Who produces knowledge?

On knowledge production and decolonising the evidence base

Who produces knowledge?  

It’s an odd question, but an important one. We could consider knowledge production as the process by which we gain new ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’. This knowledge then informs what societies, and their institutions do, from determining how an economy should be organised to the correct spacing for traffic lights. Typically, new knowledge is produced in universities by academics. One way to answer this question about, ‘who produces knowledge’, is to think about who can be an academic, who populates the ‘ivory tower’. 

In the UK, 85% of professors (the most senior academics) are White. Only 0.7% of professors are Black. That equates to just 140 out of 21,000. Many of those 140 are also from abroad. So not only are Black professors few and far between, but Black British professors, educated in this society, are even rarer. So, to answer the initial question – the answer may be that White people produce knowledge. But even if you don’t accept that, it is clear that Black people are not proportionally represented among knowledge producers. We might argue that academia is one of the most homogenous professions in Britain.

The most obvious problem with this, of course, is that it is utterly racist. Even more so, because the ‘geniuses’ who populate the academy should know better. The evidence is clear; race has no biological basis and thus a circumstance where only White people can enter a profession must be a consequence of racism both within the academy and without.

But there are other pernicious effects of such a condition, and volumes have been written about how the lack of diversity in academia reproduces racism. Here I briefly introduce some of those issues. 

First, eurocentrism becomes an invisible norm, whereby whiteness and its associated behaviours become universalised and other ways of thinking and doing are obliterated as simple outliers, relegated to the file drawer, or actively institutionalised as deviant. 

Secondly, since racism and racialisation are not experienced by the vast majority of academics, it is rarely considered as a part of the context in which their research takes place. Indeed, the socio-cultural position of the researcher affects the selection of research problems, design and analysis. Consequently, some experiences and ways of being, are marginalised from the academic discourse. In particular, the processes by which racial inequity is maintained despite an array of policy interventions aimed at tackling it. Finally, and in parallel, the potential for new theoretical and empirical perspectives fail to see the light of day. The questions we ask and the ways we approach different subjects draw from the totality of our experience. If academics are all cut from the same cloth, then the questions they ask will always be limited.

These issues and many others have been known for decades. Unfortunately, we cannot go on blindly assuming that the academy will fix itself and that Black people will be able to take up a full and equal part in the process of knowledge production. 

At Black Thrive, we will develop research to answer the questions that are important to the communities we serve and to decolonise the existing canon. We will publish our work in academic journals and make them accessible to non-academic audiences. We will develop research capacity in the Black community because higher education in the UK has shown itself incapable of racial equity. We will challenge received wisdom about the challenges that race, and racism pose to our collective liberation. Our approach and knowledge interests lie in a critical-emancipatory framework which is best summarised in the words of Frantz Fanon – “In decolonization, there is, therefore, the need of a complete calling into question of the colonial situation.”

We are open to, and actively seek, academic collaborations with those who share our values and are prepared to be equal partners in the process of emancipatory knowledge production focused on the experiences of Black people in the UK and across the world. 

Written by: Celestin Okoroji,  Employment Project’s Programme and Partnerships Manager 

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