Last night I attended this excellent, thought-provoking event at UCL. There was a sense of positive energy and a real desire to move things forward. Very uplifting. I have tried to capture the essence of the event in tweets here – http://storify.com/ncurrant/why-isn-t-my-professor-black?
If you were not aware only 0.4% of professors in the UK are black hence the title of the event.
Here were some of the highlights and ‘take homes’ for me.
The event consisted of six panelist each giving a 10 minute speech. First up was Nathan Richards, director of the excellent ‘Absent from the academy” video which I posted about last year. He told a story about his own studies were he was concerned about the lack of African authors on his reading list. He approached one of his lecturers about this and the lecturer was really unable to respond. He did not have the knowledge to know how to address the situation. if universities are about cultural reproduction then what gets reproduced is invariably a white view of the world. He ended with “the presence of difference around the tables (in meetings in HE) makes a difference.”
Next was Deborah Gabriel, who is just completing her PhD on black bloggers and helped set up the excellent Black British Academics network. One of her critiques was that universities deal with aspects of diversity in isolation. There is no intersectional approach.
For Deborah one of the key barriers to the lack of black professors was the lower likelihood of black students being offered research studentships. This is linked to the attainment gap at undergraduate level and the type of university attended by black students (they are less likely to study at the more prestigious universities.) She also talked about how the largely white, male senior managers in HE engage in ‘social closure‘, whether deliberate or not, that excludes black staff.
Deborah’s final point was the need for positive action to redress the situation.
Third to speak was philosopher Nathaniel Coleman who gave a virtuoso performance on who gets to do Philosophy and what gets done in Philosophy? His final point was in response to the belief that blacks are less intellectual and can’t do philosophy, “Dear dead, white man you are not equipped to do philosophy on your own.”
Next was Lisa Palmer from Newman university who organised the Blackness in Britain conference and will be organising a series of follow-up seminars on the topic. She talked about campuses as colonies – the concrete reality of whiteness at university, the weight of racism, the belief in black intellectual inferiority and the fact that racism has been downplayed in the day to day reality of Higher Education.
Then William Ackah talked about how standards are used to say everything is OK. We have clear and high standards so the best and brightest end up at the top, surely there can be no racism if we apply our standards?
As a slight digression, this particularly resonated with me because I think many university policies hide behind the veneer of equality. Mitigating circumstances is a clear example. On the surface a fair and equal policy that is applied equally to all but the reality is that it impacts on different groups of students in very different ways. Do we really know how it impacts students and do we really care?
William then went on to discuss that blacks are studied as objects rather than as subjects and their own agents, anyone can be an expert on black culture (referencing David Starkey’s comments on Newsnight.)
The final panellist was Shirley Tate who reworded the question and asked “under what conditions would it take for my professor to be black?” Shirley talked about contemptuous tolerance of blacks by whites in academia. She described how black academics don’t get mentored, don’t get access to institutional knowledge and can only trust with limits. Black academics are outsiders.
At the end members of the audience got to make short speeches which were equally excellent and intellectual. Here are some of the highlights for me, I hope I captured them faithfully:
- “you can’t say anything without it being seen as racialised.
- Institutionalised racism in HE needs to be exposed.
- Higher managers in HE don’t have the cultural competence to change the situation and improve the situation.
- Racism has evolved to go undetected, by excluding you and finding a way to keep your voice out of the room. What now? What will be different?
- I went from 3As to getting a 2.2 because I was only black person on my course and got to feel for the first time what many white people thought of black people and it had a huge effect on me.
- How do black working class people know how to become academics – no experience in family, shouldn’t unis help?
- Within communities need to push against being a footballer, singer, lawyer etc. and see academic as a valued career path.
- Only black student on eng lit course complaining about lack of relevant books on course and having only one non-white person lecture her in two years. Importance of networks for black students.
- As only black member in meetings, I don’t hear managers talking about the issue of recruiting and promoting black staff. It shouldn’t be incumbent on BME staff to bring up the issue.”
Much food for thought and action to be taken.
Update: There are two items in the Times Higher from 20th March. There are also a number of other blog posts about the event:
You can watch the video of the event here – https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/events/2014/03/21/whyisntmyprofessorblack/