Self-empowerment is the best way to defeat racism in academia


It is not often that gloomy headlines are seen as welcome news, yet a recent article on the persistence of racism in academia prompted just such a response by one reader.

Similarly gloomy headlines have been a regular feature over the years from 1999 when the BBC reported that universities ‘need more black academics’, to May 2011 when the Guardian wrote ‘14,000 British professors but only 50 are black’.

Articles like this – and the study it covered – arewelcomed. But it only confirms what previous research has already indicated.

From Carter, Fenton and Modood’s study in 1999 on Ethnicity and Employment in Higher Education to The Equality Challenge Unit’s 2009 report on The Experience of Black and Minority Ethnic Staff Working in Higher Education. This is not a new revelation.

Racism in academia has been a longstanding problem; however, the moment has arrived in 21st-Century Britain when racism within the academy is untenable and must be driven out from within and that process must start with us, as Black British Academics.

Why is it still such a problem?

Exposing the extent, nature and scope of the problem is a necessary step, for no doctor can prescribe a cure without first diagnosing the illness. So what exactly are we dealing with here?

The fact that racial inequalities documented in the nineties still persist today tends to suggest that racism is deeply embedded within the structures and systems of higher education institutions and can therefore be more accurately described as institutionalised.

One of the best definitions of institutionalised racism provided by the former Commission for Racial Equality states: ‘If racist consequences accrue to institutional laws, customs or practices, that institution is racist whether or not the individuals maintaining those practices have racial intentions.’

The study in 1999 by Carter, Fenton and Modood revealed that in comparison with white academics, black and minority ethnic staff were more likely to have a doctorate but less likely to be involved in academic and research work, less likely to be employed full-time, less likely to be employed on a permanent contract, less likely to be promoted and more likely to receive a lower level of pay.

Recent research by the Equality Challenge Unit and Dr Bhopal show that little has changed since then. According to Dr Gil Robinson, over the years, “higher education institutions have resisted change quite successfully and have become one of the most difficult bastions of institutionalised racism to break down”.

That task is further complicated by the homogenisation of ‘black and minority ethnic’ people who do not have the same experience of racism. In many instances, quoting composite figures for BME populations presents a more favourable picture than the reality.

According to Dr Ayo Oyeleye: “There is a need to disaggregate the BME category in discourses of all forms of structural inequalities, especially with regards to opportunities for career development and progression for minority groups in British universities, in order to get a clearer picture of how specific groups have been affected.”

Returning to my earlier assertion that institutionalised racism is a pernicious disease within the academy and must be driven out from within – we must start by disentangling ourselves from the homogenous mass into which we have been placed to start to treat the symptoms of our condition.

The need for Black British Academics

This was the motivation for the development of Black British Academics – a mutually supportive online network and directory for African Caribbean academics in Britain, focused on self-empowerment. We are a small minority within academia and account for just 1.32 per cent, or 2,390 out of just over 181,000 academics, in the 2010/11 academic year (custom dataset supplied by HESA in 2012).

Being spread thinly across universities in Britain can be very isolating, leading to marginalisation. As isolated individuals within the academy we are weak and vulnerable. The online platform the network provides offers a space for interaction, collaboration and participation – encouraging more creative and critical thinking and greater levels of research activity.

African-Caribbean academics make a valuable contribution to the higher education sector and to Britain’s knowledge economy, yet the black intelligentsia is absent from mainstream discourse.

A directory searchable by discipline makes it easier for journalists to locate experts from African-Caribbean communities, potentially increasing participation within the public sphere. It also allows us to transcend from a state of invisibility to one of visibility.

We are a community of dedicated academics who are passionate about being teachers, researchers and innovators and we recognise that scholarship takes place both within and outside the academy through independent practitioners working in a variety of roles.

Uniting a fragmented population helps to build solidarity, creating a stronger, more resilient and empowered community. Defeating racism in academia must begin by building solidarity within our communities, supporting each other through challenging times and creating the space to collaborate, participate and grow.

Whilst universities must acknowledge that racism is deeply entrenched within their systems and structures and take the necessary steps to alleviate it from every dark corner as the legislation demands, As Dr Ayo Oyeleye states:

“We cannot rely solely on legislation and policy enactments to address the problem, not least because the most effective processes of inequalities and exclusions take place subtly but below any legislative or policy radar.”

Deborah Gabriel is a lecturer in journalism and media undertaking a PhD at the University of Salford in Manchester and is the founder of Black British Academics.

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