Decolonising the business curriculum in the era of Black Lives Matter

29th July 2020

Authors: Dr. Leon Prieto and Dr. Simone Phipps

The killing of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breona Taylor, Eric Garner, and many other black men and women have sparked universal outrage and condemnation of the racial injustices faced by people of African descent in the United States, and other parts of the globe. It has also reawakened calls for scholars, activists, and policy-makers to determine ways to tackle systemic, structural and institutional racism in all spheres, from the courthouse to the schoolhouse. There has also been a growing awakening of Black consciousness; and the works and speeches of Frederick Douglas, W. E. B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, Fannie Lou Hamer and others are making its rounds on social media. Racial injustice and white supremacy are not always obvious, and at times appear almost innocuous, and sometimes even reasonable according to a popular lecture delivered by Carol Anderson, Professor of African American Studies at Emory University. One of those ways is the curriculum; what Black students are taught (or not taught) in school.

In the K-12 system and universities across the United States, students are learning that Lincoln freed the slaves. However, what is missing in the curriculum is the agency displayed by the enslaved Africans to free themselves, which was skillfully articulated by W.E.B Du Bois in his seminal book, Black Reconstruction. What is also missing is the pioneering work and thought leadership of Charles Clinton Spaulding, Father of African American Management, and the many other Black Business leaders and social innovators like Maggie Lena Walker and Annie Turnbo-Malone who operationalised the African traditions and philosophies of cooperation and uplifted Black communities by creating meaningful work.

Black agency is absent from the pages of the largely whitewashed Global and American History. Too many times we see people of African descent depicted as passive actors, almost an afterthought, and not the originators and innovators who founded their own communities, businesses, social enterprises and “Black Wall Streets” during the age of segregation and apartheid. Many were surprised when the critically acclaimed “Watchmen” series on HBO depicted the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which decimated Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood District. This was a thriving Black community, which was burnt to the ground due to “white rage.” The ambition and agency displayed by conscientious Black business owners in the Greenwood district were rewarded with firebombs. Blacks, and their ambition, have had the proverbial knee on their necks for the larger part of their presence in the United States.

The recent special issue on Black Business and Management History in the Journal of Management History demonstrated that in Africa, and its Diaspora, people of African descent exhibited agency, built businesses and communities, and had their own systems and traditions. This warrants serious attention in a world where capitalism in its unadulterated form is being critiqued and questioned amidst calls for a more communitarian and compassionate version … a version that was actually practiced by people of African descent in the past.

During these uncertain times, we are calling for scholars and practitioners alike to continue efforts to champion change in the world as it relates to respecting Black lives (and minds). In addition, the work of scholars and academics, who strive to highlight issues related to diversity, inclusion, and the decolonisation of the curriculum, should be supported (and celebrated) by universities, and organisations who claim to be allies. Performative allyship (i.e., the disingenuous advocacy of equality and equity) is rife, and rings hollow. It is time for more authentic, robust, and action-oriented support to dismantle institutional, structural and systemic racism.

Dr. Leon Prieto and Dr. Simone Phipps were Guest Editors for the recent special Issue on Black Business & Management History in the Journal of Management History. They are also co-authors of African American Management History: Insights on Gaining a Cooperative Advantage.

Dr. Prieto is an Associate Professor of Management at Clayton State University and Dr. Phipps is an Associate Professor of Management at Middle Georgia State University. They are both Associate Research Fellows at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School’s Centre for Social Innovation.

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