Remi Joseph-Salisbury
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Laura Connelly
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Uncomfortable truths, reflexivity, and a constructive complicity

Chapter 6 unpacks the concept of ‘constructive complicity’ in order to illustrate the complexities, contradictions, and complicities that arise from working within neoliberal-imperial-institutionally-racist universities. Arguing that reflexivity is of vital importance, the chapter suggests that anti-racist scholar-activism involves mitigating and manipulating complicities in service to communities of resistance and anti-racism.

Throughout this book, we have shown that the dominant logics of the neoliberal-imperial-institutionally-racist university are often antithetical to anti-racist scholar-activism – that is to say, higher education (HE) institutions are active reproducers of the very inequalities and injustices that scholar-activists seek to challenge. Despite our dissent both inside and outside of the university, our employment and participation within the academy means that we are implicated in those injustices: we are complicit. This may be an uncomfortable ‘truth’ but it is one with which we must grapple. As Chandra Talpade Mohanty argues, ‘the social organization of knowledge in the academy, its structures of inquiry, and discipline-based pedagogies are inevitably connected to larger state and national projects, and engender their own complicities as well as practices of dissent’. 1 With this in mind, in this chapter, we develop Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's passing reference to the notion of ‘constructive complicity’  2 in order to explore how anti-racist scholar-activists navigate their complicity in HE. Ultimately, we ask, given our complicities, why do we stay in the academy? We offer no easy answers in response, but rather seek to capture the messiness of, and contradictions inherent within, anti-racist scholar-activism.

We begin by explicating the idea of constructive complicity. 3 We do so to show the duality of complicity and dissent, and to show how reflexivity is integral to navigating that duality. Drawing on the accounts of participants, we then explore how anti-racist scholar-activism involves working to minimise and offset complicity in (re)producing inequalities. Next, we think about the limits of the university as a site from which we can enact social change, before considering the compromising nature of university employment alongside other forms of wage labour under capitalism. Finally, we examine the uncomfortable ‘reality’ that those of us engaged in scholar-activism benefit on an individual level from the knowledge and practices of the communities of resistance that we work within.

Moving towards a constructive complicity

Despite their construction as spaces of enlightenment, HE institutions have never been truly open or levelling spaces. 4 Rather, they are active (re)producers of the unequal power relations that make up the matrix of domination and are a key element of the racial State apparatus. 5 By the very virtue of our presence, and regardless of how committed we might be to radical alternatives, those of us working in the academy are implicated in a range of harms that are antithetical to our utopian visions or to, what Robin D.G. Kelley refers to as, our freedom dreams. 6 Indeed, although we have argued throughout this book that our university positions enable pockets of possibility for anti-racist scholar-activism, complicities also arise from ‘affiliating with aggregates of intellectual organization and power’. 7 For example, although we might champion the principle of free education and organise against economic inequality, our university employment means that we play a role in maintaining and legitimising a neoliberal system that extorts huge fees from students and saddles them with staggering debt. 8 We are implicated too in the commodification of knowledge, the construction of the university as the site of knowledge production, and the reproduction of inequalities through the privileging of accreditation. Whilst many of us may be concerned about housing and homelessness, we work in institutions that gentrify the neighbourhoods and displace the communities that we claim to work in service to. Our employers often hold ties to multinational arms companies and military projects that undermine peace. 9 Moreover, although some of us are committed to the abolition of policing, the criminologists among us often find themselves working in departments that hold direct (including financial) ties to police forces, offer a home to former police officers, train future police recruits, and produce research for the benefit of the police. 10

Despite ‘widening participation’ initiatives aimed at bringing more people of colour into HE, university policies, academic cultures, and wider agendas enacted through the university (such as Prevent and the hostile environment) 11 all operate to make our institutions hostile spaces for people of colour. 12 Staff and students of colour are forced to contend with a range of issues, including: underrepresentation and stifled progression, an awarding gap, 13 ethnocentric curricula, and everyday racism. Many HE institutions are direct – financial and material – beneficiaries of the transatlantic trafficking and enslavement of African people. 14 We are left in little doubt, therefore, that HE must be a site of anti-racist dissent. As Mohanty urges, we need to take up an anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, multiply gendered feminist praxis in order to carry out the necessary work of disrupting, rather than reproducing, systems of domination. 15 Yet, even if scholar-activists adopt these dissenting positions, can we ever be free from implication and complicity? It seems clear to us that complicity and dissent operate within scholar-activism simultaneously: we can at the same time be engaged in the dismantling of intersecting structures of oppression and be tainted ourselves – to varying degrees and in different ways – by those very same structures.

