Symposium on Systemic Racism and Sexism in Legal Academia: The Promise of Victory

Symposium on Systemic Racism and Sexism in Legal Academia: The Promise of Victory

Legal academia is a contact sport. Students, faculty, and managers brutalise one another with gusto. Personifying the adversarial character of the dominant legal systems, they wrestle over course design and assessment, procedures and promotions, not to mention teaching allocation and the inevitable inequities that ensue. And I’ve only scratched the surface. To improve win rates (or survival chances), participants in the law school games form teams, though the language of cliques and cabals often feels more fitting. Some battles are principled, and some are petty, but all are exhausting, leading to the high degrees of disaffection trumpeted across student and faculty surveys alike. Most behaviour is not malicious, even if it carries heavy personal costs. It’s also consistent with patterns at other institutions. You might say it’s a blessed curse that lawyers are accomplished at being cantankerous. 

Nowhere is this toxic dynamic more ruinous than in deliberations about anti-racism and anti-sexism action, more death-match than sport. Again, mimicking societal factionalism, legal academics choose sides in this never-ending debate. While most agree that racism and sexism are blights upon our institutions, they disagree over the breadth of the problem just as they do over desirable solutions. Should we mainstream an EDI policy or a decolonisation strategy? Are positive discrimination measures appropriate at the student and / or faculty level? Is a zero-tolerance approach effective or do we mandate sensitivity-training? How do we feel about laying-off half of white male academics and a quarter of white female ones and repopulating our faculties? I jest, sort of.

Uncertainty is unsurprising for two reasons. First, despite the opposition, few legal scholars take the side of either racism or sexism. As Bonilla-Silva remarked, we inhabit a racist-sexist world, yet, as if by magic, it is devoid of racists and sexists. He termed this manifestation colour-blind racism, encapsulating the contradictions that permeate law schools. Despite being steeped in liberal equality and the rule of law—or, perhaps, because of this—they possess a remarkable ability to rationalise the race and gender inequalities that saturate our spaces. We agree they are despicable, but are reluctant to blame anyone.

I illustrate with a personal tale. At a previous institution, I received an expletive-riddled email from a senior white male colleague; university servers are ineffective at filtering racialised tropes. At the ensuing disciplinary committee meeting—I had to defend myself for breaching the EDI policy by calling him a racist—I received an apology on behalf of the school for the tone of the email. The committee also assured me he wasn’t a racist. As if sharing a secret, the chair leaned over and plaintively revealed that the colleague suffered from severe back pain, causing him to fly off the handle on the regular. The panellists were unmoved when I pointed out that only one person in the room would ever know racism and, curiously, they left out his views. There is something surreal about being told you are not a legitimate interpreter of your experiences and realities. Such is the nature of colour-blind racism, or gender-less sexism, that its interlocutors search for reasons not to classify behaviour as racist or sexist. This pattern of de-personifying injustice, Bonilla-Silva explains, is consistent with oppression practices 3.0. Through subtle and institutional actions, we render inequalities faceless, expunging perpetrator and victim from the scene. 

This leads to the second hurdle: few academics acknowledge the dialectics of racism and sexism. Even if no one endorses them outright, racism and sexism produce winners and losers. Like poverty, racism and sexism are not abstract conditions but relationships with profound material outcomes. Gender and race pay gaps are infuriating because they centre our gaze on the white male academics earning more than their racialised and gendered counterparts (because they’re white and male). At UK universities, the median gender pay gap is 14.7% and the median ethnicity pay gap is 9%. At the University of Warwick, where I ply my trade, the figures jump to 19.9% and 13.7% respectively. When management cries penury to justify precarious wages, it’s worth visualising two streams: one populated by racialised and gendered scholars and a rosier one, just out of reach. The unequal allocation of scarce resources means some benefit from the biases others endure. 

While the appearance of perfunctory confessions of privilege is a nice, even promising twist, the over-emphasis on personal (performative) guilt weakens its potential (as many don’t feel guilty). For the privileged, racism and sexism are difficult to stomach; they feel uneasy, maybe even ashamed. For the victims, the reality is of undervaluation and exploitation; often, they are simply unemployed, wondering how they’ll make ends meet. Notwithstanding the crucial ideological feature of anti-racist and anti-sexist struggles, never forget that we are fighting to redress the asymmetrical material conditions that make legal academia unbearable for some.

