A case of mistaken identities

December 10, 1999

Nadia Lovell describes her experience as a 'white' woman teaching 'black' students in Britain about African history and culture.

My first experience of teaching theories of religion at a British university followed extensive fieldwork in West Africa. It was clear in my first encounter with students that I was not only involved in the simple teaching of an academic subject relating to Africa but also in questions of identity, cultural belonging and of definition of self.

The basic dilemma my students presented me was this: how could I present myself as an authority on Africa when the colour of my skin allegedly denoted me as an exploitative, domineering neo-


The antagonism in and out of the classroom ranged from mild hissing to the noisy consumption of food during lectures.

While introducing a particular ethnography, I was taken to task for using in my lecture the expression "erecting a shrine", which students alleged deliberately and inappropriately sexualised all African religious activities.

In another encounter outside my office, one particular student, who was consistently absent from compulsory seminars, accused me of harassment when I inquired about his poor attendance and said he would report me to higher authorities.

On another occasion, while discussing phenomenological ap-proaches to the study of religion, I was interrupted by a student who denounced the explicitly politicised attempt of "depriving Africans of any intellectual ability" and was told that the experiential and performative emphasis denied the possibility of cerebral activity for the actors involved.

Significantly, quite the opposite argument was put to me a few weeks later when complaints were raised about the perceived heavy emphasis on theoretical interpretations of religion, at the expense of experiential and descriptive approaches.

In addition, as this course was part of the curriculum in a non anthropological department, I was also faced with disgruntled students who told me they had enrolled here precisely because they deliberately wished to avoid any contact with anthropology and its practitioners. This was because the discipline was perceived to be (I am paraphrasing here) "as colonial as can be since no Africans are practising it".

They had expected the department to have a bibliography devoid of any anthropological literature and certainly not to have employed an anthropologist to teach such a course.

The bibliography was a particular problem. The students refused to read the literature on Africa claiming it was too eurocentric and reading was unnecessary because of their inherent African identity.

Interestingly, some of my students of African origin equally refused to partake in the writings of Victor Mudimbe, Paulin Hountondji, Achille Mbembe or Chinua Achebe, arguing that the impact of western education had turned them into pseudo-westerners. Thus for these students, being of African descent was deemed to impart an implicit knowledge of ritual and religion that justified bypassing the reading list.

Although the criticism relating to the western-biased influence on the production of knowledge about Africa could arguably be sustained because much anthropological writing is produced elsewhere, the stance taken by my African-British students made seminars unsustainable and unproductive.

The academic argument that the material should at least be read for it to be better criticised did not impress. Allocated readings were seldom completed. Most oral reports and written work on the (un-read) literature were based on a perceived understanding of myths, cosmologies and rituals that often replicated (western-imparted) stereotypes of African religion in their crudest and most general manifestations. The metaphysical aspects were praised and emphasised, as were the cohesive and soothing properties of African religious practices.

Things came to a head in the fifth or sixth week of term. Having asked students to see me individually, we came to an agreement that they would concentrate more on reading outlined materials as this was part of the requirements for successfully completing their degree.

While in my office, each of them had been relatively conciliatory, and agreed that they would most probably "not get away" with obtaining their results successfully if they continued to ignore the work they had to do.

Out of the six or seven students involved in this "revolt" a few had, it seemed, decided that their individual motivation to obtain a degree overrode the larger concerns and misgivings they had about the perceived racism of an academic institution in which they had enrolled. One of them consulted me a few days after our meeting to enquire about bibliographic references for a future essay, which she completed within stipulated deadlines.

For others, however, disillusion was compounded. One decided to leave the course altogether, arguing that it was too theoretical and should have concentrated more on participatory and practical aspects of religion.

For a few weeks things were calm and I believed the clashes to have come to a natural conclusion. Yet I had the distinct impression that my students' conciliatory response followed the conventional university power structure in which a divide-and-rule strategy had allowed the curriculum to proceed according to its stipulated timetable, fixed agenda and administrative constraints. The students' and staff's long-term underlying concerns were still, on the whole, unaddressed.

Finally, having decided to be more tolerant of what I perceived to be the disruptive behaviour of the "protagonist" in this drama we appeared, during one of our private discussions and after some deliberation, to have reached the consensus that he should lead a seminar and present reading material on African cosmology for further discussion with other participants.

This particular student had on several occasions bitterly complained that the experiential basis of African religion was being ignored, that the theoretical component was obscuring issues of understanding of what religion and ritual were really about, and that "African" knowledge and enactment of such matters were being deleted out of the agenda.

