Why My Research Matters: Say Burgin

In the first of HWO’s new monthly series profiling the important historical work being done by early career researchers, we asked Say Burgin at the University of Leeds to reflect on the importance of her doctoral research both for the discipline of history and for the politics of race and ‘diversity’ in our contemporary world. Burgin’s doctoral thesis explored white anti-racist organising in the USA since the 1960s.

‘Diversity’ training is one of the great constants of neoliberal institutions in the United States of America and, increasingly, elsewhere. By ostensibly forming workforces that appreciate notions of difference, the introduction of such training is seen as important to the constitution of multicultural free market expansion. Diversity training is also the cornerstone of what Chandra Talpade Mohanty famously called the Race Industry: ‘an industry that is responsible for the management, commodification, and domestication of race’. While Mohanty was specifically interested in institutions of higher education, scholars now widely assume that race (along with other differences) has become ‘managed’ in large part through the advent of training across institutional locations. Doing so has become profitable – both for the institutions and for those working in the Race Industry.


Such well-evidenced interpretations of diversitytrainings notwithstanding, these training processes also have roots within a number of radical social movements. Indeed, the Race Industry in the USA can easily be seen as a neoliberal effect of the kinds of radical knowledge and practices developed within black freedom, women’s and gay liberation movements: the accommodation and, indeed, management of radical ways of knowing race (and gender, sexuality, and other ‘categories’ of difference). Radical activists in the US know that the anti-racism workshop – the precursor, I maintain, to ‘diversity’ training – has a ubiquitous and long-standing place within racial justice activism, particularly within white-dominated organisations and groups.

Several years ago, when I was living and working as a community organizer in Pittsburgh, I co-facilitated a 10-week anti-racism workshop series for white radical activists. One of the essays we read was Catherine Jones’ widely-circulated 1997 article ‘The Work Is Not The Workshop: Talking and Doing, Visibility and Accountability in the White Anti-Racist Community’. Jones insisted that anti-racism workshops had problematically become the main channel of white racial justice activism. This ‘workshop-heavy’ culture, she argued, ‘places such strong rewards on high-visibility work, like conducting workshops or speaking and writing about racism’ that it ‘may have gotten to the point where it is more committed to supporting workshops than supporting the actual work’. Even as we deliberated it, our Pittsburgh group exemplified her critique.

At the same time, I was intrigued by the history implied in Jones’ appraisal and wondered how and when this ‘workshop-heavy culture’ had emerged. I began my postgraduate studies with this question in mind – alongside broader queries about the efficacy of various racial justice tactics and the historical relationships between US social movements. It soon became clear that many of the central insights of the academic subfield of critical whiteness studies had been articulated in early anti-racism workshops, which I traced back to the black freedom, women’s and gay liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, what seemed clear to me was that Black Power had inaugurated an epistemic turn in US race relations and in oppositional movements. More than a shift in tactics or ‘mood’ – if such shifts were even so clear – Black Power worked to illuminate the ways in which race shaped people’s engagements with and knowledge of the world around them. For white folks, this included a fundamental misunderstanding of the racial landscape and history of the US. What critical race philosopher Charles Mills later referred to as ‘an epistemology of ignorance’, Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton called a ‘poverty of awareness’ within ‘smug white communities’. They called on whites to perform an ‘educative role’, to create ‘freedom schools’ for middle-class whites.

In explicitly racialising and interrogating white knowledge and ways of engaging with the world, Black Power activists didn’t merely presage later academic insights; as I have argued elsewhere, they explicitly laid the groundwork for them. And in insisting that there was an epistemic organisation to race in the US, they were clear that what José Medina calls ‘epistemic resistance’ was needed and openly called on US whites to confront their ignorance around race as they re-educated themselves and one another. This is not to say that Black Power singly brought into being the kinds of anti-racism workshops that my thesis focused on, those that were developed by Christian- and community-based groups, feminist free school activists and interracial gay men’s groups. Nor did Black Power ‘cause’ the later ‘workshop-heavy culture’ and Race Industry that Jones and Mohanty critiqued. What my doctoral research did illuminate, however, is that at least in part, Black Power pivoted upon an epistemic turn, and its advocates made clear that white racial justice activists had an ‘educative role’ to play. My research matters because it provides us with a radical genealogy of diversity trainings and of critical whiteness studies. Both of these racialised projects bear the imprint of Black Power and its epistemic legacy.

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