Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Racial biases in academic knowledge

The word of racism evokes individual expressions of racial prejudice or one’s superiority over other races. An outrageous yet archetypical example is found in the recent racist tweets made by the President Donald Trump, attacking four congresswomen of color by suggesting that they go back to the countries where they are originally from if they criticize America. Along with such individual racisminstitutional racism exists not only in politics, entertainment, housing, healthcare, and incarceration, but also in education. However, what is often overlooked is another form of racism—epistemological racism or biases in academic knowledge and associated scholarly activities.

In schools and universities, racism is typically regarded as microaggressions that students and instructors of color experience daily as a result of intentional or unintentional racial insults targeted at them. Racism is also manifested as over- or under-representations of certain racial groups in institutional categories, such as departments, committees, and administrators. Yet, epistemological racism is invisible and ingrained in our academic knowledge system, reinforcing institutional and individual forms of racism.

In North America, for instance, racial biases in school knowledge becomes evident when we ask, whose culture and views are reflected in teaching history, literacy, language, and art. Similarly, in higher education, it is important to question whose perspective dominates theory, methodology, and empirical knowledge deemed legitimate. Obviously, in many disciplines, a typical answer is European-American epistemological approaches originally developed by white scholars, often male, trained within Western academic traditions. Many scholars of color are compelled to fit in this mainstream culture of white knowledge in order to survive and thrive. This includes myself—a woman scholar of language education originally from Japan and working in a North American university. This pressure to succeed makes students and scholars of color complicit with white knowledge, further perpetuating this sort of racism.

Academic socialization requires alignment of one’s scholarship with established theories and methodologies. Research requires citing key works published by well-known scholars. Epistemological racism is reproduced in this process, as these key works, or the original ideas that these key works draw on, are often produced by white scholars in the West. This ends in solidifying institutional racism because citation records often serve as a yardstick for measuring individual academic merit. Thus, scholars, who are well-cited, tend to receive greater recognition, leading to higher positions, more awards, and more professional opportunities. Scholars from non-Western backgrounds, typically identified by their names, tend to be disadvantaged as they are cited less often, unless they are distinguished. Moreover, even white European scholars, if they are from non-Anglophone backgrounds, may struggle to publish in international English-language journals because their research focused on local contexts is seen as too parochial. Thus, epistemological racism manifests itself as knowledge exclusion based on not only scholars’ racial and ethnic roots but also on the subjects of their research.

However, some scholars have begun to resist and decolonize Western-centric academic knowledge. For instance, Raewyn Connell uses an umbrella term, southern theoryto describe how postcolonial and indigenous perspectives can promote alternative academic worldviews that prioritize the experiences, identities, and values of non-Western cultures, while critiquing the hegemony of Western normative lens through which we understand culture, language, history, and society. However, this alternative approach can be problematic. For example, the field of communication studies has begun to explore ethno-centered approaches to understand unique features of communication in non-Western cultures. However, such scholarship may fail to take into consideration diversity, complexity, and conflicts within each culture. Moreover, women proponents of southern theory may still be silenced or marginalized by patriarchal academic traditions. This emphasizes the importance of understanding how power relations are forged through the complex interplay among race, gender, class, nationality, sexuality, ability, and so on.

Overlaying President Trump’s demand that the four congresswomen of color should leave the country if they don’t like America on epistemological racism, we see an invisible force imposing scholars of color to conform to the system of white Western academic knowledge—you should love white Western knowledge if you strive to achieve scholarly success. As one of the critical scholars of color contesting epistemological racism, I have begun questioning my own citation practices: Do I draw on European-American theories over others? Do I cite well-known male scholars over female scholars or color? What are consequences? Do these practices help perpetuate institutional racism and sexism, which continues to marginalize me in academe?

Featured Image Credit: ‘Library, book’ by Susan Yin. CCO public domain via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephanie Vandrick

    A powerful and thought-provoking piece. Thank you!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *