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Friday, June 18, 2021

Combatting racism in academia: Why it shouldn’t be normalised or rewarded

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Backlash after Qatar National Research Fund awards a hefty grant to American professor accused of racism, raising questions about academia in Qatar. 

The name of Professor Jocelyn Mitchell has once again become the subject of discussion and controversy among Qatari residents and citizens on social media platforms.

The Northwestern University professor who caused outrage in 2019 after an offensive and racist blog post of hers surfaced, has again caused a storm, after it was announced that she was one of the recipients of a $700,000 grant from the Qatar National Research Fund.

This has angered many members of the Qatari community who have not yet moved past the abuse the professor inflicted on various groups of society here. Moreso, the fact that the grant was awarded for her to study “The obstacles and successes of female entrepreneurship in Qatar” – the very demographic she offended – is something that unsurprisingly infuriated many.

I briefly highlighted her blog post in 2019, which contained abusive words towards Qatari women and non-white residents, Professor Mitchell’s students have accused her of coining and using the term “Qatarded,” a combination of the words “Qatar” and “retarded” to describe Qataris.

Read Also: Professor who made racist comments against Qataris awarded $700,000 funding grant

Although the professor eventually apologised for her racist comments, that apology fell short and was too little too late for the many people she insulted. Her statement of apology only came after Twitter users circulated her post and students at NUQ staged mass protests.

Furthermore, the professor’s attempt to pass off the blog post as someone else’s opinion is simply unacceptable. The insults contained in it cannot be justified as simply opinion, they were in fact clear and unambiguous expressions of racist convictions and of an inferior view towards different races. They reflected the thoughts of an individual who sees society and those around them through the lens of “white privilege.”

It is regrettable that the QNRF is financing such an individual to lead this project, despite Mitchell’s insults to the very society she wants to study.

This isn’t the first time she received a grant from QNRF.

Previously it funded another study by the same professor entitled “In Majaalis Al-Hareem: The Complex Professional and Personal Choices of Qatari Women”. This, despite the fact that Mitchell’s mother tongue is not Arabic while the culture of the majlis is based on oral narration, and for any ethnographic study, the researcher must be familiar with the language and society they are studying.

“We do not want to return to the era of orientalists.”

But what is most unfortunate when it comes to the QNRF and their handling of the Professor Mitchell case is their response following this most recent controversy. The fund issued a statement last week which began with the phrase: “We are aware of the discussion surrounding the awarding of a recent grant;” but failed to clarify what action it will take.

The statement failed to even mention the accusations of racism levelled against the professor, or explain if the opinions expressed by Mitchell were taken into consideration.

That being said, many of us in the academic community have several questions that need answering:

  • What’s the significance behind the timing of this study?
  • Is there a desired outcome to this research and what is its intended objective?
  • Does the project deserve this amount of money and what will it be spent on?
  • What was the criteria for selecting the researchers?
  • How did the professor’s blog post and history factor into the criteria?
  • What guarantees are there that her preconceived and biased views will not influence the research?

As for the ethics of scientific research, how can we be certain that the prejudices and racist offences that have been published will not affect the research and its methodology? When Jocelyn Mitchell shared the post on her blog, she had a graduate degree. At this age, she wasn’t an impressionable teenager still shaping her convictions about the world. Hence, the post cannot be justified, nor cant it be rationalised.

Frankly, I don’t really know how to overlook something like that, especially since this is not the first time that Jocelyn receives a research grant from the QNRF. To date, she has been the recipient of four different grants worth $1,080,357.

This also makes us wonder how one researcher can obtain grants worth so much in the space of just four years. This also leads to questions about the feasibility of the published research, the degree of its benefit to society, and the recommendations for change that must be implemented.

“I must also ask whether these institutions classify racism, abuse,  prejudice, or respect for society  as “ethics.”

The academic environment in the State of Qatar is rich and varied across a plethora of fields and diversity encompasses teaching staff and researchers, different disciplines, as well as research conferences and publications.

No one can negate the contributions made by researchers and professors of various backgrounds and experiences and the additions they make to the legacy of knowledge. Thus, scientific research, its output and return to society, cannot be underestimated.

That being said, it is in my capacity as a Qatari citizen, and out of my social responsibility, that I have to pinpoint this issue we are dealing with today, question the value of the published research and the extent to which the concerned institutions agree with the “ethics” of the researchers they fund.

I must also ask whether these institutions classify racism, abuse,  prejudice, or respect for society  as “ethics.”

My remarks, and those of my peers, together with our experiences and conversations about the mistakes we see, are not simply intended to criticise, nor are meant to be an ad hominem attack.

Rather, we are tackling a problem, talking about an actual published post, and about students’ personal experiences at the hands of an academic who offended society as a whole, only for her to be rewarded in the end.

Read also: Best selling author and Qatar resident Layla Saad on fighting racism, white supremacy

Literature and academic studies about Qatari women is already scarce, so future research and publications must reflect an accurate and honest picture and not one that the researcher wants to portray and project their theories on, especially if the researcher does not belong to the community, nor speak its language, and is unfamiliar with its culture.

We do not want to return to the era of orientalists or orientalism.

By shedding light on these mistakes my aim is to clarify the points of error and work to correct them in order for Qatari academia to continue creating an environment that adheres to scientific and ethical standards, and is also committed to respecting society.
My hope is that this will help prevent the recurrence of such mistakes or miscalculations in the future. No racist should be rewarded, whatever their academic degree, and racism should not be normalised or tolerated under any name or circumstance.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Doha News, its editorial board or staff.

Reem Al-Harmi is a senior researcher, columnist and writer.

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