‘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!

Do students have to conform to our values?

It takes a convergence of events and a receptive mind to gain new insight. This thought was prompted by a planned conversation with a colleague and the chance arrival in our office of a copy of ‘The Doctorate: international stories of the UK experience’, Trahar (2011).

In discussing academic advising, we came across the challenge of advising students whose values might not be the same as ours or those espoused in the higher education system in the UK. The job of the advisor should be to make students aware of the values inherent in the UK system. This is good. Students should always be made aware of the expectations of an educational system but you have to wonder how far we ‘force’ (if such is the right term) students to conform to those values in order to do well. That by espousing values that have developed over hundreds of years in UK academia we are unconsciously devaluing the student’s own values and the culture from which those values derived.

It is a situation neatly summed up by Trahar (2011) in her story of a supervision of a student with very different beliefs to her own. Trahar struggled  with notions of herself as open to diversity yet confronted with ideas of the world at odds with her own beliefs. The story was resolved with discussing her discomfort with the student which allowed them both to move forward. How often does this happen? This might work with a close doctoral supervision relationship but what about the undergraduate with their infrequent contact with their advisor?

Stockfelt (in Trahar 2011) rails against the hegemony of the western epistemologies of (mostly) dead white men that must be referenced. How can these be relevant frameworks for understanding the stories of disaffected young men in Jamaica? All around academia you will find ‘white’ curricula. It is not surprising really, most staff are white. We tend to teach and design our curricula around our research interests and with what we are most familiar. Or possibly we are directed in certain ways by, mostly white, professional bodies.

So how do we create a truly diverse and inclusive curriculum? I don’t have the solution to that (if you do please let me know!) In my work, I hope that the global citizenship graduate attribute will be a lever to have the conversation and to push the curricula in a more diverse direction. But first, I will start with my own practice and use May & Thomas’ (2010) audit questions and of course have a serious reflection about how to make the delivery more inclusive by September!


May, H. & Thomas, L. (2010) Embedding equality and diversity in the curriculum: Self-evaluation framework. HEA: York

Stockfelt, S. (2011) ‘Slave to the white leaders on paper? The PhD expedition’ in Trahar, S. (ed) The Doctorate: international stories of the UK experience, HEA ESCalate: Bristol

Trahar, S. (2011) The Doctorate: international stories of the UK experience, HEA ESCalate: Bristol

Learning from student researchers

I have been working with two postgraduate students on my project on ethnic minority attainment. At the start, I felt the main benefit was that as students from minority ethnic backgrounds they would be closer to the student experience. This would reduce the power distance between the interviewers and the students being interviewed and hopefully produce some insightful and interesting stories.

What was also obvious, with hindsight, was the additional benefits they would bring to the project. We have only just started interviewing but for me so far they have:

  • Challenged my thinking
  • Generated useful ideas
  • Have different contacts

Challenged my thinking

They have challenged my thinking from both their student and their background perspective. They have help me clarify my ideas and message and what we want to do. They have helped in shaping the interview schedule.

Generated useful ideas

Two heads are better than one, as they say! I would not have come up with all the ideas that we have generated as a team. This has been particularly helpful in recruitment of participants.

Have different contacts

The students are very much connected to different networks than I am. This haas proven helpful in recruitment but going forward this could be extremely useful in driving the implementation and future phases of the project. Effectively, we have a ‘steering group’ of interested people who can guide how the project goes forward.

I am sure this is just the start of my learning on this project and the start of the great benefits that the student researchers can bring to the project. In the process, I hope the students are learning valuable skills. Note to self: must ask them what benefits they feel they are getting from the project so far.


Critical Race Theory

As a very belated follow-up to my last post, I have just acquired ‘Racism and Education’ by David Gillborn. I am looking forward to getting stuck into it. I think one of the appeals of this approach is the counter-story. I love the idea of using narratives for research and for exploring the world. Originally, I had wanted to research e-portfolios in this context but I think this approach to social inequality is also a fascinating and fruitful line of enquiry.