Black and minority ethnic academics still face barriers – but find themselves treated as the problem if they point out racism
Afrequent complaint levelled at universities is that they are ivory towers disconnected from the challenges of day-to-day life. For a particular constituency within those respected walls – black and minority ethnic (BME) students and staff – it’s a label that is no doubt more than a little ironic.
White men continue to hold the majority of senior positions within universities. What is a more apt encapsulation of the stubborn resolve to maintain the status quo than the phallic symbol of an ivory tower?
The Guardian’s investigation last week into racism in UK universities demonstrates a lack of progress that borders on the obstinate. The report uncovers how many formal complaints of racism 131 universities have logged over the last five years – and the details of their race policies and procedures. It finds that almost all universities have no staff or support services dedicated to dealing with concerns about racism and a marginal number have policies focusing on institutional racism. And, as if to underscore the depth of the chasm we have before us, only a smattering record informal complaints. This last finding demonstrates essentially a choice to pretend the problem doesn’t exist at all and a resolute commitment to inaction.
In the wake of such lethargy, BME students and staff are expected to maintain a stiff upper lip. We all know how the whiteness script goes: if you see a problem, you invariably become the problem. Isolated and disillusioned, some students articulated regret at attending universities such as Durham and Newcastle rather than ones in London, Manchester or Birmingham. Who can blame them? Racism is far easier to live through within a community, with networks of support. Recently, a senior black journalist told me her own university choice was based on exactly this. She had been accepted to Durham but had instead gone to Birkbeck, University of London. It made perfect sense.
Yet even at universities in cosmopolitan cities, BME staff and students can continue to come up against what former Goldsmiths academic Sara Ahmed calls the “brick wall”. Good PR dictates that such institutions market themselves as valuing diversity yet only serve to reveal the insincerity now attached to the word. If nearly all universities have generic equality and diversity training but next to nothing to address institutional racism, or support services or staff dealing with racism – diversity then is merely a box to tick. As institutions rush to be seen to be “doing diversity” they ignore the very people who embody that diversity.
In March, students occupied a key university building at Goldsmiths, University of London, to protest against the institutional racism they have experienced there. The university’s own website has a dedicated page declaring that it is “passionate about advancing equality and celebrating diversity”. Irony is the gap between what is said and what is, in fact, true. More than a hundred days in, the Goldsmiths occupation continues.
At the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), University of London, the very public case of Dr Feyzi Ismail, who has repeatedly had her application to be made permanent rejected after nearly eight years of working at the institution, illustrates what BME academics are struggling against. For Ismail, despite not experiencing overt racism, her “precarious position can’t be separated from race and gender … at some level it feels that the school doesn’t value you”. It is difficult not to surmise that worth is determined by how much a face fits.
Former Soas academic Dr Nydia A Swaby tells me that “the way that racism manifests itself at Soas [is that] it is structural racism embedded in academic hierarchy and means that it is difficult to thrive in the institution”. In other words, those more likely to find themselves in precarious positions as academics are disproportionately people of colour. In 2016-17, out of 19,000 professors in the UK, only 25 were black women.
Diversifying the ethnic makeup of academic staff and, crucially, promoting BME academics to positions of power is of the utmost importance if there is to be a transformation in British universities. This will ensure the necessary disruption of curricula and intellectual thinking that has often previously excluded BME academics and left BME students feeling disillusioned.
What is clear from this investigation is that universities with the worst complaints may not necessarily be the worst places to study and teach for BME students and staff: it may be scraping the barrel, but at least they have reached a critical mass. In those universities, it would seem that there are some systems in place for capturing complaints. For the vast majority of universities, however, privileged seclusion, detached from a world of increasingly diverse student cohorts, is a far more pleasing prospect. Rather than dealing with institutional racism of their own making, they prefer to offload the problem on to the very people pointing out its existence.
• Lola Okolosie is an English teacher and Guardian columnist