Europe’s first degree in Black Studies: Why it’s so critical

Micha Frazer-Carroll 29 May 2016

Last Thursday, Birmingham City University (BCU) announced that it will be the first university in Europe to offer a degree in black studies. When I heard the news, I was overcome by the most indescribable experience of acute cognitive dissonance: a part of me knew that I should celebrate this milestone moment in African diasporic history, revel in its potentially emancipatory utility for peoples of African descent, and appreciate the transformative potential of this radical indent in the European academe, yet I lamented the news and grappled with pessimism.  

I lamented the history of epistemic injustices suffered by black scholars, activists, and communities whose narratives have been relentlessly suppressed and erased for centuries. I was tormented by the stifled cries of ancestors resounding from the depths of the Atlantic and the soils of plantations and colonial and apartheid states.

I mourned the blood of countless black bodies seeping into pavements; broken spirits of black women raped and murdered in jails; imprisoned souls of black men; parents who lose their children to poverty and brutalisation; black brothers and sisters who are starved for sustenance, security, education, opportunity, hope, and dignity; and countless offspring for whom this is their destiny. I was pessimistic because I understood the enduring epistemological project of white hegemony that works tirelessly to erase our knowledge and perpetuate these injustices. 

Race and racism (I focus on the black-white binary) have had a complex positionality in the academy. Indeed, there is something deeply problematic about the way race and racism are studied in mainstream academia. Both are simultaneously under-theorised and over-theorised. As such, race and racism are forced into the epistemic category of “other,” to be studied by non-white scholars, while still treated as phenomena for which white scholars have the greatest epistemic authority to theorise. Historically, traditional research programmes have been restricted to the methodologies and epistemologies of white academics. Consequently, studies of race and racism have been characterised by an oversimplification, inadequacy, obscurity, and epistemic iniquity that contributes to racial injustice. 

This should come as no surprise given, for centuries, white people have used knowledge to oppress and dehumanise black people. The academy has long been a conduit of oppression within a sociohistorically constructed system of white supremacy. It set the standards for who counts as a knower; how knowledge is produced; what constitutes knowledge; which narratives are told; the fora within which knowledge can be cultivated; and who has access to knowledge and its sites of production. It has justified, exonerated, and empowered the oppressor elites.

Black studies has been instrumental in revealing the oppressive, recolonising operations of the academy, and launching rigorous investigations into the racial phenomena that it suppresses, distorts, and sustains (consciously or via constructed ignorance). Its most critical insight has been revealing what makes racist ideologies and structures so powerful, namely, their ability to appear unquestionably natural, unremarkable, indeed normal—a normalisation process that uses paradoxical, simultaneous procedures of erasure and concretisation such that racism becomes invisible yet effective. 

Black studies renders race and racism visible in a way that is critical, celebratory, and emancipatory. In re-centering the lives, histories, social movements, and contributions of peoples of African descent, and constructing counter-hegemonic narratives and representations, black studies is not only a significant epistemological project but an indispensable activist project. But it must be executed thoughtfully and protectively.

This will require: a greater number of black academics (to join the highly-qualified ones whose expertise have been marginalised); thoughtfully-designed curricula; (unfortunately) epistemic uptake in academic communities beyond BCU; and safeguarding against tokenism, exploitation, and usurpation.

This was a cause for my concern, as these are not small orders. But I have faith in the critically conscious community emerging in Britain and the small but incredible collective of black scholars at BCU and throughout the UK—and I laud BCU for taking a first step in concretising this consciousness with its black studies degree. We can hope that universities like Cambridge, an exemplar and guardian of Eurocentrism, will heed the necessity of this coup d’état. This will require Cambridge to be deeply reflexive about the ways in which it reinforces structures of power that oppress peoples of African descent. This means acknowledging the racism that underpins its epistemological paradigms, and being virtuous about engaging in a process of genuine de- and re-construction. Consider this comment a firm call to action.

So, while I lament the struggle, I celebrate the perseverance. Black studies is crucial not only as a means of transforming academia but for the survival of black people. “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” (Audre Lorde) Knowledge without consciousness is sufficient for the powerful, but consciousness is indispensable to the survival of the oppressed.