Ideologies of Integration and Exclusion: An interview with Dr. Christine Okoth

By Harriet Thompson and Christine Okoth in conversation

Dr. Christine Okoth

Christine received her PhD from King’s in November 2018 and is now a Research Fellow in the English Department at the University of Warwick. Christine’s supervisors at King’s College London were Jane Elliott and John Howard. Her PhD was examined by Nicole King (Goldsmiths) and Celeste-Marie Bernier (Edinburgh).  As part of the Leverhulme funded project ‘World Literature and Commodity Frontiers: The Ecology of the ‘long’ 20th Century’ run by Mike Niblett (Warwick) and Chris Campbell (Exeter), Christine is writing a monograph tentatively entitled The Novel of Extraction.

Harriet is a PhD student in the English department and co-editor of the King’s English blog.

Harriet Thompson (HT): I wanted to start by congratulating you on completing your PhD last year. The catalyst for our conversation was the news that you’ve recently been awarded one of only six Elsevier Outstanding PhD Thesis Prizes granted at King’s in January 2019, and the only award granted to a thesis in the Faculty of the Arts and Humanities. I know your thesis explores the integration of African immigrant literature into the economic, political, and cultural fabric of the United States. I wonder if you could talk about how your research relates to ongoing debates about the value of migration and particularly the issue of which migrant persons are deemed valuable or disposable?

Christine Okoth (OK): Thank you so much – I’m still quite shocked that I even have a PhD let alone that my examiners thought it was good enough for a prize! In what is probably a familiar tale, I had no idea what my thesis would eventually become when I started at King’s in 2014. It all started with Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts, a book that I encountered during my masters and that remains my favourite academic monograph. In it, Lowe develops a theory of Asian American political and cultural production as a kind of antithesis to the American national project. The history of Asian exclusion, which, by the way, isn’t taught nearly widely enough in UK universities, serves as the backdrop to Lowe’s argument. The idea that immigration legislation relates closely to the position that cultural production by immigrants holds within the U.S. nation-state stayed with me. I wanted to ask more questions about how the sudden popularity of African migrant literature – Adichie’s Americanah and Teju Cole’s Open City for example – related to shifts in U.S. immigration legislation. These novels weren’t exactly narratives of exclusion but are instead emergent genres of integration that take place against the backdrop of a changing political discourse around immigration.

It’s astonishing how much of a consensus exists around the idea that immigrants should be subjected to these forms of evaluation.

In 1965, U.S. legislators passed the first iteration of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), a version of which still regulates immigration law in the United States. The INA abolished a long-standing system of national quotas – which had effectively barred populations from Asia and Africa from emigrating to the United States – and replaced quotas with a set of preference categories that would help select immigrants for their potential contribution to the nation-state. Because it was passed in the same year as the Voting Rights Act, the INA is sometimes considered a progressive piece of legislation that abolished legally inscribed racial discrimination. Of course, this wasn’t the case at all. The INA placed restrictions on Western Hemisphere immigration for the first time, effectively criminalising the many Mexican migrant labourers that the U.S. economy relies on. The introduction of legislative means of evaluating immigrant value actually introduced a regime that normalised thinking of people as resources whose value can be broken down and quantified. In my thesis, I argued that this regime is one about integration through extraction and that this is the backdrop of the African migrant novel. An outcome of my PhD research has been that I notice the casual usage of language around immigrant value everywhere. The U.K. counterpart to the U.S. discourse is definitely the distinction between skilled versus unskilled labour. It’s astonishing how much of a consensus exists around the idea that immigrants should be subjected to these forms of evaluation.

People are drowning in the Mediterranean because an ideology of immigrant value has deemed them devoid of value.

For example, the points-based system of the U.K. and Canada is an even more extreme form of selection that assigns points according to what immigrants might bring to the country. It feels like a test and is definitely an extension of what Michelle Murphy calls ‘the economization of life,’ the idea that everything needs to be evaluated according to potential economic output. This might seem like a relatively benign idea to some people but it is just another way of inscribing hierarchies of life into the law. If migrants are valuable because they earn a certain amount of money, live in a heteronormative marriage, or have degrees from elite institutions in the global North it is easy to dismiss those persons who fall out of those categories as useless and expendable. You don’t have to look very closely at these discourses to see just how much they rely on the racial logics they purport to supplant. The increased emphasis on integration through selection grants legitimacy to violent state practices like detention, deportation, and the policing of borders on land and water.  People are drowning in the Mediterranean because an ideology of immigrant value has deemed them devoid of value. The solution is not to attempt to argue that all people are equally valuable but to abolish the category of value altogether, especially when it is deployed as a way to hierarchically organise populations. 

The solution is not to attempt to argue that all people are equally valuable but to abolish the category of value altogether.

HT: I’m really struck by what you say about the ideology of immigrant value, and the need to abolish these kinds of hierarchies within society. In the university sector, there have been a number of high profile campaigns against the outsourcing of service industry staff, predominantly immigrants, who are not afforded the same benefits as university employees. King’s College London recently pledged to bring all security and cleaning staff in-house, but there’s still a huge ongoing campaign to get other institutions such as the University of London to follow suit. Do you think community activism and collective organising has an important part to play in helping to abolish the category of value you mentioned which also governs how we view particular kinds of labour?

CO: In short: absolutely. The various hierarchies that exist in the university today reflect the political discourse on the distinction between valuable and expendable populations. Within universities, the practice of outsourcing essential labour – from cleaning and security to teaching – is a means of consolidating these hierarchies. As the recent University and College Union (UCU) strike demonstrated, outsourcing impedes collective bargaining. Even though precariously employed and outsourced teaching staff at various institutions were in favour of the strike they could not participate because they were not employed by the university and were therefore ineligible to join the union. The university can’t function without the labour of outsourced workers but the institution will do whatever it can do extract maximum value from them with minimal investment. This is exactly the kind of logic that makes it possible for governments to admit immigrants into a country so that they may profit from their skills and resources whilst simultaneously limiting their access to public services like healthcare and unemployment benefits. And make no mistake; as much as national governments insist on a distinction between desirable and undesirable, valuable and useless, skilled and unskilled, the logic behind the evaluation of immigrant value remains consistent. 

It is for this reason that community organising is a vital tool in the dismantling of these hierarchies, not only between valued and expendable workers but also between citizens and immigrants. One outcome of the marketisation of higher education has been the realisation that the neoliberal university treats everyone badly – with the exception of its managerial class – so there really is no reason to hold on to the hierarchies that we are often asked to police and maintain. Many of these hierarchies, of course, map onto other hierarchies of difference. It is no coincidence that many of the outsourced workers of the university are immigrants and that many of them are non-white. It is also no coincidence that the academic and professional class in universities is predominantly upper middle-class and white. Academics are exploited in a number of ways but we still have some power to support the struggles of our fellow workers. I’m glad you mentioned the various campaigns that have taken place at King’s and are ongoing at Senate House. It’s been heartening to see so many of the staff members at King’s support the efforts of campaigns like Justice for Cleaners and Fair Pay for GTAs (Graduate Teaching Assistants).  Community organising then is a method of abolishing the category of value because it is based on the principle of solidarity. Academics are exploited in a number of ways but we still have some power to support the struggles of our fellow workers.
Community organising is a method of abolishing the category of value because it is based on the principle of solidarity. 

Community organising is a method of abolishing the category of value because it is based on the principle of solidarity. 

Perhaps this is also a way to start talking about the problem of integration and inclusion. Thanks to student activists all over the world and especially in South Africa, there’s a lot of talk at the moment about decolonising the university. When these critiques make it up the ranks they often just translate into corporate ‘diversity and inclusion’ initiatives that do nothing to address the structural inequalities that students are demanding are recognised. We cannot let that happen. The push for decolonisation stands alongside the challenges to the neoliberal university I outlined earlier. As Eve Tuck has said, decolonisation is not a metaphor. It involves meaningful structural change rather than window-dressing and the recruitment of staff and students from a diverse pool of the global landed gentry. Yes, it is important to question the composition of our canon, especially in literary studies. But if we do so only as a way to integrate the neoliberal university then we are not taking the task of decolonisation seriously. Fighting for the inclusion of diverse voices in a university that asks its students to take out exorbitant loans to pay for access to higher education, somehow gain access to enough money to pay rent that is hardly subsidised in one of the most expensive cities of the world, and subsequently receive little to no support from the institution in times of crisis is frankly unconscionable. 

HT: As you say, the fact that decolonisation needs to go beyond the curriculum and address the fabric of universities themselves seems really important here. Structural inequalities are a huge part of the problem when it comes to the lack of diverse voices and experiences in higher education. I wonder what challenges you think minority groups in particular face when it comes to accessing first PhD programmes and then post-doctoral positions? The structural inequality seems to exist at all levels of the system, not just at the level of academic staff. 

CO: Doctoral study can be lonely, and doubly so if it seems like you don’t quite fit in with your peers. It is very difficult to find your place in an institution that so clearly caters for a specific kind of student, especially when you know that you’ll never become that student. Because English Departments are still very homogenous minority students will encounter ignorance in some unexpected places. Having to explain yourself and your presence over and over again is boring. When I started my postdoc someone in HR actually felt it was appropriate to tell me that my last name ‘didn’t sound English’ as though that was some kind of novelty. I’m not going to downplay how many strange encounters like these await minority students pursuing doctoral study. Once you get to the job search it can be extremely disheartening to see so few candidates of colour make it to the short list. I have seen very few black academics be interviewed for a job at King’s and it has made approaching the job search with some optimism difficult. I can’t speak for working class PhD students but I imagine there are some similarities. 

Not to state the obvious but money is one of the biggest issues that students from minority backgrounds face. If you’re on an AHRC stipend you are one of the lucky ones and have some sort of income to get you through three years of study. But the reality is that London is obscenely expensive and many doctoral students have additional sources of income or generational wealth (often in the form of property) that makes it easier to survive on the meagre stipend. In addition, many PhD students actually need a fourth, unfunded year to complete the degree. Trying to make enough money to pay rent and bills while finishing a thesis is exhausting. It seems obvious but I’ll say it anyway: you’ll be grateful to have made close friends by the time that dreaded year comes around. A PhD is not a reality show, you ARE here to make friends. Your friends might not be able to help you financially but they will commiserate with you! It sounds trite but it’s true, there is no way I could have survived the first three years to say nothing of the last one without my friends. When we can, we’ve all helped each other out. If some kind of work opportunity comes up that isn’t suitable for yourself, give it to a friend in need. In the job-searching years, make your institutional access count if you have it. Share resources with your friends – it’s a pain writing those publications you need to even get an interview if you can’t access JSTOR. Even something as simple as getting someone a coffee when you know they’re struggling and you’re a bit more financially stable is the kind of gesture that can get someone through yet another rejection. Be kind, this is not a meritocracy and there’s no prize for being cutthroat and excessively competitive. 

Join a reading group, join the union, get organised.

Do not underestimate how supportive and empathetic your senior colleagues will be either. They would all be terribly embarrassed so I won’t name names but staff members have gone above and beyond to help individual students in any way they can and to support wider efforts for institutional change. Sometimes it can feel like you should just suck it up, keep your head down, and pretend you’re thriving. My advice would be not to do that. If you have a grievance and an idea of how to change things, tell someone you trust and they might just move mountains to make it happen. Also – join a reading group, join the union, get organised.

Featured image: Copyright Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images
Author photo: courtesy of Christine Okoth

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If you have any comments on this interview please use the ‘Comments’ section of this blog post.

Blog posts on King’s English represent the views of the individual authors and neither those of the English Department, nor of King’s College London.