GENDER AND ANTI-BLACKNESS IN UNIVERSITIES

©Awino Okech

On 10th September 2020, I received an email notification from a listserv with the heading Crisis of care: whiteness in the Collective. The author of the email wondered whether the introspection in the linked article with the same title signalled the possibilities of radical shifts in approaches to racism in global feminist spaces. The article was a response to a call for accountability that was catalysed by a number of people of colour who are part of Feminist Review. The Feminist Review statements form part of many others that have been issued since May 2020 requiring organisations and sectors to confront institutional racism.

I followed these social justice movement statements as closely as I did the atonement by universities in the United Kingdom (UK) and other parts of the Western world. The most notable was the reckoning in New Zealand in relation to Maori decolonial scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith and more recently the statement by ten Black women academics in the UK questioning why UKRI had not awarded any COVID-19 funding to Black academics given the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people of colour generally and Black people in particular. It is instructive that the bulk of these statements were accountability demands by Black women and women of colour. As promises to do better wane, I reflect on why Black women lead the charge. What do these public statements — a strategy used by Black women — reveal about the insidious ways in which sexism and racism operates in UK universities?

I offer that Black women are front and centre because unlike their male counterparts they deal with racialised and patriarchal logics that construct their presence in universities. Patriarchy requires women to commit to socio-cultural roles (wifehood, motherhood) that tend to impact career progress in a sector that is still largely reliant on high levels of research output. Additionally, there are patriarchal demands hardwired into what studies show as the expectations and punishment for women academics. Where systemic racism is concerned, patriarchy and white supremacy converge by sustaining the “angry Black woman” trope.

Audre Lorde’s foundational piece, Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism sets out the contours of this trope. Lorde notes the connection between the anger that emerges from “exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation” AND the production of Black women as innately angry because they speak out against injustice. The implicit assertion in the production of the angry Black woman is that despite exclusion and accompanying injustice, Black women should present their views in ways that do not make the privileged uncomfortable. Anger is argued to “interfere” with the ability to hear the problem. The “nicer” and “more measured” you are in calling out racism and anything else, the easier it is for people to understand and respond to the issues on the table. As Lorde (1981), argues below, this is less about how something is said but more about what is being said. The recipient is required to confront their complicity in sustaining racism and that is deflected through a focus on Black rage and the communicator as a problem.

“I speak out of direct and particular anger at an academic conference, and a white woman says, “Tell me how you feel but don’t say it too harshly or I cannot hear you.” But is it my manner that keeps her from hearing, or the threat of a message that her life may change?” (Lorde, 1981)

I argue that the production of the angry Black woman trope is evident in responses to institutional racism. I highlight below three main ways that this happens.

The first way is through the conversion of Black women into a problem to be understood and resolved by setting up more mentoring, more training and more spaces to listen to us speak. I spent a season of my life “training women political leaders”. My work started from the premise that the trainees had a deficit that prevented them from succeeding in a patriarchal political system. We were training them to get better at beating patriarchy. The assumption was that once a critical mass was in the system they would dismantle it. Like the women political leaders training, what is left unchallenged in “support Black women programmes” is the dominant mode of performative politics and the institutional infrastructure that privileges white, white adjacent women and gender-queer voices. This mode of institutional “listening” is invested in eliding responsibility by focussing on those who are disadvantaged by the system. Rather than ask why ten people should be added to a table that sits four. Institutions suggest that more chairs should be added around the table. That the table is not fit for purpose remains unchallenged.

White colleagues who claim to understand institutional racism but do little to challenge dominant approaches that reform but do not transform the status quo are part of the problem. In addition, the complicity of women of colour in sustaining institutional racism cannot be ignored. Women of colour are statistically more in universities than Black women thus benefitting from resources targeted at Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. The number of Black women (35 as of 2019) professors among BAME women professors is instructive. BAME in the UK much like “people of colour” (PoC or the newer Black, Indigenous, People of Colour — BIPOC) in the US has its history in anti-racist organising and solidarity. However, the flattening of categories and experiences with the co-option of these terms in policy instruments has led to increasing calls to abandon them.

Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens reflections on brave spaces is useful for thinking about facilitating spaces that unpack how white adjacency aids rather than dismantles white supremacy and patriarchy. The focus on bravery rather than safety is critical in an environment where safety becomes code for not holding people accountable for their actions and the roots of those actions. Safe spaces are invested in focussing on how people feel about their experiences of Black rage rather than what generates Black rage. Performative allyship is at the heart of the demand for safe spaces when confronted with anti-Blackness.

