A formalist identitarian approach to representation risks co-optation by those in power who seek to meet the formal demand without actually risking the existing structures of power
A common occurrence when organizing academic events these days is the inevitable encounter with a trigger-happy deployment of queries and condemnation regarding representation. In the age of immediate self-publication in social media, this “calling out” usually takes the form of one or more people condemning event organisers on Twitter, Facebook, a blog or some combination thereof. The organisers are condemned for hosting speakers who do not reflect a sufficiently full spectrum of people from marginalised groups (by, for instance, ignoring gender, race, dis/ability, nationality, sexuality or some other aspect of social identity in the panel’s or conference’s line-up). In the last year, we have witnessed several events marred in some way by the social media call-out.
This phenomenon more often than not has negative consequences, and thus requires an open and forward-looking conversation. For that purpose, it is important to state a few things explicitly. To pre-emptively respond to questions that might be raised by potential readers, we feel compelled to provide some information about ourselves, in order to “authorise” the criticism that follows. The world of higher education is, like any other institution, rife with relations of power, of which we are only too aware. As people of colour, neither of who are beneficiaries of the networks of patronage that are only too common in university life, we are also permanent members of staff in a London college and thus relatively secure in our positions in academe. If we want to complicate this positioning more with a view to employing an intersectional approach, we might want to add that we are the first generation in our families to attend university. We are both politically active outside the university, attend union meetings, and are trained as lawyers. We both teach law in a British university with foreign accents. We want to explicitly acknowledge that we are mainly addressing the “calling out” done by people who are themselves in positions of relative privilege.
Second, and in our view more importantly, we do not underestimate the importance of demands for representation, even formal representation, for historically and systematically underrepresented and disadvantaged groups. The erasure and undervaluing of the knowledge, research, lived experiences and viewpoints of historically marginalised groups demand and require greater visibility, inclusion and representation in academic events. This is an issue that has been ongoing for decades (See White Feminist Fatigue Syndrome). For those of us who witnessed these debates in the 1990s in North America, they seem to have reached the UK’s shores rather late. It is true that it is better late than never. Yet, those involved in the “calling out” seem blissfully unaware of how the politics of identity were grappled with in other contexts and tend to repeat some of the worst excesses of that era.
While acknowledging the enduring relevance of the demand for a greater inclusion of marginalised voices and perspectives in academic events, we wish to distinguish between a range of different positions and motivations for the criticisms and “calling out” in specific contexts. We suggest that the way forward is through a more honest and thorough engagement with the political issues subtending the larger question of representation. Such a contextualized engagement is crucial in highly industrialized societies in which increasing inequality and widening gaps in wealth seem unaffected by greater inclusion of individual members of previously excluded groups.
In the first instance, we have situations where those “calling out” know the organisers, the panellists, and even the institution. It seems perplexing that in such instances, some form of viva voce conversation would not take place prior to the condemnatory tweet fest being launched, and the virtual community of judges being unleashed onto the unsuspecting participants of said event. In two instances last year, the tweets were even misleading, as the events were replete with the active presence of women of colour, Marxian scholars from the Global South, and other subalterns as speakers. What is happening in such moments?
We speculate as to whether this trigger-happy deployment is used not merely as a generic tool for condemnation, but also operates as a self-congratulating mechanism. If used for condemnation of others, it becomes instrumentalised in ways that neither advance the cause of those whose flag the condemning party raises, nor facilitate the substantive discussion of the ideas the condemned event sought to invite. If used for self-congratulation, it quiets one’s anxiety with respect to discharging his or her responsibility towards the important issues. As such, far from advancing a better examination of the claims of representation, this self-congratulatory protest merely obscures one’s complicity in the same institutional practices that reproduce the very under-representation it decries. Worse still, often the person condemning could not be bothered to show up to the events, even when efforts were made to address their concerns. This also suggests a lack of interest in the substantive questions that the events sought to discuss. Perhaps another motivation of the condemnation is to produce the appearance of a radical or progressive politics: the accuser can accumulate some credit without any expenditure of the energy and labour that actual political work and dialogue requires.
It seems, then, that the democratic promise of social media turns into its opposite: a prelude for a disengagement from participation in the world. If social media heralded the decline of gatekeepers in the form of editors and mainstream media, it turns into a policing technology in its own right. These newly self-anointed police, through this diffuse and easy-access medium, are no less effective than the old guards. Through condemnation, those new cyber police officers are delineating the boundaries of academic discourse via an impoverished notion of representation that presupposes an over-simplified conception of identity politics.
