Editor Tessa Ndjonkou explores the findings of UCD’s very own Professor Penelope Muzanenhamo’s groundbreaking research on epistemic injustice and invites us to question who is allowed to create knowledge.
The world is pretty small. We’ve all heard that saying before. But it wasn’t until I began writing this article that I realized just how small. Indeed, I met Professor Penelope Muzanenhamo in November of 2022, a mere month after I had settled in Dublin. My father’s friend, the esteemed Warwick alum Professor Franklyn Lisk had the pleasure of having Professor Muzanenhamo as a student and recommended I contact her upon my arrival.
When we first met, I was fresh out of my undergraduate studies and making tentative steps into the world of journalism. Despite the fact that we evolved in different circles and studied vastly different topics, we had a common interest: the visibility and acknowledgement of Black scholarship, its contributions, its academia and mainstream culture, and the barriers to its expansion.
Since her arrival at UCD in 2015, Penelope has made herself unignorable. Indeed, she has been incredibly active in creating initiatives and projects that support the intersection between Blackness, Business, and matters of representation. Despite her enumerable accolades, Penelope is incredibly humble and a delight to talk to and learn from.
In 2023, Assistant Professor in Marketing and Society of UCD College of Business Penelope Muzanenhamo’s groundbreaking paper “Epistemic Injustice and Hegemonic Ordeal in Management and Organization Studies: Advancing Black Scholarship” was awarded the title “Paper of the Year” by the international peer-reviewed journal Human Relations. The award-winning article was co-written by Professor Rashedur Chowdhury from the University of Essex and the duo was presented with their award at the Academy of Management 83rd Annual Conference in Boston, Massachusetts.
The Human Relations journal is known to publish the highest quality original research to advance society’s understanding of social relationships at and around work. Her nomination from such an esteemed publication only cemented her as a leading scholar in her field. However it is important to note that Assistant Professor Penelope Muzanenhamo is not a leading scholar because she follows rules and stands idle. Rather her success is owed to her understanding of the need to disrupt and dismantle oppressive structures and frameworks, including the ones she might work in herself. Her work testifies to the awe-inducing level of epistemological reflexivity she possesses and imbues throughout her research outputs. Her level of critical dexterity is one that many academics could fathom of achieving. Indeed, throughout her groundbreaking paper, “Epistemic Injustice and hegemonic ordeal in management and organization studies: Advancing Black scholarship”, she manages to pinpoint how and where inequalities are born in academia and just how these inequalities are perpetrated, by whom as well her own part in this. She does all this through an extensive but not exhaustive grounding into Black critical theory informed by the writings of Frantz Fanon, bell hooks and WEB Du Bois.
It is important to note that Assistant Professor Penelope Muzanenhamo is not a leading scholar because she follows rules and stands idle. Rather her success is owed to her understanding of the need to disrupt and dismantle oppressive structures and frameworks, including the ones she might work in herself.
Although it was important for me to laud Professor Muzanenhamo’s significant contributions to research on workplace dynamics, it is also important to present the substance of her article which is both rich and accessible. In an article published by UCD, she had this to say about her recent win: “I thank the Human Relations editors and reviewers for listening to our Black voices, and showing the World that Black Lives Matter… I have cited some of the Black female scholars’ work. Their work has given me a voice, and I see every Black female scholar as a role model in one way or the other.”
Her work testifies to the awe-inducing level of epistemological reflexivity she possesses and imbues throughout her research outputs. Her level critical dexterity is one that many academics could fathom of achieving.
Performative EDI (Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion) and epistemic injustice
She begins her article with the rhetoric “bang”. Indeed, she introduces her topic by highlighting how a majority of White academics within the field of management of organization studies publicly support messages of equality, diversity, and inclusion while ignoring the epistemic injustice Black scholars are regularly subjected to and face no support for.
By epistemic injustice, she is referring to an attack on someone’s capacity as someone who possesses the ability to create and hold knowledge. Specifically, she exemplifies this as the double-bind Black scholars suffer in predominantly White academia: when they were marginalized due to their race and because of the nature of their research on Black social realities.