The second way the angry Black woman trope plays out in universities is in shifting goalposts for Black women. Most academics are familiar with the invocation of collegiality as an important part of building and sustaining professional relationships. Collegiality serves as code for recognising academic hierarchies and respecting them. Nicola Rollock’s paper drawing on interviews with 20 of the 35 Black women professors in the UK points out how the decks are always stacked against Black women despite clarity on academic progression. There are flaws in promotion, leadership, accountability and reward systems in universities. These flaws are clear in the informal channels that influence decision making and public perceptions which end up impacting career prospects. Let me illustrate.

A recruitment committee meeting to agree on questions for shortlisted candidates is held. At least four non-Black people speak about the need for the successful candidate to demonstrate that they are “friendly” and “welcoming”. “I should see them on the corridor.” “Previous occupants of the role would say hello on the corridor and ask me about my children’s health”. “I should see them in the student’s bar or canteen”.

None of those who uttered these statements did any of the things they now expected of a senior leader. I pointed out that it would be problematic for a senior leader to spend three quarters of their time greeting staff on the corridor. When would they do their work? The absurdity of the demand was clear. If this was about making the role or the institution better, then the conversation would be about systems, not personalities. It was evident to me that this conversation had everything to do with the Black woman who held the role and refused to conform to racialised and gendered ideas about Black women in leadership. She refused to be included. If left as initially proposed, the revised person specification was stacking the deck for any other Black woman who would occupy that post.

The third way the angry Black women trope is sustained takes us back to the statements I referenced at the beginning of this essay. The statements from the staff in Women Deliver, IWHC and Nobel Women’s Initiative required institutional accountability for racism in organisations that invoked a “feminist ethos”. Institutions are complex places that gather people based on contractual arrangements and assumptions about shared political purpose. The risk of invoking feminism as shaping how conventional institutions function, lies in the unexamined assumptions about shared political trajectories, interests and visions of the world. The verdict from Women Deliver points to fatigue by the initiators of the demand for institutional reflexivity, with a version of feminism that sustains the status quo whilst outwardly projecting transformative rhetoric — a feminist utopia. This type of liberal feminism is always racialised and classed because its sustainability relies on demanding more time and emotional energy from those already on the margins.

It is this version of liberal feminism that exists across most UK universities. It relies on and reproduces the angry Black woman by demanding “feminist” ways of working in institutions that already extract Black women’s labour through diversity work and additional support to Black students. When Black women decline to give more energy and time to creating a “feminist utopia”, an informal goalpost is set up. Black women who set boundaries as part of surviving the predominantly white work environments are framed as “uncollegial” to non-Black colleagues. They are constructed as difficult, aloof, intimidating, hostile, defensive, unwelcoming, arrogant. Given that this type of feminist politics is unhinged from how racial and class privilege shows up in the workplace, it launches into disciplining Black women. In the interests of the institution, “collegiality” becomes a code that demands that Black women perform a certain version of “feminist professionalism”. This professionalism has very little to do with the work, which often they can’t find fault with.

This type of feminism sustains an neo-liberal extractivist logic. In pushing for a feminist utopia in an environment where the job and accompanying metrics (teaching standards, research grants, publishing and academic citizenship) rather than an autonomous political project brought people together, the institutional logics within which gender centres and institutes exist are ignored. The proponents of this type of feminism especially within universities that project a desire for inclusivity, institutionalise extractivist modes of professional engagement and call it radical feminism.

Across UK universities, the insidious nature of gender, race and class remains unattended to. The performative politics I describe above is invested in unseeing anti-Blackness through superficial anti-racism strategies. It also positions allyship as a defence to not do the work of unsettling complicity. It is in these anti-Black manoeuvres, which you can’t touch, yet you know it is happening, that lead Black women to demand a public reckoning.

None of what I describe here is unfamiliar to Black women who work in UK or American universities. If universities are to retain Black women academics specifically and Black staff generally, examine how racism and sexism is sustained. The next time you ask wither Black women academics, look for the new goalpost you set up, whose location you do not remember. They saw you setting it up and left.

** I would like to thank Yolande Bouka and Shereen Essof for their comments on an earlier version of this piece.

I am an African feminist scholar. My knowledge production, teaching and change mission is rooted in African feminist movements freedom work.