Recognition of complicity therefore necessitates meaningful reflexivity. As de Jong insists, given that ‘there is no outside of the power structure, one needs to act critically and reflexively from within’. 16 This urges us to be attentive both to how power structures influence our praxis, and the relational aspects of our praxis (our positionality). Of course, it is not only scholar-activists who are concerned with reflexivity, 17 but as should be clear throughout this book, and as we assert in our closing chapter, reflexivity is no doubt a key constitutive element of anti-racist scholar-activism. For those engaged in anti-racist scholar-activism, meaningful reflexivity is integral to the navigation of the dual position of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ – that is, of ‘holding commitments and allegiances that are grounded ‘outside’ while working in, or engaging with, ‘insider’ positions’, 18 and crossing the in–out border in ways that are productive of social change, at the same time also looking to break down that very notion of a border. It is this reflexivity that allows us to be ‘in but not of’ the university (see Chapter 3) and to work in service to anti-racism (see Chapter 2).

Reflexivity can, however, become a proxy for the ‘real work’. As Sara Ahmed explains, reflexivity has the potential to foster a ‘politics of declaration’, in which academics ‘“admit” to forms of bad practice and the “admission” itself becomes seen as good practice’. 19 This politics of declaration manifests in particularly raced and gendered ways too, whereby white people and men of colour are often rewarded for declarations, whilst Black women's declarations are far less celebrated or are ignored. For anti-racist scholar-activists, recognising complicity to be something more than a declaration of privilege involves shifting away from thinking about self-reflexivity, which inherently centres the Self. Instead, our primary concerns lie at the structural level. This framing can help us to avoid the paralysis that comes with focusing on how we, as individuals, contribute to the (racist, classist, sexist, disablist, heteronormative) status quo. Avoiding this paralysis allows us to strive for what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak refers to as ‘a constructive rather than disabling complicity’. 20 This constructive complicity resonates with Sandra Harding's concerns around that passivity of guilt. 21 Guilt – whether that be generated by racialised or other forms of privilege – cannot come in the way of putting our constructive complicity to work in the pursuit of anti-racist social change. Although Spivak's work speaks to the relationship between the researcher and the subaltern Other, she nonetheless teaches us that it is not simply enough to recognise our complicity in structures of oppression within the academy, though this is an important step. We must manipulate those very structures, put power to work, and exploit the (institution's) contradictions for the benefit of anti-racism. 22 This is an advantage, and an obligation, that comes from affiliating with power. 23

In this context, we conceive of constructive complicity – a concept that has been developed little since Spivak made passing reference to it back in 1999 – as comprising three overlapping steps. Firstly, it refers to the ways in which we can recognise the contradictions and problematics of the space in which we operate (the university). Secondly, it involves a subsequent recognition of how we are wrapped up in (or complicit in) the injustices of the university, and thirdly it involves us working within and against the university to ensure our complicity is constructive – that is, that we are in the university in order to subvert it. This can take on various forms, ranging from the more reactive/defensive – which involves challenging the harms caused by the university directly – and the more proactive/offensive, in which we leverage resources to do more radical and critical work (that might run counter to the dominant forces in the university) in service to communities of resistance and anti-racism. An example might help to illustrate what we mean here. On the one hand, defensive dissent might involve speaking up and pushing back in meetings – where possible 24 – to challenge the introduction of ‘policing studies’ degrees in our departments. On a more offensive note, we might access resources to bolster the work of community groups working towards police abolition. These two registers are not mutually exclusive; both can be important and can feed in, in different ways, to our anti-racist resistance.

Ultimately, the pertinent question might be are we doing more harm than good? Whilst immeasurability might render this question unanswerable in any concrete sense, and this messiness and contradiction is part of anti-racist scholar-activism, the question can still be generative as we reflect on the extent to which our complicity is constructive. Having laid the theoretical groundwork, we begin in the next section to explore participants’ accounts of how they navigate complicity.

Recognising and minimising complicity

Across our conversations, participants reflected on how the university (re)produces unequal power relations and thus how they, by virtue of being a university employee – an affiliate of power, in Mumia Abu-Jamal's terms 25 – are complicit in those processes. Galiev (person of colour, early-career), for example, noted that:

The university doesn't sit above the social structure inequities, right? So, it's necessarily constituted by them. Therefore, we occupy a position of contradiction. Maybe it's not a fundamental contradiction, but there is a contradiction there to a degree and because of that we are part of a system that necessarily perpetuates the very inequalities that we're trying to ameliorate and mitigate and fundamentally get rid of.

Here, Galiev begins by acknowledging the normative assumption that the university is a progressive and liberal space, a myth that he and other participants are keen to dispel. As Galiev continues in his critique of this construction of the university, he highlights that it does not exist in a vacuum, but rather is both constituted by and constitutive of broader socio-structural inequities. In this sense, those of us engaged in scholar-activism inevitably occupy positions of implication. Although we aim for our work to challenge social inequalities inside and outside of the academy, we operate within a system of HE that (re)produces the very oppressions we seek to address. The aim of our work may be to make racism visible and to pursue an anti-racist agenda but, as an employee of an institution central to the maintenance of white supremacy, 26 we will always be complicit in the re-enactment of white dominance. It is only by radically reimagining and reshaping (perhaps even dismantling) the university that we can move beyond this complicity.

