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Concepts in practice and doing things in other ways
Nasar Meer

Blog post by Nasar Meer

It’s been an immense privilege to be part of the founding team of RACE.ED, first as Director and then as a network member this past year under the stewardship of its present co-Directors Dr Katucha Bento and Dr Shaira Vadasaria and administrator Michaelagh Broadbent. As I leave UoE for the University of Glasgow, I will miss the intellectual originality, feeling of community and sense of vitality that has come to characterise the network and its partnerships with UoE affiliates and collaborators (EREN, GENDER.ED, BAME Network, IASH, CRC, RIGEN and CRITIQUE), its steering group, and the many friends and allies in professional services.

On the occasion of our anniversary, we detailed a story of RACE.ED, its people and provenance, and our ambition to help establish a broad and enduring intellectual culture. We hoped that in time this could, firstly, undergird teaching and learning, secondly, support research in a way that bridged disciplinary traditions and communities of practice, and thirdly, insist that these topics were not peripheral to the identity of the institution. The ways in which RACE.ED has pursued this are numerous and correspond well with the rich literature in feminist institutionalism discussing combinations of actors, values and rationalities.

Yet, we never set out to reform the institution, its practice or procedures, rather to establish and sustain epistemic communities from which academic labour, teaching and learning, and the social identities entangled in each, could develop a meaningful home. It was a focus that created lateral agency and ultimately reflected our motivations as scholars.

To the extent it is true we live our lives forwards only to understand them backwards, I might add to the institutionalist accounts the need to anticipate the affective impact upon change agents. On the one hand, this can be accounted for by the difference in work that is imagined formally, and work that is done in situ, the latter relying on informal knowledge and involving emotional labour. On the other hand, working on race requires much anticipation of what Miranda Fricker terms ‘hermeneutical injustice’, precisely the ‘gap in collective interpretive resources’ that RACE.ED has laboured to address.

I am yet to meet a person of colour working in a UK university who is not hyper vigilant. The reasons surely include those detailed by Nirmal Puwar: that some bodies more than others appear out of place, hyper visible at times and invisible at others; simultaneously vulnerable to sanction and non-recognition. Still, universities also present ways and means to question this state of affairs, and to perhaps alter the conditions in which it comes to pass.

True, some HE institutions approach racism as if they were teenagers, to paraphrase Gary Young, discovering sex for the first time without necessarily appreciating how they too came into being. Inconveniencing the reproduction of normative life in this context, means that the set point at which things will ‘bite’ can be very low. One reason is that people may put up with what they see as antiracism as long as it doesn’t touch them or ask very much of how they conduct themselves. In contrast, and because the very premise seeks change in the character of our spaces, it should touch everybody, for antiracism goes beyond administration to ask questions about identity too.

I don’t have an answer to this, and appreciate it is not straightforward, but think it important to continue to challenge formalistic positions which deny linkages. One example is the suggestion that we can only describe systems of racism, but not attribute agency to individuals that preserve such systems. It begs the uncomfortable question commonly raised in the justice literature: if you do not dissent from an orthodoxy that you didn’t establish but from which you benefit, are you responsible for maintaining it?

Recognising that progress is not made by ignoring impediments, or in intellectually obscuring them, is a knot that RACE.ED has worked at creatively, to reveal concepts in practice and the possibilities of doing things in other ways. As a friend and ally from my new home, I will continue to look in with pride as the network continues to do so.