When writing public-facing policy-related reports, it is pro forma that the author(s) put forward a series of recommendations. Most of the time, writing recommendations is a data-/evidence-led process. What is more, some of the standard academic advice on writing recommendations includes things like ensuring that the recommendations speak directly to the aims and objectives of the project, acknowledging any limitations of the research and, where relevant, proposing further research. It also strikes me that writing recommendations can be an afterthought – a task left until the final full stop has been put on the conclusions.
Over the past seven years I have been involved in co-authoring reports on subjects ranging from the public impact of Irish Republican and Loyalist processions in Scotland, workplace racism, and more recently racism, institutional whiteness and racial inequality in higher education. Towards the end of this summer, I carried out a thematic analysis of the recommendations put forward in key government and non-governmental reports relating to racism and racial inequality in Britain on behalf of the Stuart Hall Foundation.
Eight recurring themes emerged from the analysis of the 589 recommendations advanced in thirteen reports, ranging from the 1981 Scarman Report into the causes of the Brixton riots, through to David Lammy MP’s 2017 report ‘into the treatment of, and outcomes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the criminal justice system’. Truth be told, this research was a depressing and blunt reminder that the recommendations put forward in reports are rarely ever acted upon, even though the report findings are typically greeted with performative enactments of shock, shame and concern. Indeed, the failure to act evidences a longstanding lack of political commitment to unsettling the coordinates of racial hegemony and disturbing orthodox ways of doing things. So much so, I am reminded of the words of the late Black novelist, playwright, essayist, poet and activist, James Baldwin, who once asked, ‘How much time do you want for your "progress?"’.
In this piece I want to critically reflect on the work outlined above. In particular, I want to focus on my thinking and process when it comes to writing recommendations. In addition to discussing some of the dilemmas that I have encountered, I will also chart how my thinking and process has evolved in recent times.
‘The people we are writing for are the people we are fighting for’
Just over a year ago my friend Alistair Fraser asked me how I went about writing recommendations in the reports that I have co-authored on workplace racism. I responded to Alistair by describing how this had initially been a data-driven process. That is, I started by asking myself, ‘What are the key issues and take-away messages in each section of the report?’ and then set about tailoring my recommendations to these. This conversation would prompt me to think more deeply about what I was actually doing when utilising this approach.
To a certain extent, how we write recommendations will be shaped by the nature of the research (i.e. who commissions the research and what they want from it), as well as constraints of time and resource. For example, when leading the workplace racism research, the reports I co-authored were based on survey data that had already been collected. Thus, I did not have input into the design of the surveys, nor would it have been feasible for me to go back to some 30,000 anonymous survey participants and ask them for their thoughts on what the recommendations should be. In light of this, my approach to the recommendations (and indeed, report writing more generally) was centred on trying to do justice to the words of people who had shared their personal experiences of racism and other modes of forms of discrimination and oppression when filling out open-ended survey questions. In doing so, I took my lead from the late anti-racist, anti-imperial activist-scholar, Ambalavaner Sivanandan, who once famously affirmed that ‘The people we are writing for are the people we are fighting for’.
When thinking back on the workplace racism project I have returned to my friend Remi Joseph-Salisbury’s (2018) chapter on ‘My Duty as an Academic: We Should All Be Activists?’, and questioned whether the recommendations that I have put forward are doing more harm than good. More specifically, I find myself querying whether some of the recommendations I have proposed would improve the everyday working conditions endured by peoples subjugated by racism or whether they would contribute to re-securing the authority of, and consent for, the status quo. In doing so, I question whether certain recommendations, if acted upon, might consolidate rather than transcend neoliberal logics, especially in terms of responsibilising individuals from racialised groups whose interests such recommendations were intended to serve. For example, I have made the case for establishing targets and key performance indicators that can measure the nature and scale of racism and racial inequality, as well as the effectiveness of any actions taken to address this. At the same, I am mindful of the crushing and harmful ways that targets and performance indicators, such as league tables, have been deployed as part of bureaucratic tick box exercises and a broader technology of power in the public sector. I have since worked closely with equality, diversity and inclusion practitioners which has made me acutely aware that the pressure to meet certain targets will be pushed downwards onto staff, many (if not most of whom), will endure the daily realities of racism and other modes of oppression. Thus, responsibility for meeting targets will rarely (if ever) be shouldered by white, heterosexual and able-bodied male chief executive officers.