Although he had never been to Africa, he said African religion was part and parcel of his upbringing in Britain. The seminar session was intended to (re-)frame experiential knowledge for an open presentation while simultaneously providing the opportunity to formulate a critique of existing bibliographic material on which we had both agreed.

This was not to be: the presentation soon turned into an exercise that tested my patience, as it became increasingly obvious that the allocated readings had not been completed and that the personal experiences referred to in our previous private discussion were now being referred to in terms of "the metaphysical value of African religion is that it takes care of your soul"... "there is communion between humans, ancestral spirits and gods..."; all statements which, admittedly, I found out of place in this context because of their overly generalising tendencies.

I interrupted the exercise, an action which infuriated my student to such an extent that he left the room. The seminar then proceeded, but it was obvious that the remaining participants' loyalties were utterly divided.

Revealing these events to colleagues opened up a Pandora's box of similar narratives that would not otherwise have been mentioned or acknowledged.

Academia is riddled with such incidents and they do not afflict only white lecturers, however these are defined. Among others, a West African colleague has reported how he was "harassed" (his expression) by a group of British-African students for working in Britain rather than "returning to his own country where he could be more useful".

Another, also from West Africa, has been accused of "pretending to be white" since she has chosen to work in Europe, while an East African colleague has been urged to "Africanise" her bibliography and adopt debates that are "relevant to Africans".

Such incidents are related in corridors, coffee rooms and other unofficial settings, suggesting an unease about openly acknowledging their occurrence. The scorching exposure to such rebellions in class might be deemed another rite of passage for academics.

Nevertheless, each of us is left to address these difficulties individually and with no more assistance than the comfort and general understanding from disparate colleagues after the event.

The problem is partly institutional and partly dependent on wider political issues. Some sympathy could, therefore, be extended to the students. They often see academics as representatives of the wider political context, and may view universities as an extension of essentially racist social institutions.

By contrast, academics may perceive their commitment to teaching African subjects as, at best, an expression of their liberal politics and engagement or, at worst, as a highly apolitical research interest.

Whether it is appropriate or not for a non-black, non-African to teach a subject relating to Africa lies outside the scope of this article. At the time of these events, a close friend (should it be added, African?) regularly confirmed to me what he considered the ludicrousness of such claims.

"On that basis," he told me, "only blond, blue-eyed Germans would be entitled to play Schubert, only children would be allowed to talk to and about other children, and one would not be able to sample, let alone cook, one another's cuisine."

Showing no interest in Africa may be deemed equally neo-colonial and exploitative. Who is ultimately to decide what is or is not relevant to and valid for an African audience?

What constitutes "Africa" and "Africanness" has become increasingly complex. Geographical boundaries represent only a limited basis on which to build identity. The conflict in which I became embroiled arose partly from an oversimplified notion of identity, in which black and white were seen as antagonistic.

For political action, my students may indeed find justifications. In class and in the context of teaching Africa, I was seen to represent whiteness, which was the embodiment of unbalanced power relations. Consequently, a hegemonic and unified definition of Africanness may well reflect the political need for a search for unity. Yet it also echoes early academic and contemporary reductionist discourses on identity.

It is clear that the composite nature of identity becomes difficult to accommodate in these cultural confrontations as it is simply out of place. Although enacted in a conflict that pitched students identifying themselves with African culture and identity against their lecturer who was, in this instance, made to represent white and western supremacist values, the microcosm of the classroom obviously reflected wider political and social tensions.

Reality is never that simple and the multiplicity and composite nature of cultural constructs are often lost in the process.

Nadia Lovell is a lecturer in the department of anthropology, Eliot College, University of Kent Canterbury.

The identities of all individuals have been altered for ethical reasons.

An extended version of this paper appeared in Anthropology Today Vol 15, No 3, June 1999.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

James Fryer illustration (27 July 2017)

It is not Luddism to be cautious about destroying an academic publishing industry that has served us well, says Marilyn Deegan

Jeffrey Beall, associate professor and librarian at the University of Colorado Denver

Creator of controversial predatory journals blacklist says some peers are failing to warn of dangers of disreputable publishers

Hand squeezing stress ball
Working 55 hours per week, the loss of research periods, slashed pensions, increased bureaucracy, tiny budgets and declining standards have finally forced Michael Edwards out
Kayaker and jet skiiers

Nazima Kadir’s social circle reveals a range of alternative careers for would-be scholars, and often with better rewards than academia

hole in ground

‘Drastic action’ required to fix multibillion-pound shortfall in Universities Superannuation Scheme, expert warns