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_IDEAS_ In conversation

FREE THINKING

Professor Tamar Garb, Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies, discusses the launch of the Centre for the Study of Race and Racism with its founding director, Professor Paul Gilroy

Photography Leon Csernohlavek

Photograph of Professors Tamar Garb and Paul Gilroy standing side by side with books behind them

The Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS), although only four years old, is already making its mark at UCL. It was founded as “a way of fostering interdisciplinary research in the humanities and social sciences, as well as showcasing and bringing together existing scholarship from across UCL,” says the IAS Director, Professor Tamar Garb. With some interesting teaching and thinking around issues of race, racialisation and racism already happening around UCL, it made sense to consolidate this work and foster new research and teaching in a dedicated Centre based in the IAS.

“I’m not wedded to the title ‘Centre for the Study of Race and Racism’,” says its founding Director, Professor Paul Gilroy, “but it is an indicative title and in some sense a provocation, because to study racism and take it seriously is not something that the academic world has been known to do.” Professor Gilroy believes that the past 25 years or so have seen “the study of race clouded by accusations of political correctness, of being insubstantial and not worthy of serious academic engagement.” For him, the project of the Centre “is not merely to vindicate but also extend and build on the history of those initiatives in which racism has been taken seriously as an object of academic study and research. Questions of race and the history of the era of race thinking, which is so fundamental to the development of academic disciplines particularly in imperial and colonial countries, can then be really looked at with a critical eye.”

Professor Paul Gilroy pictured mid discussion

“TO STUDY RACISM AND TAKE IT SERIOUSLY ISN’T SOMETHING THAT THE ACADEMIC WORLD HAS BEEN KNOWN TO DO”

This chimes with what Professor Garb sees as the Institute’s imperative for fostering disruptive thinking. “We are interested in working with researchers, academics and scholars to think freely and creatively in ways that cut against the grain of normalised and normative discourses,” she says. “We’re asking what it means to disobey the traditions and the inherited protocols of disciplinary thought-making and concept formation from multiple perspectives and to think anew around old concepts, tropes and habits.”

For Professor Gilroy, this means rethinking race studies. “For a long time, the intellectual agenda around race has been set by North America – and quite appropriately by African-American freedom struggles,” he says. “But I think the time has come to develop a different and distinctive view of these things. There are lots of things going on here in Europe which require their own forms of discussion, interpretation and intention.” The growing problems of xenophobia, ultra-nationalism and populist politics are top of the agenda.

“You can give people all the information, but it guarantees nothing with regard to the question of the currency and the intensity with which they invoke or invest in racial hierarchy,” he says. “We have to unlock the questions of why a rationalist view of how the idea of race lives and dies, fluctuates in the political world. To do this we have to be able to engage with social and psychological dynamics, with questions of ontology, like feeling and being.”

The centre also arrives at a time when institutions are taking account of their historical legacies of race thinking and practice; UCL itself is conducting an inquiry regarding the historical role it played in the development of eugenics. “Our own forms of privilege, in terms of our intellectual pedigrees, our ways of thinking, and our institutional and social practices are being opened up to scrutiny in an extremely urgent and necessary way,” says Professor Garb. But she believes that by accounting for its own history with an open-ended quest to critique itself, UCL will open up possibilities for new ways of thinking and bringing in new audiences.

Beyond its research goals, the Centre will have an important pedagogic function, introducing a new MA course for which they hope to attract students from all areas to the city. “London is a very particular kind of world city,” says Professor Gilroy, “in constant transition from existing before England itself, to sitting on the jugular vein of empire; and now it’s mutating again. It’s a great resource from which these experiments and activities can be conducted.” Professor Garb agrees that “London is crucial as a vantage point from which to think in an expansive way but it presents some practical challenges. For one thing it is rather expensive – and with the increasingly restricted funding landscape for MA students, challenges lie ahead. We’re looking at finding ways to help diverse and original voices to be part of this. We want the freedom to think afresh and with those who put pressure on our conventions and habits of mind.”

Find out more at ucl.ac.uk/institute-of-advanced-studies

Photograph of Professors Tamar Garb and Paul Gilroy pictured mid discussion
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