Yet, Galiev also begins to speak to Spivak's notion of constructive complicity when he suggests that the contradiction may not be a fundamental one. In doing so, he implies that the contradictory position of anti-racist scholar-activists should not lead to resignation – it should not immobilise us 27 – but rather, by acknowledging complicity (by seeing it and understanding it), one can take a step towards diminishing it. Indeed, Galiev makes explicit reference to what he sees as the obligation of anti-racist scholar-activists to ‘ameliorate and mitigate’ structural inequalities. Quite rightly, therefore, he points to how it is not simply enough to recognise complicity. In order to work in service to anti-racism (see Chapter 2), we must minimise and challenge the harms caused by the university, whilst – in the spirit of Chapter 3 – extracting all of the power and resources that we can in service to anti-racism.

Galiev was not the only interviewee to note how recognising both the university's centrality to the maintenance of white supremacy, and one's own complicity within those processes, is fundamental to anti-racist scholar-activist praxis. Reflecting on her own positionality, Malaika (Black, early-career) noted:

I don't know if I can reconcile and I think it's important not to reconcile some things because this creates some kind of a comfort zone or a stopping, and this inertia can be very dangerous … we're going to have to learn how to survive with these contradictions.

Not only does Malaika acknowledge her complicity but she also points to how her consciousness brings with it discomfort. In this sense, she recognises the productivity of discomfort: its transformative potential. 28 For Malaika, the position of scholar-activists within the university should be an uncomfortable one; one that she warns should not be easily reconciled. It was clear from Malaika's account then that she engages in meaningful reflexivity. She does not simply engage in a politics of declaration, 29 highlighting the problem as a way to quickly move past it. Rather, by suggesting that we should never reconcile our implication, she points to how the constructive acknowledgement of complicity should – like anti-racist scholar-activism – remain an unfinished, open-ended project.

Recognition of this complicity cannot, however, be allowed to immobilise us or as Malaika says, cause ‘a stopping’ of our scholar-activist work, an ‘inertia’. Instead, as Rosa (white, mid-career) explained, complicity and dissent operate simultaneously in the work of those engaged in scholar-activism:

I believe that we're full of ambivalences. That we are not these kind of pure subjects that either we do truly radical research or we are incorporated into the neoliberal university. I believe that all of us operate in contradictory spaces.

Rosa cautions us against viewing ‘radical research’ and the ‘neoliberal university’ as binary opposites, and encourages us instead to recognise our contradictory practices and the contradictions of the university. In doing so, she implies that complicity is not absolute: we are not totally ‘incorporated into the neoliberal university’. Indeed, as this book shows, it is possible – at least to some extent – to engage in radical anti-racist work within HE, to be ‘in but not of’ the university. 30 For that reason, we must not allow our concerns over our complicity with the neoliberal-imperial-institutionally-racist university to lead to a passivity of guilt. Nonetheless, Rosa is also clear that none of us, no matter how radical our research, are ‘pure subjects’. Put another way, the radical nature of our work does not protect us from the implication that comes from affiliating with power. Engaging in even the most counter-hegemonic praxis does not fully negate the role we play in furthering the hegemonic power structures that underpin and are fed by HE. To this end, it is important that we recognise that complicity is constant and universal; although, there are of course degrees of complicity and, if we remain cognisant, ways of minimising complicity, including by struggling where we are (see Chapter 5). The (perhaps unanswerable) question we should ask ourselves once again is, do the benefits we accrue in service to anti-racism outweigh the negative effects of our complicity?

A similar sentiment was shared by Amele (Indian heritage, mid-career), who also reflected on the inescapability of complicity: ‘the thing is, living in the world that we live in and the university system out of which we're being produced, you can't be in it and be pure, it's impossible’. Recognising that it is impossible to avoid being tainted both by the university system and the social world around us, Amele questions the construction of the university as a radical space that sits apart from wider society and/or exists to challenge the State. Instead, she insists, the university reproduces the same inequalities found in the broader social world. This argument is reminiscent of the work of Suryia Nayak, who observes that regardless of ‘the political positions we adopt, it is an inescapable fact that we are all always implicated’. 31 With this in mind, thinking reflexively about the Self in relation to power structures is not enough. We must act. We must dissent. We can do this by exploiting the contradictions of the system in service to communities of resistance, and anti-racism more broadly.

The contradictory nature of university-based scholar-activist work was something most participants grappled with and, although some had considered leaving the university (and some since have), there was an abiding sense that ultimately there were few better alternatives for enacting social change at the present moment. It was perhaps Zami (person of colour, established academic) who articulated this most clearly:

other than flying off to planet Mars and being an anarchist, what else are you going to do? And that has its drawbacks, actually. You don't reach anyone doing that. So yeah, we're implicated, it's hard, we're reproducing stuff we don't want to and we have to – I mean, I suppose all I can do is just be really rigorous in trying to track that layer by layer. But it's a slow, hard, painful process. It's hard to know you're replicating the very thing that squashes you down. It's very difficult.

