Black Scholars Matter: Power and Prejudice in Academia

With summer holidays around the corner, I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to a vacation so much. I’m exhausted after months of alternating between being terrified I would die from a mysterious bat virus, frustrated with having to learn how to suddenly adapt to a virtual work life, and wondering whether the world will ever go back to the way it was (and whether it should). I want nothing more than to put it all behind me, putter around in the garden, feel the sun on my face, and whisper sweet nothings to my vegetables.

But it has not escaped me that being able to hide from the world is a privilege not everyone has – especially now. Every day I read the news about what is unfolding in the US (my home country) with horror, but also a strange sense of hope. If anything good is to come out of COVID-19, it is the realization that things CAN change radically and quickly. Maybe even systemic racism.

Photo: Tom Hilton / Flickr. CC BY 2.0

The zombie fires of anti-racism protests have been smouldering for decades, but it is the prospect of change that makes things feel somehow different than just a few months ago. Back when I lived in the US in the 80s, I remember protesting the racist roots of “Aunt Jemima” pancake mix and “Uncle Ben’s” rice. The response was a collective shrug, and a sigh of “That’s just how it is.” Nothing happened and nobody said much since then, but now, suddenly, they are changing their brand names.

And it seems like every day my news feed shows me another example of a perhaps small, but meaningful change in somebody’s business practice, whether it be technology terminology, the name of a band, or copyediting practices.

Why the sudden possibility of change? The slow and excruciating murder of George Floyd by a policeman in the line of duty – in full view of his partners and recorded for all to see – made it impossible for Black people to just sigh and say, “that’s just how it is” and for white people to say, “it’s not that bad, stop being so sensitive”. The stark display of systemic racism whipped up the smouldering embers into flames, and suddenly we are all talking about racism and our own roles in it. Whether it is defunding the police, tearing down a statue, or changing the name of a food product, change is starting to feel real.

The growing attention to racism coupled with the feeling that we do not have to accept the status quo just because “that’s the way it is” is also forcing me to weave together – or disentangle, I can’t figure out which – what feels like a hundred different threads of things I’ve been thinking about for a while: gender, academic publishing, decolonizing the academy, English as a “lingua franca” in academia, and my role as an advisor helping scholars publish.

For many of us well-intentioned white folks, including me, the problem with tackling racism in academia is that it is so hard for us to see, perhaps especially in the context of peace research in Norway. Racism feels like something that happens “over there” on the mean streets of Chicago, not in hallowed halls of learning. We might like to think we would clutch our pearls in horror and demand to speak to the manager if we saw racism in our fold, but the truth is that even when we do see it, we don’t usually recognize it for what it is. We will say that it isn’t really racism, it’s more like xenophobia (like that makes it better?). Or it’s a language issue. Or it’s just something else, because we genuinely do not think of ourselves as racist.

We need to think of racism as something more than the overt, blatant violence and discrimination we see on the news happening other places, and see it as a sneaky, invisible, shape-shifting monster that can fool even the best-intentioned among us. It’s not about defensively proclaiming, “But I’m not racist!”. It’s about understanding how the system we are part of works to silence some people and give voice to others. Just because we as peace researchers fight the good fight on a regular basis does not mean that we are immune to the various guises of racism and how it unfolds in our midst.

The problem will not be fixed if we simply hire enough Black faculty or have enough Black students (although it’s a promising start). It’s also about recognizing different perspectives. While most of us agree that diversity is good for social science, and under-representation and marginalization of certain voices is detrimental, we don’t seem set up to handle diversity well.

Discussions about decolonizing the academy argue that discourses in international relations are framed almost entirely from a Western perspective and voices from the global South are absent, suggesting that half the world doesn’t seem to exist – and when it does, it is often presented, explained, and described through Western perspectives.

As an editor, I have more than once felt caught in an unpleasant dilemma: Should I advise the author to “tone down” their voice, to use literature more familiar to the dominant discourse (and perhaps draw more parallels to “familiar” examples from the US or the UK)? Or should I encourage them to be true to their own unique voice, bring in the literature that makes sense to them, and focus on what they want to focus on – knowing that they probably will not get published, and the dominant discourse will not get a fresh perspective?

Implicit biases related to race and gender (as well as ethnicity and language) are deeply embedded in our culture and go far beyond the individual, making us all prone to reproducing them. For example, women are just as likely as men to undervalue the achievements of other women  or consider “feminine” topics to be less serious (less academic) than “masculine” topics.

Because I have studied gender (and I’m a woman), I’m more familiar with this phenomenon in a gender-related context. But it doesn’t take a lot of imagination for me to see how this works when it comes to race – even if I don’t feel it myself. It all comes down to who is “othered” and who is embraced, whose voices are marginalized and who gets heard.

While I find it hard to disentangle the links between racism, sexism, North/South issues, and geolinguistic imperialism, the magic of this moment in time is that the Black Lives Matter movement asks us to pay special attention to race. Now is the time to ask ourselves: Are Black voices being heard in academia? Is racism getting the scholarly attention it deserves? In other words, we are asked to acknowledge that Black scholars matter.

I don’t think I know any researchers who would say that Black scholars don’t matter (although I imagine some would be tempted to counter with “all scholars matter” – which entirely misses the point in this particular context). It’s the question of what to do about addressing problems of marginalization and under-representation that stymies us. We often look for solutions in “hiring practices” (which, for most of us, comfortably pushes the solution out of our own hands), but both problems and solutions appear much more frequently in the power we exercise in the everyday production of research and publications.

When it comes to identifying sources of power in academia, it helps to think of it as a “prestige economy”, where prestige is measured largely in terms of publications: the more you publish and are cited, the more you move up the ranks, and the more you are in a position to approve or deny the publications (and thus career trajectory) of others. There are at least four points along this chain where racism can come creeping:

1. Agenda setting: What gets researched in the first place?

The ability to identify and describe a problem, and then convince others that this is a problem worth researching can be considered agenda-setting power. Agenda setting works both bottom up and top down. At the top-down level, funding institutions (often through governments) decide what kind of research should be prioritized. They may design work programs that outline the kind of research they want to fund, or instruct evaluators on what they should prioritize, or both.

At the bottom-up level, researchers put together projects: picking topics and composing research teams. This is the everyday business of research, and the way we do this has important implications for what kinds of research get produced and who produces it – and thus the publications that result. Some of us might be in a position to influence funding decisions and work programs at a higher level. The rest of us can take a harder look at what kind of proposals we write, how we build our networks, put together our teams, and pick our topics.

Can we push the study of systemic racism higher up on the agenda?

2. Research leadership: How is research carried out and communicated?

Even if the project team is already described in the funded proposal, the everyday leadership of the project can determine how this team is used and how much ownership each person feels towards the project and their work.

  • How much latitude will individual researchers have to develop their skills and get recognition?
  • Who will determine what kind of output will result, and who will get credit for it?

Decisions about co-authorship can directly affect a person’s career trajectory – sometimes with respect to linking them to other authors and establishing their network, and sometimes with respect to (not) acknowledging a person’s contribution to the work. Decisions about whether to prioritize non-academic outputs can mean that some researchers put a lot of time into something that “doesn’t count”. Depending to some extent on the kind of project (and associated funding), project leaders have considerable power to promote and develop (or restrict and deny) the prestige of their team members.

How do we use leadership to combat implicit bias, develop skills and networks of young Black researchers, and give credit where it’s due? Do Black scholars get the recognition and opportunities for leadership they deserve?

3. Gatekeeping: How do we decide what is good enough?

Like agenda-setting power, gatekeeping power controls the direction of a scholarly conversation by silencing some voices and giving others a platform. Gatekeepers sit in multiple places in this chain, including as evaluators of research, examiners of students, and editors or peer reviewers for journals (to name a few). They can decide whether research ideas are good enough to get funded, whether students are worthy of a degree, or whether an article will get published.

While it is tempting to argue that here merit will win out, we see evidence that “merit” is subjective: some topics may be considered less worthy than others; authors might be asked to remove references that are in languages other than English (thereby delegitimizing research published in other languages); and some theories are specifically situated and may not translate well from one context to another, but translation to Anglo frameworks may be required in order to publish.

Decisions about what constitutes “excellence” can shape entire bodies of research. Biases can be so strong that even when the editor, reviewer, or examiner wants to encourage diversity, they may be reluctant to do so in practice because they have to think about the constraints related to prestige and the potential impacts of a controversial decision. Discrimination may not explicitly be related to a researcher’s race, but what language they write in, who they cite, what kind of voice they use, and what they write about. Is implicit bias restricting our ability to see “excellence”?

4. Research promotion: How is research made visible?

The prestige economy runs on metrics that count publications and citations. Research on citation patterns show that it is not necessarily the “best” research that gets cited, but that implicit bias and closed networks can shape our perspectives on what we consider relevant to cite (here’s an example of research on gender bias in citations). In our everyday activities as researchers, we not only promote our own research but also the research of others:

  • Who do we cite?
  • Who do we invite as panelists?
  • Who do we ask to hold keynotes?
  • Who do we talk about in social media?
  • And if we are teaching, whose work goes on the required reading list?

Do we promote the research of Black scholars?

Although it is useful to separate these types of power (agenda-setting, leadership, gate-keeping and promotion) in order to talk about how power works, in reality they are tightly linked and overlapping.

A supervisor can, for example, harmfully exercise all four types of power in their role by

  1. discouraging a student from pursuing a particular topic,
  2. taking undeserved credit for the student’s work or not integrating the student into networks
  3. subjecting the student to unnecessary extra rounds of “quality assurance” so it is never “good enough”
  4. refusing to promote the student’s work after publication.

They can also do the opposite by inspiring, encouraging independence and giving credit, and helping the student develop networks to promote their work.

The point is that even though the system is bigger than we are, and as individuals we can’t do much to change it, we have more power than we realize to mitigate racism and prejudice. This is a transformational moment, and we shouldn’t let it pass us by.

One seldom finds real wisdom in memes on Facebook, but this one hit home for me:

“Treat racism like COVID-19: (1) Assume you have it, (2) Listen to experts about it, (3) Don’t spread it, and (4) Be willing to change your life to end it.”

As a white person, I know my most important job is to listen and believe it when Black academics tell me what they experience.

But I also think it is important that I reflect on what kind of power I have, and how I can best use it. What I’m good at is helping scholars learn how to write academically, so before I go on vacation, I’m spending some of my free time mentoring a promising young Black scholar from the global South and helping his team write a research grant. My tomatoes will wait.

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One Comment


A very honest and encouraging attitude towards racial harmony. There are bigger contexts (all enmeshed in expressions of power), that inform how race relations become conflictual. Discourse on slavery, colonialism, occupation, conquering new lands and peoples, celebration of war heroes and denigration of peace makers as ‘pacifist, idealist’, cultural values about manhood and decorum. And all these are historical processes less recognized by current victims centuries after. Whites are not just racist towards Africans, many uninformed Africans are willing slaves, convinced of the white man’s superiority. Because of the denigration of the bearers of the black skin as victims, underdogs, poor (not exploited!), ignorant and servile. As a peace maker i stood from a young age to understand to the essence of mankind beyond fetishes of colour, wealth, class, gender and power. It has been a long journey but i made friends with Jews in Kenya and USA, i married white American woman who is of Germanic origin among other mixed blood. My daughter Ellie Kioi is the product of this union. She lives in Dallas, Texas, aged 15. I don’t know what she makes of the ‘current American racial political ‘spectacle’ and discourse’. Beyond that i have made many friends across the colour line but i would like to cite just three prominent world citizens. Shirley McClean, a leading Scottish journalist came to Nairobi in the 1990s and 2000. She bore no racial discrimination tendencies and so to fellow Scotsman and leading scholar Chris Higgins. Then one leading Norwegian environmental scholar Siri Eriksen. I have not met her since 2000 but i know she is professor back in her home country of Norway. As peace makers we don’t generalize, we seek to find structural roots of racism. Politicians however benefit from emotional collective mass feelings which can be translated into votes. What a healthy dialogue? Keep it up

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