guest post: resistance as survival / rianna walcott

“As a black person, simply existing in institutional spaces can be a trial. When these spaces are soaked in colonial legacies, and cater to white cultural norms, expectations and experiences – just navigating these worlds that were not built for you takes an extra level of effort and energy that may be invisible to people around you.

One such space is the world of academia. Every school or university I have worked or studied at has been a predominantly white space – not just in demographic, but also in terms of the Eurocentric curriculum, the naturalised tendency to ‘other’ knowledge and experiences by non-white people, and the inability or unwillingness to decentre white normativity in matters from pedagogy to student wellbeing.

The effects of this marginalisation are clear on numerous fronts – several University student unions across the country have commissioned reports on the attainment gap of students of colour at their institution which overwhelmingly show the same results: students of colour entering university with the same qualifications as their white peers are leaving with qualifications that are significantly lower, being far less likely to attain a 2:1 or 1st. Similarly, PoC in the UK suffer disproportionately from poor mental health, being more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems, incarcerated, and mistreated by healthcare professionals.

As a black person moving through spaces that are demonstrably not geared towards your success, you have two options should you want to attain that success. You must either keep your head down and work within the systems as they currently exist – playing the game if you will – to ensure you get the grades that your white peers can access without these roadblocks. The second option, and the one that I have chosen for better or worse, is to work to change the space you work within.

This brings us to the plight of the scholar-activist. While daring to be black, and more so, daring to centre black experiences in my research, I have found that in order to be successful while staying true to my political beliefs and determination for black advancement, I have had to campaign for changes in the spaces I work in.

For example, Project Myopia, a project I co-founded in my masters year at university, is a website devoted to decolonising and diversifying university curricular. It works by publishing reviews of cultural works, specifically those made by people from marginalised groups, whose voices have traditionally been excluded from academia. This work challenges outdated modes of pedagogy and the understanding of academic spaces as belonging to the privileged few. Our goal is that a course organiser looking to make their teaching more representative will be able to search through our database using our hashtag system to find works by marginalised authors that fit the criteria of their course. White straight men are not the only people who create, begin cultural movements and make history. Through Project Myopia we hope to create a more inclusive canon representing the contributions of ‘the other’ to culture, rather than history presented from the winner’s perspective.

Similarly, my work with The Colour of Madness, a newly published literary anthology about PoC mental health, seeks to address the loneliness and difficulties inherent in being a marginalised person in these spaces. How do you tell a white counsellor that your experience of academia is being negatively impacted by the whiteness and ignorance of your peers? How do you address the fact that you suspect your tutor, the person in charge of your grade, has a limited or problematic understanding of racial politics? We need to understand that the experience of marginalisation in predominantly-white institutions affects everything from our grades to our well-being. It is so important for our survival and health that we strive to find relief in the black people around us, and recognise that not all scholarship happens within the classroom.

In both my research and my work, I argue that scholarship and activism both have real-world consequences, and that the products of academia must benefit those outside of it. The ‘problem’ with scholar-activism is in the assumption that the terms are antithetical. Understandings of academia as an ivory tower, an elitist preserve of white cis-heteropatriarchy standing separate and impartial to real world politics are outdated, and contribute to an erasure of marginalised people in the academy. 

Instead, scholars not only affect activism, but activism also affects scholarship, by informing spaces of intellectualism, what we study, and who is allowed to study. An integral part of scholar-activism should be making scholarship accessible to all, and erasing divisions between the ivory tower and academia’s real-world applications. 

So, while I believe in the necessity of decolonising the academic environment, as well as abolishing antiquated gatekeeping structures that devalue non-normative forms of knowledge, I hope that someday black people are able to advance through academia and other areas of work without being forced to make this decision between scholarship and activism. We should be free to make the decision to affect the world around us out of choice, and not as a necessity just to bear living in it.”

Rianna Walcott is a PhD candidate at King’s College London who works with race, gender, mental health and decolonisation through projects such as and The Colour of Madness, a new anthology about BAME mental health.

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