Frankly, racialised and gendered scholars struggle against plenty. It’s worth mentioning institutional conditions, societal culture, the unearned privileges of others, and the personal costs of the never-ending indignities. To make matters both better and worse, racism and sexism happen less as direct confrontations and more as a constant state of affairs; the pay gaps are but one example. Universities are emblematic of racialised and gendered relational dynamics. And this struggle is happening in a progressively acrimonious climate where speaking of racism and sexism causes eyes to roll and hiring committees to pass over. As every contribution verifies, for racialised and gendered legal academics, the struggle is professional and personal. While we wish to belong, we wish to do so with authenticity. In my scholarship, I described this as the struggle between belonging and being. While they are not mutually exclusive, they are not coeval either.

According to anthropologists, belonging involves feeling respected, valued even, and in harmony with the wider group. This makes sense. Humans are social creatures; lawyers, too! Connecting and cohering with the wider community is integral to wellbeing, meaning even those oppressed within the institution seek acceptance and affirmation, sometimes from their oppressors. Being is a more complex proposition and, to everyone’s delight, I will not riff on Fanonian existentialism. That most racialised and gendered scholars wish they could exist as scholars only says it all. To be sure, they celebrate their attributes, and the worldviews these inform, but would prefer not qualifying their identities or having to justify their presence. They also don’t enjoy shouldering the burden for equality. As Sara Ahmed observed, the moment racialised and gendered scholars challenge oppressive behaviour, they transform from claimant to problem, losing legitimacy along the way. 

Practices of delegitimation vary but, in my experience, five stand out. First, people and circumstances oblige us to prove ourselves and our credentials to students, their parents, and our colleagues. Second, doubts quickly blossom into denials of the merit of our appointment. I remember being harangued in a national New Zealand newspaper for a course I taught on Colonialism in International Law (!) at the University of Auckland. It was, the newspaper declared, biased. Setting aside the sloppy journalism—the white male columnist never sat in on a lecture or contacted me about the course—what transpired was fascinating, in a deplorable kind of way. Members of the public contacted the dean, questioning my lectureship because I had yet to secure my PhD. That many faculty members were doctorate-less mattered not; separate standards apply to racialised scholars. Third, universities treat cultural practices that do not cohere with the dominant form as profane. I thank Mindy Chen-Wishart for helping me appreciate this point. As she contends, racialised scholars expend copious energy countering racialised perceptions of them and the cultures they belong to and, especially for racialised men, making themselves appear non-threatening. Fourth, students, colleagues, and members of the public revert to racialised and gendered language when upset. I keep a folder of the racists emails I’ve received, two of which were threatening enough that I filed police complaints and set-up a protocol with campus security. Fifth, many racialised and gendered scholars come to internalise the prejudicial representations that pummel us. It’s insidious and creeps up even on those who know better. bell hooks was a master at unpacking the phenomenon. Each practice of delegitimation takes its toll. For racialised and gendered scholars, the emotional labour in simply being, let alone belonging, is punishing. 

On the battlefield, we need allies, creativity, resilience, and, perhaps most of all, we need victories. This symposium is a victory. It was hard fought, with various intervening factors delaying its release and altering its appearance. I tip my hat to those who spoke and do not judge those who did not. I also acknowledge those who, out of fear of reprisals, withdrew their submissions at later stages. There is neither harm nor disappointment. The concerns are real, and each scholar must choose which battles to fight, when, and under what conditions. Silence is also a feature of this story. Opinio Juris (OJ) is in this for the long haul and we welcome future essays that advance the struggle. Again, even blog posts are small victories. They boost morale and strengthen solidarity, enabling us to fight on. 

I invite you to read these individual testimonies, and I share my reflections on each below. However, please read them not as institutions would, attributing them to the individuals alone. Rather, each intervention represents a generalisable experience, windows into broader structural challenges that legal academia and legal academics must confront. Staying true to OJ’s mandate, all begin from the vantage point of international law.

Chronicles of an Oppression Foretold

Our first intervention studies the records of the two leading publishers of monographs on international law: OUP and CUP. We lead with Talita de Souza Dias’ essay, as hers was the spark for this symposium. Last year, she submitted to OJ a provocative piece about race and gender statistics relating to authors in various international law series. This prompted much introspection within OJ’s editorial team, as many of us have published or have contracts with these same publishers (myself included). As she confesses, “my personal struggle to publish my Dphil thesis prompted this study.” Far from sour grapes, Talita’s chronicle highlights the challenges scholars from the Global South face with presses dominated by the Global North. I’m sure many empathise with the frustration Dias felt at the lack of transparency in decision-making. While single-sentence rejections are slowly becoming throwbacks of a bygone era, far too many publishers remain cavalier toward the public service we and they provide. International legal scholarship is not pop fiction and publication decisions must account for more than the commercial power of the book or the satisfaction of pseudo-experts. Perhaps more troubling than the underrepresentation of racialised and gendered would-be authors is the effect of repeat rejections. Already lumbering under the weight of precarious working conditions, these scholars know too well that a contract with OUP and CUP will improve their employment outcomes. Unsubstantiated rejections are thus demoralising, with disaffection and defeat waylaying on the horizon. Promising racialised and gendered scholars exit the field in droves, with each departure impoverishing our community.

Mary Hansel and Ashleigh Hayden open our next blog post with a banger: “Diversity without structural transformation simply brings those who were previously excluded into a system as racist, as misogynist, as it was before.” Of course, they are quoting Angela Davis, perhaps the last living revolutionary academic from the Global North. Peppering Davis’ rabble-rousing with skilful legal analysis, they leverage international human rights standards to “cultivate anti-racist educational settings.” I smiled widely when they introduced the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, that beautiful codification of decolonisation dreams. And I fist-pumped when they juxtaposed it alongside the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. Third World states have championed the struggle for economic, racial, and gender justice for generations, and it behoves legal scholars to draw from this rich tradition when reflecting on ways forward. Hansel and Hayden propose strategies for promoting anti-racist curricula and learning environments, combatting hate speech while preserving academic freedom, and tackling racial profiling by campus security. They provide such a rich analysis that I didn’t want the essay to end. Upon reflection, it doesn’t; theirs is a call for continued creative and provocative engagement in an ongoing struggle.

Most colleagues don’t know that the first course I taught was Feminist Legal Issues. I always felt a natural affinity for gender-based struggles. Class, race, and gender-based oppressions are incestuous, intersecting, multi-secting, and criss-crossing straight through each other. “The most disrespected person in America”, Malcolm X said, “is the black woman.” And yet, I would do the anti-sexism movement an injustice if I did not acknowledge that patriarchy has served my academic career well. Consider that Trent University appointed me to teach a flagship course in the Women’s Studies programme; consider also that I was a young racialised male lawyer with no teaching experience (I was pursuing my PhD at Osgoode Hall and bused from Toronto to Peterborough weekly). You can imagine the expressions of the 52 students (50:2) when I walked into the lecture theatre. They were wondering the same thing as me: was I the only applicant? That might have been as too many colleagues, then and now, suffer from the same affliction as Chris Carpenter: imposter syndrome. In her cleverly titled contribution, (Not) Only Men on the Walls, Carpenter dissects her postgraduate experience at Cambridge’s (in)famous Lauterpacht Centre. Surrounded, as she was, by “portraits of white men in horsehair wigs,” she recounts how the strategic patriarchy of the space induced a cascade of self-doubt. Carpenter’s essay is the most creative, narrated in the first person as a letter to her younger self, an attempt to arrest the cycle before it begins. After an inspired soliloquy, she comes full circle, re-signifying the portraits that intimidated her: “The expressionless faces on the wall that used to haunt you because of how much you did not look like them and how much they would have despised sharing these rooms with you, will feel empowering. Legal academia has enough men on the walls. It could use more imposters.”

