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Selective Free Speech: Academics Discussing Race Face the Real Cancel Culture

Black, Asian and ethnic minority academics and university staff increasingly encounter a ‘cancel culture’ when discussing race – as the usual free speech advocates stay silent, Sian Norris reports

Police officers guard the statue of Sir Winston Churchill during demonstrations. Photo: Thabo Jaiyesimi/SOPA Images/Sipa USA

Selective Free SpeechAcademics Discussing Race Face the Real Cancel Culture

Black, Asian and ethnic minority academics and university staff increasingly encounter a ‘cancel culture’ when discussing race – as the usual free speech advocates stay silent, Sian Norris reports

The decision by a Cambridge University college to disband a group exploring Churchill and imperialism is having a chilling effect “on anybody who departs from the official line on the British Empire and race”, Professor Priyamvada Gopal has told Byline Times

Churchill College’s Working Group on Churchill, Empire and Race was set up “to lead an ongoing critical dialogue about Churchill’s own legacy in global history”. It met with significant criticism from the right-wing press including the Daily Mail, which accused the group of being “left-wing academics intent on smearing the World War Two Prime Minister”. The Sun reported its disbanding by declaring “race group dumped” under the banner of “Wokepedia: a compendium of PC poppycock”. 

It was also criticised by the Policy Exchange think-tank which said that the disbanding was a “wise decision” and “shows that the defeat [of small-c conservatives] at the hands of activists is not inevitable”.

However, Prof Gopal, a teaching fellow at Churchill College, told Byline Times that “this is a very public gesture of the college pandering to the tabloids, to Policy Exchange, to [Education Secretary] Gavin Williamson and wanting to be applauded for it”.

A statement from the college master, Professor Dame Athene Donald, said that the group “disbanded itself” following a comment from Prof Gopal that it “might as well dissolve” after the college appeared “rattled” by the press reaction to an event it held. 

The statement also said that the Working Group was “intended to have a finite lifetime”. Prof Gopal has said that it is “untrue” that the group disbanded itself and its members “had not been told” that it had been constituted for a limited period. 

She is now concerned that the hostility faced by the group, and the decision by the college to disband it, has led to students feeling that Churchill College is “not a safe space for students of colour”. 

The academic also expressed concern that the decision had a repressive effect on academic freedom, telling Byline Times that “people are no longer comfortable, not only talking about Churchill, but even being on a panel where Churchill may be brought up”. 

Cancel Culture 

The decision to disband the Working Group has prompted questions about who the real targets of “cancel culture” are – a popular accusation thrown at the left from both the Government and the right-wing press, which argue that predominantly white men are being ‘cancelled’ by ‘woke universities’.

However, when it comes to academics and students of colour being effectively cancelled, tabloids celebrate their ‘axing’ and organisations such as Toby Young’s Free Speech Union are oddly silent. 

Young, the Union and various members including the Spectator‘s Douglas Murray and GB News‘ Inaya Folarin Iman all found time to tweet about Andrew Neil’s new television channel in the days that followed the Working Group’s cancellation – but failed to condemn this cancelling of an academic debate on social media or on the Union’s website. 

“At Cambridge, we had a group of people claiming they were all about free speech and forced the university to effectively outlaw no-platforming,” Prof Gopal said. “And these people have not had a word to say about what has happened at Churchill.”

Professor Gus John, an internationally-renowned academic, told Byline Times that he believes the “higher education sector is increasingly afraid of its shadow when it comes to discussing issues to do with race, racism and colonialism”.

“There is not a culture of open, free and democratic debate and discussion on racism in society as it affects black or global majority (BGM) staff and students, let alone as it helps to underpin structural and institutional arrangements and cultures in those institutions which BGM staff and students experience as racist,” he said.

The right-wing press in the UK, US, and some Government ministers have also launched an attack on critical race theory – an academic discipline designed to explore how racism shapes public policy. 

“It really is quite extraordinary that there has not been a hue and cry from university vice chancellors as a body about that disgraceful attack on critical race theory and on the Black Lives Matter movement,” Prof John added. “By its silence, the sector is complicit in the attack from media, Government and right/far-right actors, especially given the evident political lurch to the right by the Government.”

Who Defines Racism?

There has been a growing trend of black, Asian or ethnic minority university staff being accused of racism themselves when discussing issues of race. This includes accusations of so-called anti-white racism, which, Prof Gopal says, ignore how “racism is a structure, and when white supremacy is at the top of that structure, it’s about structural critique”.