Like Amele above, Zami first reflects on the impossibility of being absolved from implication in (re)producing inequalities, a sentiment also present in the words of Ali (Arab, early-career), who argued that ‘contradiction is sort of the colour of life … it's not only about Higher Education’. As both Zami and Ali intimate, some complicity is inevitable, even for those engaged in anti-racist dissent; but, for Zami, disengaging is not an option. Instead, it is being conscious of, but also acting on, our complicity that is important. It is clear that Zami employs a deeply reflexive approach to ‘tracking’ her complicity, and here, once again, she shares similarities with Ali, who said that ‘what is definitely necessary … which is often lacking in academia and in general, is reflexivity’. As we have argued, Paulo Freire speaks of a dialectic between reflection and action – that is, that both ‘reflection and action upon the world’ are needed ‘in order to transform it’. 32 This is praxis, and praxis can enable anti-racist scholar-activists to operationalise constructive complicity: we can move from a recognition of the problematics of the university and our implication in those problematics (reflection), to using our ‘in but not of’  33 status in service to anti-racism (action).

What Zami also reflects on is how painful it can be for one to know they are complicit in perpetuating inequality as someone who works hard to challenge oppression through their own work. In doing so, she not only reflects on how HE – across much of the world – (re)produces inequality in the broad sense, but also how it (re)produces the very oppressions that squash her down. Zami thus hints at the uncomfortable position she occupies as a Black feminist working to dismantle the matrix of domination, whilst simultaneously perpetuating and legitimising the intersecting racialised, gendered, classed, heteronormative oppressions that push against her and (other) Black women and women of colour within the academy.

Zami's notion of ‘flying off to planet Mars’ is worth pausing to consider here, too. The need to earn a wage (for our very survival), and the relative economic security of working in the academy (at least for those in more senior and/or less precarious roles), can make radical alternatives seem as far away as planet Mars. We can return to Robin D.G. Kelley. Kelley emphasises the importance of freedom dreaming and imagining alternative utopias. Relatedly, Lipsitz observes that ‘domination produces resistance, and resistance plants the seeds of a new society in the shell of the old’. 34 Thought of in this way, the ‘anarchist Mars’ of Zami's rendering might be closer than we think, particularly given the unsustainability of the current model of HE across much of the Global North and of capitalism more broadly, and the unfolding impact the pandemic-induced economic recession might have on HE. Perhaps the seeds of ‘anarchist planet Mars’ exist in the self-organisation and autonomous efforts to build free universities and community education, 35 or in other spaces where radical alternatives and experimentation might take place. These radical alternatives might include: projects committed to the opening up of knowledge through free online resources; 36 community-based reading groups; 37 anarchist publishing houses; community theatre and art; 38 or – more widely – the threat that squatting poses to neoliberal hegemony, and the building of cooperatives and alternative communities. 39 Part of our constructive complicity might, therefore, involve working outside of the university to help build such projects and the infrastructure to sustain them. Thus, through freedom dreaming and/or utopian pedagogy, 40 we can begin to see the potential for such spaces to ring the death knell for the university as we currently know it.

In a similar way to how Zami is ‘rigorous in trying to track’ her own complicity ‘layer by layer’, Abiola – an African community activist in the final stages of a PhD – also noted the importance of not only recognising one's role in perpetuating oppression, but working actively to minimise complicity:

Now I'm in the university, do I feel tainted by it? There's an element of that. But that's like a baseline thing. I live in a capitalist society. I live in a patriarchal society. I'm an anti-capitalist and I am, for want of a better word, a womanist. So, I'm against the patriarchy, I'm against capitalism. But if I want to eat in a capitalist society, I have to pay in cash … So, some level of compromise is inevitable, but that doesn't put me off. So, for me, the question isn't can I avoid being tainted by this corruption? It's what do I do, knowing that this corruption exists to mitigate the damage? Am I making things better or am I making things worse? Now, ideally, of course, I'd just leave it. But at the same time, if I am able to understand it, to be able to utilise it [position in the university] and actually weaponise it in favour of the interests that I believe in, I would. I would. So, I don't lose sleep over that.

Here, Abiola shifts the emphasis from the ‘tainting’ effects of the university to those of broader capitalist and patriarchal forces. For him, the scholar-activist's implication in these structures is inevitable and thus the question should not be Are we complicit? Rather, it ought to be: Given that we are complicit in affiliating with power, how can we exploit that complicity for the benefit of communities of resistance and in pursuit of anti-racism? Or, more simply, as he puts it, how do we make sure we are ‘making things better’ rather than ‘making things worse’. Recognising the need to earn a wage prevents him from leaving academia, he hints at a notion discussed in Chapter 4 – that is, one well-versed in the bureaucratic processes and ‘legitimate language’  41 of the university, and cognisant of its values and agendas, may use those tools against the university. One can ‘weaponise in favour of the interests that [they] believe in’, or in service to anti-racism. Whilst Audre Lorde may be right – the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house – intimate knowledge of how institutions oppress, perhaps through lived experience, can form part of the broader arsenal of those engaged in anti-racist scholar-activist work. 42 As Abiola indicates, this approach to damage mitigation must, however, extend beyond the university setting. Indeed, aware of the impossibility of non-complicity in an unequal society, a key concern of those engaged in (scholar-)activism must therefore be how we can deploy the pockets of possibility presented to us as university employees in service to anti-racism.

