Black Absencing: The Work of UK Academia

By an anonymous Black PhD student

University lecture hall
University lecture hall

In my first year of the PhD, a Black British friend also pursuing her PhD warned me that for a Black person, life in the UK (and UK academic life in particular) is a ‘death by a thousand cuts.’ Over the past few years, these cuts have been painful lessons through which I’ve learned to see the UK academic space as a site that structurally absences Black people, Black scholarship, and Black critique as part of its reproduction of whiteness. While I’m not yet ready to share my name with my story, I still want to share this experience. 

In fact, deep down 
they believe those colonialists were right
. Just perhaps just too violent...

I’m a Black PhD student at a UK university. I earned a scholarship to study in a department that prides itself on being one of the best in its field in the UK. This is a department with more than fifty PhD students, yet I have more fingers on one hand than there are Black PhD students. Not only are we few, each one of us is an international student. I would look around: We, the only Black students being trained, here, in this moment, in this department, and we are all international students likely to return to our home countries upon completion. It was within my first month here that I began to wonder: Where were the Black and Brown “home” students, those who would most logically make up the next generation of educators in this discipline in the UK?

In fact, deep down
they believe those colonialists were righ
t. Just perhaps just too violent.

You see it in the absence of Black and Brown British people they create in their academic spaces...

It was in my first year that I began working as a teaching assistant. Among the first, second, and third-year students I taught, I finally saw a marginally larger number of Black and Brown faces. After my first lecture, a few final-year students came up to me to tell me that I was the first lecturer they’d had who was not white. Their first. It made me angry, it also made me sad. When I brought this experience and my concerns to a departmental student-staff meeting, a white male lecturer spoke over me. I remember looking him in his eyes through his thick glasses. His face was pink. He said he himself had come from a working-class background, that he too was marginalised. I agreed he had his own experiences of marginalisation. But then he continued:

If I could work hard enough to get to where I was, so too could Black students,
he said.
Besides, certainly our department – one of the best in the UK – couldn’t lower its standards just to admit more Black and Brown students?
he asked 

I was stunned at his inability to see our different positions. That it wasn’t about an “attainment gap.” It was about an educational institution that very deliberately structures these absences. Only a Brown lecturer (who would very soon leave the department) acknowledged my sentiments. I looked around that room; more than a dozen other faces around the table, all of them white, and all of those white faces were silent. They avoided eye contact with me. They seemed uncomfortable and eager to move to the next agenda item. This was my first painful lesson about whiteness in UK academia: apathy, denial, dismissal.

In fact, deep down they believe those colonialists were right.
Just perhaps just too violent.


You see it in the absence of Black and Brown British people they create in their academic spaces.

You see it in their silences…

I’m tired of the whiteness of the academic curriculum. I’m tired of the academic curriculum and its production of whiteness. Sitting in these lectures, discussing which white man said this, which white woman said that. At best, a passing reference to Audre Lorde and the ‘master’s tools.’ The irony: They are the master, these are their tools! Do they really not realise that they are the master and these are their tools?

I have noticed the amazing ability of white academics to build their credentials and careers off of their Black and Brown PhD students, Black and Brown research assistants, Black and Brown geographies. Discussing their own ideas of you between themselves, comparing their interpretations of you has become their critical theory. 

In fact, deep down they believe those colonialists were right. Just perhaps just too violent.

You see it in the absence of Black and Brown British people they create in their academic spaces.

You see it in their silences.

You see it in their module reading lists and citation practices…

Amidst everything happening since I started my programme, decolonial thought became a space of criticism, a sanctuary, a way of understanding and thinking out of everything happening around me and happening to me. Incorporating it into my research meant articulating my justifications and plans to my supervisors, which I did through lengthy written pieces like literature review, conceptual framework, and methodology. My primary supervisor, a white woman, provided limited comments. I knew she was busy, overloaded with departmental work and teaching. I also assumed that moving away from her research interest might have informed her lighter engagement. Then she volunteered to organise a session on this topic within our critical theory group. I was surprised but hopeful; I asked to work with her, and I ended up doing the labour of providing the text for our group to read and think over, structuring the session, and facilitating the conversation. 

Two months later, I learned from a classmate, another white woman, that my supervisor had selected this same theme as topic for the next issue of a departmental journal that she would be editing, and that this classmate would be the assistant copyeditor. All I could think about was that these two white women would be editing a journal issue on a topic that I’d devoted intellectual and emotional labour toward, challenging structures in my department (and facing opposition), and organising spaces in which to instigate critical discussions. The cut-cut-cut-cut-cut of white UK academia was wearing me out and wearing me down. When I approached my supervisor, I was emotional

‘I’m very sorry,’
I had it at the back of my mind to mention it to you,’
‘Of course I’d love for you to contribute something, you are such an important voice on this in our department,’
she’d said
‘I’ve learned so much from you,’
she’d said. 

Another painful cut: When they take your labour, your ideas, and transmute it into their own achievements. This special issue will further their names, their reputations, and their careers in UK academia (and likely even more widely). But of course this supervisor would like me to contribute. I’ve been such a valuable voice on this issue in our department. She’s learned so much from me. Without me, would this have even been possible? And let’s not forget that she actually needs Black (and Brown) people’s contributions to legitimise this issue as ‘decolonial.’

In fact, deep down they believe those colonialists were right. Just perhaps just too violent.

You see it in the absence of Black and Brown British people they create in their academic spaces.

You see it in their silences.

You see it in their module reading lists and citation practices.

You see it in their academic politics…

This is Black absencing at work. This institutionalised antiblackness is part of the long afterlife of slavery and colonialism in which we live. I now see the UK academic system as an intellectual industry that funds itself through Black and Brown international students’ fees while framing white research into our communities as ‘global challenges’; as a system in which white academics co-opt our labour and knowledge for their own aggrandisement while invisibilising our critiques, in order to perpetuate white scholarship and theorising. One obvious example is white scholars’ co-option of the framework of intersectionality without citing Black feminist scholars. 

So, what next? One form of self-care I can do — that I am doing — is to withdraw myself from their spaces, to literally absent myself. From that department, from that journal issue, from the ‘critical’ spaces they create. To, at least for now, shift from fighting to recuperating and rebuilding. Which means now, more than ever before, relying on my relationships and kinship with Black scholars, especially Black women scholars, who have experienced and are experiencing the same cuts that I am experiencing, so that we build our own spaces, our home places, in order to heal together. I want to surround myself in the beautiful possibilities that emerge when we come together as Black scholars to not only reflect on and critique the UK academic system, but also find ways to think and exist beyond it. In the words bell hooks (1990: p. 384):

‘Despite the brutal reality of racial apartheid, of domination, one’s homeplace was the one site where one could freely confront the issue of humanization, where one could resist…where all black people could strive to be subjects, not objects, where we could be affirmed in our minds and hearts…where we could restore to ourselves the dignity denied us on the outside in the public world. This task of making homeplace…was about the construction of a safe place where black people could affirm one another and by so doing heal many of the wounds inflected by racist domination. We could not learn to love or respect ourselves in the culture of white supremacy, on the outside; it was there on the inside, in that ‘homeplace,’ most often created and kept by black women, that we had the opportunity to grow and develop, to nurture our spirits.’

References

Eddo-Lodge, Reni (2017). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. 

Hartman, Saidiya (2007). Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

hooks, bell (1990). ‘Homeplace (a site of resistance).’ In Yearning: Race, gender, and cultural politics. Boston, MA: South End Press.

Sharpe, Christina (2016). In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke University Press

By an anonymous Black PhD student

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