally range from a conspicuous silence to gaslighting me by reframing these statements as being either about me (“why are you talking like this?” or “you were speaking emotionally” or  “you are desperate for attention”) or about them (“why are you making me feel uncomfortable?” or “I feel attacked by you”). Such (absence of) responses are obviously not surprising, and I understand that this is what can happen when someone is not seen to be towing the line of expected “civility” or reflecting back the idealistic, and eminently White, idea of how an academic life should be performed.

(3) (Un)learn Whose Land You’re On. Interrupting Whiteness needs to be a practice-based struggle, situated in our own historical-political contexts, and specific to Lands that work in/on. Asking the right questions requires knowing what questions to ask. And this can only be done if one is sensitive to and in tune with the specific colonial histories of the Lands that hosts them, the place they do research and travel to, and the peoples who have been and continue to be oppressed by these histories.

We are not going to change the system overnight. Responding to our discomfort and to a sense of injustice is important – but we should pay attention to our specific histories of colonialism and start with what we have and the histories of lands that host us. We also need to check our own privilege: I am keenly aware that my route from NUS to UofT would not have been possible without me having gone through the LSE first; that the social networks I created there allowed me to apply for a job here. I am also aware that my male status and my sometimes-loud voice is able to occupy space in ways that sometimes occlude my female and untenured colleagues.

The question that remains in this time of Covid-19 – a time when our different social realities and experiences of isolation become more acute – is: are our universities and colleagues similarly aware of the damage their “good” intentioned actions and messages are doing? As an epilogue to this essay, let me address this question through one recent example.

The Unbearable Whiteness of Leading: On Refusing the University

Following the lead of the Canadian nation-state, the University in Canada has become part of “a global industry [which] has emerged promoting the issue of official apologies advocating “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” as an important precondition for resolving the deleterious social impacts of intrastate violence, mass atrocity, and historical injustice” (Coulthard 2014: 106). Yet as Sandy Grande (2018: 53) notes, “the very nature of settler colonialism precludes reconciliation”. In recognizing the suffering and pain of others, universities, just like the settler colonial state and its other institutional structures, reveal the limits of a liberal discourse of empathy. In other words, the performance of recognizing another’s pain or harm is not the same as committing to actions that are meant to actually fix the structural problems that caused pain and harm in the first place. Indeed, in this context, recognition and empathy tend to recenter Whiteness. They also tend to act as strategies to co-opt others into accepting reformism and to limit more radical, and non-White, ways of imagining co-existence.

In what follows I want to focus on my University’s recent efforts to show a caring face and to empathize with its faculty. Through recognizing the difficulty their faculty face in these challenging times, University administrators deploy ways of equalizing the differences that exist through certain (non-)performative gestures and strategies of incorporation (Ahmed 2012). One can think of the rhetorics whereby “We” are all suffering in the time of Covid-19, through responses such as: “We are a family” / “We are a Caring University” / “We are in this together”. Thus, in a November 2020 public message, UofT President Meric Gertler wrote:

“If we’re concerned that someone may be struggling, let’s ask how they’re doing and listen to what they have to say. As we have seen in so many ways throughout the year, kindness and empathy can be incredibly powerful, even transformative”.

Such discourses are not specific to my university alone, on the contrary. Since the pandemic started, many emails have been sent by our universities. They thank us for our hard work and recognize our sacrifice during these difficult times. They also ask us to attend workshops on how to “stay productive and avoid burnout during the COVID crisis”. Yet by doing so, Universities also reinforce their own Whiteness in a way that does further harm and damage – whether they realize it or not.

One more example. On January 26, 2021, the (senior, male, white) Dean of my University (UTSC) sent an email to all faculty. By this time, many of us had been teaching online since late March 2020. Some had experienced a loss in their family or friend-circle due to Covid-19, and many parents of young children (including myself) had been dealing with school closures since late December 2020, and therefore with the triple expectation of continuing their academic/teaching responsibilities while being full time parents and dealing with the impossible task of online learning. Many were experiencing mental health issues related to the extreme isolation and the lack of support caused by the pandemic and its related lockdowns and school closures. Not everyone could afford nannies or have full-time babysitters. Not everyone could fly off somewhere warm or teach from their cottage, and the task of caring for children and other dependants most often fell on one or both parents.