Despite acknowledging that the university and university-based scholar-activists are deeply implicated within structures of unequal power, many participants did return to the notion that the university holds a range of opportunities for anti-racist scholar-activism: the pockets of possibility that we have discussed throughout the book. As Dillon put it: ‘I still think the university is something to be cherished, I still think it's something we need to fight for, but … it's becoming increasingly compromised.’ Although clearly of the opinion that the university still holds some value for anti-racist scholar-activism, what Dillon begins to do here is reflect on its limits. If we recognise that our institutions are complicit in upholding unequal power relations within wider society – and by association, we too are complicit, even if we attempt to use the complicity in a constructive manner – it brings us to a place in which we are cognisant of the limits of the university. This recognition was key for those that we spoke to.

Recognising the limits of the university

Neville (white, mid-career), like many of our participants, understood the university to be a space that is limited in the social change it can, or is willing, to facilitate:

I think if you're looking at where social change is going to come from, I don't think it's really higher education. I think it's movements outside of university, really. So, for me, I feel like it's definitely not sufficient just to research and write and teach about society. I feel like it's my duty as a human being to be involved in activism as well, even if it's not related to my research.

It is clear that Neville's criticality of HE has shaped his praxis as a scholar-activist, leading him to look beyond the academy – and sometimes even his own research – to effect change. As Neville points out, despite the importance of struggling where you are (see Chapter 5), the university is not the centre of the struggle: it is not the only, or for many even the main, site of resistance. Thinking back to Zami's notion of ‘anarchism on Mars’, Neville's account perhaps reiterates the case for building radical educational alternatives outside of the institution. Notwithstanding his earlier comments about the value of teaching (see Chapter 5), he does not believe it is simply enough to engage in teaching and writing about the social world: the ‘traditional’ work of the academic. In this sense, and with echoes of the tenets of anti-racist scholar-activism that we set out in the Introduction, Neville rejects the notion that the academic should remain detached, objective, and apolitical. In fact, reminiscent of several accounts in Chapter 2, he not only views activism as part of his role as an academic but as his ‘duty as a human being’. He reflects the Freirean notion that we each have the right and the duty to change the world. 43 Perhaps then, we might conceive of constructive complicity as a recognition of the limits of the university and a subsequent commitment to operating outside of it to bolster anti-racist resistance.

The view that the academy holds limited potential for transformative change was also shared – more forcefully, this time – by Dez, an established Black professor:

For me, if we are choosing to be in the institution, then the one thing we need to be very, very clear about is that the institution will never change because of us alone … What I'm saying is that the project is bigger than academia. The project is bigger than an academic … Plenty of people go around talking as if they're going to lead a revolution, but not from the academy, I'm sorry!

Dez points to how the project of social change extends far beyond academia – that is to say, the changes sought under an anti-racist agenda are far greater than can be achieved by academics alone, even those engaged in dissenting and/or scholar-activist work. Indeed, his reference to ‘us alone’ implies that – as we argued in Chapter 2 – those engaged in scholar-activism must work within wider communities of resistance in order to achieve social change. We must become part of what Mouffe calls ‘a people’ that form ‘a collective will’, one that ‘results from the mobilization of common affects in defence of equality and social justice’. 44 At the same time, Dez disavows the academic as the leader of the ‘revolution’, 45 troubling the power structures and classed relationalities that too often position academics as more knowledgeable than other activists.

Dez's reflections may also be taken as a reminder, once again, that the university does not exist in a vacuum. It is itself part of a ‘project [that] is bigger’. The university's capacity for transformative change will always be curtailed because it is itself woven into the very fabric of a deeply inequitable social structure. It is constituted by and constitutive of white supremacy. 46 We might, therefore, conceptualise ‘the project’ to which Dez refers in two ways. On the one hand, we can imagine ‘the project’ as one that we are involved in: the anti-racist project. On the other hand, however, we should not lose sight of the university's own project – that is, its contribution to the project of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. In this sense, Dez reminds us that scholar-activism involves recognition of the limits of one's own location – that is, the university. In a similar way, and reflective of how scholar-activism is not experienced by all in the same way, we might also think about the particular raced, gendered, or classed limits of our own position. This recognition helps us to remain cognisant of how our dissent – and thus mitigation of complicity – can be most effective.

Participants also reflected on the slow and unresponsive nature of universities. Even though they often found ways to be strategic in how they use the university system to work in service to anti-racism – for example, by engaging in reparative theft (see Chapter 3) – Zami reflected on how slow university processes can be oppositional to the more urgent work of scholar-activists:

I do most of my work under the radar because otherwise you're not going to be able to be as responsive as you want to a community group. In other words, community groups aren't going to wait nine months, ten months, or two years whilst you get a bit of bureaucracy through. But you learn to be strategic, you learn how to package stuff. You learn how to mix the language of emancipation with the bureaucratic language. But there'll always be a compromise.