In the case of Aysha Khanom, reported earlier this year by Byline Times, it can involve losing a university position following allegations of racism on social media – even when there is dispute as to whether the accusation of racism is valid or fair.

In February, Khanom’s organisation The Race Trust posted a tweet asking Conservative activist Calvin Robinson: “Does it not shame you that most people see you as a house n***o.” Robinson had appeared on the BBC’s The Big Questions where he said that this term had been directed at him in the past. The tweet was picked up by a variety of right-wing websites, as well as the Daily Mail. In response, Leeds Beckett University, where Khanom was affiliated as an advisor, publicly cut ties with her. 

Prof John said he told the university that “it was preposterous to call the tweet racist” and challenged it “to say why they defined it as such”, which it did not do.

The Institute of Race Relations has argued that “it is not a racial slur, although when used as part of an understanding of the history of black enslavement, it can certainly make people feel uncomfortable”. Similarly, in an open letter, Professor Kehinde Andrews wrote that “it is the height of anti-black racism to censor central concepts in black intellectual thought as ‘racist’ or ‘inappropriate’ and undermines the credibility of CRED and Leeds Beckett University”.

In correspondence seen by Byline Times, Prof John expressed concern that the university had failed to determine how and why the term used was racist and its history as a racial slur. As a result, it leaves the impression that the decision to sever ties with Khanom was based on the reaction from social media, with PR rather than debate setting the agenda for the university. 

As with the Churchill row, the activists and Government ministers who criticise cancel culture and claim to be fighting for freedom of speech have been strangely silent on Khanom’s case. 

“The university is trying to dictate academic freedom,” Khanom told Byline Times. “We are being accused of racism more than white people.” She is challenging Leeds Beckett University’s decision on the grounds that it breached her right to freedom of expression, as well as its own statutory duties to ensure freedom of speech for academics, because of preconceptions about its views on race, colonialism, the civil rights movement and racial identity.

Leeds Beckett University told Byline Times that it is “confident in the rigour” of its discussions with Khanom and the “integrity of the decision-making” and stands by the decision to cut ties with her. It said: “We do not support the media’s negative treatment of Ms Khanom. At no point was our decision-making influenced by comments made by the media or on social media except those made by Ms Khanom or the Race Trust.”

A spokesperson said: “The university acted on the tweet from the Race Trust’s Twitter account, for which, as both founder and director of the Trust, Ms Khanom is accountable for publicly expressed views, as well as two other comments made from Ms Khanom’s personal Twitter account. Representatives of the university sought to clarify the circumstances around the Twitter comments through discussions with Ms Khanom on two separate occasions. It was as a result of those conversations that the decision was made to cease association with Ms Khanom. This took place in a short timescale and the university is confident in the rigour of those discussions and the integrity of the decision-making and stands by that decision.

“The university firmly believes in academic freedom and freedom of expression. This stance is central to the work of the Centre for Race, Education and Decoloniality too. We recognise the importance of hearing and respecting different views and perspectives. But it is vital that disagreement is expressed without personal attack as this damages the rigour of the debate.”

Leeds Beckett University College Union told Byline Times that it stands in “solidarity” with Khanom and has “serious concerns at the way the University dealt with the situation” not least because “following the publication of the University’s tweet publicly disassociating itself from Aysha, she was subjected to a vicious and sustained pattern of racist abuse and trolling both in the national press and on social media.”

It added “the University terminated its association with Aysha amidst spurious allegations of racism against her from far-right extremists who are attempting to frame anti-racist activism as a form of racism. The University’s position has been used to justify online bullying against Khanom by far-right extremists. To date, despite numerous requests from the UCU to explain their decision the University has refused. It is important for Aysha and wider academic community that Leeds Beckett clearly state why and how the tweet was racist and explain their decision to cut ties with Aysha.”

The Leeds Beckett UCU expressed disappointment that “the University’s action was so hasty, and in so doing have not allowed sufficient time to consider all the relevant facts and issues. We believe that the university has misread the situation and urge them to offer a public apology  to Aysha, reinstate her as an advisor to the University’s Centre for Race, Education and Decoloniality and as a visiting lecturer acting as academic advisor to our undergraduate students.”

The Government is pressing forward with plans to protect free speech and academic freedom, in places relying on evidence from a designated ‘hate group‘. However, when it comes to the much-debated concept of ‘cancel culture’, questions must be asked about who is really being cancelled and whose voices are not being heard.

This article was updated at 6pm on 23 June 2021 to include the full original statement from Leeds Beckett University.

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