The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)’s newly-appointed director, Adam Habib, has become the latest victim of cancel culture having been suspended from the university. His crime? During an online meeting, a student asked Habib if SOAS’s commitment to the BLM movement was sincere, when some academics continued to use racial slurs, particularly the N-word, in the classroom. Habib responded by saying that he would personally address any of these allegations but in doing so, he ‘verbalised’ the word in question. It was a cardinal mistake. The incident caused an uproar at SOAS, with selectively edited versions of the video adding fuel to the fire.
Those on the left at SOAS (which is pretty much the entire student body) soon wanted their pound of Adam Habib’s flesh and now the director has been forced to step down while his comments are investigated.
Habib is a mixed race South African, with impeccable social justice credentials: he has spent most of his life working for academic institutions at the forefront of promoting racial equality in post-apartheid South Africa. Now his downfall has come at the hands of a group of students sitting at home reprimanding him harshly on Zoom about racial sensitivity.
For a university that supposedly wants to engage with uncomfortable issues such as racial injustice, global inequality and human rights, SOAS students are often incredibly sensitive. It is hard to see how you can discuss colonial Africa, racial hierarchies or oppression – themes which appear in a number of SOAS modules – without first acknowledging the existence and connotations of the N-word. Its use in an appropriate academic context, if anything, ensures that the centuries spent combatting racial inequality are not forgotten. Dick Gregory, the famous American comedian and civil rights activist, would surely have agreed: he called his autobiography ‘Nigger: An Autobiography by Dick Gregory’ as an anti-racist statement.