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n October 2006 at the "Feminism and War" conference at Syracuse University, Black feminist and communist philosopher and organizer Angela Y. Davis (2008) warned that U.S. nationalist and imperialist uses of the term "diversity" have "colonized histories of social justice" and "promote a hidden individualization of problems and solutions that ought to be collective" (24). Challenging feminist complicity in the U.S.-led Global War on Terror, Davis argued that "'diversity' is a concept that provincializes the relationship of people within the U.S.A. to the world" (24). Davis' insights draw on longer histories of internationalism and anti-imperialism in the Black radical tradition (Featherstone, 2012; Robinson, 2000), centrally including Black and transnational feminist critiques of nationalism, colonialism, and empire (Alexander, 2015; Bloom and Martin, 2012; Broeck and Bolaki, 2015; Ransby, 2003). Her words reverberate with critiques of the seductions of bourgeois nationalisms and imperialisms across a range of discrete and overlapping discourses, from feminist (Farris, 2017; Mohanty, 2003) to queer (Puar, 2007) to Asian-American(ist) (Chuh, 2003) to Latinx (Moraga, 2011; Pulido, 2006) to disabled (Schalk, 2016; Snyder and Mitchell 2010), and with Indigenous refusals of settler colonial recognition (Coulthard, 2014; Daigle, 2019; Simpson, 2014). Davis's critique proves salient in an era when Black and other "diverse" "faces in high places" (Taylor, 2016: 18) continue to be deployed to legitimate nationalist, colonialist, and imperialist institutions (Chatterjee and Maina, 2014; Singh, 2017). These scholars model ways of questioning and refusing the strategic use of "diversity" by institutions, including academic institutions, that continue to fail to meet the more-wide ranging and transformative demands of Black-led and Indigenous-led, abolitionist and anti-capitalist movements rising up worldwide (Bledsoe and Wright, 2018).
Seventeen years after Davis' prescient warning, the U.S. media and much of mainstream academic discourse vacillate between a fixation on "internal" enemies (Black Lives Matter, immigrants, antifa) and flirtations with a new Cold War against China, as an expanded U.S.-led Global War on/of Terror rages on, largely ignored (Pain, 2010). Academic geography is not innocent here. Our discipline has a long history of service to imperial, nationalist, and colonial projects (e.g. Schuurman and Pratt, 2002; Smith, 2003), and it must be admitted that since the decolonization movements of the mid-20th century, these projects have been keen to enlist a "diverse" range of academic subjects on self-serving terms. Consider the American Association of Geographers’ (AAG's) uncritical celebration of former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder as its 2019 keynote speaker. While Holder’s "domestic" civil rights legacy is in many ways quite positive, as the state’s “top cop” Holder approved drone killings in Yemen, expanded mass surveillance, and prosecuted an historic number of government whistleblowers and journalists, including Black whistleblowers (Democracy Now, 2014; Intercepted, 2019).
The initial impetus for this forum dates back to 2019, when the three of us came together out of shared critical curiosity about Holder’s 2019 AAG visit. After learning about Holder’s keynote, we contacted the AAG executive team, expressing our concern over Holder’s record and asking for clarity on how they selected and compensated speakers. A powerful AAG staff member responded, as liberal gatekeepers faced with Leftist dissent often do, with accusations of obstructionism and self-righteous scorn. The staff member suggested that Holder should be beyond critique, simply by virtue of being the country’s first Black Attorney General – and that this exemption from criticism therefore extended to the AAG itself. The staff member thus weaponized a superficial rendition of diversity against the difficult but necessary collective work of political debate and struggle.
Ironies abound here. At the very same time as images of our "diverse" communities are used to manufacture consent for the U.S. empire, "diverse" geographers are disproportionately burdened with astonishingly high levels of unpaid service work, with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color scholars, particularly precarious, junior, and women and femme scholars, often asked to do the most of all. Two recent statements issued by collectives of critical geographers – a June 2020 statement of the Black Geographies Specialty Group Executive Committee and a September 2020 statement of the chairs of the Queer and Trans Geographies, Disability, Latinx Geographies, Black Geographies, and Indigenous Peoples Specialty groups – urgently underscore the uneven geographies of labor, resources, and power within the discipline itself.
