How white is your reading list?

all male panel
White males talk about their own narrow view of the world

Academia can’t go on like this. I’m starting a new job teaching security studies and political violence at a major university in the UK. In the first term I’ll be teaching a Master’s level course, Security Studies, owned by a senior academic who does important and critical work on security in the global south. I admire his work, and this post is not intended as a dig at him, but at academia as a whole, and particularly my field. The other day I took my reading list and analysed the authors listed there (crudely) by race and gender. I made a spreadsheet and took tallies of the following categories: White Male (WM), White Female (WF), Nonwhite Male (NWM) and Nonwhite Female (NWF), on a weekly and then overall basis. I then calculated the overall stats for each category, and Male/Female, White/Nonwhite and so on. Here is what I found:

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 4.44.09 PM

So, here are the key stats (as a % of the total readings):

White Male : 75%

White Female: 17%

Nonwhite Male: 4%

Nonwhite Female: 1%

Male: 81%

Female: 16%

White: 91%

Nonwhite: 6%

(If these don’t add up precisely it’s because there are some unknowns)

Methodology: I google image-searched each name and judged if they were white or nonwhite. I recognise this is quite flawed, and also I was getting so desperate to not tick the ‘white male’ box that I had quite an expansive definition of nonwhite (Spanish? Greek?) A better way to do it would be to ask people how they define themselves.

Here is the breakdown by week:

Week 1: Welcome to the White Male’s view of Security (93% White Male)

Week 2: Non traditional security 1, or the White Male begins to notice ‘new’ issues (87% White Male)

Week 3: Non traditional security 2, or the (white) female is allowed to speak but only if it’s about peace and gender (40% White Male, because men don’t talk about peace)

Week 4: Manland: the nuclear weapon (75% White Male)

Week 5: Conventional weapons, or to what extent should we let them buy our weapons? (67% White Male)

Week 6: Reading week

Week 7: Ethnic conflict, or the White Male narrates ‘non-white’ conflicts (78% White Male)

Week 8; Terrorism, or what happens when the nonwhites strike back (75% White Male)

Week 9: The News Media, or White Men (and women) talking about how the media is biased towards themselves (83% White Male)

Week 10: Iraq, as narrated by former and current colonial overlords (86% White Male)

Week 11: Development, or how can we make them look more like us? (without including their voices) (64% White Male, 76% White)

While I was doing these tallies I started to feel more and more sad about what I was finding, not that it came particularly as a surprise. Academia in this country is overwhelmingly white and male, I can see that. When I was doing my PhD, in quite a radical politics department at another major university, the only black people I saw were employed to clean the building, and students, not teaching staff members. But still, the world is a rich and diverse place, even in academia, which does extend beyond the ‘West’ (ie Europe and the US/Canada). I know that, because I wrote a course on the ‘Arab Spring’ once, and it was mainly (more than 60%) made up of scholars and commentators from the Middle East, north Africa and Iran, with a roughly equal balance of men and women. It wasn’t hard. So, they definitely are out there. It’s just not good enough that we give students course material that is over 80% written by white people.  What we are doing is projecting a minority (white people are a minority let’s not forget) view over the entire planet. Supposedly radical academics who give their students reading lists over 80% white are kind of like Marxist academics crossing picket lines, which I remember from my time as a PhD. Enough of the academic hypocrisy.


Perhaps even more galling is that this reading list contains a week on ‘ethnic conflict’ (78% White Male, 85% White) and ‘development’ (77% White). There’s the epistemological problem I have with the notion of ‘ethnic conflict’ itself, (aren’t white people’s wars ‘ethnic conflict’? Why not? What about Israel, a nation that defines itself by ethnicity – not ethnic conflict for some reason … ) further entrenched by (or created by) the fact that it’s a problem written by white people. Perhaps the figure that makes me the most sad is this: nonwhite female: 1%. Effectively what I am saying to my students through delivering this course is that the views of nonwhite women do not matter. I don’t want to be part of system that delivers that message, and that is what IR/Security/Politics courses at top universities are doing all the time.

Why does it matter? A friend of mine is doing research into inequality in Higher Education. I asked her the other day how HE could become more equal. She told me that ethnic minorities are if anything over-represented in the student population. But, somehow it doesn’t translate into the staff. Teaching staff remain overwhelmingly white. Perhaps nonwhite students feel like it’s just not a place for them. And I can sympathise with that in a way. I’m white, and middle class, so I don’t feel completely excluded from this system. But even after I’d won a scholarship for MA and PhD I still felt like, academia is not a place for me. It just felt so male, and so posh, so full of private school confidence to expound on the world that they’d never seen or experienced that I felt during my MA that I couldn’t ever belong in this place. I felt much more comfortable around ‘normal’ people, who hadn’t been to private school or sometimes university and didn’t use all the jargon but were still interested in the world beyond themselves. Then one day I saw a lecturer who looked like something I could be. I remember it precisely: she was older, from the ’68 revolutionary generation, a radical socialist and still an activist. I suddenly thought, maybe I could do that. It’s a cliche but true that you can’t be what you can’t see. Read this post by a student at a US institution accused of copy and pasting into an essay because it contained language that was ‘not her’s’ (read: formal ‘white’ language). She says:

as a student in an institution extremely populated with high-income white counterparts, I have felt the bitter taste of not belonging. It took until I used my cloud of doubt and my sociological training to realize that my insecurities are rooted in the systems I navigate every day.

And it’s not just about achieving equality and diversity in the academy, important though that it. It’s about reproducing the same problems we as critical academics deplore in the world: the prominence of white supremacist views in European and US political scenes, the marginalisation of ‘local voices’ in development, the imposition of aggressive trading conditions on the global south, military intervention in the global south, the exclusion of migrants at the borders of the global north. Academia, by focusing on the views of white men and women from the global north, reproduces these power imbalances that are exclusionary and hierarchical in the world itself.

We can’t ask our students to read critical theory but only as written by white people, or ask them to understand the world, but only as imagined by Euro-American Anglo men. That’s not the world! That’s the vestiges of colonialism living through to the present day. Academics, teachers, take a long hard look at your reading lists and see if they contain the message: ‘white people’s views are more important than others”. If you’re happy with telling your students that, well, then that’s a problem. If you’re not, then change them. We need to decolonise the reading list and decolonise the academy and it needs to happen now.



Indigenous studies portal

Cambridge students decolonise the reading list

Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP)


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