Positionality Killed
The PHD
By Merissa Brown

But this isn’t as bad as I’m making out, right? I’m still Black, no? What privilege do I have to be anyone’s master? Behave.

Published date

13 June 2023

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Note: in the spirit of ‘imagining otherwise’, this blog post will be written in the rambling, unfiltered prose of the writer. It will serve to imagine a world in which academic spaces are filled with people acknowledging their true selves, empowered to no longer conform to a standard that does not reflect who they are.

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

So I helped plan an amazing event called ‘Imaging Otherwise’ recently. The Centre used the book, ‘Experiments in Imagining Otherwise’ by Lola Olufemi, to set the tone of imagining what society could be…

What could secondary education be without racism? What could society be if we fully embraced afrofuturism? What could adoption be without anti-blackness? What if we abolished adoption, full stop? What could marginalised communities be if we used our spaces to create these futures? The speakers and performers had my mind buzzing with ideas and possibilities. But not in the way you’re probably thinking. Follow me on this mental trip.

You see, the speakers were different kinds of people from all over Sheffield – mainly academics but some were also local community members and third sector actors already doing the work. Not only are they ‘imagining otherwise’, they embody‘otherwise’. ‘Otherwise’ is in their hands, their minds, their very sense of being. They emulated ‘otherwise’ so much that many attendees left the event inspired – they felt empowered to be the change they wanted to see (forgive me for using the most cliche motivational quote ever).

And so was I. I mean that’s why I’m here in the university, right? That’s why I chose to research racism (one of the most tumultuous topics ever) in experiences of blood cancer care (one of the most sensitive topics ever), right? Like most Black scholars, I want to be the change I want to see… right?

So why did I choose to effect that change through a PhD? How many of these speakers who are out there actively chipping away at the massive iceberg that is systemic oppression have a ‘Dr’ before their name? Why do I feel I need the ‘Dr’ title to start chipping away at it with them?

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.

Audre Lorde, 1979; p2

Because what am I doing here? I feel like I had such amazing intentions with this PhD but they’re slowly disappearing with every day that it goes on. With every passing day I feel so much more introspective about my project and my blackness – so much so that it’s almost like I’m having ‘out of body’ experiences when thinking about it. With every book and paper I read, I distance myself further away from my body, analysing my navigation through the world as a Black woman from a third party lens. 

At first I thought this was amazing – it’s made me so introspective and I question everything about myself and my experiences. It equips me with theoretical frameworks that can name society’s infinite forms of racism. And like Voldemort, I believe that naming racism makes it weaker. But now I’m realising that this out-of-body feeling is making me feel distant from my reality. Rather than feeling emotions when I clock the everyday racisms that I encounter, I analyse them. I speak academic jargon (unconscious bias, interest convergence, differential racialisation, blah blah blah…) and I think about myself auto-ethnographically. I don’t feel like me anymore. I don’t feel… real.

But this isn’t as bad as I’m making out, right? I’m still Black, no? What privilege do I have to be anyone’s master? Behave.

I was a participant in a research session about Black academics in UK universities not too long ago and whew! The epiphany I had. I spoke about my PhD experience feeling like an endless paradox: I’m trying to do decolonisation work in a heavily colonial institution through the lens of colonial discipline. I am using the master’s best tools to try and dismantle the master’s biggest house – a mansion if you will.

I tell myself that all the time but I can’t lie, it’s just a coping mechanism. Because Audre’s speaking facts. I’m proudly wielding the master’s tools like Thor’s hammer trying my best to ignore the fact that my positionality as a researcher representing the institution is exploitative. I’m constantly asking myself: how does that even make sense?

Why should my participants divulge their most sensitive, heartbreaking thoughts and feelings to me in this project? Because I’m a Black woman helping to advance my community through health equity? Sure. Let’s go with that. But if we’re being real, the chances that health equity would happen in this generation are slim to none. That my participants will suddenly be seen as whole, worthy human beings in a system that was never designed to see them as anything but inferior. 

How will I change my participant’s lives directly, today? I won’t. 

But I’ll be prancing on stage with a doctorate certificate in my hand, doffing my cap in the weird ritual that is graduation. I will be celebrated for completing an amazing, shiny project that ripped the heart out of cancer patients and displayed it for the (academic) world to see. And they will continue living their lives, hoping that even in the smallest of ways, my project will have changed our community for the better. 

In truth I do hope my project advances the experiences of BAME (I hate that word) blood cancer patients. I hope that my project is one of many that would bring us closer to health equity. I hope that my project will change the world. And every single day I tell myself it will, just to conceal my guilt of doing it this way. The exploitative way.

But is there a way that isn’t exploitative?

Honestly, I don’t know that there is and that frustrates me. The ‘out of body’ experience isn’t only a metaphor for us – we’re always being reminded that our bodies are not actually our own. And I, a Black female PhD candidate, am reinforcing that narrative and I feel like I don’t have any choice in the matter.

Damn, even in our salvation there is suffering.

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Merissa Brown

Research

My academic and professional background has been instrumental in developing  a research interest in racial health inequality, both traditionally and digitally. My PhD research therefore focuses on understanding and mitigating the inequalities faced by ethnic minorities with blood cancer in the UK.

I enjoy interdisciplinary and collaborative modes of working. The combination of the practical and the theoretical underpins all of my research interests and I seek to create synergies by bringing people together. Working with vulnerable groups and using the arts and education to engage communities and move them towards a more inclusive society is what I hope to achieve with my academic research. Cultural heritage and digital technologies are also key parts of my current practice.

Photocredit KoZin Photography

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By Rosemaria Kostic Cisneros
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