anti-babel – sanjay sharma

The conceit of Academic Peer Review

with 3 comments

Below is an edited version (for anonymity) of feedback comments I received from a well-established peer reviewed ‘race’ Journal for a submitted article exploring the limits of anti-racist readings of popular texts. My brief responses are highlighted in red-italics. (Though I didn’t waste my time sending them to the journal editors).


Reviewer Comments to the Author
The article has at least three agendas: first, there is an attempt critically to assess the […] messages about race and racism, and especially the […] “take” on whiteness; second, there is an attempt to discuss teaching about race (and once again, most especially about whiteness), using the […] as a pedagogical tool; and third, there is an attempt to do theoretical/interpretive work on the meaning of racial identity, drawing largely but not only on poststructural theory.

On every one of these three levels I have objections to the article’s analysis. Still, I would like to acknowledge the ambition and scope of the attempt. There is something to be said for mining a work […] — in this way: to use the […] as a vantage-point from which to assess racial (white) identity, to counterpose one’s own scholarly assessment of these matters to that of the artists who produced the […], and then to try to draw conclusions both practical (the teaching stuff) and theoretical (the theoretical stuff about performativity, becoming, etc.), is obviously enterprising, to say the least. The author is willing to run some big risks in her/his effort to make this whole account cohere. Big risks? My analysis is hardly unconventional.

But it doesn’t cohere. Because you fail to understand the premise of its argument – see below. These are my objections: principally that the article makes a whole series of assumptions that are not justified, and that it descends into a welter of obscure claims that negate its purported aim of being useful — politically, culturally, theoretically, practically.

Let’s begin with the assessment of […] has been subject to two main types of criticisms from anti-racist activists and thinkers, criticisms with which this author seems to agree: first, that it neglects structural racism for an improperly micro-social approach to race and racism, something that reduces racism to individual attitudes and behaviors; and second, that it treats all racial identities alike, drawing undue parallels between whites and nonwhites and thus neglecting the deep incompatibilities that obtain across these identities.

I don’t want to provide my own critical analysis of the […] here, You do however! but I would suggest that it is far more aware of the structural dimensions of race than this author seems to think. By providing very nuanced and considered contexts for all its action, and by giving us characters who operate “in depth” in such contexts as shopping malls, police stations, working, familial, immigration-oriented, and electoral settings, etc. it treats every racial identity that it explores in terms of the “situated creativity” it embodies in its complex context. Much has been made of the […]’s stress on the contrariety and unresolved nature of all its characters’ racial identities: their various combinations of selfishness and generousness, of benightedness and wisdom, of self-destructive and redemptive behaviors, etc. This would hardly be possible or convincing if race and racism were not presented in the […] as thoroughly “structural” phenomena.

The problem is that my whole argument rests on not simply offering a reading of a text – we need to do otherwise. Yet the reviewer actually goes on to offer their own reading as a means of dismissing my argument. Astounding incompetence and an incredulous mis-reading of the premise of my whole article.


Racism is still predominantly white racism, but the […] is not so foolish or dogmatic as to adopt the viewpoint of the “new abolitionists” — with whom the article’s author apparently agrees — that ALL racism is white racism.

Racisms are of course multiple, but I’m discussing a particular mode of post-colonial racism which is invariably structured by whiteness. How else are we to grasp racism, as some kind of analytically vacuous, pluralized – “any body can be racist” – social phenomena?

Pedagogically the author seems to think that good teaching about race and racism involves making sure that students don’t reflect on their own experiences. Total mis-reading! This is precisely the opposite of what — one would think — engaged teaching is about. In this article the working definition of good anti-racist pedagogy is “…attempting to develop classroom knowledge of racism as an operation of white supremacist modalities of power”. Yes, Yes, what else can it be.

While of course there is more than a little truth in that, the strong suggestion here is that “commonsense” ideas of what racism is and how it operates in one’s own life are to be resisted by effective, progressive teaching. Are you reading the same article? Again, a reductive, simplistic mis-reading of the argument. […]

I have gone on far too long I fear. I want to conclude by noting the article’s general impenetrability in respect to the third set of issues: its poststructural theorizing vis-a-vis racial identity. Perhaps there is something profound going on here […] Surely a reviewer should possess such theoretical competence?

Forgive my my impatience, but when one travels so far away from the practical and political concerns that seem (to me at least) to be the central themes in our consideration of racial justice, equality, and identity in a practical sense, one enters a realm of rapidly diminishing returns. Ah, doing race means not doing theory? Shall we leave it to the Euro-White boys?

Thanks for the missed?! opportunity to reflect on these issues.


Written by sanjay sharma

11 Sep 07 at 5:28pm

Posted in writing

3 Responses

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  1. Christ on a bike! What a vile review Sanjay! Hopefully somewhere else with half a brain accepts the paper (which i would love to read by the way!).

    Reminds me (in a converse way) of a paper i submitted to Race and Class – all i got was a one line email saying they didnt quite think the paper (on race and class in celebrity BB) fitted the journal! No reviewer’s comments, no nothing! As you say, i think some people ‘in the establishment’ wan us to just leave the ‘race work’ to those euro-white boys already doing it (in banal, tiresome ways).

    Damien X


    12 Sep 07 at 4:59pm

  2. I am amazed at this Sanjay. Not only is it a vile review, but the fact that this is a rejection that seems to be based entirely on the fact that the author misunderstands and disagrees with your paper is outrageous! Surely journal articles are to provoke debate, not just to replicate the views of reviewers and editors? What a boring place the world would be (and reading this review, apparently is). I’d be tempted to write to the editors and complain, but of course, there are risks here too…..chin up and send it to a journal that will appreciate it…..

    Anna Gough-Yates

    16 Sep 07 at 10:28am

  3. Yes, it’s an appalling review.
    And what’s worse is how the Journal Editors simply passed it on to me. Scandalous!
    My article was rejected on the basis of this single review.


    30 Sep 07 at 6:44pm

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