Over-representing Whiteness: On Educational Tactics

Niyousha Bastani

In my research on the implementation of Prevent, a counter-extremism policy, at UK universities, I have questioned, what exactly do higher education institutions work to “secure,” and how?

A policing mechanism that purports to prevent “radicalisation,” the implementation of Prevent in education institutions became a legal duty in 2015. At universities, its implementation is often justified as “securing” freedom of speech from an onslaught of “extremism.” In theory, the policy is supposed to prevent “all types of extremism.” But it is not shy about the fact that “extremism” of the Islamic persuasion and always-already alienated Muslim youth are the main target. That the policy feeds off and perpetuates anti-Muslim racism, and is itself a threat to freedom of speech (amongst others, of association, of religion) is well documented (see: Kundnani 2009).

Since 2017, I have spoken with university administrators involved in Prevent’s implementation. In adherence to the official script, I have been told that “if implemented with care” the policy merely secures objectives that are already sacred to the work of a university: warding of “indoctrination” and caring for students. So, put another way, what security work does the university already do that legitimises the implementation of overtly racist counter-extremism policy?

This is the work of securing the conception of the white scholar as the natural subject of higher education. Universities wield a set of tactics in mundane ways to protect the over-representation of whiteness in higher education by naturalising it. Conversely, these tactics fix the “authentic” Muslim other as always outside the liberal secular university.

I use the term over-representation as understood in Sylvia Wynter’s (2003) notion of the “politics of being.” For Wynter, this is the struggle around “the ongoing imperative for securing the well-being of our present ethnoclass (i.e., Western bourgeois) conception of the human, Man, which overrepresents itself as if it were the human itself.”  This over-representation is what Wynter terms “the coloniality of being.” The institutionally-sanctioned tactics I outline below are specific manoeuvres used to advance the over-representation of (white, ‘Western,’ cis, able-bodied, heterosexual, and bourgeois) Man “as if it were the human itself.”

The tactics are indicative of a much wider set of behaviours used to over-represent whiteness in higher education. They are produced by and reproduce an insidious cultural belief that “white progressives” can learn and care their way out of racism (Ahmed 2005, Jackson 2019; 2020), with minimal shift in the existing distribution of resources. I draw on interviews conducted at the University of Cambridge, the elite and overwhelmingly white university where I am pursuing my PhD.

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1. Caring whiteness

In her research on diversity work in higher education, Sara Ahmed (2012) identifies what she calls “caring whiteness” — the tendency for whiteness to be “occupying through or as care” (36). So the attestation of a white person that they care about racism and are sympathetic can give them permission to take up space in conversations about racism.

In my research, this tactic recurred as a way of deferring responsibility. Concern about increasing discrimination through Prevent is paradoxically used by university administrators as a way of giving themselves permission to implement it.

One white interviewee involved with implementation expressed both awareness and concern about her positionality and the anti-Muslim nature of Prevent’s gaze. She confessed, “I wonder about whether it’s my place to enforce something like fundamental British values… When I see someone who is covered head to toe and walking behind a man, there is the good liberal in me that thinks no, you can’t do that here, but then I think, is it my place to say?’ She, like others in administrative and pastoral roles, next indicated that “we” should be careful about how Prevent may affect those for whom what can be done “here” is always under question.

When I asked about directly resisting the policy, she explained that universities implement the policy, albeit carefully, “because we have to.”

2. Misattributing whiteness

A second tactic that emerged was the claim that critiques of Prevent in universities are made almost exclusively by “middle-class white allies.” These white students were described as “loud,” as misled while trying to advocate for Muslim students, or as conniving “wanna-be politicians” purporting to speak on their behalf. These descriptions were often thrown at me in anger and frustration when I mentioned critiques of Prevent. I was being scolded for naively believing that these critiques had their origins in the real concerns of (those perceived as) Muslim students.

The move to fix the “authentic” Other as absent or uncomplaining is not entirely distinct from the tactic of occupying space through care. Here, concern for the authentic Other gives permission to dismiss inauthentic sources of complaint.

