Distraction Free Reading

Embracing Black Positionalities, (Re)Centring Slowness: A Challenge to Anthropology’s Anti-Racism Efforts

A colorful graphic Black woman holding a megaphone with sound bubbles around her. The words "slow down" are large above her. Below is the title of the article "Embracing black positionalities. (Re)centring Slowness"

Anti-racism efforts remain highly problematic. As anthropologists, we are usually aware of the violent, colonial, and genocidal histories of research on ‘race’ and realities of racism which have been conducted in the names of scientific and social advancement. But now, we find ourselves in the “post-George Floyd era”— a phrase used to describe the current temporal phase of discourses on anti-Black racism, as was articulated at the UK’s first (known) Black anthropologist’s conference, called The Gathering[1] . In the UK, the post-George Floyd era refers to a tragic, but expected, decline; where constructive discussions about, empathy towards, and valued recognition of Black lives have reached their peak in popular discourse and are returning to their tokenistic nature in academia. At the height of the global Black Lives Matter movement, and even in the immediate aftermath (late spring of 2020 to the end of 2020), there seemed to be small glimmers of hope that maybe, just maybe, the murder of a Black man at the hands of actors of the ‘State’[2] would act as a catalyst for the meaningful, long-lasting upheaval of many anti-Black systems. Yet, two years later, in 2022, I find myself in the position of a Black doctoral student studying Anthropology in a state of disbelief and underwhelm.

Whilst the society I am in has largely moved on, the academic spaces I am situated in seem to still be clinging on, mostly through EDI, anti-racism, and ‘decolonising’ efforts. From discussions at disciplinary events, to Twitter threads and one-to-one conversations, the subject of racism arguably remains quite prevalent in our disciplinary psyche, yet, despite what feels like an oversaturation of discussion and EDI initiatives, little progress has been made. By “progress”, I mean actions which have resulted in tangible improvement as defined and agreed upon by Black academics; i.e., an increase in tenured Black teaching staff and Black students, greater funding investment given to and for Black researchers (irrespective of whether their research is based on racism or not), Black students and faculty reporting better emotional and mental health, the institutionalisation[3] of anti-racism efforts, etc. In many cases, most anthropology departments cannot claim to have seen any of these improvements, nor can most non-Black anthropologists assert that they have used their power to fight for these changes wholeheartedly and unapologetically— for the professional lives of their Black peers, according to our standards. At least, not from what has been often repeated and lamented time and time again from the conversations that have been had, overheard, actively listened to, and/ or read from Black anthropologists in the aftermath of 2020: the anti-racism turn.

Black Positionalities: Embracement, Partial Acceptance, Rejection

As a Black woman anthropologist, I find myself at the heart of this critique (Haraway 1988; Collins 1999; Ahmed 2007); the critique that questions the authenticity and legitimacy of calls for anti-racism and ‘decolonisation’ from anthropology departments who have zero-to-one-handful of Black faculty, departments who can equally count the number of Black students (postgraduate and undergraduate combined) on two hands, departments who sprinkle Black and African scholarship into their elective modules but whose core curriculum is still founded and centred on the works of WEIRD[4] academics, and anthropologists who have so never as equitably collaborated with their Black counterparts in research or teaching (again, according to our definitions of ‘equity’). As a Black graduate student based in the UK, I find myself observing as I am learning, taking it all in, and constantly whispering to myself, “what can we do?”. As a Black woman (socio)medical anthropologist researching Black women’s maternal health disparities and obstetric racism as a type of chronic crisis, I continuously look to my Black peers, disciplinary elders, and academic ancestors in search of the answer(s) to the question, “what can I do differently?”. As a migrant and lower working-class individual, I always find myself asking, “how can I make what I learn, research, write, and say accessible for people like me?”. As a researcher occupying these intersecting positionalities, I find myself constantly gravitating towards centring these questions and this critique in everything I do.