Here, Zami nods to how the different pace at which the university operates can act as a barrier to the urgency with which she must respond to the needs of community groups. The need to be responsive was noted time and time again by participants. Of course, there is much to be said too about the merits of ‘slow academia’, 47 ‘slow scholarship’, 48 and ‘slow knowledge’, 49 and perhaps what is most important is not whether we engage in slow or urgent research as scholar-activists but that it is anti-racist movements and not universities that set the pace. Given the importance Zami places on being responsive, and the university's unwillingness to accommodate urgent research agendas, 50 she must, like Harney and Moten's fugitive, 51 conduct ‘most of [her] work under the radar’. This approach was enabling for Zami and for others, and suggests that there are pockets within the system, in spite of itself, where radical work can be done. Nevertheless, there are also a set of challenges that emerge from working under the radar that can increase precarity, limit capacity for career progression, and limit the time available for such work. So, whilst such clandestine work can be productive (and can, as in Zami's case, be the only way to serve the needs of communities of resistance), 52 there is also a larger task of legitimising such work within the academy or challenging the pace and rhythm of the institution, 53 which is also a task of reimagining the university with anti-racist scholar-activism at its heart.

Galiev also commented on the importance of not only reflecting on the university's limits but then taking action – or dissenting – to reshape institutions in light of those limits:

there are limits to what we do and the kinds of interventions that we make. Then you could just say, ‘Well, fuck it then. What's the point of engaging?’ This is where I think that we can draw from Angela Davis’ analysis when she talks about the prison-industrial complex, and about non-reformist reforms. What does an intervention look like that isn't just legitimating the system, but is trying to fundamentally change it?

Like Zami's earlier reflections on ‘anarchism on Mars’, Galiev suggests that rather than disengaging from the academy because of its limitations, there is value in remaining inside it in order to radically change it. Pointing to the distinction between ‘reformist reforms’ and ‘non-reformist reforms’, 54 Galiev encourages us not simply to pursue reforms within the existing framework of HE, but rather to imagine a radically different alternative. At the same time we must, as Angela Y. Davis urges, strive towards abolitionist ends. 55 In this context we must ensure that, as far as possible, any reforms we advocate do not legitimise the matrix of domination that both underpins and is fed by the academy. Instead, we should endeavour to use our dissenting praxes to dismantle the unequal university and rebuild it in our utopian vision, and/or develop and extend radical alternatives to the university. Of course, reflective of the interconnectedness of the unequal university and the unequal society, we must look beyond the compromised and compromising nature of HE to also consider how all wage labour (in a capitalist and structurally unequal system) makes anti-racist scholar-activists complicit in affiliating with power.

All wage labour is compromised

Several interviewees spoke about how the university is not unique in engendering complicity, but rather how related work outside of academia is likewise compromised. Alison (white, mid-career), for example, said:

If you want to keep doing research then maybe go with the more risky consultancy type work. But again, the people that can afford to contract research generally tend to be those who are attached to more normative or powerful agendas.

Alison points to how the most immediately related alternatives to working in a university can also be compromised. Organisations that can afford consultancy are usually those that benefit from the status quo. It follows then that such organisations are generally more interested in perpetuating, rather than challenging, hegemonic ideas and practices. As Alison's account indicates, there are perhaps no easy solutions, or magic bullets, for avoiding complicity. Consultancy research can be as implicating as research carried out within the university, but may not offer the same opportunities; for example, the opportunities offered through teaching (see Chapter 5), access to resources (see Chapter 3), or (relative) job security, which Alison intimates through her description of such alternatives as ‘risky’. Indeed, although short-term and temporary contracts are prevalent within the HE sector, 56 it remains for many people a more stable form of employment relative to much research work outside of the university. As Aaliyah explained, whilst the prospect of becoming an ‘independent scholar-activist’ is an appealing one, this is difficult when cast against ‘the reality of coming from a working-class background’ and needing the ‘stability’ that comes with ‘a stable wage’.

Building upon Alison's argument about related forms of labour, some participants, such as Claudia (white, mid-career), reflected on the importance of recognising all wage labour as compromised, making us complicit in upholding racial capitalism and the injustices we seek to work against:

There isn't anything pure, because if I think about what I can do that would be socially engaged and more progressive or more transformative than academia, it's pretty hard to think of anything that's not going to compromise that. Like, NGOs are usually compromised. If you work in a school, you can really make a difference in kids’ lives, but they are reproducing loads of stratification and particular social relations. So, I think treating it like a job and recognising it as wage labour is quite important.

Claudia offers a useful reminder that the university should not be set apart from wage labour more broadly. Whilst there is value to be drawn from this perspective, we also want to complicate it slightly by suggesting that although ‘there isn't anything pure’, there are differences in manifestations and degrees of complicity. Put crudely, it is hard to make a case that the baker is as complicit in injustice as the arms dealer. Indeed, this differentiation is implied in Claudia's suggestion that other roles would compromise the capacity for social transformation that derives from her role in academia – that is to say, although she recognises that all wage labour is compromised under capitalism, Claudia operates from the academy based on a ‘cost–benefit’ analysis of the opportunities it enables for social justice versus complicity in the harms caused. A similar calculation, including a consideration of job security, can be observed in Alison's account above. An awareness of these differences in manifestation and degrees of complicity encourages an attentiveness to where we each sit within such calculations, or along the hypothetical spectrum of the baker and the arms dealer. Such reflexive attentiveness – embodied in our earlier question of whether we are doing more harm than good – can leave us open to the possibilities that we might be able to operate more effectively from outside of the academy.