Both Muzanenhamo and Chowdhury go on to suggest that Black scholars endure an epistemic struggle for legitimacy and belonging in the key areas of teaching and research and that, to cope, they must select from among three, not necessarily exclusive, survival strategies: compromising, collusion and radicalism. In opposition to passive buy-in and association with EDI, the authors would privilege a coalition between Black, Brown, and White scholars.
Epistemic Survival and cross-racial collective intellectual activism
Before tackling the concept of epistemic survival and collective activism, Professor Muzanenhamo retraces the lineage of Black scholarship and in doing so highlights often erased relationships between both the humanities and Marketing and Business studies. Earlier this year, the UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak promised to cut down degrees he deemed of “low-value” or colloquially “rip-off” degrees. Among the degrees he identified as such, he cited humanities degrees and other creative courses. Beyond the fact these courses are only measured by short-term rates of graduate employment (a mere fifteen months after ending the course) they are also wrongly assessed for the skills they imbue into those who pursue them. It is necessary for these studies to not only be revalued in higher education but it matters for more scholars to understand they should be taught alongside degrees that are deemed for “practical” because their skills appear more applicable in the workplace. Simply put, Sociological and thematic grounding even in the fields of Marketing and Business make such workplaces bearable and innately human.
Simply put, Sociological and thematic grounding even in fields of Marketing and Business make such workplaces bearable and innately human.
Professor Penelope’s thesis statement reveals that these teaching spheres are not that different from one another and that collaboration in a learning environment can only benefit both students and professors and help dismantle robust dichotomies such as the double standard of neutrality that considers Whiteness as a substitute for neutrality and non-White scholarship as objective. Once again, I understand Muzanenhamo and I indirectly bond, as a similar double standard is found in media practices. The upstanding journalists must erase themselves from the news they report and not declare any form of positionality so as not to betray their positionality. However, journalists of color like Rokhaya Diallo have decried a double standard where their statements are never afforded the benefit of neutrality like their White counterparts would.
The leading thread throughout her research is an insightful analysis of the insidious pitfalls of White supremacy, which no Predominantly White Institution can escape from. Whiteness in these environments that we all navigate is “the standard for normality and comparison”. She then invites both faculty and students to “check themselves” and interrogate the ways in which they might be reinforcing the barriers to a truly welcoming learning space for all. She does not shy away from naming these behaviors that have been significantly researched. She notably cites the tendency for both Black and White students to question not only the authority but the judgment of Black members of the faculty.
It is abundantly clear, in the best of ways, that her own experience as a Black female scholar has greatly informed her work and although the contributions are not explicit, they do emphasize this project.
The different strategies Black scholars employ to survive in hostile workspaces are undoubtedly techniques minority students in PWI’s (Predominantly White Institutions) are also familiar with.
Indeed, faced with microaggressions or overt prejudice, one does not have a plethora of choices. In this article, she identifies three strategies: compromising, collusion, and radicalism.
These strategies are not mutually exclusive and could be summed up in the following way.
Compromising: Making the best of the system by navigating it without disrupting its internal structures.
Collusion: Imitation is the best form of flattery. This strategy demands the ultimate mimicry of the common behaviors and reinforcing of hegemonic scholarship praxis.
Radicalism: This final strategy is characterized by a refusal to compromise and therefore to pay the price of marginalization but from this place produce groundbreaking research. This requires a certain dismantling of the pre-existing structures we previously worked in.
The latter option sounds most like the Professor Muzanenhmo I met last year and I am in awe at her ability to continuously be reflective of her success and the structures and factors that made it possible.
The final remarks of her research read like a prophecy and led me to wonder how UCD and other institutions will continue to respond to the rightful criticism of their very foundations.
The final remarks of her research reads like a prophecy and leads me to wonder how UCD and other institutions will continue to respond to the rightful criticism of their very foundations.
“Strong-willed Black academics face an even tougher struggle for legitimacy (Christian, 2017). They are inclined to get promotions that are inherently fake and meaningless bearers of fancy titles with more work and mismatching compensation. Promotions for Black scholars do not eliminate epistemic injustice. Rather, they often help organizations to manage their images and foster community and stakeholder relationships, as signified for instance by ‘affirmative action cover girl’ (Bell and Nkomo, 1999: 82).”