When I write about my research and the topics of greatest interest to me, for example, these are the contextual points that find their way into my main arguments and cannot be separated. The more I develop my thesis project, the more I embrace the small community of Black academics and non-Black allies/ “radical friends”[5] , the more I ground myself as a scholar, thinker, researcher, and anthropologist in my own right, the more I find that, simply put, I cannot write about race, racism, racial health disparities, and anti-racism efforts without embracing Black positionalities (Boyce Davies 1994; Collins 1999; Griffin 2012; Baker-Bell 2017; Bacevic 2021; Wilson 2021). I cannot write about deconstructing anti-Blackness and abolishing systemic racism without writing in first person or using personal pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs; without integrating anecdotes and personal stories; without drawing from often-overlooked knowledge from non-academic Black and African women/ peoples. I cannot engage in anthropology’s anti-racism efforts without remembering the positionalities, histories, pain, trauma, and fight of my Black peers and elders in, and out of, the discipline and embracing them in my analysis and interpretations of what anti-racism actually means and could look like. In this, the binary between ‘the personal’ and ‘the academic’ does not exist as they are inextricably intertwined; they inform each other. Many of us who occupy spaces in the margins of anthropology, and the ‘Ivory Tower’ as a whole, cannot operate according to the expectation and demand of sanitised and respectable articulations of our positionalities (Diversi and Moreira 2009). For us, the hegemonic norms that insist we talk a certain way, write a certain way, take up space a certain way (Chua and Mathur 2018), etc are antithetical to the abolition of anti-Black, deeply racist systems that continue to uphold and define the discipline. Yet, despite being vocal about the necessity of embracing our positionalities by not only ourselves but those committed to ‘anti-racism’, we continue to be penalised and reprimanded for speaking and acting freely when contributing to efforts. Interestingly, and ironically, this is done by the anthropologists and self-identified ‘allies’ who position themselves as champions of anti-racism (Ahmed 2007; Bacevic 2021). For example, there have been countless stories, tweets, and life histories shared of how the partial acceptance (and even downright rejection) of Black positionalities speaking uncomfortable truth to WEIRD power is often explicitly seen in peer-review comments, assignment feedback, and research proposal remarks for Black students and academics alike. One pertinent case, which reflects a wider experience, was shared at The Gathering; an elder spoke of how, many years ago, she was told she was “before her time” and was not permitted to pass her PhD submission because her approaches, questions, and embracing of her/ broader Black positionalities in the context of anthropology were deemed inappropriate and “irrelevant.” Similar experiences of being told our writing styles, epistemological groundings, and verbal articulations are “not academic enough” were shared and found painfully relatable by several attendees, myself included.

Be it in research, teaching, interpersonal relationships, peer review, mentorship, institutional-level discussions, etc, a discomfort and lack of willingness to allow and encourage Black anthropologists to embrace, explore, deconstruct, and question our positionalities fully and unapologetically remains. This lack of willingness stifles anti-racism efforts, and until both everyday anthropologists and the ‘powers-that-be’ reckon with the hegemonic standards they have internalised and are yet to unlearn, any and every action done in the name of fighting anti-Black racism will continue to be shallow, ineffective and, dare I say, racially traumatic to Black anthropologists across all levels.

(Re)Centring ‘Slowness’

Another element that I am increasingly witnessing to be detrimental to the discipline’s anti-racism efforts is the culture of “fast academia” (Martell 2014). As is expected in the neoliberal university[6] , our labour is measured according to capitalist, hyper-productive standards. In learning about slow research as an ethic and meta-method, it is becoming clearer to me that ‘slowness’— as is defined in the slow research paradigm (Ranganathan 2020; Stoller 2020)— is an underutilised approach that should be key in our conceptualisations and praxis of anti-racism. Despite what one may assume, slowness is not solely about reduced pace but, at its core, is about power, autonomy, structural violence, and reclamation in how we use our time and labour— intellectual and otherwise (Martell 2014; Mountz et al. 2015). Slowness encompasses reading, writing, teaching, research, and how we engage with one another; it shifts the dynamics so that we have the capacity to choose the pace we work at— sometimes fast, sometimes slower— without (fear of) repercussion from the ‘powers-that-be’, and without defamation of our character, work ethic, commitment to rigorous research, etc.

Although slow research resides in the peripheries of what is deemed as acceptable, slowness has major implications for how we think through and ‘do’ anti-racism (not least because it is complimentary with Black, feminist, and decolonised approaches (Mountz et al. 2015)[7] . At the most basic level is (re)centring a slow ethic in how we establish EDI initiatives and go about embodying and institutionalising anti-racism. So often, the processes of institutionalising anti-racism efforts are rushed. They are treated like just another ‘thing’ to tick off departmental to-do lists as quickly as possible, with little thoughtfulness and carefulness given to the Black (and Othered) people for whom institutionalised anti-racism efforts directly link to our mental, emotional, and physical health, as well as the creation of intellectual safe spaces where we can thrive. Likewise, slowness is necessary for anti-racist research. Currently, in the latter developmental stages of my thesis project, I am increasingly observing that slow reading and slow writing (Lambek 2020; Stoller 2020) are crucial in my and my cohort’s efforts to not only not objectify ourselves (because fast research easily turns us into pawns of the neoliberal university), but also our collaborators (i.e., ‘participants’). For several reasons, including vulnerable discussions with my peers, I assert that having the time to thoroughly do our intellectual due diligence before we enter the ‘field’ helps us to ethically engage with the people we are working with and studying. Again, it is not necessarily about having more time, but reclaiming how we use our allocated time to its fullest extent and potential according to the complexities of our individual projects and our needs. As a Black feminist researcher, slowness better enables me to read more deeply and think creatively, which provides me with a stronger intellectual, methodological, and ethical foundation from which I can give the Black women I am researching and collaborating with the time they need and deserve— before, during, and after fieldwork (Grandia 2015)— for the research to be as least extractive as it can be.

Anti-racist research requires slowness, stillness, and carefulness; these are not options but necessities. Consistently rushing through the thinking, reading, and writing processes objectifies the people we are wanting to study because fast academia treats them as intellectual commodities. The same principle applies to the institutionalisation of anti-racism efforts. It is time that we (re)centre slowness and embrace Black positionalities to further develop the discipline’s anti-racism efforts as authentic and reject tokenism in the post-George Floyd era.


Notes

[1] The Gathering was an informal conference/ ‘get together’ held at University College London in early October 2022. Organised by Drs Toyin Agbetu and Hélène Neveu Kringelbach from UCL, and Drs Jordan Mullard and Chima Anyadike-Danes from Durham University, The Gathering was created as a safe space for Black anthropologists based in the UK. It was not a traditional conference in which attendees were expected to present, discuss research, and ‘do academia’, but was a gathering in which stories were shared, new relationships were formed, and a greater sense of community was established. In this sense, we ‘undid’ academia (and is why we do not have a public presence just yet). We are still discussing how the network created should operate moving forward, so there is much that is undecided and is yet to be confirmed. Nevertheless, The Gathering is a start of something new.

[2] Because this article is informal, I am reluctant to delve into theory and begin deconstructing every term that is considered debatable. However, because some readers may find my use of the ‘State’ problematic or may simply be curious as to what I mean, I will expand. In sum, I am referring to the general, taken-for-granted definition of the nation-state which asserts that the State is a governing body of a country that is defined, at the most basic level, by borders. But, I have found one critique and deconstruction of ‘the State’ most helpful; it can be found in the first few pages of ‘Re-Imagining Global Health Through Social Medicine’ (2019) by Vincanne Adams, Dominique Behague, Carlo Caduff, Ilana Löwy & Francisco Ortega. It can be found in the journal Global Public Health, 14(10): pp.1383-1400. https://doi.org/10.1080/17441692.2019.1587639

[3] Institutionalisation is the process through which efforts and causes are taken up by the ‘powers-that-be’ and are championed at the highest levels of an organisation/ department/ structure irrespective of lobbying from individuals. For example, anthropology departments in the UK can begin to institutionalise anti-racism efforts by acknowledging and celebrating the UK’s Black History Month, independent of campaigning from Black students or faculty. In this, Black History Month would become a cause that is addressed, year in and year out, no matter who is in charge and no matter how ‘popular’ anti-racism discourse is. For me, the point of institutionalising anti-racism efforts is so that anti-racism can become a part of the fabric of the way our departments operate, and in ways which are not tokenistic nor depend on the labour and commitments of certain individuals. Institutionalisation is collective and reflects a systemic commitment to anti-racism. In an ironic sense, institutionalisation is a top-down approach where those at the top use their power and influence to normalise anti-racism approaches and efforts until they are wholly integrated into the everyday running of the place; until anti-racism is no longer a ‘thing,’ and just is.

[4]  WEIRD is an acronym I came across in a module as an undergraduate. It stands for ‘Western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic, and has often been used to describe academics who are privileged and/ or are in the mainstream.

[5]  Radical friendship is a term used by doula, Black feminist, teacher, mother, and Director of the UK-based Women’s Health and Maternal Well-being Initiative (a non-profit), Natasha Smith. In a personal communication, she used “radical friendship” as an alternative term for allyship, and a reconfiguration of the kind of non-tokenistic, long-term, humane support Black women/ people need. It was in the context of reproductive justice, but I believe the term is applicable elsewhere.

[6] In a similar vein to note ii, I am expanding on my use of the term ‘neoliberal university’ as it might be deemed as either problematic or confusing. My use of the term stems from the critique found in pro-union, pro-slow research, anti-capitalism discourses, such as the paper, ‘For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance Through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University’ (2015), written by Alison Mountz, Anne Bonds, Becky Mansfield, Jenna Loyd, Jennifer Hyndman, Margaret. Walton-Roberts, et al. It was published in ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 14(4): pp.1235–1259. https://acme-journal.org/index.php/acme/article/view/1058

[7] Although the call for slowness in anti-racism efforts requires its own article— maybe even a special series—  I think it’s important to slightly expand on my point. When hearing that slowness is necessary in anti-racism efforts, it is easy to become defensive and angry because slowness seems the opposite of what we need. For so long, many ethnic minorities have seen that racism has been insufficiently addressed at a lazy and insulting slow pace, where both everyday people and the ‘powers-that-be’ say “it takes time”. I, too, feel angry and frustrated at this kind of slowness, and often find that James Baldwin’s words on time and progress articulate my precise thoughts: “You always told me ‘It takes time.’ It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time. How much time do you want for your progress?”. Make no mistake, I am not suggesting that anti-racism efforts need to be slowed down even further, nor am I saying that progress takes time. It is 2022— there has been more than enough time for anthropology departments to make the necessary changes and institutionalisations to address anti-Black racism head-on. Though sparse, Black people have been present in the discipline (in the UK) for nearly 100 years, mostly beginning in Malinowski’s LSE seminars in the 1930s, such as Jomo Kenyatta and Z.K. Matthew. Rather, the slowness I am advocating for, as is in slow research, is not lazy, nor is it insulting; it honours people by centring mindfulness and thoughtfulness, and attends to the nuances and complexities present in each Black/ Othered person and case. Unlike what we are seeing now in many EDI and decolonisation campaigns, slowness does not take a one-size-fits-all approach. Anti-racism efforts need the carefulness of slowness, as well as its critiques of power, autonomy, labour, structural violence, and its emphasis on reclaiming what is often rushed out of our hands for the benefit/ comfort of white people and systems run by what Riyad Shahjahan calls “colonial time.” For a video of the interview in which Baldwin spoke the quote, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCUlE5ldPvM. The Shahjahan article (2014), on the other hand, can be found in the journal Educational Philosophy and Theory at https://doi.org/10.1080/00131857.2014.880645, under the title ‘Being ‘Lazy’ and Slowing down: Toward Decolonizing Time, Our Body, and Pedagogy.’


References

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