At the same, I am cognisant of just how resistant companies, organisations and institutions can be to reform. In these moments, I sometimes find myself going back to Antonio Gramsci’s (1971) prison writings. In particular, I return to Gramsci’s theorisation of the ‘war of position’ as a need to develop political strategies without losing sight of more radical and profound social transformation. What I take from Gramsci is that we might think of recommendations as being part of an intricate and protracted struggle. However, at this point, conversations with various stakeholders centred on questions such as: What is realistically achievable in the current conjuncture? What recommendations can we put forward that will not be dismissed out of hand, but will improve the everyday working lives of people racialised as non-White? Perhaps some of these conversations fed into and fortified a narrow conception of what is ‘achievable’.
In The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, Audre Lorde (1979) reminds us that ‘They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change’. Taking Lorde’s point on board, perhaps there is another way of looking at this. That is, rather than limit ourselves to what might be ‘achievable’, perhaps we might think of recommendations as a way of stretching our vision of what an alternative future might look like? Going back to Gramsci, perhaps we might think of recommendations as a way of imagining ‘alternative institutions and alternative intellectual resources within existing society’ (Cox 1983: 165), while also challenging the existing power coordinates. Perhaps we might think of recommendations as ‘non reformist reforms’.
For Andre Gorz (1968), non-reformist reforms do not rely on capitalist desires, criteria and rationality for their validity. Instead, they are expressions of what ought to be possible based on human dignity, needs and survival. Thus, might we think of recommendations as a contribution to a manifesto that speaks to the root causes of inequality and domination rather than attempting to recalibrate the existing social, economic, political and cultural arrangements? For example, when thinking about workplace racism, might we use recommendations to rethink concrete ways of unsettling institutional and structural racism, particularly the way that racialisation works in the service of capitalism (see Bhattacharyya 2018: ix)? Perhaps writing recommendations is an opportunity to once more identify and contest the coercive exercising of power that others, disciplines, orders and marginalises certain bodies? Perhaps we might use recommendations to imagine how we might dismantle the practices, norms and habits imposed by the racial contract in the service of perpetuating racial hierarchies and maintaining racial divisions of labour?
Drawing on Gorz, Ronald Mize and Alicia Swords note that there is a tendency to assume that ‘those deemed poor or racialized are not able to take action themselves’ (2010: 236). In opposition to this, Mize and Sword contend that rather than reducing marginalised and the oppressed peoples to the role of dehumanised ‘passive agents’, such peoples should be ‘active in reordering social relationships, diagnosing social inequalities, and mobilizing for a better way of socially organizing the world’ (2010: 236). In recent years, conversations with students and staff during my various research projects on racism, racial inequality and institutional whiteness in higher education, as well as an engagement with the Indigenous research ethics, have led me to seriously rethink both my approach to writing recommendations and the research process more broadly.
‘Nothing about us with us’
In some ways, my approach to writing recommendations started to shift following the publication of Equality, Diversity and Racism in the Workplace in 2016. Since the publication of this report, I have received regular invitations to speak at trade union events. These invites have mostly come from representatives from Black Worker’s Committees. After one or two events, I started to keep a journal with a view to critically reflecting on what I was actually doing when undertaking this work. The more I engaged in trade union anti-racist work, the more I found myself convinced by Malcolm X’s contention that the role of the ‘sincere white people’ is to work in conjunction with the people subjugated to white supremacy, and to:
…find all other white people they can who feel as they do [and] work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist. Let sincere whites go and teach non-violence to white people!
This principle underpinned my approach to writing the recommendations put forward in the 2019 Racism Ruins Lives report based on the Trade Union Congress’ 2016/2017 Racism at Work survey. When drafting the recommendations, I spent as much time as I possibly could getting input from trade union race equality officers and representatives trade union Black Workers’ Committees. This principle would also be something that would shape my approach to the different qualitative research projects on racism and racial inequality in higher education that I have been working on since 2018. The purpose of doing so was to get the views of peoples oppressed by whiteness, but also classism, heteropatriarchy and ableism on my research findings, as well as the kind of things that would potentially ameliorate their everyday material conditions.
