‘Racist’ views in university

This post was prompted by an incident that occurred yesterday during a course that I was attending. However, I am really struggling to know where to start or write something that makes sense because I still get shocked and angry when staff display obvious racially insensitive attitudes.

My own research and that of others highlights that there is racial prejudice in UK universities but that it tends to be indirect and subtle so when someone says something much more obvious it is noticeable. So I guess I should explain the incident and go from there.

At one point in the course we were discussing the idea of dealing with things quickly (as a manager) before they get out of hand. One example used to illustrate this was the ‘Broken Windows Theory’. I stated that I felt this was a poor example as the theory itself was contested and controversial and had most notably been used to inform policing practice in New York City. I mentioned that such policies risked discriminating against certain groups such as young, Black men and that maybe a less controversial example should have been used.

One of the other participants felt that it was perfectly OK to state that it was precisely because this group were committing crime that meant they were targeted; showing a complete lack of understanding of structural inequality. Now to a certain extent I can forgive ignorance but it just felt like a completely unnecessary knee-jerk reaction to my comment that served no purpose.

Had we been discussing race or policing or any other related matter then I would have happily had the debate. But this was a management course. I had simply objected to an example used on the grounds that it could be seen as insensitive and another member of staff felt the need to object and make what I felt was a comment that showed at best ignorance and at worst a racist attitude. Although of course, it was not blatantly racist enough to be able to take the matter further and make a complaint against the staff member. (I would strongly recommend everyone reads Pettigrew and Meertens’ 1995 paper on ‘Subtle and blatant prejudice in Western Europe’, European journal of social psychology, 25 (1) pp. 57-75)

I guess it is just another daily example of how whenever anyone tries to call out structural inequality related to race there is always plenty of white people who feel the need to object. It is just a shame that it happened in my own university but just goes to illustrate how much further we have to go to get real equality and of course it only hardens my resolve to continue that fight!


Belonging in HE: my own experiences

It has taken me nearly three weeks to realise that one of the reasons for resigning from my current job is related to my research area of belonging. I want to use this post to reflect on my own recent experiences of belonging and how this might provide insight for my research.

To set the scene, one of the reasons for leaving my current job is that I did not feel a good fit (an aspect of belonging) in the organisation. For me, ‘fit’ is the group aspect of belonging; the sense that you are part of something bigger than yourself. I find there is also another useful aspect of belonging for which I use the term ‘contact’. This describes the individual relationships with people that help you belong in a certain environment.

So what have I learnt from my own experience of not fitting in. Firstly, a lack of belonging is hard to articulate and often hard to identify as the cause of why you might feel unhappy or uncomfortable in an environment. It took me nearly three weeks to make the connection (and notions of belonging are fore most in my mind) and it required a lot of reflective thinking to understand what was happening. This confirms to me that the story telling approach is the right way to go with the research. Simply asking about belonging or using belonging self-rating scales will not work because of the difficulty in thinking about and articulating belonging. However, in previous interview data I can see aspects of belonging emerge from stories and experiences, although clearly it is a highly interpretive process.

Secondly, it confirms to me the value of breaking down the concept of belonging into component parts, in this case ‘fit’ & ‘contact’. What was evident in my own work experiences is that fit is a more important aspect of belonging for me than contact. Really strong relationships with people can compensate for a lack of fit but a strong fit means contact can be much lower. What will be interesting in the research is to see if that is true for others or as I suspect contact may be more important for some. For example, I could imagine a student who gets through their degree thanks to excellent support from a lecturer and a small group of friends even though they don’t feel a strong fit in the university. ( I realise as I write this that I need to really ‘nail down’ how these two terms are defined in my research and how they are related but different.)

Thirdly, I need to identify indicators of belonging, fit and contact. In exploring why I did not feel a fit with my current organisation I identified shared values, ways of working and shared identity. By shared values I mean is this a place that has an emphasis on the values I think are important; are my values mirrored in the way the organisation works? The reality of how values are enacted or experienced as opposed to how values are espoused is important here. By shared ways of working, I mean are my strengths recognised and can I work in a way best suited to me. By shared identity, I mean do I recognise others like me who share an identity or have an identity which I value. The difficulty here is how to translate my experience to the student experience. To help I will draw from a specific example of a student who was dissatisfied with the academic environment because she expected it to me more welcoming of diverse opinions and more willing to challenge preconceptions. Her own values of diversity were not mirrored in her experiences (shared values), her opinions were not as respected as she had hoped (ways of working?) and she did not see fellow students on her course as having a shared identity. In not fitting in to her course she sought other means to fit in my being active in the Student’s Union were her values, opinions, ways of working and identity were mirrored more closely.

Fourthly, in exploring ‘fit’ in more detail the notion of a mirror seemed important. Fit is like a mirror; when you look at the people in your environment you expect to see some of yourself reflected back. When that does not happen then you don’t fit in. I don’t mean just your physical self (although for some the physical aspect might be important) but more those cognitive and affective aspects of you such as values and opinions.

Fifthly, the impact of belonging on your self. Like one of those fairground mirrors your sense of self can be distorted by your environment. You can start to question your own values and wonder whether you are right or not. Whilst this questioning can be a good thing it can also make you very unhappy or force you into acting in ways you would not normally in order to fit it.

Lots of food for thought but now back to the literature to find my thinking is way off base!

Why isn’t my professor black? #blackprofessor

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/