Who do you represent when you write and speak? Even talking about yourself cannot be confined to your life, because people draw meaning from your lived experience in ways that are out of your control. This is the trade-off for listening. When you write, you filter reality. When you speak, you become a proxy for your ‘kind.’ It is natural to process the world through learnt cues.
When you are in a position of authority, what you say and do becomes ‘truth.’ Academics are in the business of making truth. There is much hubris involved in dedicating our lives to becoming the voice for the voiceless. During the colonial days, anthropologists were enlisted to unravel the mysteries behind the ‘exotic’ subjects in occupied regions of the world and filter these understandings in ways palatable to the domestic public. Centuries later, mysteries continue to pervade about much of the underprivileged and unattended world.
A well-meaning academic faces numerous obstacles when undertaking this responsibility of representation today. The academic norm is Western, white and masculine. To deviate from this demands an explanation. You may be asked whether your scholarship is an ‘area studies’ endeavour that may pigeonhole your scholarship within the boundaries of that chosen group and region. Will your research globalise the norm and thereby serve as an instrument to scale best practices? Is your work intended to create reflection by challenging popular worldviews, possibly creating a new norm?
The politics of representation goes beyond your scripted word. Your gender, race, class and other group affiliations play out as a default in today’s identity-charged and diversity-starved academic climate. We are confronted by the fact that the academic world continues to perpetuate the old guards and gatekeepers despite the tremendous progress we have made. The burden of representation falls disproportionately on the ‘exotic’ scholars who are compelled to speak for entire communities. Leveraging on your tokenism can be useful as it gives you a wider berth, but it is also tremendously crippling as it is impossible to speak for all of your ‘kind.’ Even if you were to stay silent, your presence speaks.
If this weren’t enough, today’s university system expects you to be an extension of their brand. The marketization of your scholarship should toe the line with a vision that can lead to a higher ranking and a global reputation. Your research should be in the right flavour of the trends set by grant agencies. Self-branding is the ultimate commodification of your identity.
So as we trudge along in the line of scholarly duty, shall we dare to ask, who do we actually represent?
Payal Arora is an Associate Professor at Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication