Ratnayake
Type
Essay
Category
Racism
The academy

Conferences I have known

Late last year, I found myself presenting at a sociology conference. I am an analytic philosopher by training, but a colleague and I had written a paper looking at the changing conceptualisation of migrants and refugees in New Zealand’s political and legal discourse and we wanted to share it with academics working on similar topics.

On the whole, analytic philosophy conferences tend to eschew the political. We are known for blunt, occasionally vicious question times, so our conferences are not necessarily staid affairs, but aside from sly references to the political punching bag du jour for a few laughs (at present Trump), politics tends to take a back seat, even when the topic being discussed is political in nature. The reasons for this are numerous and contentious, but to put it in a nutshell, analytic philosophy takes itself to be concerned with truth. As ‘truth’ is often understood to be timeless and universal, contextual issues such as political and material conditions are put aside. The approach is far more nuanced and variable than this, and has changed over time, but this is a sufficient description for the discussion at hand. (For those interested in local flavour: the University of Sydney’s philosophy department had a vicious falling out in the 1970s over the question of whether more ‘traditional’ philosophy or the new Marxist and Feminist philosophies – concerned as they are with material and political contexts – were better suited for answering philosophical questions.)

As a result of my academic conditioning, I was immediately struck by how explicitly political the sociology conference was. Everything from the conference theme – ‘Respect existence or expect resistance’ (a popular protest slogan) – being emblazoned on tote bags in a variety of colours to the keynote on intersectional activist alliances reinforced this impression. There was talk of ‘dismantling neoliberal structures’ and ‘sites of resistance’.

This was a conference that was self-avowedly progressive, associating itself with what one might think of as the hallmarks of progressive culture: youth, new ideas, scepticism of the status quo. And so I was utterly unprepared when the most overtly political conference I had ever attended also turned out to be the most racist.

 

Questions of diversity are becoming more prominent in academic circles. Initially focused on the lack of minorities within particular disciplines, the conversation has now grown to include racial, gender and class biases within curricula, teaching practices and research activities. Diversity is not just about numbers, although the figures themselves are certainly distressing: the Equality Challenge Unit’s 2017 report shows that 92 per cent of UK academics identify as white. Unsurprisingly, these figures translate to negative experiences of racism and sexism at the individual level, as revealed by the ‘I, too, am …’ campaigns at various universities.

I have always taken ignorance of political context to go hand in hand with academia’s diversity problem. After all, elite institutions such as the academy tend to reflect deeply entrenched power structures and systematic inequalities. But what I observed at this conference was the danger of taking a performance of progressiveness to be synonymous with a substantive interest in, or engagement with, diversity in the academy.

Instead of getting caught up in questions of context, let us take the relationship between politics and diversity in academia to be mediated by the concept of ‘community’. Conversations about communities are inherently political, hence the concept encompasses both a political dimension and a more homely sense, one that relates to encounters between an individual and a group to which they can be said to belong. In his work on immigration, philosopher Michael Walzer draws parallels between countries and what we might think of as different kinds of communities, such as clubs and neighbourhoods. Walzer demonstrates that the same questions we ask of larger, overtly political communities (for example, nation states), especially questions of membership, are also to be found when considering smaller communities. The second, more intimate sense of community probes the experiences of individuals and invites examination of what it might mean to belong to and, in the case of academia, work within particular communities.

The notion of community acts as a linchpin between more public and political questions that arise when considering diversity in academia, such as ‘Who should be members of the academic community?’, alongside more private and personal questions, such as ‘How do we make the community welcoming to new members?’ and ‘How do we ensure that this community continues to persist and thrive and expand?’

 

At the sociology conference, I attended a session on migration and marriage, where two of the talks were on the experiences of migrant Indian women. It was one of those enormous conferences with concurrent sessions; where this is the case, attendance is usually determined by whether the speaker is well known and/or a personal friend, or whether the topic is relevant to one’s own work. Given that these presenters were graduate students, it seems plausible that the latter was the main motivator for attendance – something that makes what I observed all the more puzzling.

Both presenters began their talks somewhat defensively, clarifying at great length that the subjects in their sample were very specific: affluent, highly educated, highly mobile Indian women of a specific age range.

When question time rolled around, the source of the presenters’ defensiveness became readily apparent. As well as a few valid points of clarity, there was a barrage of offensive questions that had little to do with the content of the presentations – ‘Are there still a lot of acid attacks in India?’, ‘What do you think about the acid attacks?’, ‘What about arranged marriages?’

I looked around, expecting to see everyone in the room cringing, but most people were calmly waiting for the presenters’ responses, unaware that anything unusual had occurred. I looked to the chair, hoping they would interject and redirect the conversation, but again I was disappointed.

As another witness – one of the few other persons of colour in the audience – observed, it was like watching an object lesson in orientalism unfold. It was very difficult to believe, all these years on from that theory, and in this seemingly political and progressive environment, that people still viewed India as a mysterious and exotic land largely defined by misogyny and violence.

I was particularly struck by the fact that those present believed a question session at an academic conference – rather than, say, a quick online search – was an appropriate way to clarify basic misconceptions. A more galling example occurred at another talk on gender and public policy, where someone asked, seemingly unknowingly, ‘What does trans mean?’

Question times do occasionally go off track, often because the discussion goes off on a tangent or because of the perennial annoyance of someone grandstanding about their own research, but I found this particular incident far more discomfiting. Clarifying questions can be useful, of course, but in this case – given that the presenters were not famous academics – it is likely those in the audience have a professional interest in the topic under discussion; in such circumstances, asking for a definition of a widely used term, or reinforcing lazy stereotypes as part of a question, is a very telling form of ignorance. If we are generous and take the audience’s field as sociology more broadly, rather than anything concerning a specific subject, it would still be reasonable to expect some familiarity with critical theories such as contemporary feminism and orientalism, particularly at a conference that dared market itself as progressive and politically aware.

Even beside the fact that these individuals should have been better up on their discipline, one might think that simply being members of the academic community would have been sufficient to have given them pause for thought; I personally found these encounters a bizarre flouting of what I have always taken to be deeply entrenched professional norms. The academic community is, after all, one with a particular purpose. The specifics of that purpose may be up for debate, but study, research, critique and ‘knowledge production’ – a phrase I personally object to, with its vacuous capitalist overtones – number among them. Surely it is inappropriate to ask someone in their professional capacity to make general commentary on their country of origin, instead of rigorously engaging with their work? The academic work of persons of colour – or anyone in academia for that matter – is the fruit of their professional labour and as such is worthy of appropriate academic scrutiny and feedback.

Some years ago, a female philosophy graduate student of Indigenous origin, gave me an account of a talk she had given. It was highly technical in nature and she was excited by the opportunity to get feedback from others working in this niche field. Yet, when question time arrived, there were no questions, simply the comment that she had done a great job. This is unheard of in philosophy. Even when a talk is excellent, philosophers will go out of their way to formulate objections. The failure to do so is a judgement on the quality of the work – in other words, the said work is not worthy of critical engagement. Similarly, in deciding that those sociology presentations warranted a more general discussion rather than the specialised analysis appropriate to their community, those audience members made their opinions of the work, and of those presenting the work, abundantly clear.

My intent in dwelling on this anecdote is not to suggest that race was the sole or even primary issue. There were various non-racial dimensions to this encounter that made it all the more concerning. The presenters were women, they were young, they were graduate students – individuals just starting out in their academic career. Each of these factors comes with its own loaded problems.

Nor do I wish to suggest there is anything inherently worse about sociology than other disciplines. I have certainly encountered philosophy’s own issues with race and gender, ranging from small-scale annoyances and microaggressions (such as continual mispronunciations of non-anglicised names) to full-blown sexual harassment; the blog ‘What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy?’ makes for grim reading.

It is little wonder, then, that we have some of the least diverse departments. The Australasian Association of Philosophy’s most recent report on gender parity found that, in 2005, only 23 per cent of full-time or fractional full-time philosophy positions were held by women. To put this in perspective, the rate is 36 per cent across the entire Australian higher education sector.

I am able to write this essay precisely because I am not a sociologist; my academic career will not suffer in any way as a result. It is unclear whether the same would be the case for the women who presented. The lack of academics from minority backgrounds, particularly in high-ranking positions, is a very visible deterrent to speaking out; early career academics, especially those from minority backgrounds, fear damaging their already precarious career trajectory.

It is, however, possible to overestimate the consequences of being a minority in academia, and to underestimate the academy’s extreme hostility to criticism and change. In 2016, comparative philosopher Jay Garfield co-authored a piece in the New York Times in which he argues that ‘philosophy’, as taught in anglophone departments, is really just western philosophy and therefore in urgent need of diversification. Garfield (as far as I know) is not from any minority background and is a well-liked and well-respected academic. Yet this did not prevent the piece from gathering a great deal of racist and xenophobic criticism. Nor did it stop Garfield from being the target of personal attacks.

 

Discussing the sociology conference incident later on, a friend made an astute observation: had the academics in the audience been less sure of their progressiveness, then perhaps they would have been more careful about their behaviour. I wonder the same thing.

I struggle to believe that an event so eager to identify itself with progressive movements would be so blind to problems within its own community. Then again, there is a long history of sexism and other intersectional issues within seemingly progressive spaces. The American civil rights movement, for example, was beset with chauvinistic leadership, and radical feminists continue to attack trans and queer folk. There is a tendency to neglect critical self-examination when one has already declared oneself progressive.

It is difficult to know how to address the issue of diversity in academia, but it will not be as easy as handing out ‘Respect existence or expect resistance’ tote bags. It will require a great deal of scrutiny about what could be done closer to home.

A good starting point is to return to the notion of community. I know this from having attended a very different academic conference some years ago. That conference is held every five years and focuses on various non-western philosophies, particularly Asian philosophies, though there were also talks on African and Islamic philosophies. Here, the belief that academia is a community, and that it should be a welcoming one, was front and centre. Many people had attended the same conference as graduate students and continued to return even when they did not have work to present, simply to stay involved. That is the kind of community it was.

