Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Professor Jason Arday has been making headlines.
News Anchor 1: History is being made at the University of Cambridge. The British institution has appointed its youngest Black professor ever
News Anchor 2: Youngest Black professor on campus.
News Anchor 3: The youngest ever Black professor at the University of Cambridge.
Professor Jason Arday: It's one of those funny things where somebody will take that title and I hope it's not even a topic of conversation in a couple of years' time. My name is Jason Arday and I am Professor of Sociology of Education at the University of Cambridge in the Faculty of Education.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Professor Aday is 37 years old. Throughout his decade-long academic career, he's been a professor at the University of Glasgow, the University of Durham, and a visiting professor in Ohio and in South Africa. He served as a racial equity researcher for the UK think tank and for university. He's worked with politicians to help develop training programs in policy and activism for people of color interested in civil service. He's helped develop a Black curriculum initiative to call attention to the omission of Black British history in schools. He's focused his own scholarly research on democratizing and diversifying higher education for low-income and ethnic minority students and for faculty. If all that work in just 10 years weren't enough, he's also now become just one of five Black professors appointed at Cambridge University.
Professor Jason Arday: There should just be more Black and ethnic minority people or people of color in those spaces. It's a celebratory thing, but it's very temporary in that regard. Not to mention that time doesn't stand still and I'm going to be 38 in two months, so I'm not that young anymore.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes. It's one thing that happens. I can remember I used to have on my academic CV a couple of things, "The youngest person to give this talk or the youngest person," and then, at a certain point, I'm like, "Okay. I'm 50. I got to take that I'm the youngest off [unintelligible 00:02:11]." [laughs]
Professor Jason Arday: I know honestly. The thing is, my friends will say to me, "Jason, make the most of the youngest thing because this too shall pass. It'll pass." I am very fortunate, but to be honest to you, it's reflective of all the effort, prayers, and support, and time that people have invested in me over the last 20 years.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me a bit about the differences between higher education, the academy in the UK versus what a lot of our listeners in the US will be familiar with.
Professor Jason Arday: I guess there's a more fluid tradition in the US of the politics of Black studies, which is a really important thing in terms of I guess the civil rights movement, and it's deeply interwoven in the vernacular of American language, whereas our familiarization with race and racism in some respects is still fairly recent. There was only really a crystallization of institutional and systemic racism in the late '90s when Stephen Lawrence was murdered by five white people in 1992. In that respect, we are still in our infancy in terms of doing that. If I think about the academy and higher education more broadly, the most obvious distinction would be that there are a lot more Black professors in the US than there are in the UK. In the UK, there are 23,000 professors of which 160 are Black and of which 55 are Black women. The dearth of Black academics, particularly in the professoriate in the UK, is markedly different to the US.
Obviously, one thing you have in the US, which is so different to the UK, is you have the historic Black colleges, and that is something that a lot of Black academics in America have been able to use as a vehicle to continue to facilitate the strong legacy of the Black civil rights movement. That's a really significant thing that we don't have. As a result of that, a lot of Black academics in the UK actually all have the aspiration to want to become academics in America.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There is one thing in reading some of your work that does stand out to me as a profound similarity though. I'm just going to read this quote of yours back to you that, "A big part of the sector's problem is that it does things in a very unsustainable way. It often leans on the labor of Black and ethnic minority professionals and academics to do this labor unremunerated and unrecognized."
Professor Jason Arday: Yes. I think there's a global chorus that reverberates around Black and Indigenous populations all around the world. That particular statement is even more acute for women of color, particularly Black women who do a lot of the heavy lifting of mobilizing race equality work globally speaking, and it is done in an unsustainable way which puts Black and ethnic minority people or people of color at risk psychologically, physically, and it puts them really in the face of a really institutional and systemic violence that has huge implications on the psychological and physical state.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to be clear, we're not just having this conversation in the sense of you speaking from experience, this is your research. This is your scholarship, your work. Maybe tell us a bit more about your scholarship on these structural inequities in education.
Professor Jason Arday: This has been a huge part of my intellectual project for just under the last decade. The one thing that's really difficult with this work is really surmising and gleaning just how much people suffer in these really hostile spaces. A huge part of my research has really been to disrupt and dismantle these systemic and institutionally racist spaces that continue to enact violence, patriarchy, and hegemony towards Black and ethnic minority people, in other words, people of color, and really find ways to pedagogically and theoretically continue a long tradition of Black scholars who have tried to emancipate our people and other Indigenous people through the lens of decolonizing our pedagogies and our curriculums. That, for me, has always been essential tenets to what I do, so it lends itself to other intersectional features within my work, and all of that intersectional framing has come from Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw who originally devised the conception of intersectionality to explain the multifaceted inequities and experiences that Black women face within the intersect along with [unintelligible 00:06:59] and being a Black woman.
Through that, I've been able to really engage with the plights that Black people face in the academy and provide policy-driven solutions as to what we can do to not only alleviate that plight but dismantle it and fundamentally eliminate those issues.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We've got more with Sociologist Jason Arday in just a moment here on The Takeaway.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. I'm still talking with Jason Arday, a sociologist who just became the youngest Black professor ever appointed at Cambridge University. He's just 37 years old. Jason's accomplishment is remarkable in its own right, but it's made all the more noteworthy by the path that it took to get there. At the age of three, Jason was diagnosed with autism. He was non-verbal and did not begin speaking until he was 11 years old. Then, at age 18, he began to read and write.
