Reflection on Surviving in a White Institution Symposium 2015

by Leona Nichole Black (23 June 2015)

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There have been a number of events and social media campaigns in recent years, that have sought to spark a critical conversation about the experiences of black students and faculty members in British Universities. Last month, the conversation came to the University of Leeds.

Surviving in a White Institution was a half day symposium hosted by the Critical Race and Ethnicities Network (CREN). It featured a panel of prominent Black British academics, who each gave presentations on navigating the structural oppressions and institutional racisms of the British Higher Education System. The panel was comprised of Professor Hakim Adi (University of Chichester), Associate Professor Shirley Tate (University of Leeds), Dr Deborah Gabriel (Bournemouth University), and Dr Lisa Palmer (Birmingham City University).

From my perspective as a Black working class woman and doctoral research student, the central importance of the event was its ability to support students/academics in identifying their hierarchical position as consumers/producers, within the knowledge economy of a white supremacist educational system. The way through which that is understood is critical race theory discourses. Shirley Tate addressed this issue in her discussion of racial affective economies, and her focus on the everyday ‘ordinary’ practices, that correlate with the broader structures of institutional racism.

The voice of dissent within academic institutions however, is not without cost. Dr Lisa Palmer discussed critiques of whiteness, as both potential for possibility and danger when black knowledge can be undercut at any given moment. Just recently, one of the public scholars most widely engaged by students, Dr Nathaniel Coleman, stated that he had been denied a permanent position at UCL because of his plans to put ‘white hegemony under the microscope’.

In the context of the tenuous position of Black faculty members, Hakim Adi gave very pragmatic advice about the purpose and impact of dissent. As well as the types of publishing activities Black academics may want to engage in order to see professional advancement.

Dr Deborah Gabriel spoke highly of Bournemouth University, as a place where she has been able to hold a position within critical race discourses without negative consequence; and as an institution that supports the ethos of her organisation Black British Academics.

Surviving in a White Institution was a conversation that exists in the wider context of calls that go beyond the rhetoric of equality, toward demanding more equitable conditions within British Universities. Calls that have come from ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’, a campaign to bring a Black Studies programme to UCL and other universities; the viral documentary Absent from the Academy by Nathan  Richards; and most recently the motion passed by Oxford University Union Officers, an admission that it is an institutionally racist organisation.

There is a sharp focus being placed on hegemonic whiteness in higher education, and it is my hope that these conversations lead to policy changes that improve the experiences of more than 100,000 black students, who are paying for their education.

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