anti-racist research practices and the value of teach-ins

The following is a guest post by Nabila Islam.

On Friday, June 12, 2020, fourteen[1] sociology graduate students at Brown University held a teach-in on how to support BLM in academia at the Population Studies Training Center (PSTC), an interdisciplinary center for the study of population issues. The teach-in evolved from the invitation that sociology graduate students (with support of staff and faculty) had extended in the department’s statement in support of BLM. The letter had urged members of the sociology community to have conversations with and beyond each other on how to combat anti-black racism and to produce anti-racist research. Susan Short, sociologist and Director of PSTC, asked graduate students if they wanted to hold an event or a meeting at the center as a follow-up. The students decided on holding a teach-in on race and racism in the academy. In the tradition of teach-ins and public sociology, the event mixed theoretical discussions with conversations about praxis and centered the coming together of the PSTC community to discuss recent political events and possible futures. During the second part of the teach-in, the attendees were invited to participate in facilitated breakout sessions to brainstorm anti-racist practices in research, as well as in institutional and interpersonal situations within the academy. The suggestions below are the result of those collaborative conversations. Recently there have been discussions on how professors in all disciplines can talk to students about race and racism. Teach-ins potentially provide a way to challenge status and generational divides between students, staff and faculty on campus while offering opportunities to rearticulate the meaning of community and to create anti-racist publics within the academy.

Anti-Racist Research Practice Suggestions:

  • We should explicitly reconsider our use of “race” instead of “racism” when writing and in designing studies.
  • Researchers should be asking themselves: “What does racism look like in this country/geography?”
  • Before doing research, we should be putting contemporary literature in explicit conversation with past literatures to identify how racism (and other – isms) have been ignored by the literature.
  • If we are including race in quantitative analysis, we need to ask why and also delineate what other social relations we are trying to measure.
  • We should not fall back on race as an explanation. Instead we should think about what we are trying to measure by using race as a proxy.
  • We should institute regular working groups among researchers to discuss approaches to race within departments, research centers, research communities, et cetera.
  • Even if one agrees that race should be meaningfully explored, people may differ on how to do so. More minds bring more perspectives and can sharpen how we approach our work. This workshop is just a starting point for thinking about how to approach race meaningfully in research.
  • Passive voice in writing lets us avoid culpability for anti-black, colonizing, and racist agents. We should opt for an active voice when talking about anti-blackness, colonialism, imperialism, and racism. Active and agentic language is key to igniting our own and our readers’ anti-racist imaginations.
  • Researchers studying Europe are habituated to hearing that Europe is not like the US and does not have a “race problem.” Just because racism is not spoken of or denied publicly or looks differently than the US version does not mean that a research site is untouched by anti-blackness or racism. Popular and political claims that our research site is non-racist has to be examined before research can even begin.
  • Similarly, a research site historically and currently populated by majority non-white people can still be anti-black and racist.
  • Anti-blackness is additionally a model of thinking and doing that can deeply touch any research site. We should remember Fields & Fields’s (2014) assertion that racism is both ideology and social practice. Comparing racializations across contexts does not mean that we are making the experience of racism for different groups commensurable. Instead, such comparisons enable us to think of anti-blackness and racism in the USA context as “particularly successful” modeling of ideology and social practice that have been emulated in other contexts.

Anti-Racist Institutional Suggestions:

  • We should prioritize the hiring of Black and other minority scholars and staff to bring a variety of perspectives, thus de-centering race-blind perspectives.

Anti-Racist Interpersonal Suggestions:

  • In everyday conduct and in discussions, we should be cognizant of who gets to speak and who doesn’t, and always work to amplify the voices of Black and other minority scholars.

Nabila Islam is a PhD Student in Sociology at Brown University.


[1] Nabila Islam, Laura Garbes, prabhdeep singh kehal, Kristen McNeill, Danielle Falzon, Amanda Ball, Benjamin Bellman, Chinyere Agbai, Salma Mutwafy, Subadevan, Ailish Burns, Katie Duarte, Karolina Dos Santos, and Alejandra Cuerto Piazza. Amy Chin (Sociology), Lubabah Chowdhury (English), Nicolas Bray (Broad Institute), and Harleen Kaur (Sociology at UCLA) also provided research and other support.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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