This identity politics is over-simplified because it is oblivious to the institutional context and the distributive requirements for change. The demand to include the analysis, intellectual outlook and views of women, racialised minorities, queer subjects and others, in panels organized by a few academics cannot be the exclusive priority of those seeking change. This demand must be undertaken in conjunction, in real embodied space-time, with institutional action around the hiring practices and the conceptions of merit that lead to the existing imbalances in academe. This setting is aided by existing legislative prohibitions on explicit preferential hiring to underrepresented groups. The individualism of the formalist conception of equality that underpins this legislation is only matched by the individualism of formalist demands to representation in panels/ workshops. Thus, these demands, even when answered, end up with an egalitarian bark without the egalitarian bite.
Let us explain through an analogy: recycling bags may be good for the environment but recycling is not nearly as good for the environment as slowing down the wheels of destructive capitalism. The latter seems too big a task for individuals because collective organization is a cumbersome but necessary condition for radical change. Hence, it may seem understandable that individuals may choose the easier task that requires less effort and yet quiets the middle classes’ feeling of responsibility: they opt for recycling bags. This is not to say that we should not recycle bags, it only says that we should not think that this would save the planet; nor that the fact of doing so gives the middle classes the higher moral ground to condemn those whose material conditions do not allow for more environment-friendly practices, while they themselves pursue lifestyles that are far more damaging to the environment.
We then have a second instance, when the calling out is at a far more general level, with respect to events that would seem to require a basic level of representation. Consider, for example, the case of an all male panel on the “future of women academics,” or a panel on “Revolutionary Strategy for the 21st century” without any people of colour on it. The former case is obvious, the latter points to a long history of marginalisation of people of colour on the left in Britain, which should not go unchallenged. Nonetheless, even in these cases, we must think about the risk that a formal identitarian discourse carries with it. It not only carries the potential to sacrifice the substantive questions but also ignores internal contestations within the group itself. In other words, the mere blanket demand for, “a woman” panellist does not distinguish between, say, Hilary Clinton and Assata Shakur; an establishment figure or an opposition figure; a war-monger or an activist against subordination and oppression; a white woman or a woman of colour. As such, it can be answered by simply appointing any of them.
We want to suggest that the path forward is through building political alliances and movements wherein what is essentially a form of identity politics is displaced by more direct political engagement. A good example is current contestation over the use of the term “black” as a political identity. Forged through a wide spectrum of anti-racist, feminist and left political organising in the UK throughout the 1970s and 80s, the term “black” was taken on by first and second generation British Asians, Indo-Caribbean, black Caribbean, African, and other racialised communities. The recent challenges to the use of the term by racialised women who are not racialised as black is entirely understandable in a context where the political movements and organising that lay at the basis of its collective use as a political term have radically changed.
In the academic context, a formalist identitarian approach to representation risks co-optation by those in power who seek to meet the formal demand without actually risking the existing structures of power. And when the condemnation takes place through a 140-character blurb on a Twitter feed, or a sound bite on Facebook, it can never amount to much more than a formalist identitarian approach. The virtual nature of social media lends itself to a splintering of political work that people might actually be doing, through a condemnatory discourse that circulates in relation to particular events and individuals on the Internet. Thus, these demands may well end up achieving the illusion of representation without creating a change in the material and institutional conditions that are required to make the demand ultimately obsolete. A mere meticulous representation of women in panels does not in itself change the fact that women, specifically women of colour, are under-represented in higher education.
These issues have wider relevance outside the academic setting that we should not forget. While the differences in contexts are vast, demands for representation as a panacea for structural violence, sometimes lethal in its effects, are not the sole preserve of academe. The president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) said following the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man, in Ferguson in the USA that city police should address the “subculture of prejudice”. He added, according to The Guardian, “Sometimes that means putting more people in uniform that look like me.” Such a demand for inclusion in the police force and representation in the oppressive system reflects clearly what we think as representation demands gone wrong.
Brenna Bhandar is Senior Lecturer in Equity and Trusts, School of Law, SOAS, University of London.
Nimer Sultany is Lecturer in Public Law, School of Law, SOAS, University of London.