So, this is a question that I have been turning over in my mind for a while now. Can/should academics be called activists? Can they be activists as part of their role as academics? In other words, “scholactivists?” Or must these spheres never intersect? In this essay, I want to explain the trajectory of my thought on these questions, and why I do not think that path of questioning is ended.
When I first started out as an academic, I was quite tentative about what being an academic meant. I had previously worked in a human rights-labelled law firm. I also used to be part of a group that voluntarily provided free legal representation and education to the community. So, to a certain extent, “activism” or “social justice” were foundational parts of my professional profile. However, when I began my journey into academia, one of the things I was told, repeatedly, was that scholarly work requires emotional distance from societal needs. You are not meant to solve social problems but examine them. I kinda understood that – even if I did not fully accept the premise. One of the reasons that made this idea hard to embrace, is that for minoritised people especially, this means never being able to fully bring yourself to your work.
I think Crenshaw explains this problem well in relation to legal analysis. She calls the prism of the analysis one is expected to adopt, an approach of “perspectivelessness.” In other words, a mode of analysis that proceeds “without directly addressing conflicts of individual values, experiences, and world views.” The problem with this, of course, is that the dominant view that minoritised scholars must accord to, is a perspective that does not see them. In other words, perspectivelessness actually has a perspective. What claims to be a “view from nowhere” thus evades critiques of power as well as the scholar’s own entanglement with those power structures. For minoritised scholars, the fact of being minoritised often inevitably causes them to question the neutrality of the knowledge system through which their analysis is being passed. As Crenshaw explains it, a student racialised Black and gendered male, properly applying universal legal principles being taught in class, has to find that it is perfectly reasonable for the police to shoot and kill him if he is found in a “white area.” Any other conclusion would be an improper application of the rules. Thus, minoritised scholars are left with few choices… they can deny the nature and fact of their marginalisation and soldier on as good academics. Alternatively, they can choose to be disobedient to disciplinary norms, seeking change with and within their work. The second option, no matter how cursory the attempt to change, often leads to accusations of subjectivity and being a bad/pseudo academic.
Before I follow that thought to its (il)logical conclusion, let me pause to ask this: Do we think such work for change by minoritised scholars makes those scholars, activists/scholactivists or even just a certain genre of scholars? While I was grappling with (mostly rejecting!) the idea that scholars should not change anything, I began paying closer attention to the work of activists around the world. These were activists who were organising against, among other things, racial injustice, environmental endangerment, and political and state violence. Seeing the work they do and how they put themselves on the line, I began to step back from thinking my academic work made me an activist. As I often say, my work mainly involves, thinking for a bit and writing for a bit and reading for a bit and then repeating the cycle… ad infinitum. Can I call that activism? Is every act that asks for change a revolution?
Been spending time with anti-apartheid revolutionaries in South Africa and thinking about how problematic it is for us to label every small thing ‘revolutionary’/‘decolonial’. Honour the labour & the loss. Please, let us return to a respectfully accurate labelling of our “acts”.
— Jessica Horn (@stillSHErises) February 8, 2023
On this question, I think what finally placed me firmly in the “sceptical tank” was something that happened in 2021. A mainstream newspaper wrote an article on decolonisation. Some of my scholarly work was cited [without context]. I was also named as “an activist”. My irritation with the story made me question that naming particularly. Why did they call me “an activist”? Why was no one else who was cited described as an activist? Ah.
One way this phrase is used is to marginalize certain scholars.
I have heard this phrase many times and every single time it has been directed at a Black woman.
— Spencer Piston (@SpencerPiston) December 16, 2021
Here is the thing, if I call myself an activist [and I will come back to that in a second], then feel free to ask me why I have done that. But I don’t think it is right to label the work of minoritised scholars as activist work when they have not so labelled it themselves. In essence, I am very much against making activists of minoritised scholars in the academy, even where they are scholars of activism. I echo the tweet above in noticing how, increasingly academics of colour, without more, are being narrated as activists or are narrating themselves as such. Yet, it seems to me that sometimes the label ‘activist’ is used in bad faith. It is used to downplay the intellectual contribution of marginalised scholars. I am not saying that one cannot be minoritised and scholar and activist, but one is not less scholarly and more activist, just because one is minoritised.
So, I am clearly arguing that we are not activists because we are minoritised. But as academics can/should we be scholactivists? The truth is, academics in our scholarly work are very very very non-radical, but some of us have convinced ourselves that we are. Most of our work mainly involves, thinking for a bit and writing for a bit and reading for a bit and then repeating the cycle… ad infinitum. There are people doing the hard activist work, the work of organising and putting themselves of the line. Having their bodies and their liberties to lose. We often do different work. But that does not mean that activist work is not scholarly. My essay on Amilcar Cabral is testament to the fundamental link between scholarship and revolution. Seeking positive change should not be a radical act. And my point here is that for most of us, the relationship between our activism and our scholarship is often a barely touching Venn Diagram and not an overlap.
But to what extent should our work seek to change society? At what point can we call this work scholactivism?
I return to the question that troubled me at the start of my career that I allude to at the start of this essay. If as scholars we seek to change nothing, what is the point of us? I cannot completely agree with Khaitan who argues, “Whereas truth-seeking and knowledge dissemination are constitutive of the role of a scholar, scholactivism-driven research is distinguished by the existence of a motivation to directly pursue specific material outcomes.” My problem here is the very distinctions and definitions that separate Khaitan’s scholar from his activist. Are scholars truly defined by the fact that we cannot seek specific outcomes? I cannot agree with this. If I was a scholar of the environment, I would be seeking to end environmental catastrophe. If I was a scholar of medicine, I would be seeking to change health care outcomes. If I was an engineer, I would be seeking improved engineering methods. [bad example, as I know absolutely nothing about engineering!].
This is why it is important, to my mind, to place the problem of the definition of the “true and proper and good academic” side by side with another problem. The fact that for many minoritised scholars, the academy is hell, precisely because they are minoritised. “academic life is grueling, particularly for people of color and especially for Black women.” But the whole world is hell any way. Therefore, wherever minoritised people find themselves, they tend to resist. But for me, this is not activism, but a reaction, a survival tactic. The whole world invites survival mechanisms from the minoritised. Why should academia be any different? Sometimes, the label of activist can be important, a deliberate reminder to the person who labels themselves so, a reminder to continue to do something about that which cannot be borne. And so such academics seek to transform the Ivory Tower, into something which is neither made of stolen tusks nor inaccessible… in the face of institutional refusal to support scholarly work [mis]labelled as activism.
The distinction is still not entirely clear to me, but I feel the problem lies primarily in actually seeking a distinction in the “what”. I think the difference between an academic and an activist (if lines must be drawn) is in the “how”. For the activist, the specified goal is defined e.g. “this is what justice looks like.” And they organise through all means at their disposal to achieve that what. The “how” of their work is what makes them an activist. The acting. For the academic who may be working towards justice of some sort, the process will be more cerebral, less active. They may be asking some of the following questions: “what are the underlying presumptions?” “What is the history here?” “What mechanisms are we working with?” Despite my definition, I do not think that there must be a clear distinction between academics and activists. When the Venn diagram overlaps, I think it overlaps on a point of praxis. The acting. Rather than just thinking for a bit and writing for a bit and reading for a bit etc… somewhere in that chain of activity comes an element of doing – testing out the possibilities of success of our “lofty” ideas. But note, the activist, to be effective, will also read and write and think. (See once again Amilcar Cabral or Steven Biko).
Nevertheless, as academics, I think we need to carefully ask ourselves what our role is in the world. In my blog post on academics as optimistic shoe salespeople, I argue that academics must use their knowledge to make the world a better place, countering disinformation and silencing. If not, what is the point of us? To paraphrase Toni Morrison, in the face of global injustice, climate catastrophe, and the heat of racial injustice, this is precisely the time when we must go to work. When we must act. “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear – like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge – even wisdom.” Knowledge and wisdom are the fuel that ground-breaking change runs on. And academia is at the heart of the knowledge economy. So, we must ask ourselves what role we wish to play in society, in these turbulent times. Do we want to gatekeep? Or to we want to open floodgates of hope for better worlds?
I may not call myself an activist, but I will not stand in the way of any academic who does. The tendency to gatekeep the boundaries of knowledge processes in the Ivory Tower, is what keeps its towerishness. As Themrise Khan says, Why do we insist on compartmentalizing ourselves? That isn’t education. It’s a power trip. The important thing here is not the label we place on members of academia, but the hope that we can make space within academia for the vast variety of the work that we do. That we can add some value to the society and the world that we live in. If we do not, then what, I repeat, is the point of us?
For academics who have been called activists or who call themselves activists or who consider their scholarship to be integral to their activism… I particularly welcome your thoughts.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams. “Toward a race-conscious pedagogy in legal education.” Nat’l Black LJ 11 (1988): 1.
Haraway, Donna, ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, Feminist Studies, 14.3 (1988), 575–99.
Khaitan, Tarunabh. “On scholactivism in constitutional studies: Skeptical thoughts.” International Journal of Constitutional Law 20, no. 2 (2022): 547-556.