3. “Joking whiteness”

Others use ridicule to dismiss concerns about Prevent’s discriminatory nature out of hand. The ridicule is aimed at the very notion that the University’s implementation could be racist. Again, this tactic is not entirely distinct from the first two. It takes for granted that the University “cares” and is concerned about racism, and that there is something absurd about suggesting otherwise – as is the case with the satirical image of the conniving ally.

Another interviewee, a white man involved with implementation, is visibly annoyed with my concerns. He scoffs. “It’s not like we are saying everyone with a bushy beard has to report at nine am to the porter’s lodge.”

Here, charges of racism are dismissed with joking reference to the absence of racism in its most “laughable” forms. The subtext reads: “we” are much too sophisticated to be racist.

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In a 2005 article, “Declarations of Whiteness,” Ahmed argues that white claims to being anti-racist can in fact reproduce the very thing they claim to be moving against. One such declaration is that “I/We have studied racism (and racists are ignorant).” There is an elitism in the notion that “racism is caused by ignorance” which presumes that “anti-racism will come about through more knowledge” (6). This premise, and its associated claim to being anti-racist, is fundamental to all three tactics identified as characteristic of universities.

Each tactic is undergirded by the classist belief that “we” are highly educated and discerning, and therefore cannot be racist, where the “we” of this belief constitutes the “we” of the university. Put another way, the “we” of the university is reproduced through these tactics as highly educated white people who could not possibly be racist — everyone else is either outside the university or an outsider who “we” have, in anti-racist fashion, graciously welcomed to our midst.

The Other is thus produced as “always already” Other due to its own shortcomings, its supposedly inherent out of placeness. The overrepresentation of our current ethnoclass, Wynter indicates, is accompanied by the reproduction of “the archipelago of its modes of Human Otherness.”  The care, jokes, and misattribution give permission to ask: how should “they” behave here? Are “they” really here and speaking out about their Otherness? And to answer, all in good humour, that they couldn’t possibly be here and complaining, since “we” have tolerated their out of placeness, have made allowances for their incongruous behaviour. This is evident in the implementation of Prevent, and how it is legitimised by white educationalists.

Such tactics are also reflected and refracted throughout institutions of higher education, where knowledge and care are officially presented as mitigating, if not entirely transcending, racism.

A few months ago, I attended a conference on the subject of Islamic identity within universities. There, a renowned white Muslim scholar of Islam expressed that it is only “natural” that young Muslims feel alienated in not just the university, but in the ‘West’ generally. This was presented as an expression of concern, emanating from a place of knowledge that does not feign ignorance of a particular experience of alienation. Yet, the latter was naturalised, with no reference to structures that shape such an experience, such as Prevent itself. Instead, to explain the supposedly inherent nature of this alienation, the speaker stated in a mocking tone that at least in Muslim-majority countries “you don’t have kids in school being taught about non-binary gender and homosexuality.” The speaker was referring to the 2019 Birmingham school protests against LGBT equality lessons to imply that Muslims “naturally” belong outside of ‘the West,’ where they will not have to learn about ways of being that “don’t exist” among “real” Muslims.

With a few phrases then, the speaker had reproduced the overrepresentation of whiteness and its modes of human Otherness by presenting Muslims as foreign to ‘the West’ and its education; queerness as foreign amongst “real” Muslims; and queer Muslims as always placeless, improperly human. In other words, the misattribution of queerness to “the West” and its education fixes not only the “we” of the university and its “authentic” outsiders, but also disappears the inauthentic Other who may speak to trouble the distinctness of “we” and “them.”

I conclude with this incident to caution against the impulse to ask, “How can these tactics be unlearned?” The framing of these manoeuvres as tactics aims to show that overrepresentation is reproduced in the struggle to secure our present ethnoclass. It is not the result of ignorance. Ahmed cautions that the impulse to follow critique with the question, “but what are white people to do?” or even, “what is to be done?” may in fact “block hearing” in the rush to move forward. It can, she writes, “stop the message getting through” (8). Thinking in terms of tactics here aims at an opportunity to hear that which unsettles this overrepresentation.

Niyousha Bastani is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics & International Studies, at the University of Cambridge, where she researches liberal education and contemporary counter-extremism. She is Features Editor at the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, and has recently finished her term as host of Declarations: the Human Rights Podcast at Cambridge’s Centre for Governance and Human Rights. She tweets @bniyoush

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