A tribute to academics of colour

Academics of colour face enormous challenges in their work, but their efforts are often unseen

an illustration of the profile of two people of colour, facing each other. Artwork by Jocelin Chan

In the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), the first tutorial is code for icebreakers: we are told to form groups and introduce ourselves to each other.  The tables morph in a well-rehearsed formation that is unquestionably repeated throughout semesters: the Avengers have found each other, sparing only passing glances at Kung Fu Panda, who is cornered at the table and searching for the Furious Five who are scattered across the room.

I feel the palpable apprehension in the class when it is my turn — the visibly black-haired East Asian boy’s turn — to introduce myself.  The tension dissipates when I speak English, the language of domination. You are heard more if you speak English. People of colour know this in the differential treatment they receive when they strategically move between languages at the airport, on the streets and indeed in the classroom.  Specifically, I know that I can let my Australian accent run loose, knowing that it will disavow my ostensible otherness without unsettling the white gaze that structures the self-segregating seating pattern and racial dynamic of the classroom. In cruder terms, I have passed a white supremacist test; I am whiter than the next person of colour.

My experience, however unsurprising, is not exceptional. Rather it is one of the banal rites of passage that students of colour face on a campus that centres students who have only ever known predominantly white schools and neighbourhoods, that are suddenly put into close proximity with students whose first language might not be English.  

Identifying as a student of colour does not inherently absolve one’s complicity in this racial dynamic either.  In fact, this dynamic is reproduced when domestic students of colour with native English fluency rhetorically manoeuvre to distance themselves from international students (who you likely pictured as Chinese).  Reliance on tired pejoratives or attempted disavowals of difference do not abrogate our responsibility as students of colour to resist this us versus them mentality because we will be seen but not necessarily heard regardless of whether we are fluent in English or not.  When I sit with East Asian international students who have previously addressed the class in English, it has become so unsurprising to see how they are passed over in peer-to-peer conversations without even the slightest attempt at eye-contact.

It is easy to pass these instances off as exceptional yet they reflect a common array of microaggressions that are rationalised through discourses predicated upon Western prejudices: ‘they like to stick together,’ ‘that [non American or British] accent is too hard to understand,’ ‘it’s just too awkward,’ ‘it’s hard to relate, you know?’  Amongst the cacophony, whiteness and its criteria for social respectability goes unquestioned. It is telling that Australia finds it more offensive to be called a racist than to actually be racist.

I did not know how to make sense of these microaggressions until I heard a series of lectures on hegemony, race and racial formation delivered by one of the few FASS academics of colour.  If you have heard these lectures, you know just how incisive and insightful she is. Her lectures gave expression to experiences that I had never previously been able to convey about growing up as a Chinese/Australian, a perpetual foreigner subsumed within a monolithic category that is both invoked as the model minority and reviled in the national imaginary.  I adopt the slash in favour of the hyphen (in which ‘Chinese’ becomes a qualifier of the Australian) to indicate my displacement — my inclusion and exclusion from both categories.

Separately, there is one lecture she delivers that stands out for its student reception.  It is about decentering whiteness and making whiteness strange. Whiteness, we learn, varies across different cultural contexts and gains its power through masking its own historical, material, and cultural specificity.  To be ‘white’ in a certain cultural context is to be seen as normal, to have your worldview pass as universal, to be able to refuse one’s reality, and to be able to project that worldview onto others so that “everyone ‘non-white’ must define themselves (and their humanity) vis-à-vis whiteness.”  

It is an affectively taxing but necessary lecture that she herself has come to dread.  When the lecture finishes, a deep communal breath is exhaled and a crowd rushes to speak to her.  There are profuse thank yous and tears founded on a sense of linked fate. For many of the students of colour, this will have been their first (and perhaps only) time approaching a lecturer out of want not need, out of gratitude not desperation.  This is because it is the first time that the totalising whiteness we have uncomfortably grown used to has been named, addressed, and, above all and most profoundly, understood. It is cathartic to finally have the vocabulary to articulate embodied feelings that we have always known but have never known how to express.

These powerful and difficult conversations invariably fall upon the shoulders of faculty of colour specifically.  This is, however, a burden of representation that faculty of colour are sometimes unprepared or unable to bear given that they have been primarily hired to teach and research.  This ‘burden’ is notably exacerbated by the lack of FASS academics of colour — a contributing factor to the alienating students of colour experience.

At the same time, students, irrespective of race, recognise that these discussions ring hollow even when conveyed by the most well-meaning of allies.  That is not to say that these efforts are unappreciated, but these discussions about race, whiteness, and coloniality inevitably carry significantly greater weight when led by academics of colour.  For they do not have to try and fathom the non-white reality through their experience of another marginality. Put simply, they do not have to imagine what racism might be like based on their experience of other oppressions.  

As such, faculty of colour are invaluable to students. When it comes to issues of race and ethnicity, their work vitally instils white students with a critical consciousness of their white privilege and provides students of colour with the tools to make sense of their own experiences.  For students of colour, however, they are especially important; they are not only educators but on campuses all over the world they are very regularly called on to be mentors, stand-in parents, friends, therapists, and financial planners. Beyond faculty-student interactions, academics of colour also contribute immensely to the educational missions of their respective universities through their presence and labour.  

