Dealing with ideas of authority in anti-racism work

Big conversations about race need to have space for opinions from everyone - but how do you manage the practicalities of doing that fairly? Pathik Pathak has some ideas.

Pathik Pathak is a Professor of Sociology and Director of the Social Impact Lab at the University of Southampton

We’ve all read – or at least heard – of Renni Edo Lodge’s brilliant Why I No Longer Talk to White People About Race.

Recently, talking about race has become harder for people of colour in universities and other big organisations. Maybe, like me, your university has started to have “big conversations” about it.

The intention of these conversations is noble: open discussions beyond senior leadership, bring a more diverse set of voices to the table, and then use these forums to bring different parts of the university together.

Undoubtedly these discussions are important, and that universities are sanctioning events which take many members of staff out of their working day (and in some cases, committing to the ideas which emerge from them) is an indication of how seriously universities are taking questions of racism.

For obvious reasons, many big conversations are governed by a set of rules designed to make everyone feel psychologically safe: respect everyone, don’t talk over people, and park your seniority. More often than that, they are followed by the cardinal rule: all opinions are equal. Well duh, you’re thinking. But when it comes to racism (or sexism, or homophobia), are all opinions equal?

Opinions and identities

It’s a difficult question because social justice issues aren’t dissimilar to religion or politics: in general, people don’t feel they need to have any expertise to espouse an opinion. All they need is strongly held beliefs – and anyone can have those. No online thread about needlework will grow as fast as one about racism. People feel they must be over some threshold of expertise to post comments about needlework but on racism, everyone’s an expert. It feels like there is no threshold of expertise for expressing an opinion; all you need is a strong conviction.

To compound the issue, the reason why we all think we’re experts on racism is that our opinions – and our opinions of other people’s opinions – are inextricably tied to our identities. It isn’t just that social justice issues are political – of course they are – but they are so deeply personal they’re almost existential. As a result, they often lead to situations in which no one feels they can back down.

What’s worse is that we all tend to go through life thinking that we have a subjugated self. We struggle to adopt a multi-dimensional view of ourselves which recognises that we have several selves (a sexual self, a gendered self, a sexual orientation self), and in each of those, we inhabit a different social location (privilege or subjugation). That’s why, for example, white people will often try to “equalise” suffering by talking about their class self in a conversation about race.

Weighting opinions

The umbilical cord between opinions and identities has profound implications for big conversations on race or gender, and the big question of whose voice matters. Just because everyone thinks their opinions are equally valid doesn’t make it so. For one, surely those with lived experiences of discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, or disability have more expertise – and therefore authority – than those who don’t? How should those who moderate such discussions (usually Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion teams) recognise that? Even harder, how do they account for it?

One way, which we’ve recently used at a Big and Bold Ideas on Race event at the University of Southampton, was to mark all ideas offered by people with lived experience of racism with “LE,” with the intention that those would carry more weight than those without it.

It seemed to meet with widespread acceptance, and work. But I was left wondering what happens if an Asian woman and a Black man had ideas which competed with, or contradicted each other? Would we resort to intersectional top trumps with ideas from those with the greatest disadvantage being weighted the most? And what if that relative disadvantage didn’t hold true in a specific organisational context, either based on evidence or perception?

You can see how it could get complex – and bitter – very quickly. And what about those with scholarly expertise on a social justice issue? Relative to those with lived experience, is their authority greater or lesser? Who decides?

Finally, what about those from majority backgrounds? While we might instinctively and intellectually agree that those with the most privilege have the most responsibility in a relationship, in a live encounter how can we enable that kind of critical self-reflection in the moment? How do we ensure that they don’t feel disenfranchised and drop out of the process entirely? Do we discount their ideas a priori? What if their ideas are more radical or more effective than those with lived experience or scholarly expertise?

Doing the work

As universities and organisations at large brave new territory and democratise discussions about race, more questions will arise than answers. It seems that – at last – we have the will, but we might not have the skill (yet). None of this should be dispiriting though. It points toward the fact that universities, like people, can only ever move closer to being anti-racist. This process is all we have (and that’s what instruments like the Race Equality Charter should emphasise, too).

We have to do the hard graft of establishing equitable and effective principles. Beyond that, institutional conversations on race present an unmissable opportunity to create – in microcosm – the anti-racist university by understanding and acting upon power inequities caused by racism and whiteness. For a few hours at least, victims of racism can reclaim their voice and live without white patronage. White people can learn how to adopt responsibility in these relationships by critically reflecting on their own privilege and power. Working towards becoming an anti-racist university won’t come easy, but if that’s the genuine aspiration, we need to be willing to ask the most difficult questions – and invest time in searching for the answers.

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