Claudia's framing of working in the university as simply one of many possible forms of wage labour is a generative one. It points to a critical detachment from the university and a recognition of how activism necessarily extends beyond one's employed work. It also implies that more radical work may take place in the spaces outside of wage labour generally, and outside of the university specifically. Indeed, for Claudia, her university employment resources the ‘real work’: her activism. The more imaginative amongst us may be able to envisage radical alternatives to university-based scholar-activism that can still sustain us economically – in fact, some of our participants have since left the academy – and those of us that cannot imagine, might look to nurture and cultivate such an imagination. To do so, we might need to look to activism outside of wage labour, away from Bullshit Jobs, 57 in order to engage in far less compromised and compromising work than that of our current employment. As we noted in relation to Neville's emphasis on operating outside of the institution, such work allows us to begin to build the alternatives that can offer sites of hope beyond what is commonly imaginable. This is the task of freedom dreaming, 58 or realising ‘anarchism on Mars’ in Zami's earlier words, that is part of offsetting our complicity in the harms of the university. In this regard, Claudia's framing is helpful in ensuring our complicity is constructive – that is, that we recognise the limits of the university and wage labour more broadly, and engage in work outside of those structures. It also leaves scope, however, for us to recognise the (relative) benefits and resources that derive from our university employment, which we can put to work in service to communities of resistance.

Alex (mixed-race, mid-career) shared Claudia's understanding of the compromised nature of all work by also suggesting that other forms of wage labour reproduce the structural inequalities she tries to redress:

Whatever field you go into, in a capitalist world, it's going to be compromised. If I was working as a Legal Aid lawyer, I would also be deeply frustrated and I would be perpetuating many of the major structural inequalities that I would be attempting to also fight, the same with everything else that I can think of that I could do. Within the constraints of having to have a salaried job in a capitalist economy, academia at least gives me the freedom to be in the classroom and to design my own courses, to a large extent, and to have freedom with what I write. Then the other thing is that because our working conditions are quite flexible, I do have time to do activism because I don't have to be in an office from eight to six or whatever. If I do need to take three or four days off to write a blog, I can do it, and if I need to go to a protest at four in the afternoon on a Wednesday, I can do it, whereas [other] jobs, I think, don't give you that flexibility.

As Alex suggests, anti-racist scholar-activists are implicated in the inequalities we seek to fight, by virtue of having to live – to exist – within a capitalist system. As university employees, we are implicated, for example, by working in and drawing a wage from institutions that burden students with debt (a difficult contradiction with which we must tarry). 59 It is in this context that Alex reflects on how she can work within ‘the constraints of having to have a salaried job in a capitalist economy’ and considers the academy to offer some advantages – in terms of pedagogic opportunities (see Chapter 5) and flexible working (albeit a privilege not afforded to everyone within HE) – that can enable scholar-activism. The reflexive cost-benefit calculations that we saw in Claudia and Alison's accounts are evident in Alex's reflections too. We might understand constructive complicity then to involve us seeking to (partially) mitigate, offset, and exploit complicity by seizing the privileges afforded to us through our university employment for the benefit of anti-racist movements. We want to re-emphasise how important freedom dreaming can be here. Whilst some of our arguments could be read as suggesting that the university is simply viable because it is less bad than other bad options, freedom dreaming encourages us to continue to imagine possibilities beyond what is right in front of us (that is, those options that might exist on anarchist planet mars or, in embryonic form, within resistance movements).

Mutual benefit

Part of pursuing a constructive rather than immobilising complicity involves a repudiation of the passivity of guilt, which in turn necessitates that scholar-activists become accustomed to the uncomfortable realities of their affiliation with power. A key source of discomfort for some participants lay in the benefit one accrues from working within communities of resistance. This uncomfortable ‘truth’ was one that Okoye (Black, early-career), for example, reflected on:

there's always going to be some sort of mutual benefit. You're not working passively with the community, there's always got to be something in it for both of you.

Although it is often assumed (via a romanticised conception) that activism is characterised by altruism, some mutual benefit or self-interest – albeit, when it is not a key motivator – can be an important organising tool. 60 One may be motivated to pursue social change, for example, because of lived experience; relationships with others; by a desire to live up to how one views oneself or believes others to view them; and/or because of the relationship between one's organising and one's role as an academic. The framing of activism as entirely self-sacrificing can, therefore, be deeply problematic in many respects, not least because its unrealisability can lead to inertia, the passivity of guilt to which de Jong refers. 61 Self-interest, and a love for and solidarity with others, are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, although we have suggested that the primary goal of those engaged in anti-racist scholar-activism is not the pursuit of their own academic careers, the careers of some individuals – particularly those occupying positions of structural advantage – may nonetheless benefit from their engagement within communities outside of the academy. In the UK context (though with similarities elsewhere), this may be the case, particularly, in the context of the university's agendas around ‘Impact’, ‘social responsibility’, and ‘public engagement’. As mentioned earlier, some of our participants have in fact won awards from their institutions for their ‘Impact’, 62 which makes clear that whilst scholar-activist understandings of impact are fundamentally different to notions of REF Impact (see Introduction), interests can at times converge. This might mean that scholar-activism is merely ‘accommodated within the institutional imperative of the marketized university’, 63 but it does also reflect contradictions in the system that anti-racist scholar-activists can exploit in pursuit of constructive complicities.

