Presented at CREN’s ‘Is Academia the place for me?’ event
Wednesday 29th October, 5pm – 7:30pm.
Talk given & written by Remi Joseph-Salisbury
Of late there has been an upsurge in attention paid to the higher educational experiences of BME students, and staff. We see this in the organization and popularity of last year’s Blackness in Britain conference, the subsequent establishment of a Black Studies Association, the establishment of the Black PhD Network, and increasing pressure for Black studies courses at various institutions across the UK. Inspired by our US counterparts, we’ve seen the ‘I too am Oxford’ and ‘I too am Sheffield’ campaigns, and events at the University of Surrey and the University of Central London. Through events such as ‘Is academia the place for me?’ held at the University of Leeds and the University of Sheffield, we must maintain this momentum. Hosted by the Critical Race and Ethnicities White Rose Network and University of Leeds Black liberation officers, these events brought together students of colour from all levels and a variety of disciplines. The event brought up a number of issues facing people of colour at each of these institutions that will undoubtedly be understood outside of our institutions.
There is a startling underrepresentation of BME staff across universities; there are only 85 Black professors across the UK and only 17 of these are women. Research and activism has begun to shine the light on the marginal experiences of BME staff.
Black academics often occupy precarious positions. Scholars have spoken of a brain-drain, particularly in social sciences, with a significant number of scholars leaving for the US. Those that have left have attributed this flight to experiences of racism, low career prospects and research agendas that marginalise race. The cultural theorist Paul Gilroy suggests that ‘The idea of being a black intellectual seems a bizarre oxymoron in England’.
We have to consider the messages that such underrepresentation and marginalisation transmits to students, as well as wider society. The idea that intellectualism is a white pursuit, and conversely that Black life is anti-intellectual, needs to be destabilised. This hierarchical thinking has a long-standing history that has maintained white hegemony, inside and outside of academia. To disrupt this, black role models and representation need to be present; this was a key recommendation of an NUS Black students’ survey.
In terms of knowledge production, we must be aware of the limitations of intellectual canons that silence Black voices. If we assume that knowledge production is a primary aim of higher education institutions, then we must ask whether it is sustainable for education to continue to ignore contributions of Black staff and students.
The racialised barriers are also evident in ethnocentric curricula. Black voices are, too often, marginalised to issues pertaining to race. In 2009 the NUS Black students campaign found that 41% of their respondents felt that their curriculum failed to ‘reflect issues of diversity, equality and discrimination’. Across disciplines including Sociology, despite valuable contributions by scholars of colour, we still see core modules with reading lists made up solely of white male academics. We must consider which voices are privileged, by who and why.
The overwhelming whiteness of academia that too often leaves BME students feeling alienated and marginalised means that we need to continue to reflect on, and critique the limitations of the current system; limitations that see striking disparities in attainment and retention rates. Simultaneously we need to organise Black-led groups and conversations that provide a safe space for mutual support. Research has recently shown that marginalised groups have faced difficulties in accessing traditional support networks; this is an issue for race, and for social class. Support networks set up by Black students, for Black students, of all levels, can begin to offer an intervention that challenges this disadvantage. The work of the Black liberation officers at the University Leeds, and similar groups at other institutions, is of fundamental importance in this regard.
With education increasingly important for social mobility, and thus political representation, equitable employment and an equitable society, interventions must be made at every level. In Higher Education we must disrupt the white curricula, the white staff and the white student body that sees the Black body become a body out of place. We must challenge the systematic marginalization and the institutional racism that continually sees Black students reporting lower rates of satisfaction with their education. We must also challenge the administration processes that see higher acceptance rates for white students. Attributed to a racial bias towards British sounding names, this is particularly pertinent in elite institutions such as our own. With all the racialized barriers in earlier stages of education, and in wider society, we must ensure that we work to improve the experiences of those students that do make it to university and hope this leads to an increase in the number of Black academics. This will only be brought about by conscious efforts from the Black student body. Whilst we must not obscure the diversity in experiences within the BME group, we must find spaces to discuss our shared experiences. That’s why the formation of black-led groups, committed to continual agitation, as well as the creation of safe mutually-supportive spaces, are integral to any progressive action.