Firstly, universities traffic in the currency of diversity: academics and staff of colour serve as the face of institutional diversity, evidence of a racial conscience, proof that the university has far departed from its Eurocentric origins. Sydney’s promotional campaigns would be incomplete without its token people of colour. Academics of colour perform both invisibility and hypervisibility in the university setting. They are commonly mistaken for tourists, students or administrative assistants, and their work is more often than not underestimated or devalued by their own colleagues. At the same time, they are deemed threatening when they speak out and delusional for seeing what others in the room do not realise — the racial politics at play.  Performing ‘diversity,’ thus, becomes a fine balancing act for academics of colour. Acutely aware of the representational challenges faced by people of colour, and consequently of how privileged they are to have this space, they feel an intense sense of responsibility to take full advantage of this hard-won platform to challenge the asymmetrical racial dynamic.  However, a gilded cage is still a cage regardless of how it is furnished, and there are definite limits to the extent of which academics of colour can use their platform. These limits, which are often capriciously enforced, materialise through increased research scrutiny, the denial of tenure and even the ‘redirection’ of one’s career.  

 Secondly, faculty of colour disproportionately deepen the breadth of academic offerings in their respective disciplines and programs.  These academics are the creators of courses that venture beyond Western scholarship. Their courses explore ideas produced by Indigenous thinkers, that espouse decolonial aspirations, and interrogate the experiences of the displaced; their expertise is often the only respite from the otherwise Eurocentric research interests in the humanities and social sciences. At Sydney, the only courses that rigorously attend to race and postcolonial literature are taught by women of colour.  Of course, their research interests do extend beyond issues of race and ethnicity, and furthermore they bring fresh critical perspectives to the Western canon, which has historically been centred as the departure point for all academic inquiry.   

The teaching and research contributions of white academics interested in the non-West should not be readily dismissed though; their work is valuable because they can model constructive modes of allyship. What complicates the politics of their involvement, however, is a long (and ongoing) history of orientalism and exoticism in Western academia that has been documented and critiqued in fields like anthropology and sociology — the extraction and exportation of Global South knowledges for Global North profit. What distinguishes academics of colour is that they bring to the subject experiential embodied knowledge and an intimate relationship with coloniality, which no white person will have no matter how familiar they are with another culture, and regardless of whether they are married to someone from that culture. While proximity may offer a window, the experience of race and racism is never far removed from academic inquiries into the Global South.

Thirdly, faculty of colour are disproportionately tasked with providing ‘culturally and linguistically diverse,’ ‘multicultural,’ ‘ethnocultural,’ perspectives on university committees. While these invitations reflect an institutional self-awareness of the university’s whiteness, they problematically place faculty of colour in a double-bind where they either stand in as the token ‘diversity spokesperson,’ only for their “ethnic” viewpoint to be challenged by those who have never been racially other; or turn down the platform, leaving a decision that will likely harm staff and students of colour to an all-white panel.

All of the above support and services that faculty of colour provide to students and institutions is on top of what faculty of colour are actually hired to do — a phenomenon known as ‘invisible labour’ in the higher education discourse.  It is invisible precisely because institutions do not value it with the currency used to reward faculty work: reappointment, tenure, promotion, grant or sabbatical — all of which are important for academics, especially early career researchers engaged in emerging diversity work. It is important to note that women of colour tend to undertake more of this invisible (emotional) labour than their male counterparts. While already invisible, this labour has its own unique challenges.

Internally, faculty of colour are always aware that their diversifying missions risk opposition, not just from those with conservative views, but more insidiously from those who are wonderful advocates on issues of gender, sexuality or class yet fail to recognise their blind spot when it comes to race — the perfect storm for white fragility.  The difficulty of finding an academic of colour to speak on record about these issues is telling. When approached for comment, one academic politely declined, stating “It is not a safe environment” whilst another cited concerns about the potential backlash: “It is these calculations that we must make — as much as we don’t like it.”

At the end of the day, the invisible labour heaped upon faculty of colour detract from their capacity to undertake their own administrative, research, and teaching responsibilities. Nevertheless, there is a clear tension. Universities recognise the value of faculty of colour yet are reluctant to provide the structural changes necessary to support them. While hiring and retaining academic staff pose separate difficulties, increasing the representation of academics of colour across the university, within leadership positions, and especially within the arts and social sciences are useful starting points.  Universities can go further to facilitate safer institutional settings by acknowledging and encouraging scholarship on race and difference.

When race and racism are increasingly important conversations to have, when tragedies like Christchurch reveal global circuits of white supremacy, and with the spectre of the Ramsay Centre rearing its head from beneath the horizon, universities ultimately need to do more than simply hire faculty of colour; they need to acknowledge the invisible labour that faculty do and make the structural changes necessary to support them in supporting the institution and its students. When faculty of colour embody hope, refuge, and, above all, a sense of linked fate, how or indeed whether we care about our faculty of colour is telling about the place students of colour are afforded in our universities.       

When faculty of colour go unsupported, there is a point at which they have no choice but to say no, not because they are selfish, irresponsible or even incapable, but because it is a matter of survival in a racial minefield that constantly challenges the reality of their lived experiences.