Archive for the ‘Academia’ Category

En/Countering Academic/Activist Tensions

Posted: November 16, 2010 by sayburgin in Academia, Activism
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In September, I was able to attend the Critical Whiteness Studies Symposium put on by the University of Iowa’s Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry. True to its word, the Symposium engaged a number of key questions surrounding the ‘social, cultural and historical production of whiteness’. Historians, social and political scientists, and scholars of literature, rhetoric, and gender and queer studies converged in Iowa City to raise, and sometimes answer questions about the shifting meanings of whiteness in the United States, particularly in the current so-called ‘post-racial’ era of the Obama presidency.

Examples of the conference’s excellence are plenty. A few personal favorites:
– Danielle Olden’s paper on the claims to whiteness made by Mexican American women of the Hispano Americano Women’s Club of Lincoln/Laramie, Wyoming, at mid-century.
– Michael Litwick’s presentation on the social construction of queer white flexibility as juxtaposed with queer black rigidity.
– Becky Thompson’s keynote entitled ‘Pedagogies of Tenderness’ – on the need to teach in a way that does not further disconnect students’ minds from their bodies.
– Kimberlee Pérez and Dustin Goltz’s performance piece highlighting the ‘politics of intimacy’ in queer, cross-race alliances.

Indeed, the Symposium interrogated racial meanings and productions in a number of innovative and creative ways. For me, though, presentations and discussions that centered on racial justice and academia were the most powerful, particularly a panel discussion called ‘Negotiating Shifting Terrains of Whiteness: Strategies for Building Alliances and Trans/forming Communities’. Led by a multiracial, feminist coalition of activist/academics – Sheena Malhotra, California State University; Francesa Royster, Ann Russo, Laila Farah, and Sheena Malhotra, all of DePaul University – this panel raised crucial questions and offered some advice around en/countering whiteness within universities.

Each discussant spoke of her personal struggles to negotiate the white supremacist culture that permeates the academy. For instance, one discussant pointed out that, often, we academics employ the tools of white supremacy in order to negotiate whiteness within our institutions, tools such as self-righteousness and perfectionism. (As the discussant pointed out, Tema Okun has analyzed the connections between these attributes and white supremacy.) Another discussant shared her attempts, within her administrative roles, to be aware of when she slips from a position of collaboration to one of collusion – when for instance, her actions are perpetuating the exclusion of students or faculty of colour. Each discussant spoke powerfully to the perpetual and differing negotiations (and re-negotiations) that academics face as they attempt to create more racially just university systems.

Perhaps this particular workshop resonated so deeply with me because of conversations I’d had recently at the ‘New Territories in Critical Whiteness Studies’ Postgraduate Conference in August at the University of Leeds. There, many of us found ourselves raising questions about the connections between the academic world and social justice struggles that take place largely outside of scholarly contexts: shouldn’t critical race learners also be racial justice actors? How do we stay involved in antiracism struggles even as we study them? How do we create scholarship that serves these struggles? Is it possible to ensure that, in our engagement with critical whiteness theory, we do not re-center whiteness?

I thought at first that these concerns might be peculiar to postgraduates. At the ‘New Territories’ conference, a number of us had shared stories about our involvement in various antiracism causes: Palestinian solidarity groups, counter-English Defence League organizing, involvement in Love Music Hate Racism, etc. I knew I was anxious, thinking about how I would best be able to maintain my commitments to my own activist involvements in the midst of increasing academic-related responsibilities, particularly those that would bear on my ability to land a job after graduate school. Pressures related to gaining employable skills and credentials had been building (and continue to do so) in an increasingly pessimistic atmosphere that carries little hope for postgraduates seeking academic employment in years to come. Strapped for time and energy, I’ve often felt pressure (and was advised by other, more advanced postgraduates) to decrease my commitments to Palestine solidarity efforts in Leeds in order to lend more time for activities that would help me get employed.

And I certainly haven’t been the only postgraduate to feel these pressures. Aside from those that I met at the ‘New Territories’ conference, I encountered a number of others, including Chris Dixon and Alexis Shotwell. While I haven’t actually met these two individuals, I ran across a paper they wrote.  One day as I was sitting in an archive, surrounded by a fascinating collection of women’s liberationists’ letters, I pondered why I had chosen the full-time academic life to the full-time women’s liberationist one. Finally, I just began Googling ‘radical academics’ or something like that. Up popped Dixon and Shotwell’s online article, ‘Leveraging the Academy’. They offered a new take, a less despairing, woe-is-me angle:

Many grad students are uniquely situated …we come to grad school with movement backgrounds and activist commitments or develop political commitments through grad school. We should be nurturing and drawing on these experiences and commitments… These things not only help to leverage the academy for changing the world, but can also help combat some of the soul-destroying features of academe… Indeed, it is precisely this work that in itself changes the grad school experience from something like boot camp to something meaningful and politically useful.