These frustrating experiences also led us, following advice from David’s Scripps College colleague Wendy Cheng, to take a step back. How, we wondered, might we find others with similar experiences? How might critical geographers working in a range of radical traditions navigate the contradictions of academic institutions at our current conjuncture? With the generous collaboration of the specialty groups noted above, we convened a conversation on “Refusing Neoliberal Diversity Work in the Imperial University at the 2021 Virtual AAG Annual Meeting (we would also like to thank Clark Akatiff for his example and his important contribution to our 2021 session.) The thoughtfulness of the contributions we received and enthusiastic engagement from those in attendance led us to bring together this essay collection. We aim to create additional space for reflection on the large and small ways in which critical geographers can refuse the cooptation of our work, and stay focused on the work that matters to us and the communities and movements to which we are accountable. We asked contributors to reflect on the following questions:
- What kinds of (anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist) political and intellectual movement work are important to you?
- How, in your experience, does the university environment enable you to do this work? How, in your experience, does the university environment obstruct this work?
- What strategies have you found to stay focused on the intellectual and political movement work that is important to you?
The essays gathered approach these questions by doing what critical and radical geographers do best: grounding them in context-specific struggles and opening up particular terrains of struggle over academic space, while rigorously linking those contexts to broader social and spatial movements.
Kawena Elkington opens the collection by showing the difference an Indigenous Hawaiian geography can make. Elkington calls for a decolonial politics of knowledge and language, placing Indigenous Hawaiian geography at the center of geographical knowledge, with profound implications for curriculum development. Elkington’s argument for Indigenous decolonial geographies inspires us in thinking about the diverse, varied cultures and geographies of resistance within universities.
Mariba Douglas offers a richly focused case study on Black-led efforts to contest, claim, and make space at the University of Toronto. Douglas opens up an inquiry into conditions that make change possible, and elaborates on organizers’ demands, which encompass but also extend beyond the politics of security and the politics of personnel. Her reflections on the collective work of resistance issue from the vitality of collective effort, global connection, and a willingness to return discourses on diversity, equity, and inclusion to their transformative roots.
Syeda Jenifa Zahan likewise examines university-based organizing, offering a case study in the politics of security, freedom, and student housing in Delhi. Her contribution highlights efforts to contest discrimination based on gender, class, caste, region of origin and religion in university hostels, which have adopted increasingly draconian and infantilizing surveillance practices while leaving sexual harassment and rape largely unaddressed. Her work reminds us how provincialized our experience of the university can become (admittedly, this includes our own university experiences), and the importance of having comparative international knowledge and understanding of the neoliberal university and the diverse struggles against it.
Like Zahan, Lindsay Naylor also brings the politics of social reproduction to the fore, offering a critical feminist engagement with the devaluation of “service” work within academic institutions, which encompasses a broad swathe of activities ranging from faculty governance to student advising to campus activism. Neoliberal metrics of academic productivity conceptualize such work as a distraction at worst and a burden at best, often on patriarchal and racist terms. Naylor offers a crucial alternative, arguing that a feminist ethics of care requires radically revaluing such work, which must by necessity be undertaken collectively in order for universities to function, while also reorganizing it in order to promote equity and more radically democratic forms of decision-making.
Finally, Laurel Mei-Singh’s contribution concludes the forum, offering further illustration of the transformation that can come from a critique of the university’s contradictions, and reminding us that critique is just the starting point for transformative action. She shows us the difference that can be made by hiring more women of color in academia and focusing our fights for justice on personnel and admissions rather than relegating that work to diversity committees. Mei-Singh demonstrates that as important as intramural critiques of universities are, critical geographers also have rich traditions of radical scholarship and geographically informed organizing from which to derive inspiration and learn. We initiated the panel that became this forum with feelings of outrage, but the example Mei-Singh provides offers a constructive counterpolitics, and an invaluable model for future work in critical geographies of the university.
In his recent book Elite Capture, philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò (2022) argues that political and cultural elites often reduce transformational demands for the redistribution of decision-making power and resources to managerial questions of inclusion within the status quo. Neoliberal “diversity” talk facilitates this process, allowing those in power to incorporate tokenized members of marginalized communities into their elite spaces—boardrooms, newsrooms, or, in the case of Eric Holder, AAG conference halls—without ever challenging the fundamentally unjust distribution of life chances, power, and, as Táíwò puts it, being-in-the-room privilege: “[T]he mechanisms of the social system that determine who gets into which room often just are the parts of society we aim to address. For example, the fact that incarcerated people cannot participate in academic discussions about freedom that physically take place on campus is intimately related to the fact that they are locked in cages” (2022: n.p.)
