Black woman scholar-activist is working at a desk in front of her computer while writing in a notebook, representing the intellectual work of scholar-activism
Activism

The Joys (and the Risks) of Scholar-Activism

Please note that this post contains references to sexual harassment and assault.

“I don’t know if we even want to be associated with you!” shouted my boss before he hung up the phone on me.

So was my first taste of the resistance scholar-activists face when I first began writing about racism.

I had just published an article with my colleague Christopher Baker called, ‘White knights: Leadership as the heroicization of whiteness’, and my white male boss at the time was angry and afraid of my critique against the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Over the years, I’ve learned that there are people like my former boss all throughout academia. In this post, I’ll share my experience moving from being a more mainstream academic towards scholar-activism, and the rewards and risks of my transition.

I speak about the painful costs of doing scholar-activist work and dealing with the pitfalls of exhaustion and careerism. I hope this post lends you inspiration and helps you prepare the armor you need to engage in scholar-activism.

Scholar-activists are often members of marginalized communities who use their platform to raise awareness about and give back to their communities. A scholar-activist here is writing in a notebook on a work desk among plants.
Photograph by Marcus Aurelius

What is Scholar-Activism?

Academia can have negative connotations as a privileged ‘Ivory Tower’, out of touch with real-world issues and concerns.

Countering the stereotype of the professor as a middle-aged bearded white man in a tweed jacket smoking a pipe in his mid-Century office surrounded by books, scholar-activists along with public intellectuals have advanced efforts to bridge universities with their wider communities.

Scholar-activists work to bridge the gap between academia and the local community, striving to use their positions and platforms towards the liberation of marginalized and vulnerable people in our societies.

The communities that a scholar-activist chooses to serve often relate to their own background and can include working-class people, migrants, Black, Indigenous, and people of color, LGBTQIA+ folx, or people who face violence. That’s why many scholar-activists are themselves a ‘minority’ in the predominantly white masculinist academy. They’ve often battled against the odds to make it into academia and now use their newfound platform to give back to the communities in which they were raised.

Sometimes more privileged scholars turn to activism when they bear witness to the injustice faced by loved ones. It’s not unusual, for example, to see a white parent of a biracial child become a racial justice scholar-activist or a cisgender parent of a trans child become a trans justice scholar-activist.

It’s valuable to work with communities from which you came or have very close ties to, otherwise scholar-activists can fall into playing the savior and speak for and over the existing scholar-activists from those communities.

I think the savior model (born through European imperialism) also means that we more easily recognize forms of scholar-activism that are far ‘out there’, like the cultural anthropologist who ventures into a remote village in the Global South to help record and preserve their language. However, scholar-activism can be much closer to home.

My collective Building the Anti-Racist Classroom (BARC), for example, sees our community as the wider students and staff of color in higher education who are nevertheless marginalized by the academy. We look to the peripheries of universities and help create spaces where people who are excluded, subjugated, and exploited can be recognized.

We produced this video below of our first workshop in London, held at Queen Mary University of London Students Union, on October 18–19, 2018.

There’s no single or universal approach to scholar-activism. Nor is there a commonly agreed framework that if you follow these steps you can become a scholar-activist. While scholar-activists broadly direct their scholarship towards social change, what exactly that change looks like and who that change is intended to benefit varies from scholar-activist to scholar-activist.

There’s also no agreement on what makes a scholar-activist. Some set the bar for scholar-activism high. They describe scholar-activists as those who barely hang onto a job in academia while spending the vast majority of their time marching in rallies and protesting the government. Others use the scholar-activist label very loosely, suggesting that to simply be a marginalized person in academia is ‘resistance through our existence’.

Scholar-activists are frequently confused with public intellectuals. Public intellectuals broadly make academic knowledge accessible to a general audience and offer commentary or critique on society.

The work of public intellectuals can generate change and make a powerful impact, but they don’t necessarily work with and in their local communities as scholar-activists do.

Activists and community organizers gather in São Paulo, Brazil to listen to a scholar-activist working within their community.
Photograph by Matheus Bertelli

My Story of Intersectional Feminist Scholar-Activism

I never intended to be a scholar or an activist.

I enrolled in a doctorate in part to avoid a corporate career and as a life-long model minority at that stage, embarked on a somewhat conservative PhD researching Australian banking CEOs during the Global Financial Crisis.

It wasn’t until a year after my PhD when I found myself living alone in Melbourne and afforded the intellectual freedom to explore what I wanted to do with my career.

I was working as a research fellow at Swinburne University of Technology, a small and young university that fostered incredible interdisciplinary collaboration.

I started reading beyond my field — encountering for the first time feminist, queer, anti-racist, and decolonial scholar-activists and public intellectuals such as bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Gloria Anzaldúa, Norman Denzin, Sara Ahmed, Richard Fung, just to name a few.

It was the first time I realized that scholarship could look and feel like such soul-shaking work.

I began tentatively bringing a more critical perspective into my scholarship.

I started by theorizing the ways leadership and organizations can reinforce bourgeois, white, and colonial ideologies. My work soon started becoming really depressing. I was spending my days analyzing everything wrong with the world, but doing very little to explore redemptive possibilities.

In 2015, I designed a research project on Asian Australian leaders as a deliberate attempt to search for hope. I interviewed 21 people who identified as Asian Australian serving as leaders across government, business, and community. The study allowed me to speak directly to the people in my own community, who shared my vision for a racially just Australia, even when they differed from me linguistically, culturally, professionally, and politically.

I asked the participants of the study what they wanted for the state of race and gender relations in Australia and how I could leverage my privilege (my resources, connections, and platform as an academic) to help advance their vision. I opened up my classroom to some of them who wanted the opportunity to shape students’ learning while others just wanted their stories told.

As my work took on a more critical tone, it was for the most part warmly welcomed at academic journals. As a junior scholar, the feedback I’d receive from journals to my manuscript submissions might concede my theory was underdeveloped and my analysis superficial, but I would be offered another opportunity to revise because the reviewers and editors agreed that my critiques were “important”.

In the classroom, my students also loved the license to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions about work, organizations, and management. Bringing the values of social justice and social change into my teaching was so rewarding and soon all aspects of my work (researching, teaching, writing) felt in perfect alignment.

Backlash to Scholar-Activism

backlash from white people
Photograph by Andrea Piacquadio

In an article called ‘An embarrassment of riches: The seduction of postfeminism in the academy’ published in 2019, I reflect on when my role working in a leadership research center started falling apart.

Although my manager at the time was initially enthusiastic about my feminism, my refusal to repackage my feminism as a #girlboss product to be marketed and sold to wealthy white women executives strained our relationship.

My manager blew up at me when I drafted an email for our center’s newsletter that opened with a video of Emma Watson’s #HeforShe campaign before challenging this more conservative call for gender equality with feminist critiques of capitalism and white supremacy. I included a link to bell hooks’ essay about Lean In where she calls Sheryl Sandberg’s brand of postfeminism “faux-feminism”.

When he reviewed this email, my manager accused me of being strident and not knowing how to speak in a way that “others want to listen to and engage with”.

The “others” he’s referring to are not working-class people exploited by corporate (post)feminism.

They’re not Black, Indigenous, people of color who are subjugated by interpersonal, systemic, and internalized racism.

They’re not the women and non-binary folx who have faced sexual harassment and assault at work and understand that the answer to justice is not assertiveness training and power-posing.

The “others” who matter most in his view are highly privileged cisgender heterosexual able-bodied middle-class white men, all of whom my boss assumes will share his discomfort and contempt toward my critiques.

Respectability politics is a common theme in the backlash against scholar-activism.

Respectability politics is a moralistic discourse that tends to advocate for assimilation and self-censoring on the part of marginalized people under the belief that dominant people would be more willing to accept them if only they presented as ‘respectable’.

Scholar-activists are often told that we’re not respectable. We’re commonly framed as too loud, too angry, and too threatening. If only we could learn to be quiet, gentle, soft, and soothing to our oppressors, they’ll surely recognize our humanity and stop their oppression.

giphy
How’s that working out for ya?

My light-skinned, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied privilege also grants me protection against the worst of the backlash.

I’ve seen my Black and Brown, trans, queer, disabled sisters torn apart by shame-filled senior managers. Told they’re incompetent. Told they’re worthless. Told they’re “raving lunatics” who’ll never make it in academia. Threatened to have their careers “destroyed”. Harassed and bullied, emotionally abused and physically assaulted.

Dealing with the Risks of Scholar-Activism

The resistance and backlash faced by scholar-activists vary depending on countless factors like the exact nature of your critique, the community you serve, the way you serve them, your own identifications (especially your privileges), your institution and the senior managers, the cultures and values of both your organization and department, your colleagues and whether or not they engage in scholar-activism.

With each of these factors, it seems the backlash against scholar-activism is heightened the more vulnerable the scholar-activist and the more conservative the institution.

Scholar-activists who evade the most institutional resistance in my experience are those who slip under the radar. They maintain good (but not exceptional) teaching scores. They serve on a couple of committees (but never speak up too loudly at them). They publish a modest trickle of research books and papers; just enough to meet the minimum KPIs but they never underperform or overperform.

While scholar-activists are often told they’re too extreme and radical in academia, they need to reckon with the guilt that they’re not actually as ‘extreme’ or ‘radical’ as they feel they need to be to make a greater impact in their communities. This political and emotional balancing act between the scholar and activist identities can overwhelm and exhaust scholar-activists.

Engaging in regular self-care is thus a vital practice to sustain your work as a scholar-activist.

Limitations of Scholar-Activism

The tensions between being both scholar and activist can make it difficult for scholar-activists to commit to each role in meaningful ways.

Compromises and sacrifices are often necessary, whether it’s falling behind on your academic work, reducing your activist work, or juggling what are essentially two full-time jobs to the detriment of your personal life, health, and wellbeing.

As scholar-activists, we also need to check our privilege. Some of us who came from marginalized and vulnerable communities may forget that despite the considerable challenges we might face in academia, our academic positions afford us greater power that can be exercised in damaging ways in our local communities. For example, our power to define the people we work with in our writings needs to seriously engage with representational ethics.

Academic norms and conventions like individualism, competition, and paternalism can seep through the Ivory Tower into our research. Being intentional about how our scholar-activism places us in communities and networks that challenge our intellectual arrogance can be invaluable.

Two women of color are engaged in deep conversation over an iPad and drinking coffee, representing the importance of staying connected with your community in order to check your privilege as a scholar-activist.
Photograph by Sam Lion

Performative Wokeness and Careerism

A pitfall of scholar-activism that I’ve seen the most and struggle with within myself is the temptation to engage in scholar-activism as a form of performative wokeness.

It’s relatively easy to call myself a scholar-activist than it is to actually do it (and reckon with the resistance and backlash).

The danger here is that in critiquing interlocking systems of oppression in our society, we can start developing a desirable persona as a fearless, speak-truth-to-power hero who makes the world a better place while sticking it to The Man.

This performative wokeness can give rise to careerism and hypocrisy.

I once met a professor who had built his career on advocating for environmental sustainability but used his profile and wealth to buy multiple luxury cars and fly around the world to do speaking gigs five times a year. While trying to curry my favor, he once offered to deceive a conference committee that I was his research partner so that they would provide me a free ticket to their conference in Bangkok that he assured me could be used as a surreptitious vacation.

Scholarship-as-usual can often be disguised as scholar-activism.

I don’t have all the answers to finding the balance, but for now, I regularly check in with myself when my work feels a little too comfortable and ask, “How does this serve my community?” More importantly, I try to stay in regular contact with people in my communities and ask them, “How may I better serve you?”

Conclusion

Scholar-activism is a practice that enables academics from or with connections to marginalized communities to serve those communities. Scholar-activism can be both enormously challenging and rewarding, allowing us to align research, writing, education, and social change with our values.

Although academia is changing, it remains by and large an institution that preserves, rather than dismantles, the prevailing systems of oppression in our societies.

Scholar-activism directs our efforts and energies toward social justice — making academia and the wider world a more hospitable place.

In this post, I’ve shared my own first steps into scholar-activism after beginning my career as a more mainstream academic. I revealed the very real risks and costs of doing scholar-activist work and why it may be worth it anyway.

If you’re engaging in scholar-activist work or are considering it, please take care of yourself.

Your efforts are vital and we need you to be and stay well in order to sustain the struggle for the long-haul.

Take regular breaks for self-care and practice self-compassion, even while you hold yourself to a high ethical standard and resist performative wokeness and careerism. I have written two detailed resources to help you take self-care days and recover from stress, exhaustion, and burnout.

Learn More

Tsedale M. Melaku and Angie Beeman (2020). Academia isn’t a safe haven for conversations about race and racism. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/06/academia-isnt-a-safe-haven-for-conversations-about-race-and-racism A gorgeous, bold critique of the risks of being an anti-racist scholar in the academy.

To hear more about academics’ struggles with intellectual freedom, You Need To Shut Up is a fantastic podcast that had a short 8-episode season in 2018. Hosted by Jacqui Hoepner, who had her own experience with silencing, the podcast showcases interviews with other academics who have been censored, attacked, or constrained for their research in some way.

Susan A. Tilley and Leanne Taylor (2014). Complicating notions of ‘scholar-activist’ in a global context: A discussion paper. Journal of the International Society for Teacher Education, 18(2), 53–62. This article discusses the authors’ experiences and advice for scholars from the Global North (Canada in their case) who work in the Global South with five excellent working principles.

Daiyu Suzuki and Edwin Mayorga (2014). Scholar-activism: A twice told tale. Multicultural Perspectives, 16(1), 16–20.

Scholar Activism and Self-Care in an Era of #BLACKLIVESMATTER (2017, April 19). Education at Illinois.

Featured image by RF Studio

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