The Dean started off his letter by acknowledging the uncertainty of the present moment and the emotional toll the pandemic has taken on all of us. He officially “recognized” our struggle and our pain. He asked us to contact our Chairs and Directors if we were facing challenges so that they can work with us in finding individualized solutions. So far, so good. This is what an administrator should do. Reach out, empathize, and express the desire to help through these difficult and challenging circumstances. But here is where the misstep and the (unrealized) violence takes place. The letter takes a twist when he shares his own personal experience from childhood as a way to convey how he can relate to what others (women, parents, less privileged and racialized faculty) are going through now:

“When I was five, we were transitioning from one home to another. There were delays in moving to the new home. To fill the gap, we were loaned the use of a summer cottage. It did not have indoor plumbing, apart from a hand pump in the kitchen linked to a well. It was not winterized. However, for the summer months, it was fine for a family of five, including three cats and a dog, even though it only had two bedrooms. One of my brothers and I slept in bunk beds located in a porch area. Delays though persisted. September came and since my parents thought the end was in sight, we stayed in the cottage, leaving at 6am each morning as we were delivered to our new schools. The process reversed at the end of the day and 12 hours later we were back at the cottage. September slipped into October. The bunk beds were moved into the living room where the sole source of heating, a space heater, was located. Days were getting shorter, we left in darkness and returned in darkness. My mother spent long hours in the cottage alone with no outside contact, and no telephone. October transitioned to November. More delays. My older brother had the corner bedroom with two exposed walls. A vertical sheet of ice had now formed on the inside wall beside his bed. A few times the water pipe from the well to the kitchen hand pump froze. Finally, in late December, two days before we were to host a large family gathering of aunts, uncles, and cousins, we were able to move into our new home.

This was not a global pandemic, and my family was also fortunate that these housing circumstances were temporary, but in the midst of these difficult months, what enabled my family to persevere? We had a shared mission to survive until the new house was ready. New routines were developed and we each had a distinct and valued role to make the best of our confined circumstances. Finally hope was always present, even if it seemed ephemeral at times.”

A colleague of mine expressed their anger at reading such an email. In trying to sympathize with other faculty (for that was probably the intention of the letter) the Dean offended them. By equating the challenges he faced as a White settler child whose family owned a cottage with the challenges of faculty from different social classes, generations, genders, sexual orientations and races, some of whom do not own homes, come from war torn countries, are struggling with a host of other personal problems, and have never been (able) to (afford) a cottage, he inadvertently showcased a Whiteness that caused harm. I’m guessing that he did not mean to offend. I’m guessing that he was genuinely trying to lift the spirits of faculty and to give them hope in the challenges of the coming months. I’m guessing that he was trying to emphasize the happy ending of it all, whereby we will eventually move back into our nice campus “home”. Yet, by claiming to “recognize” us, by sympathizing with us through his own White privileged experience, he further illuminated the immense gulf that separates the Whiteness of the institution he represents from many of its lower ranking members. To my colleague as to others, his letter conveyed the exact opposite message it claimed to articulate, thus reinforcing our experience that “we” were not in this together.

This example shows how, by rendering things comparable and not acknowledging the differences between us and the potential violence of recognition, administrators often allow Whiteness to re-emerge and re-enter through the windows of the institutional structures of the University.

In conclusion, I take a page out of Sandy Grande’s (2018: 51) proposal to refuse the University. Refusal rejects the false promise of inclusion (see also Simpson 2014, Tuck and Yang 2014). It is a generative space for rethinking relations and for imagining alternative ways of co-existence that do not comply to or easily get co-opted into a settler and neoliberal logic. But refusal has its price. As Grande (2018: 59) writes:

“To refuse inclusion offends institutional authorities offering “the gift” of belonging, creating conditions of precarity for the refuser. For example, refusal to participate in the politics of respectability that characterizes institutional governance can result in social isolation, administrative retribution, and struggles with self-worth.”

De-centering Whiteness may not be enough. We’ll need to think of ways to refuse it. And we’ll need to find alternative ways of being a collective and committing to reciprocity and mutuality.


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Stoler, Ann L. 2016. Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Tuck, E. and Yang, W.Y. 2012. “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1): 1-40.  

Tuck, E. and Yang. W.Y. 2014. “R-Words: Refusing Research”. In Paris, D., Winn, M. T. (Eds.), Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities (pp. 223-248). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Tuck, E. and Yang. W.Y. 2019. “Introduction”. In Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (Eds.), Indigenous and Decolonization Studies in Education: Mapping the Long View. Routledge Press.

3 thoughts on “On the Whiteness of Academia

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