I am tired. In my heart and in my bones. I have been trying to sit with George Floyd, and to understand how to be in this world. It has felt beyond important to contact my black peers, colleagues and friends, and my peers, colleagues and friends of colour, to offer them what I can. I am constantly trying to acknowledge my privilege as a white, male professor, and that role’s reproduction of whiteness, and to find ways to redistribute that privilege. Being deliberate in reaching out felt like one strand of this.
Earlier in the week I had been ripped by Musa Okwonga’s testimony of his experiences of the police and the State as a teenager, and the subsequent, ongoing denial of his identity and expertise. He articulated how specific, racist forms of difference were imprinted and imposed upon him at an early age from without. He articulated how, even though he had written the critically acclaimed book on football in 2007, he was rarely asked to speak about football tactics, cultural history. Rather as a black man, he was forced constantly to re-articulate his and society’s position on race.
This constant, emotional labour made me feel exhausted, exasperated, frustrated, angry, tearful. A constant, emotional labour, which denies or detracts from the ability to grieve the murder of yet another black man or woman at the hands of the State and its institutions. The constant, emotional labour required to struggle against whiteness as it demands the generation of a double consciousness. And the part that had me in tears was when Musa made me internalise the reality that those struggles I have had with chronic anxiety and depression, two breakdowns, managing the death of my mother, chronic family illness, and on and on, were managed without the additional layers of navigation, compromise, fear, denial demanded of those with black skins. As he noted, he cannot leave his black skin at the door.
I am tired. But it feels as nothing compared to the exhaustion of this constant, emotional labour. Of a life that has to be justified against the power and privilege of others over and over.
Beyond Musa’s careful and considered and emotional and humane response, a second moment of tearful clarity came when Mark replied to my contact, specifically in response to the idea that I was trying to sit with George. He wrote, ‘Please tell him I am breathing.’ Fucking hell. I am in tears every time I read that. And I am reminded that Akwugo Emejulu writes of the eruption and exhaustion of protest that:
This is a gathering of the ghosts of our past, present and future. They assemble to watch us and wonder when and how this will end. We scream, we shout and we march because we are haunted by those we could not save and by the terrifying knowledge that these violent deaths at the hands of the state – or those who know they have the full support of the state – could happen to any of us. They couldn’t breathe because existing while Black is a threat to the everyday order of things – to the mundane organisation of American society that demands Black people’s subjugation.
‘Please tell him I am breathing.’ A gathering of ghosts. Sitting with me as I question, what have we become? What do we allow? How are we complicit? How, as Musa writes elsewhere, do I help others ‘not to be those who point at injustice and then stand by.’
And Mark wanted me to ‘Tell [George] that he has moved me closer to so many people including you. Tell him he has made me realise I need to have more uncomfortable conversations.’ And I think, how do I help to build upon the hope that centres upon Mark’s lived experience that he is still breathing? Building hope. This is our truth.
Rik replied to my contact and sent me this reminder from Stephen Garner.
The power talked of here is of unchecked and untrammelled authority to exert its will; the power to invent and change the rules and transgress them with impunity; and the power to define the ‘Other’, and to kill him or her with impunity. The arbitrary imposition of life and death is one end of the spectrum of power relations that whiteness enacts, across the parts of the world where white people are preponderant in positions of power. From Ida Wells’s anti-lynching crusade, through Malcolm X’s comment that ‘We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock: that rock landed on us’, to Carmichael and Hamilton’s pioneering and striking claims about the way structural racism functions as a compound of class and ‘race’ (1967), the recurrent theme is of African-Americans developing an ethnographic gaze of which the subject is the way power is wielded by White America and how it impacts painfully on them.
Steve Garner. 2007. Whiteness: An Introduction. London: Routledge, p. 14.
I see that I have access to some of that power wielded through white privilege, and that this potentially impacts painfully on others made marginal. I have long contended that my work inside the University is to abolish that power and that privilege, and to abolish the idea of the University as it enables and is enabled by that power and that privilege. Increasingly I see that the structures or forms of the University, the cultures that act as pathologies grounded in white privilege, and the activities that reproduce whiteness methodologically, are unable to deal with the conjuncture of crises. That they simply re-enact separation, divorce, exhaustion, exploitation, expropriation.
The voices that have been enabled over and over and over at the political economic core of our world, and which have brought us to the brink environmentally and socially, are not the voices that I wish to listen to in the search for another world. Instead, I need to do all I can to centre the voices of those made marginal, and the identities of those exploited, expropriated, extracted and exchanged. This is the only way I can see for us to push beyond the reproduction of exploitation, expropriation, extraction and exchange as the basis for our alienating existence. This feels like the struggle of our lives. I wonder if this is the real movement that will abolish the present state of things.
I have to consider this in the context of my own work, in particular in my institution’s engagement with decolonising. Elsewhere, Akwugo has noted, ‘To decolonise is to imagine that another university is possible.’ I am trying to relate the idea of the University, to its realities in its structures, cultures and activities, through conversation with particular experiences of black staff and students, and students and staff of colour. How do we bring the symbolism of the institution into conversation with how we imagine it, and our lived experiences of it, in order to be better?
I have written a working position for this:
In response to this, Decolonising DMU is an insistent movement towards a pluralist experience of the University, so that each individual and her communities feel more at home there. It works against the reality that some staff and students feel that they are not able to fit in, because they are alienated by institutions that are structured by whiteness and white privilege. We wish to elevate and bring to the front alternative experiences, stories, narratives and relationships, such that those who engage with the University do not have to give up their own identities and subjectivities. Our work refuses the idea that some should have to develop a double consciousness (or the daily reality of having to reconcile one’s own identity and heritage with the judgement of a dominant, Eurocentric identity), in order to survive in the institution.
This is a process of transformation or venturing beyond, which links strategy and action. It has a focus upon generating new knowledge about the University, its governance, internal regulation, management and organisation, technologies and information flows, and its relationships. In broad terms, the idea of Decolonising DMU challenges exploitation and dispossession, silencing, othering and marginalisation.
In this moment, my ghosts tell me that this is my real movement. And in that, I have to consider, as Oli Mould clearly and publicly articulates, what I can do as a white, male academic, to be better.
As the Particles for Justice collective note in their call for a #strike4blacklives, this involves a willingness to:
acknowledge the ways in which the effects of anti-Black racism are compounded for people who are also, for example, women, trans, non-binary, queer, Indigenous to the lands occupied by the United States and Canada, Latinx, Muslim, Jewish, disabled, and/or undocumented. We demand justice, reform, and accountability now.
And so I have to reflect and refuse the ways in which my practice reinforces pathological white privilege, whitewash and whiteness.
- How does my research, teaching, administration, mentoring, widen the spaces and times in which black students and staff, and staff and students of colour can tell out their souls?
- How do I contribute to the struggle for authenticity and legitimacy beyond whiteness, in institutional committees, trade union committees, governing bodies, institutional strategy, trade union campaigns, academic workloads?
- How do I struggle for the rights of others, and their equality? What does this mean for me, in terms of student and staff attainment, advancement, personal development, workload?
- How do I struggle against the monitoring and profiling of certain communities, and the measuring of everyone by a colonial and patriarchal yardstick?
- How do I struggle against privileged forms of knowledge, and for multiple and interconnected ways of knowing, being and doing?
- How do I struggle against experiences of microaggressions, harassment, hostility and hate crime that differentially impact mental and physical health? How do I fight for services for those who need them, inside and outside the University?
My work has to commit to deconstructing my practice and the alienating structures/forms, cultures/pathologies, and activities/methodologies that it enables. I have to centre the lived experience of those occupying subaltern positions, or those traditionally occupying second- order or subordinated status. I have to demand empathy from myself with the experiences of those made marginal or silenced. I have to do this work. Me, not those we have othered.
I have to be accountable for these statements. We who have benefited must be held to account for these statements.
I am tired. But it feels as nothing compared to the exhaustion of this constant, emotional labour.
This is my personal reckoning. A reckoning is coming.
And I will bear this tiredness because I refuse to be complicit in the reproduction of another’s toxic exhaustion.
Enough is enough.