Reading across the ‘Colour Line’: Texts, Traditions, and Academic Solidarity

ShowFullImageA guest post by Prof Gurminder K Bhambra, University of Warwick

Four incidents in the last week have caused me to check the calendar and confirm that I hadn’t accidentally time-travelled back a generation. Debates on which I had believed there to have been some (positive) movement over the last couple of decades seem to have made such little impact on many colleagues that it was as if the earlier debates had never happened. I outline the first three incidents briefly before going on to discuss the fourth in greater detail; I do so in order to reflect on their implications and consequences for academic work and engagement.


bebop-2014-flyer-names-low-resA community statement was circulated by colleagues in Germany protesting against the development of an academic programme of Black Studies that did not include Black scholars or thinkers or engage with Black scholarship. It seems astonishing, in 2015, to have to rehearse the arguments, again, about why setting up a programme addressing the distinct experiences of a particular group of people and not including people – academics, activists, and others – who have had such experiences and have produced scholarship articulating that experience is problematic. Just so that people don’t misunderstand me here: I am NOT saying that only people with the experience can ever study or talk about such experiences. However, I am saying that to set up a programme for study without the participation of people whose experiences and writing are putatively central to it is problematic. There has been so much discussion on this topic that to repeat the mistakes of earlier times seems deliberately willful and it is this willfulness that requires to be addressed.

Since starting to write this piece, the director of the programme has disbanded it, apparently temporarily, in favour of an open debate about how to move forward in light of the criticisms being raised. Instead of disbanding, why not restructure on the basis of the criticisms and by taking them into account? They are not new.


europeislamSecondly, the professional association that I consider to be my academic ‘home’ has advertised its forthcoming annual conference theme as ‘Fragmented Societies: Migrating Peoples’. As another colleague suggested, why not just call it ‘Migrating Peoples Fragmenting Societies’ and do away with the niceties and apparent distance created through the use of the colon. Thus far, there has been no response from the professional association to the suggestion that the wording of the conference theme be changed to avoid it sounding like a UKIP-sponsored conference.


The third incident involves the setting up of expert panels at an international conference where all the experts chosen are from north America. There is not a single all-male panel; but all the panelists on all four panels are white. When concern about this was expressed on social media, one response was:

“Moronic tokenism, mk 2. Not satisfied with gender equality on panels at XXX? Rant about people’s skin colour instead”

Blackness2A further concern was expressed that having diverse panels wouldn’t solve ‘the problem’ and that what was needed was to address the cause and not the symptom. I doubt that there are many people who believe that having diverse panels is the end towards which they are struggling, but many probably do think that the issue of whose voice and whose ‘expertise’ is acknowledged is an important part of those broader struggles. It speaks precisely to the legitimation and validity of ways of knowing that are, in themselves, part of the challenge for thinking and doing things differently.


This feeds directly into the final incident. A few days ago a senior colleague, from a different university, gave a lecture at my home institution in which he referenced my work positively as part of the broader argument he was making on the traditions and promise of sociology. Subsequent to that lecture, one of my colleagues circulated an email to our department pointing to the flaws in the argument being made about the history of the discipline (in relation to the reference to my work and arguments that I make in this article) but neglected to include me in that circulation. I was subsequently added to the conversation by another colleague and what follows is a discussion of the points that I think need wider consideration.

What was initially highlighted as problematic was the attempt to create a generalized history of the discipline and the idea that this history could be thought of in terms of two traditions of sociology – one, black and the other, white. Interestingly, while this colleague had never previously, to my knowledge, cited Du Bois, he was now mobilized against such a conceptualization of sociology. Indeed, my colleague wrote that DuBois would himself have rejected the rejection of ‘dead white males’ and believed himself to be entitled to read the great thinkers available to any white person. This was followed by a lengthy quote from DuBois, the beginning of which reads: “I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas …” This was used to justify maintaining the focus on the familiar sociological classics, although no explanation was given for who was included in such a group, how or why they were included, or what the basis of not including DuBois himself would be.

Instead, a general argument was made about how the sociological classics were those texts that had ideas (as opposed to substantive topics) and tried to conceptualize things that could be of benefit to a scholarly community regardless of people’s interests or beliefs. This latter is precisely what DuBois does in The Philadelphia Negro, which is now recognized as the first sustained piece of empirical sociology undertaken in the United States, and yet Du Bois is not seen to be part of the group of sociological classics otherwise being reified. Why?

Another colleague intervened in the debate to suggest that DuBois was equally critical of the self-understanding of Black people as against White bigotry (referencing his essay on the Talented Tenth). Further that DuBois believed that Blacks had to earn their place at the table with Whites and thereby affirmed the supposedly ‘meritocratic’ standards of white thought. This comment was made with no reference to the conditions that had excluded African Americans from those tables (and in DuBois’s lifetime continued to exclude him) or any discussion of what meritocracy might possibly mean within a system of segregation. What seems to be forgotten here is the history of the United States as one in which there were legally enforced separate and segregated tables that excluded people from sitting together and were differentially resourced.

It is of concern that DuBois is being cited in order to affirm the appropriateness of not engaging more broadly with other thinkers and also to reinforce a claim for the superiority of a particular tradition, one from which DuBois is himself excluded and has to ‘meritocratically’ work his way into. Indeed, in a subsequent exchange my colleague referenced earlier suggests that on the topic of race and social science it is not possible to talk about that without having read the astonishing books of the travel writer Sven Lindqvist. Is it some peculiar delicacy that means that only white authors can be referenced when discussing race and the social sciences? What does this say about the value and contribution of the work of scholars such as Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi, WEB DuBois, V. Y. Mudimbe, Angela Davis, Achille Mbembe, Patricia Hill Collins – or, if its literary contributions that are sought: Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe, Bessie Head, Bernardine Evaristo … among many others?

The concern with my presentation of two traditions of sociology is that it is seen to be divisive to argue for two traditions and that we should instead focus on the tradition of sociology. This rather misses the point. WEB DuBois, E. Franklin Frazier, Oliver Cromwell Cox and other African American pioneers of sociology precisely sought to contribute to (and in some cases, create) the tradition of sociology. It was the failure of, in the main, white sociologists to engage with their work that created the de facto two traditions of sociology. There are only two traditions to the extent that mainstream sociologists fail to engage with the work of scholars who became marginalized as a consequence. They were not initially ‘marginal’ scholars except insofar as they existed within a context in which they were marginalized by the systems of segregation and Jim Crow and they did not wish necessarily to create a separate tradition. My article works to present the history of how these contributions came to be separated as a consequence of the actions of white sociologists and to seek to repair that breach by reading white sociology back into the tradition of sociology created by African American sociologists. This, to my mind, works to the benefit of sociology more broadly and is a more honest representation of the history of the discipline and what would be needed to address the problems of the past.

It is disingenuous to claim that an appropriate rendering of history in relation to understanding the contemporary dynamics of knowledge production is what is divisive. What is divisive, I maintain, is the simple assertion of the superiority of one tradition and the refusal to engage with what others have had to say (even while many within the dominant tradition have surreptitiously used the work of the tradition that is marginalized without citation or acknowledgement). The two traditions are maintained, de facto, by those who refuse to read across the colour line. We cannot wish away history, but have to engage with it and its implications appropriately in the consideration of our social scientific engagements today.

It is necessary to read across traditions and to understand why some traditions may now be regarded as separate even if that was not the intention in their initial formulation. It is only by reading widely that we can develop more adequate tools with which to understand and explain the social realities of our time. Many Black academics are versed not only in the dominant traditions of their disciplines, but also its marginalized traditions; having read broadly, it would be difficult to write without referencing that breadth. Those scholars who only read on one side of the colour line maintain that parochialism in their writing, while, nevertheless, claiming access to the universal.

As Fanon says in the conclusion to The Wretched of the Earth: ‘Come, then, comrades, the European game has finally ended; we must find something different.’ The ‘European game’ being identified here is that of exclusion and the claim to universalism based on a parochial understanding of human endeavour. The ‘something different’ is to be developed by us as we engage across borders and boundaries in the recognition that critique and transformation occur across such lines and not within silos. As yet another of my colleagues contributed to the debate: ‘To identify these oppressive arguments is to also engage in critique as a means of transforming present day thought/action.’


Read the work and look at who is used to develop the arguments; then do the same with the work of other colleagues who argue against such positions. Now say who is developing a ‘universal’ tradition and who is maintaining the intellectual segregation within disciplines. Is it those who cross lines and travel ‘arm in arm’, or those who fear to move beyond their comfort zones and hang onto the ‘arms’ of a restricted canon of classics?




8 thoughts on “Reading across the ‘Colour Line’: Texts, Traditions, and Academic Solidarity

  1. Robbie, Thank you for this informative piece. I do not know the history of sociology well; I am more informed by anthro and psych. I believe one can argue for a third tradition in the social sciences, that of so called Third World peoples, and a fourth, that of Indigenous people. I say this with the hope that the three alternative traditions are speaking actively to one another. After all, there is a shared struggle with invisibility and the colonial experience. At the same time, I am keenly aware of the fragmentation that arises from meager attention and resources, the enacting of the colonial agenda in the academy. All the best.


  2. It’s obviously at a much more simplistic level but this fits with the struggles I am having mentally with adapting to teaching A level Sociology (I’m used to the relative freedom of the Access level 3 course which is a lot less prescriptive). For example, students have to consider cultural deprivation in detail as an explanation for class differences and ethnic differences in educational outcomes.


  3. Pingback: Reading across the ‘Colour Line’: Texts, Traditions, and Academic Solidarity | Alochonaa (Dialogue)

  4. Pingback: Re-branding the Trauma of Slavery, or How to Pacify the Masses with Sites of Memory | Discover Society

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s