Hopeful, pragmatic, and useful, this article helped me feel as though I could navigate my postgraduate studies without overly compromising my activist commitments. My fellow critical whiteness studies postgraduates and myself could indeed ‘help to leverage the academy’ for racial justice.

Still, upon reading ‘Leveraging the Academy’, I felt as though these anxieties surrounding activism, justice, power/politics, and the academy were unique to or pronounced amongst postgraduate researchers, and I wasn’t sure if things changed after graduate school, if the responsibilities as an academic were piled so high I would lose sight of all non-academic, antiracism and feminist activities.

What was, however, clear to me from the presentations I attended at the Symposium in Iowa (illustrated most explicitly in the ‘Building Alliances’ panel) is that established critical race/whiteness scholars also negotiate tensions between academic and activist worlds; like us, their protégés, they often seek to bridge these seemingly distinct worlds and make their scholarship ‘count’ for something in the realm of racial justice. And though I think that many of us engaged in critical whiteness studies – whether postgraduate or tenured, east or west of the Atlantic, Midwestern or Tyke – will continue to grapple with these tensions, after having been to the University of Iowa’s CWS Symposium, I at least feel now as though, as an established academic, if I lose sight of the feminist/racial justice struggles that are so important to me, it will not be because they have no place in the academy. Rather, it will be because I have not confronted the necessity of these struggles to the creation of a more just and inclusive academy.


New Territories in Critical Whiteness Studies Postgraduate Conference

Posted: November 11, 2010 by Madeline-Sophie (Maddy) Abbas in Academia, Activism, Racialisation


L-R: Back row: Richard Tavernier, University of Leeds; Barbara Samaluk, Queen Mary, University of London; Noémi Michel, University of Geneva. Front row: Dr Shona Hunter, Madeline-Sophie (Maddy) Abbas, Say Burgin, all University of Leeds; Jennifer Dulek, University of Illinois; Dieuwertje Dyi Huijg, University of Manchester.

Conference Report

As part of its efforts to foster future research leaders within the field of critical whiteness studies, the White Spaces Research Network, led by Dr Shona Hunter, (University of Leeds), has launched a postgraduate arm.  The postgraduate network is semi-autonomous to the broader white spaces network and is run by and for postgraduate students.  It aims to create a graduate community grounded in an understanding of the specific pressures, constraints, and opportunities facing postgraduates working in the area of critical whiteness studies.  Central to the network is its promotion of international collaboration between members to advance this evolving field into new territories through the use of innovative technologies to share information and develop research partnerships. 

The postgraduate network held its inaugural conference ‘New Territories in Critical Whiteness Studies Postgraduate Conference’ over 18-20 August at the University of Leeds, with financial support from the Social Policy Association Small Grants Fund, the Economic History Society, the Leeds Humanities Research Institute, the Worldwide Universities Network, and the University of Leeds’ School of History and School of Sociology and Social Policy. ‘New Territories’ provided an opportunity for postgraduate students engaged in the field of critical whiteness studies to present their research and develop the direction of the new postgraduate arm.

More than twenty postgraduate delegates from six different countries attended the conference, including participants from the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada. In addition, the conference’s keynote speaker, Dr Cath Ellis, University of Huddersfield, added to the conference’s international scope through insightful contributions on her native Australia. The participation by a number of European delegates from outside of the UK was an especially exciting feature considering the lack of attention that critical whiteness studies has paid to this part of the globe.

Research presented by conference delegates confirms that postgraduate students today are pushing critical whiteness studies into new territories. Contributors presented research from a range of disciplines – music, sociology, history, political science, English literature, education and other disciplines. Conference participation also represented the full spectrum of postgraduate academic experience; MA students presented research alongside doctoral students that have either just begun or are in the final stages of their research. Delegates presented fifteen different papers under five conference themes: the racialisation of English spaces, challenges to national identities, white antiracist projects and problems, white privilege, and methodological challenges in critical whiteness studies.

Taking a cue from the larger White Spaces network and its inaugural conference in 2009, the ‘New Territories’ conference included an opportunity for ‘Dialogue and Debate’. This session provided an open space to think through various debates and discussions that had arisen throughout the conference and how these issues/challenges/debates might be carried into the postgraduate network. During this session, delegates in one group concentrated on the question ‘What is whiteness?’ They discussed why this concept proved to be so ‘slippery’ for scholars and the different ways it was understood and utilised by conference delegates and other critical whiteness scholars. Participants in another ‘Dialogue and Debate’ group focused on the connections and disconnections between critical whiteness studies in the academy and collective struggles for racial justice taking place outside of academia. A number of delegates from both groups expressed concern over the lack of impact of the field outside of the academy, and they considered how the postgraduate network might position itself in order to more directly engage with antiracism efforts and practitioners. As with the 2009 ‘White Spaces?’ conference, this session provided an important moment for deeper and more candid reflection on recurring challenges within the field.