It was during a focus group discussion with a group of students that I was moved to consider more deeply what their motto, ‘Nothing about us without us’, meant in practice. ‘Nothing about us without us’ was a rallying cry of disability activists in South Africa in the 1990s (see Charlton 2000). In essence, ‘Nothing about us without us’ is a counter-hegemonic standpoint. It expresses both opposition to the tendency of locking disabled peoples out of attempts to address their marginalisation, and also represents a political demand for the right of the oppressed to self-determine decision-making pertaining to their oppression. Interestingly, the Combahee River Collective, a group of radical Black feminists in the United States – had articulated a similar position in the mid-to-late 1970s, arguing that Black women reserve the right to develop their own political programmes in response to the raced, classed, gendered and sexualised nature of their oppression (Taylor 2017). Little did I know that two years later I would be revisiting these principles through an engagement with Indigenous research ethics.
While doing the aforementioned research on behalf of the Stuart Hall Foundation, I had the good fortune of speaking to Indigenous scholar Debbie Bargallie – a descendent of the neighbouring Kamilaroi and Wonnarua nations of the Liverpool Plains and Upper Hunter Valley regions of North South Wales, Australia – in relation to Debbie’s recently publish book, Unmasking the Racial Contract: Indigenous Voices on Racism in the Australian Public Service. Debbie kindly drew my attention to the recently published Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies’ (AIATSIS) Code of Ethics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research. When reading the AIATSIS code of ethics, I was immediately struck by how it proposed principles that spoke directly to two of the themes that emerged from the thematic analysis of recommendations in key government and non-governmental reports relating to racism and inequality: namely, the repeated calls for consultation and collaboration between stakeholders, and the emphasis placed on the need to establish accountability.
The AIATSIS code of ethics ‘affirms the distinct political status of Indigenous peoples and their rights to set priorities, make decisions, and freely pursue their own development on their own terms’ (2020: 12). In light of the two aforementioned themes in the Stuart Hall Foundation research, I was particularly drawn to the AIATSIS’ recommendations that: (1) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership should be evident ‘both in the “why” as well as the “how” of research, from conceptualisation to communication’ (2020: 17); and (2) that researchers and institutions should be accountable to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research participants and communities over the long-durée (AIATSIS 2020: 21). The main thing that I took from these recommendations is the need to democratise the entire research process and co-create sustained and meaningful forms of engagement throughout the research process, rather than tokenistic, one-off, if not piecemeal, moments of ‘consultation’ at some stage during the research process (e.g. when writing recommendations).
At the beginning of this piece, I suggested that writing recommendations can be task left until we have dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s in our conclusions. I have also noted that time, resource, research design, data and evidence play a role when it comes to determining what is possible when putting together a set of recommendations. When opportunities for consultation and collaboration are limited, it is imperative that we keep in mind Sivanandan’s adage that ‘The people we are writing for are the people we are fighting for’. Thus, we must look to offer recommendations aimed at ameliorating the social conditions that facilitate and reproduce domination and inequality, while remaining vigilant for opportunities to democratise the process of writing recommendations.
At the time of writing, there is a vast and growing literature on participatory and solidarity action research. What is more, terms such as ‘impact’, ‘knowledge exchange’ and ‘co-production’ are still in vogue. I myself have benefited from the impact agenda and the pots of money that universities have made available to do this kind of work (for example, see the Reframing the ‘Left Behind’ and Racism at Work project websites). However, John Clayton and Tom Vickers have recently warned that:
…while co‐production has tremendous potential to traverse the borders of theory and action in pursuit of positive change in people's lives, careful consideration needs to be given to distinct incarnations and the manner in which co‐production emerges through specific conditions and relationships (2019: 396).