Our penultimate piece tackles the dual commodification and marketisation of legal education, showcasing the racialised climate cultivated by a system beholden to Global North ranking metrics. Roy’s revelations astounded me. Many law schools in the Global South, including Jindal Global Law School, the subject of this essay, actively recruit international faculty. No surprise there. What is striking, however, is the race-based stratification that quickly surfaces, with white scholars hired at higher levels and hurried through the promotion process. Even more egregious is the “dominant role in JGLS’s public facing activities, including student recruitment. The underlying premise of their participation is the association certain schools of students and parents make between a quality legal education and whiteness.” Roy’s Fanonian critique of legal education would shock were it not so familiar, with plenty of universities in the Global South exhibiting similar dynamics. My experience as Dean at the Faculty of Law at the University of the West Indies verifies the persistence of a post-colonial subservience to whiteness. Du Bois may have written about the colour line in the 19th century, but even in the 21st, it corrupts hiring practices in egregious ways. To my delight, Roy spotlights the powerful ties between racism and colonialism and, of course, between anti-racism and decolonisation. Indeed, institutionalised frameworks consistently ignore racism’s colonial roots.

Our final piece is the icing to this symposium. My aim when coordinating a collective intervention was not to diagnose; we know the pain points and we’ve known them for (too) long. For one, I wanted to channel Du Bois and to invite white colleagues to peer behind the veil, to see the racial and gender hierarchies that permeate our spaces. Alongside standard academic tribulations, racialised and gendered scholars must contend with oppressive dynamics that weigh us down. By peering behind the veil, by glimpsing at our experiences, they might appreciate their roles in perpetuating or otherwise benefiting from colour and gender lines. For two, I wished to activate a lighthouse, to warn of hazards and to signpost safe spaces. Başak Bağlayan, Gamze Erdem Türkelli, Başak Etkin, Aysel Küçüksu, Ezgi Yıldız, and Anıl Yılmaz Vastardis share a wonderful example of a safe space or, as critical race feminists call them, brave spaces. Aware of the multiple and evolving challenges faced by racialised migrant women, this group established an informal solidarity network, “[to] channel the power of solidarity as a source of resilience.” Despite the proliferation of EDI initiatives, they felt “that structures and practices of exclusion and other-ing persisted”, prompting what morphed into a collaborative model par excellence. They supported each other professionally: preparing one another for interviews, navigating the peer-review process, and enhancing their respective citations. And they provided personal care: sharing advice on “relationships, mental and physical wellbeing, and childcare” and on mediating cultural differences, including gendered pressure. By so doing, they created a sanctuary, heavy on support and bereft of judgment. It is an admirable initiative, and as a participant in a similar network, I shared an abundance of notes with my comrades copious! Everyone will appreciate their spirited conclusion: “In an evermore individualistic academia, these humble communities can be a source of comfort and assistance. Sites of solidarity are sites of resilience. We should encourage more of them into existence, and celebrate the colours they add to the monochrome of academia.” 

Rehabilitating Legal Academia: From Pyrrhic to Radical Victory

Our symposium on anti-racism and anti-sexism in legal academia stresses not only the agency of racialised and gendered scholars but also what a culture of resistance and a politics of transformation look like. Each intervention is a gift of story, of strength, and of sight. It is also a gift of humanism. 

Whether practised in streets, lecture halls, or boardrooms, countering racial and gender oppression demands what Du Bois dubbed radical humanism. While we feature the ways our hardship benefit our white male colleagues and students, we never demonise them. Our consciousness stretches beyond retribution, just as we’re placid toward redemption. Rather, we mean to rehabilitate the spaces we occupy, to reclaim the humanity long denied us. Complicity in racism and patriarchy can be active or passive; it matters not. These are human problems that demand collective denunciation, followed by a plan toward radical transformation. Until then, legal academia will continue to plod along, damaged and distorted, defaulting to stubborn denials, banal microaggressions, and half-hearted mitigations.

As this symposium evidences, racialised and gendered scholars are complex, full of creativity and ingenuity. We shared our unique lived experiences and lived endurances, hoping others will see our struggle but mostly that they will respect our contribution. That would be a first step toward ending the racial and gender hierarchies that persist in legal academia. That would be a medium-sized victory.

Photo courtesy of an unknown author via a Creative Commons license

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