Reflecting the postgraduate network’s aim to assist the career development of postgraduates, the conference provided two strong training components. Dr Cath Ellis’ address, ‘Teaching and Unlearning: Critical ‘Race’ Pedagogy and Online Learning Environments’, asked delegates to reflect on their (current and future) teaching roles. Dr Ellis argued that online learning environments prove useful in the instruction of critical race theory and that they may offer less embodied ways in which to discuss ‘race’ issues that may enable more candid, reflective thinking that distils some of the emotional burdens that can accompany class room discussions.  As a non-traditional teaching format, Dr Ellis argues that e-learning can be a ‘catalyst for change’ since it encourages teachers to re-think their teaching practices and may be a move towards de-stabilising normative approaches to teaching critical race studies.   

Tamsine O’Riordan, senior commissioning editor for Zed Publishers, talked on a very different subject, but one pertinent to all postgraduates – the challenges of academic publishing.  In terms of opportunities for future collaborations, the demand of publishing for academics against a somewhat bleak outlook of available opportunities presents some concerns to all early career academics.  Tamsine nonetheless provided invaluable advice for postgraduates trying to get a foot into publishing including:  know your publisher and audience, network for edited collections, contact publishers with your book idea before giving up your life to write it, and finally, should you be lucky enough to secure a contract don’t make an enemy of your publisher!  These key points provided us with some ammunition for the difficult road ahead.

Building the Network

The central goal of the conference was to map out future directions of the postgraduate arm. As a research group within the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN), this organisation has provided a great deal of assistance in creating sustainable mechanisms by which the White Spaces Network can promote and develop international collaborations.  To move the postgraduate arm forward, Kirsty Mattinson, the Leeds representative of WUN, and Louise Heery, WUN’s general manager, introduced WUN-supported options and opportunities, including a number of different technologies that support innovation in research and education globally through interdisciplinary collaboration, exchange and e-learning.  Kirsty and Louise highlighted a couple of innovative collaborations developed by postgraduates through WUN, including a postcolonial studies e-journal, a virtual seminar series and an online information sharing system.  These initiatives were presented as vehicles through which the network might sustain itself and extend its reach.

Following WUN’s presentation, delegates ended the conference with an in-depth discussion on the postgraduate arm’s future and the best mechanisms and resources at our disposal to achieve this aim.  Participants decided on four different development strands:

  • E-mail list: as our ongoing communication tool for resource and information sharing on events and funding. 
  • Blog: with the aim to offer a platform to bring critical whiteness issues to a wider audience, both academic and non-academic, through thought-pieces, responses to current events, and interactive comments.  The blog will provide opportunities for peer review on articles and an outlet for ideas, as well as a collaborative enterprise that can respond to issues and debates in the field in a dynamic and thought-provoking way. 
  • Virtual seminar series: to facilitate ongoing empirical, methodological, and theoretical discussions as well as ‘Master Classes’ within critical whiteness studies that can be accessed by participants internationally. 
  • Future conference: planned for 2012 to serve as a benchmark for reflecting on the work achieved by the postgraduate arm, how it has developed, and deciding on new directions for the network and its contribution to the field of critical whiteness studies. 

The discussion surrounding how to proceed with the network’s development raised many questions, which are pertinent to most research endeavours.  One key question was how to present the identity of the network?  Here, interestingly, was the crux of the debate of whiteness itself – how should the network locate itself within the debates of whiteness? How should issues of power and hierarchy be negotiated when establishing and maintaining a network?  How should the network promote social change? And in this role, what is the network’s relation to the ‘real world’? All of these debates, which have their parallels in the field itself, were raised by delegates.  Since no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ approach could easily be found, these debates will continue to provide food for thought on the future of the network and serve to demonstrate the vibrant and complex nature of the field. 

In response, the network provides a dynamic, challenging, and critical space in which to debate these issues and open up dialogue within the field of critical whiteness studies and beyond.  The conference provided a space to explore the diversity of perspectives, both ideologically and geographically, and the personal engagement that all our delegates brought to the task of researching whiteness and white ethnicities.  The network aims to build on this engagement and to reflect the debates, challenges, and developments in critical whiteness studies, and with the collaborative efforts of all delegates, it proposes to be an exciting and ongoing enterprise.  Dr Ellis summed it up well in her exiting remark that the future of critical whiteness studies is in ‘great hands.’  We hope that the network will be a testament to Dr Ellis’ affirmation.

The network is now live at  Anyone interested in becoming involved in the PGR arm of the network should contact Say Burgin or Maddy Abbas