Diversity was handled very differently at this conference. For one thing, as the subject matter was so extensive, it drew a wider range of academics, including those from non-anglophone countries. Furthermore, when diversity was the topic of conversation, it was not addressed in the cursory way I have grown accustomed to, where the focus is very heavily on statistics. At this conference, diversity was something to be scrutinised and understood. One presentation discussed the contribution of diversity in terms of code-switching, a term originating in linguistics, which concerns the way in which multilingual speakers switch languages mid conversation. Applying the notion more generally, the presenter suggested that code-switching between cultural contexts – for example, the traditional western academic context and that of one’s original culture – makes for conceptual flexibility and thus allows for more innovative ideas to emerge. This was not only intellectually fascinating, but also spoke to my personal experiences as a first-generation immigrant.

What strikes me about this conference now, particularly in comparison to my more recent experience, is the way in which politics had to be negotiated and confronted at every step of the way, rather than being shallowly declared at the outset. Instead of associating itself with particular movements, this conference confronted political issues as part of the continuing evolution of this particular academic community.

The survival of non-western philosophies within the western academic system is in many ways inherently political, as it depends on those holding power to recognise the political dimension of the status quo. As Garfield’s critique points out, what is usually described as ‘philosophy’ is just the western tradition. This is as a result of various historical trajectories and background power relations, particularly between the ‘East’ and the ‘West’. It is only with the acknowledgement, or at the very least disinterested acquiescence, of the gatekeepers of elite universities (almost solely those in anglophone countries) and their more mainstream colleagues that non-western philosophies continue to exist as disciplines. To put this in perspective, a philosophy department in Australasia will have one or two academics working on something like feminist or Marxist philosophy. Appointments of non-western philosophers are even rarer, bordering on tokenism.

Of course, this conference was not without complications. I was at the time affiliated with one of the aforementioned elite universities and the way in which I was held in esteem as a mere graduate student compared to fully fledged professors from developing countries was deeply discomforting.

Nonetheless, the need to build a lasting community that could persist in a hostile environment made this an unusual oasis within academia. While this need may be particular to non-western philosophies, it nonetheless fostered a culture of unassuming self-reflection that is not beyond the reach of other disciplines. Given the sheer variety of philosophy compared to the more homogeneous topics at most conferences, attendees were acutely aware of the incompleteness of their knowledge. Feedback was offered tentatively, and questions were asked with a great deal of humility; I could not imagine anyone unapologetically enquiring about key terminology, or boldly asking irrelevant and offensive questions.

 

When lamenting the disappointing state of diversity within academia, a particular caricature tends to arise: that of the older, Caucasian, cisgender, heterosexual male professor who is recalcitrant to change. I fear that in relating my experience at the sociology conference, I have exchanged one caricature for another: that of the well-meaning progressive academic who is blind to their own bigotry.

In calling for a consideration of community when addressing diversity issues, I hope that such caricatures can be put aside. I wish instead that each individual can consider their behaviour and how it might affect the community. To show that none of us are exempt, I would like to share a mea culpa of sorts. I was recently confronted by the ways in which I could have been unwittingly misgendering students after attending a workshop on the experiences of queer and non-binary students. For example, early on in the semester I struggle to remember names, particularly when I am teaching multiple tutorials. Consequently, I often use short descriptors such as ‘gentleman in the yellow shirt’ when calling upon students.

This is exactly the sort of thing that is greeted with cries of ‘political correctness gone mad’, or held up as evidence of an ‘outrage culture’ intent on stifling free speech and academic discussion. Being careful about how we speak and behave is one of the growing pains of inviting individuals from different backgrounds into the academic community.

However, the fear that this call for academics to be more careful might make them reluctant to broach controversial topics is not entirely unfounded. Unpopular speakers have had their speaking engagements cancelled across a number of universities, particularly in North America. It is vital that the academy remains a place where controversial opinions can be aired and discussed. For instance, one could imagine that the enquiry into the term ‘trans’ could have been an overture to a substantive discussion of gender along the lines raised by radical feminists. Sadly, this did not seem the case at the conference I attended; there was certainly no elaboration on the question, or articulation of a counter position.

The issue still remains about how to distinguish contentious subject matter from poor behaviour. Focusing on community assists with this question, as it forces individuals to think about their approach when discussing difficult subjects. Community is an appeal to the everyday virtues of politeness and good manners; a simple acknowledgement that we should not unnecessarily hurt others. One could imagine – or hope to imagine – that the concerns raised by Germaine Greer and her ilk regarding trans women could potentially be discussed in ways that are not vitriolic.

Using respectful language to discuss topics linked to individuals’ lived experiences, particularly those we hope to include in the academic community, may further rather than stifle discussion.

 

 

 

 

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Sahanika Ratnayake recently extricated herself from one PhD program only to promptly fall under the sway of another program. She has done graduate study in New Zealand, Australia and the UK. Her non-academic work has appeared elsewhere in: The Pantographic Punch, Vice, Poetry NZ and brief.

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