In the nearly 20 years since, he finished college, completed two master's degrees, earned his PhD, all while working in supermarkets and retail stores to help pay for it. His personal story brings home an enduring reality for people of color, a reminder of how extraordinarily exceptional so many of us have to be to even get a chance to enter the spaces where so many of our white counterparts have had far easier access.
Professor Jason Arday: When I became a professor at the University of Glasgow, I was 35, and it made me the youngest professor in the UK regardless of race. I did an interview for the BBC and one of the things they asked me was, "How have you managed to get to your position at a very young age?" The one word I used was suffering, my ability to endure suffering, which is very symptomatic of Black academics and ethnic minority academics in the UK. Academics of color in the UK experience a high level of suffering to be able to progress in their careers. Even absorbing that suffering has a psychological and physiological impact. There is no real protective factor. When you're in it, you're quite concentrated and fixated on the end goal, which believe it or not, isn't actually to become a professor. It's to contribute to the long tradition of trying to emancipate our people in these spaces that belong to us as much as they do anybody else.
I guess it's only when you come out of that particular vortex of concentration and obsession that you realize the impact. If I'm being absolutely honest and candid, there is a sense of exhaustion, but then you take your lead from amazing people, scholars who've been there and done it, community activists, and you think about that long tradition and that endurance to continue to endure, which we shouldn't have to do, but in trying to disrupt the normative orthodoxy that is racism you have to endure. Very often I say to people it's very important that you engage in very deliberate self-care, you protect yourself with many mechanisms as possible, so that you're not being hit with racism fully in the face. Surround yourself in particular communities of love, understanding, and the ability to be able to thrive and develop a sense of belonging. I think a lot of these tenets I draw from the work of my heroine Bell Hooks.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As you began talking about that capacity for endurance, I wondered if you were going to talk a bit about the enduring of constant processes of navigation and negotiation of being an autistic child. Can you tell us a bit about your own journey around diagnosis, and then your experiences of literacy?
Professor Jason Arday: I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when I was three, so in some respects, I've never known any different my entire life. What was very interesting is that my mother and my father, but particularly my mother who in many respects has been the anchor that has really kept me afloat my entire life, I wasn't told that I was any different, so I never saw being nonverbal as a disadvantage. The paralysis of speech was considered to be a deficit towards me, but for me, it was quite a beautiful existence. I was able to observe human interaction in a completely different way. I was able to absorb information in a completely different way. I was able to learn and draw on the cues that human beings require to be able to really make sense of the world around me and [unintelligible 00:11:49] how I understand the world to be. It was hugely advantageous because then when I was able to speak, I was able to use some of those skills to be able to really harness the power of spoken word and that interaction.
In terms of being illiterate, the thing that becomes really powerful about being able to read and write as an adult is that words, in some respects, they become real once sometimes they come on the page. Once you're able to put words onto the page, in some respects, they become legitimized. It's a form of expression. I guess what it did do was provide the left side to an already well-established right side by that particular point. That particular process came with time. When I got to University of Michigan, I was 20, I actually still had the reading age of a 12-year-old, but I was able to surmise and make some sense of the types of things that I would need to be able to be mindful of to be able to construct sentences. As they say, the rest is history.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As you look over the next decade, or maybe even two, what are some of the phases of your academic and scholarly career that you hope to begin next?
Professor Jason Arday: I guess a part of it is about beginning and a part of it is about continuation. [unintelligible 00:13:08] my overall mission was really to engage, and this is a continuation of that mission, was to engage in processes that allow me and the sector, the academy, broadly speaking, globally speaking, to continue to democratize education and to redistribute resources within education to the most in need and to the most socially deprived having been someone who had come from that background. The continuation of more newer and broader projects really focuses around multimorbidity issues and the impact of racism on life expectancy. I'm currently working with epidemiologists at the University of Oxford to really hone and develop those hypotheses and ideas. That's funded research that we'll be doing over the next six years. In addition to that, really finding ways to unpack popular culture. One of the things that I'm doing at the moment, which has been my lifelong obsession, in some respects, is that my favorite album is Graceland by Paul Simon. Obviously, when Paul Simon wrote that album, it was during a cultural boycott in South Africa.
Some nearly 40 years on, what I want to do through this particular work is to really challenge Paul Simon breaking the cultural boycott, but also to equally make an argument that actually, was there a tenet of showcasing these wonderful Black South African musicians to the world who, in some respects, had had their capabilities capped by a racist and violent regime. That's the next iteration of where my work will be going. Really, the most important part of my work is to continue to create space for Black female scholars because that's always been my original mission, and to use the unfair privilege that I have as a Black male to open that space and democratize that space so that we can see greater numbers of Black women progress through the academy into the professoriate. That is really my overall mission. Once I've achieved that mission, similar to the New Zealand All Blacks mantra, I'm a custodian of the jersey, and once I've achieved that mission, my job is to leave that jersey in a better state than when I found it, and it will be for somebody else to pick up the jersey and to move that on to a different space as well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jason Arday is Professor of Sociology of Education at Cambridge University in the UK. Jason, it has been a pleasure. Thank you for joining us.
Professor Jason Arday: All right, Melissa. Thank you so much. I wish you well, and have a wonderful day. Thank you to all your listeners as well.
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