Academic entrepreneurship and white privilege

An interesting story circulated during the week which was widely seen as a particularly egregious instance of white privilege within the academy:

On the evening of March 25, the hashtag #CadaanStudies (“cadaan” meaning “white” in Somali) emerged amongst Twitter timelines as a small collective of Somali academics and writers spoke out, 140 characters (or less) at a time. Initiated by Safia Aidid, a Canadian Harvard PhD candidate, the hashtag gradually became a commentary on the whiteness and privileges prominent within academia. More specifically, the online conversation served as a direct response to the launch of the Somaliland Journal of African Studies (SJAS), a peer-reviewed scholarly journal that claims a particular focus on East Africa—the absence of a single Somali editor, advisory board member, or contributor left many pointing out that the only thing Somali about this journal is its title.

Founded by Rodrigo Vaz, a white male MSc candidate for The School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London, the journal was made in collaboration with University of Hargeysa’s Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. Yet somehow, it lacks any Somali involvement. This fundamental error is one often repeated in academia or any platforms that narrate the black or African experience.

While agreeing with how this case has been framed, as well as the condemnation it has been subject to, it strikes me that there’s another aspect of the story which has been less widely remarked upon:

But its description stating that SJAS is dedicated to “covering an academic research area in clear expansion” led many to wonder if this journal was simply created by an aspiring young, white academic hoping to attain credit in an area with growing scholarship that’s still garnering little attention.

Consider what has happened here: a masters student founds a journal and appoints himself Editor-in-Chief. How long has this been something that masters students do? It’s a broader instance of something that fascinates me. We can see it in the endless ‘turns’ in which someone seeks to capture the intellectual attention space in a way that ensures their own prominence within it. We can see it in the endless proliferation of X Studies in which the intellectual attention space fragments into discrete areas of inquiry with their own conferences, journals and networks within which early entrants automatically find themselves placed in a position of prominence.

There’s much more to academic entrepreneurship than this (as can be seen in the academic-as-fundraiser model we’re sliding towards) but these  intellectual strategies can usefully be seen in these terms. The impulse to pro-actively shape a field in this way is a situationally rational response to an accelerated academy in which secure jobs are scarce and attention spans are short. My point is not that privilege is incidental to the case but rather that what makes this story so off putting is the way in which academic entrepreneurship intersects with white privilege.

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