By contrast, the authors in this collection challenge the status quo of work and life under the neoliberal university. Theirs is not a call for mere access or to simply diversify the rarefied rooms of academia, but rather to transform them utterly. They focus “on building and rebuilding rooms, not regulating traffic within and between them” (Táíwò, 2022: n.p.) They offer vital lessons, reminders, and inspiring thoughts on how we might make new worlds, create new rooms – rooms structured not by settler colonial syllabi or anti-Black campus policing, not by Hindu nationalist misogyny or care-less work regimes, but by radical redistribution, democracy, connection, movement, solidarity, and freedom.
Together, these authors challenge the status quo of work and life within the neoliberal university. They highlight how the rooms of academia must be fought over to resist the reproduction of colonial knowledge forms, the devaluation of care, the oppression of multiply marginalized women and femmes, the exclusion and often violent inclusion of Black people on college campuses, and the reproduction of white supremacy. This collection of essays serves as a set of vital lessons, reminders, and inspiring thoughts on how to resist, how to connect across forms of resistance, and how to protect one another from the destructive work drive of the neoliberal university. We hope that future movements carry on these conversations to radically reconstruct not just the neoliberal university but to transform the society that enables it.
Alexander MJ (2006) Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Bledsoe A and Wright WJ (2018) The Anti-Blackness of Global Capital. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 37(1): 8-26.
Bloom J and Martin WE Jr (2012) Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Broeck S and Bolaki S (2015) Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
Chatterjee P and Maira S eds (2014) The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Chuh K (2003) Imagine Otherwise: On Asian Americanist Critique. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Coulthard GS (2014) Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Daigle M (2019) The Spectacle of Reconciliation. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 37(4): 703-721.
Davis AY (2008) A Vocabulary for Feminist Praxis: On War and Radical Critique. In: Riley RL, Mohanty CT, and Pratt MB (eds) Feminism and War: Confronting U.S. Imperialism.New York: Zed Books, pp.19-26.
Democracy Now (2014) Eric Holder's Complex Legacy: Voting Rights Advocate, Enemy of Press Freedom, Friend of Wall Street. Democracy Now. 26 September. Available here.
Farris SR (2017) In the Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Featherstone D (2012). Solidarity: Hidden Histories and Geographies of Internationalism. New York: Zed Books.
Intercepted (2019) CIA Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling's Life as an 'Unwanted Spy.' Intercepted. 27 November. Available here.
Mohanty CT (2003) Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Moraga CL (2011) A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness: Writings, 2000-2010. Durham, Nc: Duke University Press.
Pain R (2010) The New Geopolitics of Fear. Geography Compass 4(3): 224-240.
Puar JK (2007) Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Pulido L (2006) Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ransby B (2003) Ella Baker and the Black Radical Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Robinson CJ (2000) Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Schalk S (2016) Ablenationalism in American Girlhood. Girlhood Studies 9(1): 36-52.
Schuurman N and Pratt G (2002) Care of the Subject: Feminism and Critiques of GIS. Gender, Place, and Culture 9(3): 291-299.
Simpson A (2014) Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Singh NP (2017) Race and America's Long War. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Smith N (2003) American Empire: Roosevelt's Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Snyder SL and Mitchell DT (2010) Introduction: Ablenationalism and the Geo-Politics of Disability. Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 4(2): 113-125.
Táíwò OO (2022) Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else). Chicago: Haymarket.
Taylor KY (2016) From #Blacklivesmatter to Black Liberation. Chicago: Haymarket Books
David K. Seitz (he/him) is Associate Professor of Cultural Geography at Harvey Mudd College and the author of A Different Trek: Radical Geographies of Deep Space Nine (University of Nebraska Press).
Will McKeithen (they/them) is a Research Associate at the Vera Institute of Justice and Affiliate Assistant Professor in the School of Urban Studies at the University of Washington at Tacoma.
Farhang Rouhani (he/him) is Professor of Geography at the University of Mary Washington. He is a cultural and political geographer who has researched and written about globalization, state formation, and new media politics in Iran, Iranian and Muslim diasporic politics in the US, and anarchist theories and practices.