On practicing anti-racism in academia

Pauline Hortelano

What does it mean for an academic to practice anti-racism? Is it about acknowledging that racism occurs in and outside of academia? Is it about familiarizing oneself with “race” and critical race or postcolonial discourses? Is it a matter of incorporating discussions on “race”, racialization or Othering in one’s teaching, research and writing? Or does practicing anti-racism entail more than these?

Having seen/experienced and heard from colleagues (who, like myself, are racialized as non-white) how everyday interactions within the academia can be underscored by racialized thinking, I have come to think that practicing anti-racism necessitates more than just learning about “race”, racialization, racism, or Othering, to name just a few key concepts. It is also about interrogating one’s self about how one participates – through one’s thinking, thought patterns and everyday actions – in sustaining the racializations or Otherings that take place in research seminars, postgraduate courses, academic conferences, coffee rooms and hallways conversations. Hence, the point I would like to put forward is that anti-racism is also a practice of unlearning and rethinking norms or re-norming. Nevertheless, this should not be misconstrued as a statement that racism is a matter of personal prejudice and an individual’s problem.

On learning

Any academic who is interested in the issues of “race” or racism can go through literature from such fields as postcolonial studies, critical race studies, race and ethnic studies, gender studies or sociology to learn the intricacies of discourses related to “race”. My own experience of making sense of racializing everyday encounters in and outside the academia and of doing my research on migrant integration in Finland have involved going through postcolonial studies literature to confront “race” as a concept. Confronting “race” has meant acknowledging that it is a social categorization that is present, activated and sustained in social interactions and knowledge production, whether I like for it to be present/activated or not. It means being keen to racialized power relations including its different manifestations and workings and its material and non-material effects. The concept racialization has been particularly helpful in understanding how the deployment of ideas of “race” is both a social and psychic process – among others, a process of acting on, of being made aware of one’s color, and, in certain cases, of being inferiorized. It has been helpful in understanding everyday interactions as sites of or as part of such a process.

So on the one hand, I can see that an academic can LEARN to think about “race” and to apply critical concepts as privilege/privileging, unprivilege/disprivileging, racialization, Othering, stereotyping or essentialization to one’s research and other works as a way of engaging with issues of “race” or racism. On the other hand, I have observed in the past few years of participating in research seminars, courses, conferences and other everyday interactions that racialization and Othering is still very much alive and present in these interactions.

My observations, based also on racialized colleagues’ experiences, are by no means comprehensive. Nevertheless, I have to say that one common manifestation and effect of racialization in everyday encounters in academia is that of inferiorization. This has taken the form of being “talked to” and told what to do – as when a colleague says “this is good for you” without knowing or even trying to get to know me/my work, which would have justified the claim. It has also taken the form of being invisibilized e.g. not being included in coffee room discussions or not acknowledging one’s presence in a given space. In courses and research seminars, inferiorization can also take the form of being under- or utterly not engaged with in the discussions; also, when one’s text/work is questioned in a way that one feels belittled and misunderstood. In relation to being under-engaged, it can feel as if one’s academic arguments/claims are not good or important enough to merit the reaction or curiosity of one’s colleagues. This begs questioning and reflection on who is listened to and why in academic discussions. Furthermore, what kinds or forms of argumentation, writing, or theorization are privileged in the course of knowledge production so that certain ways of talking and writing are deemed acceptable and other ways are not?

The invisibility and exclusion of Othered scholars, unfortunately, extend to other practices in academia. That some funding opportunities are available only to Finnish citizens; that information on those funding opportunities that are available to a wider range of scholars are not always accessible or publicly shared; that the process and criteria for granting research funding are not always clear or transparent (i.e. there are no explanations as to why one is not granted funding); and that one’s research funding history can affect one’s prospects for future research funding means that those scholars who, in the beginning of their research careers, are already facing limited opportunities in terms of accessing research funds are put on a disadvantageous and unequal position when it comes to pursuing a career in research.