Discomfort with the mutuality of benefit was felt acutely by Barry (person of colour, early career) who asked: ‘If I produce a book, there might be money, there's stuff like that which is like how do you – what do you do about that?’ This question reflects Barry's sense of discomfort that he might benefit financially from authoring a book based on the views and experiences of the people he has met, spent time with, built friendships with, and interviewed as part of his research. This is a ‘reality’ of most academic publications: we benefit financially or in other ways – such as via career progression or in building our reputation – by reproducing the voices of, or writing about issues that affect, others. Of course, the benefits that individual academics accrue are nothing compared to the big business of academic publishing, which in large part is built on the shoulders of the (often) free labour of academics. Yet nonetheless, financial benefit may be a particularly discomforting notion for scholar-activists who are often reproducing the voices of marginalised people: people who may themselves be in financially challenging situations, with precarious immigration status, or systematically denied a platform from which to voice their own perspectives. That Barry grapples with this issue points to a theme that we flagged in the Introduction, and that has since run throughout this book – that is, that reflexivity is, and should be, common practice amongst those engaged in anti-racist scholar-activism. This reflexivity does not end at the point of ‘declaration’  64 – an acknowledgement of complicity is not enough – but rather, our participants act on their discomfort by putting it to work in service to communities of resistance.

Barry's unease resonates with us strongly. Whilst donating our book royalties to the Northern Police Monitoring Project 65 means that we will not personally benefit financially from this book (at least not in the immediate sense), Barry's concerns run deeper than a point about book royalties, and so do ours. Indeed, the irony of writing a book about anti-racist activism, most likely read by a largely academic audience, has not passed us by. Although our intention is to offer a fervent critique of the hegemonic traditions within HE, and to encourage academics to take up anti-racist dissenting positions that operate within and beyond the bounds of the academy, the book will still be subject to many of the processes that we critique within it. It will, for example, still likely be entered into the REF where no doubt it will be judged within the context of the institutional backlash documented in Chapter 4 – that is, it will likely be seen as not objective enough, or too political. But that is not what we are uncomfortable about. We are uncomfortable that our academic profiles may grow as a consequence of this book; certainly, our publication list will. In turn, the book might contribute to a future promotion or a new appointment. On the other hand, if we were struggling from elsewhere, without the university's vested interest, it would be very difficult for us to carve out the time to produce such work. It is clear that we are operating from a position of contradiction, and although that position is discomforting, we should not shy away from such discomfort, as Malaika urged earlier in this chapter. Nor should we let the ‘academic treadmill’ stymie our freedom dreaming any further.


In this chapter, we have explored the uncomfortable ‘truth’ that our proximity to power, as university employees, makes us complicit in reproducing and legitimising the very systems of domination we work against as anti-racist scholar-activists. At the beginning of the chapter, we posed the question: given our complicities, why do we stay in the academy? Rather than offer a simple answer, which would belie the complexities and heterogeneities of anti-racist scholar-activism, we have pointed to the messy contradictions inherent within such praxes. In doing so, we have extended Spivak's notion of constructive complicity 66 in order to show that the university is a limited space from which to resist, but that it nonetheless presents pockets of possibility that anti-racist scholar-activists can exploit for the benefit of communities of resistance. This is the duality of complicity and dissent to which Chandra Talpade Mohanty refers. 67 The navigation of this duality requires meaningful reflexivity: it is not simply enough to recognise the problematics of HE and one's implication in them, or in Ahmed's terms, to declare our complicity as a means of quickly moving past it. 68 Instead, anti-racist scholar-activism puts our complicity to work in service to anti-racism.

University employment is of course not unique in engendering complicities. As our participants noted, all wage labour is compromised under capitalism, and as the imprisoned former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal's puts it, ‘even radical intellectuals must eat; and to eat means to affiliate with aggregates of intellectual organization and power’. 69 We are clear, though, that there are differences in manifestations and degrees of complicity. This recognition takes us to a place in which we must reflect on whether we are doing more harm than good as university-based scholar-activists. For most of our participants (three have since left academia), their cost-benefit analysis leads them to remain in the academy; although, their ‘in but not of’ status enables them to maintain a critical detachment that sets the stage for freedom dreaming, or at least has the potential to do so. If we allow ourselves to freedom dream, 70 we quicky realise that the ‘anarchist Mars’ to which Zami refers may be closer than we think and, as such, we might need to leave the university to develop existing, and build new, radical anti-racist alternatives.

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