The field of racial and sexual minority studies is arguably in its formative stage in Canada. This is not the case in the United States, where a large corpus of studies has been published on a range of issues that affect the health and well-being of sexual minorities of colour.
One area of research that has received wide coverage and attention at scholarly forums and in academic journals is the disproportionate impact of HIV/AIDS on men who have sex with men (MSM), especially MSM of colour. American sexual minority scholars of colour have largely moved beyond a deficit analysis of the virus to examine epidemiological and sociocultural factors that predispose these men to getting the disease. However, in Canada this shift has yet to materialize in a substantive way.
There are historical, social, cultural, economic and political reasons for this disparity. For example, Harriet Eisenkraft reported in this magazine on the persistent structural racism faced by academics of colour (among which I include Indigenous faculty and scholars) in the Canadian academy. A chilly climate of racism has the consequence of keeping qualified scholars of colour from positions of leadership and out of academia. Without these academics to carry out research, policy work and analysis, White academics could exploit members from this population for their own self-interest, in the guise of scholarly progress.
If MSM and other sexual minorities of colour are to take control of their lives, more needs to be done. Arguments in favour of recruiting and retaining faculty of colour are overwhelming. Nevertheless, such faculty continue to lag in representation compared to their numbers in the general population. Even with the “changing of guard” spurred on by baby boomers entering retirement, the status quo remains unchanged in Canada, whereby institutions of higher learning continue to hire White academics from the United States.
This migration of White American academics has affected the development of research agendas on issues affecting racial and sexual minority MSM in this country, by creating barriers to hiring sexual minority scholars of colour who might otherwise wish to assume leadership roles and be seen by other academics and research funding bodies as experts in this area. In turn, this affects funding opportunities where an academic needs to demonstrate competency and credibility through his or her publication record and proven success in securing research funding. With the predominance of White scholars leading the research effort as principal investigators, supported by the few non-White scholars and community workers in the roles of ancillary investigators or community advisory board members, there can be little question as to who ultimately benefits from this asymmetrical power relation.
White academics’ inclusion of racialized scholars and community workers in research involving members from these communities is – to borrow from University of Utah professor Audrey Thompson – a strategic tactic intended to produce a more marketable commodity. Intentionally or not, White academics may usurp control from the marginalized groups that their research is meant to help; their self-imposed authority may serve to define the parameters of what constitutes knowledge about the population of study. Racialized sexual minorities and researchers need the liberty to take the lead on issues affecting members of their own communities, without the added pressure from White academics or research funding bodies that may not have the communities’ interests at heart.
Racial and sexual minority scholars lead the way
Considering, as I do, that the field of racial and sexual minority studies is at a crossroads in Canada, there is an urgent need for strategic, forceful intervention by sexual minority academics of colour on the direction of the research agenda proposed by majority (i.e., White) academics. Research involving nonheterosexual people of colour, particularly among MSM, has remained stubbornly focused on HIV/AIDS-related pathology, despite an understanding of the limitations of a single-axis framework of analysis.
As an MSM of colour, I am a member of a group uniquely positioned along the axes of race and sexual orientation. We sexual minorities of colour risk too much if we let our silence and inaction immobilize us from doing what we know to be right – our people will suffer for it.
Several courses of action present themselves. We need to develop a sustainable national research body similar to the Black Gay Research Group (BGRG) in the United States. This group functions as a hub or reference point for racial outsiders and organizations interested in undertaking research in racial and sexual minority communities. In this way, the BGRG advocates for research that advances the interest of Black gay men. Beyond this commitment, the BGRG seeks to nurture talents from our own communities to prepare individuals for leadership roles within and outside academia. I was privileged to take on such a role in the past and being given the opportunity to learn from leading Black scholars in their fields.
We also need to establish short- and long-term strategic research plans that go beyond the discourse of HIV/AIDS. Although I recognize the global significance of this epidemic for members of our communities, and share with others the desire for an end to the disease, I also know that the field of HIV/AIDS research and prevention has become a profitable industry by which our collective interests have not always been well served. Whether individually or collectively, we must find ways to integrate into our work this commitment to move beyond disease-oriented goals when addressing issues of concern to MSM of colour, and to insist on this as a condition to partnering with outside researchers (including White academics) in our struggle to resist the deficit/disease narrative that have become synonymous with who we are.
Those of us in positions to influence faculty appointments need to hold universities and administrators accountable for their business-as-usual practices that eschew any consideration of the issues that arise from the recruitment and hiring of White academics from elsewhere. I am not arguing for a ban on hiring White academics. But I am suggesting that a closer scrutiny of the immediate and likely future scholarship of these individuals is warranted, to ensure the well-being of racial and sexual minorities. Ultimately, though, this concern speaks to the role universities and their administrators can play when they invest in and nurture home-grown talents from within our communities.
White sexual minority academics and responsible “allyship”
John Donne said: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Racial and sexual minorities cannot shoulder the responsibility for redressing current challenges alone. Solidarity for social justice means not allowing the targets of oppression to do all the heavy lifting while everyone else benefits from their labour. White, same-sex identified academics are implicated in this struggle and need to recognize how they are advantaged by current unjust and oppressive systems.
For these academics, the principles of being a responsible ally demand full commitment to the ongoing struggles of racial and sexual minorities, and not only when it is advantageous to do so (for example, for publications or tenure). Being a responsible ally entails acknowledging racial and sexual minorities’ right to self-determination, of which the power to determine the parameters, scope and nature of research about us is paramount.
This idea is reminiscent of the “for us by us” (FUBU) insistence on the development of enterprises by Black people for Black people. The current system, which privileges White academics’ epistemological and ontological authority, subverts our collective coherence and radicalness; in doing so, it invalidates the knowledge-producing activities of racialized sexual minorities at the same time as it incentivizes the production of knowledge about us by White academics. The fact that there exist few racialized sexual minority scholars in academia to lead FUBU research is not a coincidence; rather than view this institutionalized system of oppression as an opportunity for self-advancement, social justice-conscious White academics should use their privilege to educate other White people and to denounce the conditions that maintain the status quo. Such actions could challenge tendencies by White academics to take over, when all that may be required of them is support to facilitate the contexts for us to lead research about the communities with which we share racial and sexual membership.
It is tempting to believe there are no alternatives to the current practice model in which White academics lead research on racialized sexual minorities. However, meaningful and substantive actions can only be taken when we understand how existing structures disadvantage members of this group. Because power is central to this debate, strong opposition against vested interests is needed in order to achieve transformational change.
Sulaimon Giwa is a PhD candidate in the school of social work at York University.