In 2013, the issue of international scholars’ marginal chances of working in Finnish universities was brought up by Yonca Ermutlu in the ETMU mailing list through the sarcastic piece entitled ”Guidelines for Finnish universities on how to avoid recruiting international academics”. Among others, it raised the issues of how job opportunities are pretended to be open to international applicants by being accommodating of language skills but that the job advertisement is published obscurely; how the Finnish language is actually made a major criteria in the selection; how an international applicant can be humiliated during the job interview process through highlighting the lack of Finnish language skills; and how the academic achievements of an international applicant can be downplayed in the recruitment process.

I believe that these issues of racialized inclusion/exclusion in academia connects with and impacts on the state of knowledge production in Finland.

On unlearning

I may be going into unfamiliar territory here when I talk about unlearning, as it sounds even to me like entering the field of psychology. But anxieties aside, the idea that I’d like to put forward stems from the reflections that, for one, analyzing racism and practicing anti-racism is not something that is externalize-able to the one doing that work. Can one really separate one’s self from the practice of anti-racism? Can one really promote anti-racism and let one’s thinking and everyday actions remain unexamined or untouched by one’s politics? Secondly, the idea of unlearning stems from the realization that anti-racism thinking is not a uni-directional process of merely knowing or adding up to one’s knowledge base but rather, a process of continuous reflection, introspection and, if I may say so, the conscious elimination of certain ways of thinking.

Hence, by unlearning, I meant looking into, being mindful of, or “watching” one’s thought patterns and how they manifest in everyday interactions and in the texts and other works that one produces. It implies mindfulness and intentionality in thinking and acting. Unlike Gayatri Spivak’s[i] referencing to privilege, my reflections on unlearning references thought patterns and thus implicates both the racially privileged and unprivileged. By thought patterns, I refer to (unlearning) essentializing, making automatic references or attributions to “culture”, perpetuating racialized assumptions and stereotypes, and referencing a Eurocentric view/norm, among others. In my case, it includes unlearning a colonial mentality that was shaped to believe in the superiority and the universality of European/western views, ways and experiences. Unlearning then implies opening up to different social contexts, points of departure, explanations or ways of thinking/doing, or to other thought systems when dealing with unfamiliar and seemingly incomprehensible claims within academic discussions. Discussions of research seminar texts regarding gender relations, for example, can easily lead to judgements or categorizations of either being “traditional” or “modern”; however, kinship systems vary and the logic behind a particular kinship system is not always given space and curiosity in discussions (within the text, during the seminar) to illuminate or to better understand the text or the subject in question.

On (re)norming

Practicing anti-racism, as I have started to think about it, necessitates looking at existing ways of doing and being in the academe. Given the persistence of racialized thinking and everyday interactions, anti-racism seems to involve looking into existing practices and re-imagining how academic discussions and everyday interactions are done, how research is done, and how the university is as a place.

In a workshop[ii] that I participated in where the discussion centered on existing research seminar practices, questions were raised that are reflective of the challenges of addressing racialization in the university. Among the questions are:

  • how do we organize seminars so that people are encouraged and empowered to think by themselves and own their knowledge? (as opposed to merely conforming to a certain paradigm or adopting a dominant theoretical approach)
  • how do we contextualize the knowledge that we present?
  • how do we acknowledge the plurality of knowledges; and mediate and think amongst these many knowledges without setting them against each other?

I would begin my thinking on these questions with a reflection on positionality and engagement. Is positionality merely a declaration of one’s place in the intersections of social categories verbalized or written in a text; or is it a consciousness and practice that is meant to disrupt everyday interactions and ways of doing and to challenge racialized and gendered power relations? And what does it mean to engage with the racial Other? What are the points/reasons for engaging; and under what relational terms?


Hortelano is a PhD Candidate at Åbo Akademi University.


[i] Harasym, Sara (1990) (Ed) The Postcolonial Critic: Essays, Interviews. Strategies London: Routledge. p. 42

[ii] Workshop concerning seminars at Kvinnis/Gender Studies (Åbo Akademi) held on 7 October 2014