The fight against systemic racism

"You had your knee on our neck": the responsibility for scholars to decolonise the academy

Alcinda Honwana, Centennial Professor and FLCA Strategic Director

“I can’t breathe” were the last words of George Floyd as a Minneapolis white police officer pressed his knee onto his neck in May 2020. These exact same words were uttered six years earlier, by Eric Garner, before he was choked to death by another white police officer in New York City. “I Can’t Breathe” became the symbol of black people’s struggle against racism in the US, capturing a daily lived experience due to decades of systemic racism.

In the UK, the police killing nearly a decade earlier of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man from Tottenham, sparked violent protests in London and other cities. The Windrush scandal in 2018, which exposed overt institutional racism through its wrongful detentions and deportations of many black British subjects of Caribbean descent, similarly caused outrage amongst black Britons. Systemic racism permeates British and many other societies across the globe, resulting in numerous demonstrations and protests in recent years.

The current uprisings following the death of George Floyd taking place amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, however, are bringing new perspectives to bear on this on-going problem. Anti-discrimination lawyer Iyiola Solanke compared racial discrimination to a virus: “like a virus, discrimination is transmitted from person to person; like a virus, discrimination is invisible to the naked eye but deeply felt by those affected by it; and, like a virus, discrimination injures and kills people”. Thus, in order to tackle effectively the virus of racism, we must adopt a more holistic approach, beyond individual claims for justice, and take collective social action. Indeed, the confluence of two pandemics – the coronavirus and systemic racism – is fostering the swell of social solidarity we are witnessing today: a growing understanding that we are one; that “Black Lives Matter” as much as any other lives; and that the senseless killing of an unarmed man in broad day light by forces of law and order, which are supposed to protect citizens, is not only unacceptable, but concerns us all.

The rapid spread of protests across Europe, Africa, Latin America, Asia and Australia attests to this new outrage about systemic racism, which is both global and local. People of all colours and shades are filling the streets and treating the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others at the hands of the State as symbols of the inhumanity of racism and the imperative for change.

Many of the leaders, organisers and participants in these worldwide protests are young people yearning for a more just and egalitarian society. Our own students are among them. This is the time to learn from these young people, as they courageously expose the glaring imperfections of the system and explore the transformative potential of peaceful protest. And this is the time for action.

As scholars, we are called to question institutionalised forms of racial, gender and class discrimination. We are called to be reflexive about the courses we teach; the research we undertake; the books and papers we write; and the conference presentations we make. How are we interacting with our students, our research collaborators, our field informants and our colleagues? How is our work and our behaviour affecting society? As many have iterated, the fight against racial discrimination should be part and parcel of our efforts to decolonise the academy.

In the last decade, academic institutions like ours have been aware of the need to decolonise knowledge production and create space for new epistemologies. Students have demanded greater diversity in their curriculum, as illustrated by the #RhodesMustFall movement in various universities across South Africa, the UK and elsewhere. Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o asserted that “decolonisation is about rejecting the centrality of the West in Africa’s understanding of itself, and of its place in the world. It is about ‘re-centring’ ourselves [as Africans] intellectually and culturally.” Decolonising the academy is not just about adding a few new sources of alternative knowledge here and there, but about fundamentally changing the power relations in teaching and learning processes.

Black people have been discriminated against for centuries, from slavery and colonialism to current forms of neo-colonialism. The structural disadvantages of black people are eloquently described by Rev. Al Sharpton in his eulogy for George Floyd: “We are smarter than the underfunded schools you put us in, but you had your knee on our neck; we could run corporations and not hustle in the street, but you had your knee on our neck. We have creative skills, we could do whatever anybody else could do, but we couldn’t get your knee off our neck!”

I believe that, as scholars working in African societies, we have a responsibility to highlight these issues, to interrogate the behaviours, stereotypes and prejudices, both conscious and unconscious, that undermine particular groups of people, as well as the laws and policies (i.e. immigration laws or stop and search policing) that discriminate against black people. As scholars we need to interrogate critically white privilege, superiority and supremacy; the dominance of Western epistemologies; the silencing of alternative voices and sites of knowledge production. We should demand that our institutions prioritise diversity and make choices that reflect this. For starters, universities should provide greater opportunities and scholarships to disadvantaged black students from Africa and elsewhere; they should re-examine hiring practices to appoint more black professors and faculty; and they should increase reading lists from non-Western authors.

The fight against systemic racism requires the elevation of the condition of those who have been oppressed and discriminated against. Abolishing systemic racism means creating equal opportunities for all and gaining a profound respect for human dignity. To this end, we need to foster greater and more inclusive communication between students, faculty and university administration. Taking stock of this moment and joining this movement for equity and justice will be part of our work at the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa.

Alcinda Honwana
Centennial Professor and Strategic Director,
Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa, LSE