This July in the beautiful city of Liverpool, I attended my first Critical Management Studies (CMS) conference.
It started as something of a dare.
The conference ran across three days immediately before my annual pilgrimage to the European Group for Organization Studies Colloquium, held in Copenhagen this year. My joint submission with Dr Helena Heizmann to EGOS had already been accepted, and attending both would be a logistical feat to present in Liverpool then leave the conference early in the afternoon to take a train to Manchester and fly from Manchester to Copenhagen in the evening. We would arrive at our hotel just before midnight, but be set to start EGOS in earnest from 9am the next day.
I was reluctant to commit to this marathon, but when the enticing streams were released on the CMS website, Helena encouraged us to give it our best shot.
I submitted two papers to CMS. The first was to The Future of Feminisms and CMS stream with Fahreen Alamgir, Alison Pullen, Sheena J. Vachhani, Melissa Fisher, Banu Ozkazanc-Pan and Deborah Jones, based on my recent book chapter published in the latest volume of Dialogues in Critical Management Studies, where queer and feminist theorists debate the future of CMS. My chapter, ‘Redeeming difference in CMS through anti-racist feminisms’, critiques how we popularly conduct critical research.
I ponder how critical management scholars often romantically narrate ourselves via a masculinist hero’s journey:
The critical management scholar is one who is called to adventure through an innate commitment to social justice that sees him courageously dispelling the evil forces in our society before returning triumphantly to share his wisdom with his homeland. Sadly, his heroic narrative is frequently tragic where despite the critical management scholar’s superior intellect, he is confronted with naysayers from The Mainstream. He battles mightily against his unjust treatment in business schools to fulfil his noble quest to speak truth to power.
In love with our own emplotment as tragic heroes, we can sometimes lose sight of our own power and privilege as producers of knowledge. A lack of reflexivity in our practice emerges through the assumption of whiteness as universal and the tendency to speak for, rather than with, subdominant groups.
I explore a potential antidote to our unreflexive practices of power in anti-racist feminisms (Mirchandani and Butler, 2006; Mohanty, 2003). Anti-racist feminisms acknowledge the diverse interests, standpoints and intellectual traditions of Black, Indigenous, Latina/Chicana and Asian feminisms, but embrace a collective political interest in interrogating the interlocking systems of gender, racial and imperial power. Although each of these traditions speaks from different positions and with different voices, their combined politics point to the ways diversity can be meaningfully embraced in the future of CMS practice.
Practising anti-racist feminist CMS requires us to disrupt white power in our theorising. The invisible dominance of whiteness is continually reinforced when it remains unnamed in our research, so that racialised subjects may be singled out as “black managers” or “Asian managers”, while white managers get to just be “managers”. Our racial grammar (Bonilla-Silva, 2012) may register the explicit naming of hegemonic identity categories as awkward or unnecessarily cumbersome. However, it may be more accurate and informative to state, “this is a study of how white middle-class able-bodied self-identified heterosexual cis-male managers demonstrate inclusivity towards white middle-class able-bodied self-identified heterosexual cis-female employees” than it may be to describe such research as “this study explores how managers practice gender inclusivity.” The universality (and indeed, grandiosity) of the latter is diminished when the racial, class, dis/ability and heteronormative blindness is redressed.
Gender and racial power continue to be reinforced when critical management scholars fail to acknowledge the ways gender and race inform our standpoints as producers of knowledge. Entrenched in colonial ideology, the act of speaking for another social group to which we do not belong and of which we have no experience is not only academically acceptable within CMS, but sometimes problematically rewarded.
There should absolutely be a place for theorisations from the ‘outside’, but when scholarship is embedded in historical structures of racial power as it is, scholars of colour who write about our own racial groups are often seen as doing self-absorbed niche research, while white scholars who write about people of colour are more likely to be seen as heroic saviours.
Where such studies have not engaged with anti-racist feminist thinking in their analysis, the findings frequently rest on stereotypes of people of colour. Even within self-proclaimed ‘critical’, ‘emancipatory’ papers, white supremacist and colonialist fantasies permeate the interpretations drawn. For instance, I have read papers expounding the value of Indigenous managers by perpetuating the ‘noble savage’ myth, maintaining that Indigenous cultures are more attuned with nature. Others celebrate traditional Chinese philosophies of Daoism and Confucianism, painting Orientalist images of Chinese cultures as romantically ancient and arcane.
In many of these examples, actual non-white people (Indigenous and Chinese managers) are sidelined so that their commodified cultures can be appropriated to spice up white scholarship and managerial practice.
The various white supremacist and patriarchal tendencies explored above cannot be essentialistically attributed to straight white male critical management scholars. It is ingrained in our habitus. Engaging with anti-racist feminisms offers one way forward to disrupt our reproduction of white power towards a redemptive engagement with difference.
I’m not so free to discuss my second paper presentation as it is currently under review, but it’s one of the most rewarding pieces I have written this year about the processes of leadership theory production. I was especially honoured to share this paper with the fabulous people in the Critical Studies of Leadership stream with Doris Schedlitzki, Pasi Ahonen, Neil Sutherland, Hugo Gaggiotti and Paresh Wankhade and humbled that it was awarded best paper by Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management, a journal I have admired for a long time.
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2012), ‘The invisible weight of whiteness: The racial grammar of everyday life in contemporary America’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 35(2), 173–194.
Mirchandani, K. and Butler, A. (2006), ‘Beyond inclusion and equity: Contributions from transnational anti-racist feminism’. In A. M. Konrad, P. Prasad, & J. Pringle (eds.), Dimensions of workplace diversity (pp. 475–488). London: Sage.
Mohanty, C.T. (2013). Transnational feminist crossings: On neoliberalism and radical critique. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 38(4), 967–991.