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I Can’t Breathe: Higher Education, Race and Power

Penny Jane Burke, Global Innovation Chair of Equity and Director of the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education (CEEHE)


The collective repetition of George Floyd’s words “I can’t breathe” is bringing people together to demand equal justice and change across a range of diverse contexts and perspectives. The words “I can’t breathe” have become symbolic of the longstanding systemic and structural racism built into our social institutions suffocating the life from our personal bodies and institutional spaces. This includes higher education, which is often perceived as a neutral institution that generates objective modes of research, teaching and learning and provides opportunities for all people regardless of social background through merit-based mechanisms. The discourses of neutrality, objectivity and merit make a significant contribution to sustaining institutionalised racism, by erasing from view the violent histories that have led to and continue to perpetuate the exclusion of bodies of people and knowledge, embedding hegemonic values that thrive on White privilege and undermine knowledge, connection, compassion and hope across multiple dimensions of injustice.

The call for justice and change being made by the Black Lives Matter movement requires that each of us engage in processes of self-reflexivity about our social positioning(s) and complicity in institutional racism, including those of us committed to social justice. It demands attention to the inter-relationship between the personal and the political, the microlevel experiences and the macrolevel structures and the discourses that profoundly shape the meanings we bring to projects such as “equity in higher education”. The ultimate effect of institutionalised oppression is dehumanisation, as Paulo Freire so importantly argued in his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In denying a person the space to breathe, to be, to speak, to act in the world, insidious and multiple expressions of dehumanisation are sustained. We are all situated in these deeply embedded dehumanising systems and we need collective reflection and action to open up counter-hegemonic possibilities that work hard to dismantle racialised inequalities. This needs to be done with careful consideration of the intersecting political forces that are co-supporting the interests of the much smaller but powerful dominant and dominating groups in societies. This requires close analysis of the working of power and translation of that analysis to activism – or “praxis”.

In CEEHE, we have brought attention to power and inequality as central to the work of creating equity in and through higher education through praxis-based approaches. As part of this, we have argued that hegemonic methods of measurement and evaluation, including “datafication”, in which all that we are is subjected to ranking, measurement and assessment, deepens multidimensional inequalities and further excludes the perspectives and values of communities historically excluded from occupying the authoritative position as the evaluator. Truth claims that rest on decontextualised, ahistorical and disembodied forms of evidence but deeply impact on marginalised communities erase the traces of histories of oppression, violence and gross injustices. Yet such hegemonic methods increasingly shape “equity” work, for which we turn to the “evidence” to focus on building the “success” of “equity students”. How success is measured (the methodological underpinnings) and by whom (those who have the power to do so) is taken for granted and/or erased from view. The profound effects of this on bodies of people and knowledge is also erased from view, except for perhaps instances of counting numbers of students from equity groups or by “adding value” through including some Indigenous knowledge on the curriculum. Both of these examples are tokenistic gestures to “equity” rather than deep commitments to institutional transformation for social and racial justice. This includes recognition of the ways histories of explicit forms of institutionalised violence and exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to be experienced through current forms of symbolic violence in higher education through those “equity practices” claimed to be “value-free”, “unbiased” and “objective”, denying that knowledge and power are inextricably entwined and producing evidence that benefits some (mainly White) groups and marginalises (mainly Black) others.

However, this is not a blame game – this is understanding that we are all complicit in these power relations and thus must work together differently. It is through our differences that we can better comprehend the ways unequal power relations might be transformed through an ongoing, tenacious, collective commitment to social justice methodologies and principles. This is about reflexive, deep orientations to “empowerment” that enable analysis of systems of oppression and ways to effect change. My experiences of the social world are constructed through my embodied subjectivity as a White woman with significant personal experiences of gendered violence and inequality and I recognise that I cannot speak on behalf of those with lived experience of racial injustice through their embodied subjectivity as a Black person. Indeed, Black feminist scholars across the world (for example Angela Davis) have enabled significant understanding of the problematic positioning of White feminists speaking on behalf of all women, without understanding intersectional oppression of race and gender (at both the structural and personal levels), illuminating the centrality of difference in our social justice work. In engaging with difference, I aim to challenge problematic polarising debates that serve to divide and homogenise. My commitment is to take part in collaborative processes of understanding and then dismantling structures, relations and practices of injustice and oppression.

We have the potential to work together across our differences to effect transformative social justice change within our institutions, including higher education, a most significant site of the legitimation – and exclusion - of bodies of knowers and knowledges. The relationship between the personal and political, and the political and personal, remains key in my view. By drawing from our different experiences of inequality (whether direct or as witness to) we can use that precious knowledge and understanding towards a collective process of social justice transformation, refusing to accept those dehumanising practices that cause long-standing pain, trauma, harm and shame. This is necessarily a collaborative project in which I understand my contribution as in solidarity with those who have direct experiences of institutional racism. I recognise that I am situated in the very power relations I aim to transform, and due to this social location, I too am complicit in structural forms of inequality. The protests centred around the symbolic repetition of “I can’t breathe” carries with it potential for transformative praxis, for which higher education carries tremendous responsibility, and for which all of us privileged to take part in such processes must strive hard towards generating change.


We acknowledge and respect the Awabakal People, the traditional custodians of the land on which we work.

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