Taking heed of this warning, we must think critically about the way in which our research institutions define, and set the parameters of, impact and knowledge exchange work. Here, the politics and ethics of disability activists in South Africa, radical Black feminists in the United states and Indigenous activist-scholarship (see George, Tauri & Te Ata o Tu MacDonald 2020) can provide a critical lens to think through what we are actually doing when we set out to consult, collaborate and co-produce with peoples and communities oppressed and marginalised by whiteness, heteropatriarchy, classism and ableism, not to mention neo- and settler colonialism.
What I have learned from Debbie Bargallie and the AIATSIS code of ethics is that we should be looking to democratise not just the process of writing recommendations, but the entire research process. Thus, research in pursuit of social justice should be orientated to ensuring that the voices and leadership of marginalised and oppressed communities are evident in both the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of research, from inception right the way through to publication and accessible archiving of research materials so that they can be of future use to oppressed peoples in their struggle for social justice. This way we can take a step closer to making sure that our work meets the needs of the people that we are researching for.
 Here we might think of The McGregor-Smith Review on race in the workplace which makes the business case for companies and employers to take action in order to capitalise on diversity and inclusion. As I have argued elsewhere, McGregor-Smith’s recommendations fail to disturb the guiding principles and institutional frameworks of racial neoliberalism (see Ashe 2018). Indeed, we might also ask what happens when there is no longer a business case for change.
Bargallie, D. 2020. Unmasking the Racial Contract: Indigenous Voices on racism in the Australian Public Service. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies press.
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. 2020. AIATSIS Code of Ethics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research. Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
Bhattacharyya, G. 2018. Racial Capitalism: Questions of Reproduction and Survival. London: Rowman & Littlefield.
Charlton, J. 2000. Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Oppression and Empowerment. California: University of California Press.
Cox, R. 1983. Gramsci, Hegemony and International Relations: An Essay in Method. Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 12(2): 162-175.
Clayton, J. & Vicker, T. 2019. The contingent challenges of purposeful co‐production: Researching new migrant employment experiences in the North East of England. Area, 51 (3): 396-404.
George, L., Te Ata o Tu MacDonald, L. & Tauri, J. 2020. Indigenous Research Ethics: Claiming Research Sovereignty Beyond Deficit and the Colonial Legacy Vol: 6. Bingley: Emerald Publishing.
Gramsci, A. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Hoare, Q. & Nowell Smith, G. (eds.) New York: International Publishers.
Gorz, A. 1968. Reform and Revolution. Social Register, Vol. 5, pp. 111-143.
Lorde, A. 1979. The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House. History is a Weapon.
Mize, R. & Swords, A. 2010. Consuming Mexican Labor: From the Bracero Program to NAFTA. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Joseph-Salisbury, R. 2018. ‘Confronting my duty as an academic of colour in times of explicit racial violence’, in Johnson, A., Joseph-Salisbury, R. & Kamunge, E. (eds.) The Fire Now: Anti-Racism in Times of Explicit Racial Violence. London: Zed Books.
Taylor, K-Y. 2017. (ed.) How we get free: Black Feminism and The Combahee River Collective. Chicago, Ill: Haymarket Books.
Blog post by Stephen D. Ashe, Edge Hill University and University of Manchester, UK
Stephen D. Ashe is a member of the International Centre on Racism at Edge Hill University and an affiliate member of the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity at the University of Manchester. His recent publications include: Race, Ethnicity and British Sociology (2020, co-authored with Remi Joseph-Salisbury, Claire Alexander and Karis Campion), Reframing the ‘Left Behind’: Race and Class in Post-Brexit Oldham (2019, co-authored with James Rhodes and Sivamohan Valluvan) and Racism Ruins Lives: An Analysis of the 2016–2017 Trade Union Congress Racism at Work Survey (2019, co-authored with Magda Borkowska and James Nazroo). Stephen is also co-editor of, and a contributor to Researching the Far Right: Theory, Method and Practice (2020, co-edited with Joel Busher, Graham Macklin and Aaron Winter).
The poetics of justice: aphorism and chorus as modes of anti-racism
Rehumanising the university for an alternative future: decolonisation, alternative epistemologies and cognitive justice
‘Is it because I’m black?’: personal reflections on Stuart Hall’s memoir Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands