Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Slavery, Colonialism and Their Legacy in the Eurocentric University: The Case of Britain and the Netherlands

Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Slavery, Colonialism and Their Legacy in the Eurocentric University: The Case of Britain and the Netherlands

Article excerpt


This paper, which seeks primarily to cover current developments in Britain with reference to the US, should be read in conjunction with that of Kwame Nimako also included in this volume, who brings insights from the Netherlands and Britain. We hope to demonstrate some of the common patterns, but also some of the distinctive features, of Eurocentrism in western universities, with particular regard to research and analysis on slavery and its legacy.

By way of background, let me inform readers that I was born and raised in Britain before going to the US in 1984, and obtaining my Ph.D. there in 1989. Although I have lived mainly in the US since then, I make frequent trips to Britain and the Netherlands, carry out research projects and teaching initiatives with colleagues in Europe, and have established and/or directed international teaching programs for American students and others in Europe (France and the Netherlands), Africa (Zimbabwe) and in Brazil. I have been involved for the last 30 years with community initiatives across Britain around the legacy of slavery and colonialism, as well as with contemporary patterns or migration, settlement, discrimination and resistance. I have also worked on issues having to do with museums, representations, images and discourses, in the context of institutional disparities and disparities of access, in the US and in Europe. These experiences have given me ample opportunity for sustained consideration of research and teaching practices at the heart of the western academy as well as exposure to the links between academic research and both museums and community education projects.

The organization of universities across Europe and the US is predicated on assumptions and principles of objectivity, impartiality and scientific inquiry. Universities claim to encourage rigorous and broad-minded academic inquiry and to be open to all perspectives while subjecting them to rigorous interrogation and critique. However, any examination of universities in the US, Britain and the Netherlands leads one to observe institutions, processes and procedures that operate quite to the contrary (Essed and Nimako 2006). They are more likely to be restricted in access, limited in scope of study, narrow-minded in the range of epistemologies, and lacking in ethnic, gender and class diversity.


This institutional infrastructure of research and teaching are characterized by what Patricia Hill Collins has a called the Eurocentric, masculinist knowledge-validation process, by which certain types of knowledge, theories and methodologies are validated while others are invalidated (Collins, 1991). This process is constituted through an interlocking and overlapping set of institutions that produce, modify and validate knowledge. They disseminate it and give it a stamp of approval for academic and public consumption. These institutions include universities, professional associations, conferences, publishers, university presses and journals, and a community of credentialed experts. At the pinnacle are Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Berkeley in the US; in England there is Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and Warwick (those of us inside the university know how these institutions operate). The process works to marginalize and suppress any challenge to its authority structure. This is especially the case with regard to work on slavery and its legacy. The kind of knowledge that is valued is abstract and objective, grounded in European traditions of the disciplinary founding fathers such as Durkheim and Weber in sociology. Collins argues that the kind of knowledge produced by Black women--knowledge that is concrete, subjective, and grounded in their experiences--is marginalized and invalidated. This narrows the focus of analysis and discussion and limits the vision. Collins argues that individuals who wish to re-articulate Black women's standpoint through Black feminist thought can be suppressed by prevailing knowledge validation processes. …

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