Let’s face the facts: Academia has a big problem with race

Image Description: Six red game pieces are stood opposite one brown game piece (set against a neutral blue background). 

When it comes to racism, we’re living in a moment in which many people have had a ‘wakeup call’. Since the deplorable murder of George Floyd at the hands of American police officers, my social media has been lit up by the sharing of important resources and black people’s experiences across the globe. Supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement have both shone a light on the explicit and insidious forms of racism that have permeated society for centuries and have pushed for allies to stand up and actively engage in anti-racist activism. Participation in the push for change has come in the form of joining protests, signing petitions, donating to funds and maintaining important conversations with the people around us.

In the UK, the government has shamefully dismissed the experiences of BAME people, and especially black people. However, I have noticed that many white allies, who once would have shied away from open allyship, have now recognised the importance of breaking their silence and understanding their privileged place in systemic oppression. Indeed, the damaging impact of racism on BAME people has opened up discussions of its existence in different spaces, education being one of them. In the realm of academia, many institutions have shown their support of the Black Lives Matter movement in official statements. As the various heads of Oxford colleges stated in their signed letter to The Guardian on the 4th of July 2020, there is an essential role that education plays in “building racial equality and fair inclusion of black voices and perspectives in society”.

However, it would be deeply inaccurate to say that everything has been wholly positive. In many cases, these examples of performative words have resulted in false promises and inaction. In other cases, their acknowledgement of the need to “promote, protect and advance equal dignity and respect” is deeply infuriating.

It’s moments like these that make many feel like we have taken one step forward and two steps back.

Why now? Why are they only recognising this now, when issues of race have been a toxic part of academia for a very long time? The list of problematic incidents continues. Just a few weeks ago, we heard David Starkey’s incredibly racist remarks about slavery not being genocide, because “otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or Britain would there?” Following his discussion with commentator Darren Grimes, Fitzwilliam College (Cambridge University) stripped him of his honorary fellowship and called his comments “indefensible”.

It seems only right to ask why this public condemnation from the College is only happening now, when in 2011 Starkey claimed,The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion.” Starkey’s more recent comments come after bombardments of disgusting racial abuse and death threats directed at Dr. Priyamvada Gopal, who rightly pointed out the need for Cambridge University to address systemic racial oppression. It’s moments like these that make many feel like we have taken one step forward and two steps back.

 Academia has a really long way to go.

Certainly, a big topic of discussion that has existed for decades has been representation, or rather, the lack thereof. A quick google and it is not surprising to find several reports and statistics that show the lack of BAME people at all levels of higher education including staff, students and fellows, as well as the disproportionate disadvantage that BAME undergraduates and postgraduates face in the attainment gap. Even though we have seen improvements with admissions of BAME students at universities such as Oxford, there is still more progress to be made, not least because certain subjects have significant representation issues and some ethnic groups remain underrepresented.

Regarding staff, it was reported this year by the Higher Education Statistics Agency that the number of black academics in top university roles in the UK is “officially zero” (there were only 5 last year). Out of the 535 senior academics in managerial roles, 475 are white and 25 are classed as ‘Asian, mixed or other ethnicities’. Early this year I attended a Diversity Forum at the Globe Theatre and was completely demoralised to hear that BAME early career researchers, especially black female academics, had to work twice as hard and twice as long to achieve the same academic positions as their white peers. This is beyond unacceptable. I am yet to see many institutions taking full accountability of this absolute failure to recruit and promote BAME academics. In plenty of marketing material I have witnessed, universities up and down the country use the buzzwords ‘diverse’ and ‘equal’ to represent their communities without actually demonstrating these claims with concrete examples.

It has become part of a box-ticking exercise to include the odd black writer to meet demands from the student body.

I can only talk from personal experience, but this lack of representation has been incredibly discouraging. I have studied at Oxford as an undergraduate and a postgraduate and both experiences have been tough. All too often I have sat in a lecture or seminar and looked around the room, only to see one or two other BAME people. Sometimes I’m the only one. I have loved pursuing a DPhil. However, it has been a very lonely process for this reason.

Rarely can my white peers fully grasp the microaggressions and more explicit discriminatory incidents that I have faced. I struggle to find BAME academics who I can relate to and admire as a role model. With no other BAME colleagues from whom I can seek guidance and offer my own emotional support, I prefer to be silent and internalise the discrimination that I have faced. Not least because when I have stepped up to say something, I have been called “aggressive” or have been perceived as a troublemaker. When I have attended meetings where something inappropriate has been discussed, I have sometimes felt unable to speak up and call it out because of the power dynamics and because I am outnumbered by white people.

This outnumbering partly explains the tendency for universities to resort to tokenism. Representation of race in the course material is pretty sparse. Despite many calls to diversify and decolonise the curriculum, the arts have taken too long to uplift BAME voices and to explore the history of colonisation and race. Quite often it has become part of a box-ticking exercise to include the odd black writer to meet demands from the student body. When race-related papers do appear, BAME figures are only reduced to stories of violence.

Tokenism has also seeped into the student community. Time and time again I have been contacted by peers in other departments because they have seen my picture attached to law courses and subject development programs when I only consented to photos of me for my faculty. For myself and other students who have experienced this, it is clear that we have become the go-to people to be rolled out when universities want to show that they ‘really are diverse’. While some allies have been supportive about these issues in conversations, I have not seen much proactive work to shift this type of culture at Oxford.

Universities up and down the country use the buzzwords ‘diverse’ and ‘equal’ to represent their communities without actually demonstrating these claims with concrete examples.

It’s really important to stress that representation is only one part of a much bigger and more complex problem with race. A big thing to stress is that diversity does not necessarily mean inclusion. Institutions like Oxford need to move beyond reducing equality and diversity to numbers. Admissions statistics cannot and should not veil the big cultural shift that needs to happen to make the space more inclusive of those who don’t fit the elder cis white male model.

Historically, academia has not been a safe haven to address issues like othering, microaggressions, racial gaslighting, code-switching, unconscious bias, the lack of official BAME support networks, racial attainment and pay gaps, or the lack of opportunities for BAME people. Not to mention that there is often an emotional (unpaid) labour imposed on BAME people to solve these equality and diversity shortfalls in the University. The list goes on.

I’m devastated to say that these issues have made me really question whether academia is for me; I doubt that I would ever feel a sense of belonging in this space. There’s only so much you can take before enough is enough. Many times I have been close to breaking point. Yet, I am one of the ‘lucky’ ones. I don’t doubt there are plenty of others, especially black students and staff, who have had it much worse.

Academia has a lot of challenges that need to be addressed. Before any of this can happen there needs to be a willingness to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Calls from students and staff for universities to do better is not an attack, but a request to actually prioritise equality, diversity and inclusion. In order to make progress, institutions need to admit their shortfalls and really listen to and uplift BAME people. No longer can they exploit them to solve their problems or deflect attention away from their own inaction. The people at the top need to act and they need to act now.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash