Can the subaltern speak? Why AHRC needs decolonising

ILLUSTRATION BY BRAD AMOROSINO

Last week, I created a twitter thread critiquing the Arts Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the BBC’s,’ ‘Next Generation of Thinkers’ schemes, where Black academics are strikingly absent. A person whose job title is ‘Programme Director’ emailed me the usual script of the AHRC being committed to diversity and so I decided to reply back.

Dear [x]

Whilst I understanding the AHRC is committed to issues of equality, diversity and inclusion, although admittedly this is a legal obligation for this body to do so, it does worries me that even on this strand some of the actions you have highlighted still seem to be very superficial. Therefore deeper conversations and more importantly actions clearly needs to be had, to address structural, systemic and institutional racism within AHRC. I often wonder if the right people are currently employed to do so? Take a look around your office, how ethnically diverse is it? How are different knowledges and points of view sought on a day to day basis without special consultants, working groups or think tanks? Lets look higher up the organisation, how many People of Colour (especially Black people) are in positions of power and or are in decision making roles, please tell me how all of this does not relate to some of the issues I intend to raise below?

Regarding my tweets that were 1) specifically how Black applicants are disproportionately turned down for funding and 2) the lack of infrastructure in place for Black Ph.D students navigating the academy which is, if you do not know already a very racist environment for us. My tweets were highlighting that as funders to various universities across the UK,  you are complicit in funding institutions that continue to reinforce structural and individual racism? A conversation regarding your financial accountability really needs to be addressed here, as funders you have the power to hold universities to account to ensure they are working beyond the superficiality of inclusion, equality and diversity and that are truly addressing the structural violence that racism creates for staff, academics and students of Colour. Therefore, one must ask, what is AHRC’s position on the decolonisation of universities? How do we decolonise AHRC? How do we decolonise public funding in order to achieve racial justice?

I am sure these issue are not new to you, I am a 31-year-old-Black-Woman and they are not new to me,  yet here I am already burnt out, having to take 9 months of my Ph.D studies to rebuild myself because of the racial stress I have had to endure. It was so unbearable, I was left with no other choice but to take time off from my studies. The University of Bedfordshire, Tate and my AHRC reps and other members of staff within AHRC are aware of my experiences, which for the most part is not unique to me. As funders you need to know the breadth of the racial violence Black Ph.D students like me must face and we need to know of the intended actions you are going to take against institutions who continue to perpetuate this racial violence against us. Black students and other students of Colour for that matter, need to be informed of the specific support you are going to offer us in order for us to make it through? What we truly need from you as Black students is for the AHRC to not act benevolently but to be allies who are proactive in the fight against racial injustice. As  a body that currently holds the purse strings, we need you to flex your muscles, presumming you want more Ph.D students of Colour coming through the academy of course. What side of history do you want the AHRC to be on, those in alignment with the oppressor or in solidarity with the oppressed? We need you to help commit to the similar actions put forward by the student activists of colour (and their white allies) at Goldsmiths who forced the institution to address issues of structural racism: their action only took 4 months. And so one has to ask in the spirit of the late and great James Baldwin, how much time do you need until I can see these changes happen within my life time? This is a question I often ask myself, who does the work whilst white people think about race?

The above context greatly informs the tweets I sent yesterday and abstracting my own application, my tweets are not personal but more representative of how Black academics are continuously denied entry within and are discarded by white academia. Seeing how scarily absent Black applicants continuously appear to be within this scheme, (I am happy to be corrected here), but there seems to be only 2 Black candidates (based on your online publicity) who have ever made it in to the final 10 throughout the entire history of this scheme. This greatly worries me as it further perpetuates the white space that academia already is and what types of people who will always be considered the UK’s next generation of thinkers. Whilst this is a supposedly a rigorous process within a supposedly competitive scheme, please do explain to how the disproportionate entries of white people (especially men) making up the final 10 do not: 

1)  Coincide with the disproportionate numbers of white men and women who are completing and or have already received their Ph.Ds or are already working within academia, which we both know is an incredibly white sector? 

 2) Please tell how effective this ‘blind’ decision making process really is when considering point 1 and who the final 10 applicants will more than likely end up being ? Please explain to me how this not a flawed process that systemically shuts out Black and People of Colour from ever making it into the final 10? A ‘blind’ scheme can only be truly function within an equal society, this is clearly not the case here within the UK. 

3) Has no one at AHRC or BBC asked why do we every year have a visible lack of Black applicants, is there something wrong with our process? 

With this evidence before me as well as my own experiences, why would I want to reapply, when the chances of someone like me getting through is very, very slim. Your process and decision making symbolically and literally tells us that you do not consider Black academics to be the UK’s Next Generation of thinkers. 

I will end with this, until you: 1) have more diverse staff, especially those within positions of power,  2) a decision making process that recognises these racial imbalances and thus acknowledges a blind system will only reinforce these racial inequities, 3) actions and directives that seek to address these very deep rooted issues, I will apply for this scheme. Until then, this scheme will always remain exclusively white perpetuating the racist and toxic cycle that gate keeps Black Ph.D students and scholars out of academia.

 
Regards,
Janine Francois 

2 comments

  1. Me · 5 Days Ago

    The idea NGT is ‘blind’ is laughable when each year there is one (clearly strategically selected) BAME ‘final 10’ (usually a south Asian woman) …this suggests at least unconscious bias, if not totally box ticking (‘ooh look we do have ethnic diversity among those selected), upholding white norms while denying doing so.

    Like

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