ISA’s Sapphire Series – Is Blue the New White?

6 February 2015, 0800 EST

*This is a guest post by Cynthia Weber, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex

As the International Studies Association gears up for its 2015 annual convention in New Orleans, USA, an email announcing its Sapphire Series of panels was sent to ISA members. The email reads: ‘Introducing ISA’s new initiative THE SAPPHIRE SERIES. Covering key issues in the field and in international affairs, these talks will feature scholars discussing current world events, trends in academic research, and new challenges in teaching and learning’.

Great idea, it seems to me, so I click on the link to ‘Find Out More.’ This is where things get troubling. For the more I find out, the more troubled I become. On the ISA Sapphire Series page, I find descriptions of four up-coming panels – Epistemology in IR, The State of IR Theory: Questions Big and Small, Topics in Teaching and Professional Development, and Commentary on Breaking Current Events. So far, so good. Each panel is composed of prestigious members of the discipline, men and women. Again, so far, so good. Then things start getting weird.

Every IR scholar is from the Global North, which seems strange to me given the conference theme of ‘Global IR, Regional Worlds’ and given the post-colonial expertise and commitments to post-colonial scholarship of this year’s ISA Program Chairs. Then I see the profile pictures of each speaker embedded next to their description, and here I audibly go ‘huh?’ Because every one of the 17 Sapphire participants appears to be white. Again, I’m confused. For at ISA 2015 in particular – with its two Program Chairs who are variously racialized against standards of normalized whiteness and who contest racialized IR knowledges – how is it that seemingly superior Sapphire Series knowledge appears to be universally white?

It was this that led my colleague Melanie Richter-Montpetit to tweet, ‘Sapphire – Blue is the New(?) White’ and to remind us of Sankaran Krishna’s comment back in 2001 that ‘the discipline of IR was and is predicated on a systematic forgetting, a willful amnesia, on the question of race’.  I get these tweets on the very same day that the Guardian newspaper runs a story about the whitening of Louisiana Governor and Republican Presidential-hopeful Bobby Jindal.

I contact the ISA Program Chairs. Neither of them knew anything about the Sapphire Series until two days ago when ISA HQ sent them the same email all ISA members received.

All of this raises a lot of questions for me, like:

  • Wasn’t this year’s ISA white enough already, without the Sapphire Series?
  • What does this say about the relations between the ISA 2015’s racialized Program Chairs and those who put together the Sapphire Series panels?
  • Are we ISAers really going to return to New Orleans to stage another non-conversation about race in (Disciplinary) IR in a place where conversations about race in the US are continuously kicked into the long grass?
  • What will it take to transform our (generally) collective amnesia or our collective whitening of race?
  • What specifically can we do as ISA members to challenge the whitening of the premier status of knowledge and knowledge production in our discipline and among those who represent our association?

I realize the apparent whiteness and Northerness of the Sapphire Series panelists was probably unconscious or accidental on the part of its organizers. I realize the Sapphire Series resulted from institutionalized knowledges and practices of normalized whiteness that are the fault of no individual person, institution or collective. Rather, normalized whiteness is infused into how ISA is generally programmed, how IR is generally organized, how IR scholarship and practice are generally conducted.

I also realize it is not the case that no white Northern scholars (can) speak meaningfully and knowledgably about race in (the discipline of) IR. And I realize that a liberal politics of inclusion of racialized scholars in IR is insufficient to correct how normalized whiteness is practiced.

But this case is about more than this. I shudder to think what it could have been about. Were our racialized Program Chairs perceived to be crowding out normative whiteness in their program decision-making and on the program? Did Disciplinary IR need to reassert its superior Sapphire Series white knowledge as a response? I certainly hope not. But it doesn’t look good.

I recently commented on how Disciplinary IR gentrifies critical theories to bring them into its fold. This is not what I recommend on any front, including in terms of the racial politics of IR scholarship and IR professional management. On the issue of race, we have to push beyond our critical reflections on the gentrification metaphor I proposed to critically consider another racialized metaphor that is circulating again in the press (and was circulated by Governor Jindal himself recently) – the idea of ‘no go zones’. On this front, we need to ask ourselves: How does (at best) a color-bind (whitened) politics of (professional) inclusion or (at worst) the de-authorization of racialized post-colonial expert organizers of ISA 2015 unconsciously sustain race as a ‘no-go zone’ in (Disciplinary) IR scholarship and in much the discipline of IR? And we need to ask ourselves what we are going to do about this to change it.