A colonial spectre amid the groves

January 23, 1998

The profusion of white academics in development studies who cannot speak the languages of the societies they research is nothing but institutionalised racism, argues Suranjit K. Saha.

This is a plea for British universities to stop practising what I believe is institutionalised racism in the recruitment of academics to social science jobs - particularly in development studies.

My argument centres on the different employment requirements for subjects relating to white societies compared with those required in subjects concerned with the study of non-white societies. In area studies relating to white societies, such as Russian studies, German studies, Slavonic studies etc, you must have at least a degree in the relevant language in order to get an academic job. And yet, when it comes to academic posts in development studies, job adverts never mention needing proficiency in a language. Why is this widely accepted yardstick for the maintenance of academic standards so openly subverted when it comes to teaching and researching on matters relating to non-white societies? Is it because, in the judgement of those who take academic decisions in United Kingdom universities, the languages and cultures of non-white peoples count for less than those of white peoples? Some of these languages (eg, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Persian, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Marathi) have traditions of at least as much literary excellence as most European languages.

In my view, university grade proficiency in at least some non-white languages coupled with evidence of familiarity with at least one non-white society, need to be recognised as necessary qualifications for appointments to jobs in development studies.

In Britain today, because of its colonial traditions, very few white academics specialising in non-white developing areas have invested time and effort becoming fluent in the languages of those societies. It is mainly the non-white academics working in Britain who represent the reservoir of language skills relating to non-white societies. And yet, non-white academics are few and far between in development studies departments across the country.

Those who are running development studies in Britain - the white academics - have made no demonstrable effort to transcend their own cultural and ethnic boundaries and reach out to developing societies in any meaningful way. As a result, the bulk of the British development studies literature is insulated from any real contact with those societies.The nebulous corpus has in the main grown out of the writings of white expatriate authors drawing on the writings of other white expatriate authors.

As few of these authors are able to speak directly to grassroots people in non-white societies, or to read the literature published in the languages of those societies, what they created in most cases was a network of white man's views on other peoples' worlds - an "our-views-of-their-world" kind of social science.

Some white development studies academics may also have a vested interest in not recognising the worth of writings which stem from familiarity with non-white societies. They may find these writings threatening because they do not sit comfortably with the white ethnocentric knowledge network which currently enjoys mainstream status.

Once it becomes general practice that all development studies academics, white as well as non-white, acquire proficiency in at least one non-white language, the matter will no longer be a race issue. At the moment it is.

I do not think it will be easy to get the senior white academics of these departments to move out of the seductive comfort of a colonial tradition of research which has served them for so long. But this is precisely the challenge which has to be met if we are ever to win the battle for racial equality and academic standards in the academic labour market, particularly with regard to jobs in the development studies field.

The bottom line is this. People who are building careers off the backs of Asian and African societies have an obligation to learn at least one of the languages of those societies to degree level. We must not let them hide behind the conspiracy of silence which prevails. If we do, we will be acquiescing in the continuation of institutionalised racism in British academia.

Suranjit K. Saha is senior lecturer, University of Wales, Swansea.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.