Introduction to the Symposium on “Race and Imperialism in International Relations”

3 April 2024, 0930 EDT

The International Affairs Centenary Special Issue on “Race and Imperialism in International Relations: Theory and Practice” was published two years ago in the aftermath of the global Black Lives Matter movement; it marked an atypical period of introspection by many scholars, departments, and journals of International Relations on the general paucity of attention given to matters of race and imperialism in IR research and teaching.

As Guest Editors, our rationale for the Special Issue was based on the following acknowledgments: First, while there had been a lot of important intellectual, activist, grassroots and even institutional work on race and imperialism, there remained a neglect of race and imperialism in much of mainstream western knowledge production. Second, while some of that neglect was and is due to individual standpoints and a subconscious erasure of matters of race and imperialism, there are also more concerted efforts to retain the status quo and existing dynamics of power – either within the academy or within policy circles. And third, IR specifically as a discipline has been historically complicit in constructing so-called watersheds in which racism and imperialism are relegated to history, whether that’s the creation of the UN, the creation of the EU, or the end of the Cold War, to give some examples.

Thus, rather than have a necessary reckoning with IR’s past, these watersheds allow for a redemption of academia and political practices, facilitating a continuity of an unjust status quo, whether in politics or scholarship.

As such, we sought to expose the fallacy of such watersheds through the special issue, and put forward four main contentions, outlined in the introductory article:

  • The special issue questioned the so-called gap between academia and policy making. It is often argued that academics operate in an ivory tower, detached from the real world and with limited impact on policy. We contested that viewpoint to argue that in fact there has been a close entanglement between policy and academia.
  • In fact, academics have historically supplied policy making especially in the west with colonial ideas; racial or imperialist concepts are given scientific credibility by the aura of academia, which then justifies those ideas being adopted within policy makers.
  • The opposite is also true: that imperialist or racist policies and practice have shaped academic research agendas. The need for funding, the pursuit of ‘impact’, can often inadvertently shape the parameters of what is considered relevant or necessary research. In this way, rather than challenging the status quo, academic research may end up naturalising and reproducing it.
  • Finally, the relationship is not always a complicit one: academics have challenged imperialist practice, and practitioners have challenged imperialist scholarship. Such contestations have made important strides on both sides of the academic-policy ‘divide’. Given those important contestations for justice can come from both within and outwith academia, we made the case for an expansive view of what we consider as knowledge, who we consider as knowledge producers, and indeed who we consider as a ‘practitioner’.

In addition to our introductory article, the Special Issue contained 14 original contributions pursuing the above themes, by the following authors (see links for their individual articles): Amitav Acharya; Jasmine Gani; Kwaku Danso and Kwesi Aning; Althea-Maria Rivas and Mariam Safi; Randolph B. Persaud; Jan Wilkens and Alvine R C Datchoua-Tirvaudey; Sizwe-Mpofu Walsh; Tomohito Baji; Sharri Plonski and Nivi Manchanda; Somdeep Sen; Amal Abu-Bakare; Srdjan Vucetic; Katrin Antweiler; and Lucian Ashworth. These articles focused in depth on a range of case studies, covering institutions and security communities (the UN, the EU, the African Nuclear Free Zone, and Climate Change practitioners); regions (the Middle East, Africa, and East Asia); and countries (South Africa, the UK, the US, Japan, Afghanistan, and Palestine and Israel).

Two years on, why return to the special issue now?

Firstly, just as we saw a global anti-racist movement gain momentum in 2020 and reach new audiences, and especially new generations, we are similarly witnessing now a global anti-colonial movement in response to Israel’s (and its allies’) devastating attack on Gaza. The two movements are not separate but connected and part of a shared trajectory. They both reflect the refusal to tolerate the accumulative and entrenched injustices of racism and settler-colonialism; but they also reflect the decay of the imperialist-liberal international order. Thus, race and imperialism remain acutely, painfully, relevant now as they were a few years ago.

Secondly, within academic institutions and in policy, the challenge now being faced is not merely the co-optation and neutralisation of anti-racist and anti-colonial scholarship, but active attacks on such research and teaching. Equality, Diversity, Inclusion initiatives, in particular, are being targeted and in some cases disbanded. And while diversity in representation on its own does not always correlate with emancipatory politics (as proven by the current UK government), a sneering attitude to its merits and necessity is rolling back the positive strides made in recent years: jarringly homogenous panels and even conferences seem to be making a return. Now is as good a time as any, therefore, to revisit the themes of the special issue.

This symposium has provided the opportunity to do so through the reflections and enquiries of seven interlocutors. We are most grateful to Oumar Ba (April 3rd), Martin J. Bayly (April 3rd), Lina Benabdallah (April 4th), Patrícia Nabuco Martuscelli (April 4th), Inderjeet Parmar (April 4th), Patrick Quinton-Brown (April 5th), and Heloise Weber (April 5th), for engaging so thoughtfully with the special issue. At the end of the symposium, we offer our reflections on the considered and generous interventions of all the participants.

Editor’s Note: we will publish the symposium in installments during the 2024 International Studies Association annual convention, starting today and concluding on April 5th. The dates next to the contributors’ names indicate the date of release for their specific posts. Gani and Marshall’s reply will appear on April 5th. The special issue is currently available for free.