‘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!

Narrative Research – my own narrative

I have decided to use narrative inquiry as my research methodology for looking in BME students’ sense of belonging in Higher Education. As part of this process Clandinin & Connelly (2000) remind us that our own narrative inevitably come into this kind of research. The first part will focus on why I have chosen narrative inquiry and the second part will focus on why I have chosen to study BME students’ sense of belonging.

“Even our own homely accounts of happenings in our own lives are eventually converted into more or less coherent autobiographies centred round a Self acting more or less purposefully in a social world.” Bruner (1991:18). This quote by Bruner has had me intrigued for about 6 years. In my work with electronic portfolios it really helped me express what I thought was one of the key benefits of e-portfolios. Namely, that they help record and construct our learning narratives. By recording events as close to when they happen, we have a record that we can look back upon so that we can see how we have progressed overtime. I captured this notion in a presentation I gave at the Centre for Recording Achievement conference in 2010 on e-portfolios and diachronic identity. My original research idea had been to build on this until I got interested in the attainment of BME students.

What really interests me about a narrative approach to research is how we construct our identity and our stories from an imperfect memory. We don’t recall events as they actually happened but through the lens of who we are at this point in time. As Bakhtin (1986) notes our self is neither finished nor definitive (the unfinalizable self) and so future stories can always re-interpret older ones.

So how does this relate to belonging and students in HE? Firstly, belonging is about perception. It is in the perception of the individual and therefore how students construct their identity as a student and tell their story of being at university will impact on their perception of belonging. Secondly, our identity is shaped by others. So in other words, the stories that students tell about their experiences of university will reveal aspects of how they place themselves in relation to peers, tutors and the institution. The sense of how they belonging will, in turn, influence the stories that they tell about being at university.

The second part of my own narrative on why I want to research BME students’ belonging through narrative inquiry has a strong personal motivational component and a strong social justice component.

The motivational component relates to my own family. My sister-in-law is from Zimbabwe and of my son’s five cousins; four of them are of mixed ethnicity. The idea that their educational achievement could be hampered just because they are not white is something that strikes me as simply unjust and unfair. Extending that outwards from my own personal circumstances takes me towards the second factor of social justice. If it is unfair for my own family then it is unfair for anyone to be in this situation.

There are lots of social injustices that I see every day in the world around me and I guess like many of us it is not knowing what to do about it that frustrates. At least in the context of my work, this is one injustice that I can do something constructive about. Here’s hoping!

Bakhtin, M.M. (1986) Speech Genres and other Late Essays, Austin: University of Texas Press

Bruner, J.(1991) ‘The Narrative Construction of Reality’, Critical Inquiry 18:1 pp. 1-21.

Clandinin, D. J and Connelly, F. M (2000) Narrative Inquiry: Experience and Story in Qualitative Research, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

By Neil Currant Posted in EdD