Guardians of knowledge: Why is academic language “so white” and exclusive

We’re excited to share a post by Amit Singh, the co-editor of Consented, a multi-media platform for identities and narratives that aren’t included in mainstream socio-political spaces. He was so gracious as to shoutout CrowdsourcingAcademia in this piece as he interrogates the barriers in what is considered objective and/or legitimate and/or “expert” knowledge (i.e. the academy and whiteness) and what is simply dismissed as anecdotal or lay understandings (i.e. everything else). We at CSA look forward to collaborating with Amit and with Consented on future projects!


Knowledge is a wonderful thing. In theory it is something that in one way or another we all possess and should all be looking to share and exchange. Yet the western university system and related academic standards have spread across the globe and produced one concept of what is acceptable academic discourse. As a result, many people cannot gain access to “knowledge” for academia is closed off.

People who cannot meet the criteria of what is acceptable (usually a undergraduate degree – or higher – from a top class western university, use of “academic” terms and flawless footnoting and citations) are considered to be unworthy of knowledge and are certainly not people who are ever called upon to share their own learnings and experiences. This has led to an elite cluster of scholars and thinkers, locked away in the proverbial Ivory Tower, writing papers for each other in a manner that most people cannot understand. The academy is an elite, mostly privileged white, male club (it’s worth noting that in the UK there are only 85 black professors, of which just 17 are female).

As Zoe Samudzi says outlining her intentions for the new project Crowd Sourcing Academia:

“The Ivory Tower has notoriously monopolized the role as the centre of [legitimate] knowledge production and the epistemic authority on damn near everything, regardless of how inaccurately the identities and lived experiences of marginalized identities are frequently portrayed.”

Zoe’s project is “is an attempt to redress the epistemic injustice that is the exclusion of non-normative ways of knowing and being, whether gendered, classed, racialized or otherwise.”

Those who have previously tried to push back against this have often had difficulties in publishing work and gaining legitimacy, which is critical within a closed off academy determined to maintain the status quo.

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bell hooks has notably been criticized by academics for her “un-scholarly style” but hooks claims that she writes in such a manner because she is “motivated by the desire to be inclusive, to reach as many readers as possible in as many different locations as possible”.

English language norms are presented as the only acceptable ones in academia. English is in many regards the language of the university. One UBC PhD candidate wrote his entire thesis without using standardized capitals, punctuation or paragraphs in what was essentially a 52,000 word long sentence. Naturally there were objections to the work, done to push back against “the blind acceptance of English language conventions in academia.”

Initially he had written his thesis in his indigenous Nisga language, but he was forced to translate it into English, which again highlights the way in which the English language dominates university. The result is that anyone who cannot speak, read or write in English, is excluded from discussions and debates. They are denied knowledge and are unable to share their own. These are essentially white academic norms, which play a key role in maintaining a white curriculum.

The idea of an alternative cannot truly be presented as long as such standards exist. The personal experience of many people is regarded as meaningless if they cannot theorize their arguments, foot note them and properly cite their sources. The result is that the majority of people discussing indigenous ideologies, for instance, are white ethnographers, not indigenous people themselves.

One project I worked on with the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, was aimed at promoting indigenous knowledge (the university is a specialist indigenous knowledge centre within South Africa). The way academics proposed to do this was by providing a space within a conference for indigenous people to share posters and orally recite their knowledge in a non-conventional academic framework.

This is a step forward, but again everything was to be published in English afterwards and distributed in such a way so as to gain legitimacy from a white dominated academy. A complete alternative, they knew, would be marginalized and the knowledge of said indigenous people would need to be foot noted and cited somewhere. It’s also worth noting that the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s working language is English.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has done his own work to highlight these issues by announcing in his excellent Decolonizing The Mind that he would not write in English again. He asserts that writing in English and then having his work translated into his native Kiswahili excludes a lot of people from reading his work as the meaning of it is inevitably changed. Instead, he now exclusively writes in Kiswahili, although his work can be found translated into English, it is written for a Kiswahili speaking audience, not an English speaking one.

It is important to resist these academic norms and to stop accepting them as the measurement of intelligence and knowledge. Many people who lack qualifications or “education” as we know it are capable of sharing experiences with us and furthering our understanding of certain issues. An 18-year-old PoC is probably a lot better placed than a 60 year old white man with a Harvard PhD in race relations, to discuss race. Yet, we’d always lean towards the man with the PhD.

However, it’s also important for academics to be able to engage in “mainstream” discussions, rather than just talking amongst themselves. Academia should collaborate more with activism and everyday struggles, instead of remaining detached in a conference room at The London School of Economics. With a great deal of knowledge these thinkers can certainly add a lot in terms of combating social ills, yet right now, not enough of them engage with anyone outside of their own faculties.

To finish, we need to challenge what we consider to be an “expert” and begin to recondition ourselves to listen to everyone, regardless of whether they can use over the top academic language or not. Knowledge is to be shared, not hoarded.

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