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The experiences of Black and minority ethnic academics

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Prof Kalwant Bhopal
Prof Kalwant Bhopal

By Professor Kalwant Bhopal

There is recent data to suggest that Black and minority ethnic (BME) academics remain under-represented in higher education.

Statistical data demonstrates the lack of representation of BME groups in higher education. Recent data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency in 2012/13 shows that out of a total of 17,880 professors, only 85 were Black (less than 1%), 950 were Asian (5%), 365 were ‘other’ (including mixed) (2%) and the overwhelming majority 15,200 were White (85%).

My recently published book of The experiences of Black and minority ethnic academics: a comparative study of the unequal academy (see below) examines how BME experiences in universities are affected by their identities such as race, gender and class, and how the intersectionality of these identities position them as ‘outsiders’ in the White space of the academy.

I explore comparisons between BME academics working in the UK and those in the USA by examining how their experiences are understood in two different social, economic and political contexts. It is based on a qualitative study with thirty-five interviews with respondents who were employed in the UK, and thirty who were employed in universities in the USA.

Whilst the social and economic climates in the UK and USA differ, BME academics report similar experiences in universities.

Although there is specific policy legislation in place in the UK and the USA, this research suggests that universities do not adequately address issues of racism, exclusion and discrimination.

Racism continues to persist in higher education institutions and those from BME backgrounds continue to be marginalised. BME academics reported having little access to ‘academic gatekeepers’ and those who were able to provide them with the means by which they could progress their careers, a ‘network of knowns’.

Many mentioned the importance of different types of support networks which were vital for achieving success in the academy. Furthermore, the White space of the academy is one that continues to be reserved for those from White, middle class backgrounds. Consequently, BME academics remain ‘outsiders’ in higher education.

Race and Racism

Respondents in the study were asked about their views on the study of race and racism in the academy. Many respondents were researching areas of race, diversity and inclusion in relation to social justice issues. Some expressed the view that because of their ethnicity, there was an assumption that they were expected to be interested in the subject of race and racism.

Furthermore, they were also expected by their colleagues to take on roles which were related to diversity and equality issues, by virtue of their non-White identity.

All of the respondents talked about racism as a key factor in their experiences as BME academics in higher education. Racism for all of the respondents was seen as a factor that contributed to all aspects of their working lives; whether this was related to how they were treated by their White colleagues or students, the roles they were asked to perform or how they were judged in the academy.

Furthermore, many spoke about how racism manifested itself in behaviour that was subtle, underlying and difficult to evidence. Whilst all universities had clear written equality policies, in reality it was difficult to explain how the policies worked in practice and their effectiveness in combatting racism and addressing inequalities in the academy.

Many felt that the claim by universities as being inclusive in their working practices was based on their portrayal of a positive external image, but in reality this was not the case.

Racism and Racist Bullying in UK higher education institutions

Many of the respondents spoke about their experiences of racist bullying. This behaviour was experienced from a variety of colleagues including line managers. Respondents felt they had to ‘put up with it, because it was hard to prove’.

Others decided to take action and tackle it head on by reporting it to their line managers, but in many instances they felt this was rarely taken seriously. Two respondents had made formal complaints about such behaviour, and another left their institution to seek new employment.

kalwant book cover
The Experiences of Black and
Minority Ethnic Academics

During the field work stage and the writing of this book, the preparation for Research Excellence Framework (REF) was taking place. The REF is the new system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions.

The REF replaces the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) which took place in 2008 and previous years. The process of the REF is managed by HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council of England) and is overseen by the REF Steering group. The main aim of the REF is to assess outcomes for each higher education institution, based on their submissions.

The assessment of outcomes will be used to inform the allocation of funding to higher education institutions. The REF is based on a process of expert review.

The process of the REF has produced greater competition in the academy both within and between institutions. Many of the respondents spoke about the pressures of the REF creating greater competition between colleagues in individual departments.

Consequently, this competitive edge was evidenced in the attitude of newly appointed colleagues who had joined departments. They had recently obtained their PhDs and regarded competition as part of the academy and their working lives.

Many respondents mentioned pressures in the current economic and financial climate such as reduced budgets in university departments and the recent closures of several teacher training departments resulting in redundancies and greater pressure on those in employment to retain their jobs.

Such an approach had fostered a ‘culture of discontent’ in the academy. Many academics spoke about battling to secure promotions and being entered for the REF and suggested that the culture in higher education was based on a ‘dog eat dog’ mentality and ‘all for myself’ attitude, which led to a decrease in collaboration, collegiality and support in many departments.

Many referred to this as the ‘ruthlessness’ of the academy; an environment in which many were keen to climb the academic ladder of success without due regard for their colleagues. In such a climate, competition and the scarcity of jobs led to a persistence of incidents of racism and bullying.

All of the respondents spoke about how they had at some point in their academic careers experienced some form of overt or covert racism. Many referred to how their colleagues made them feel; some respondents described this as a ‘gut reaction’ and behaviour that was difficult to prove. Farah an Asian professor expressed this as,

It’s subtle. It’s not overt so you can’t see it or prove it. You can’t bring it out and challenge it. I am not sure it would be taken seriously anyway. If it’s not tangible, then how do I challenge that? That is why we [ethnic minorities] have to be careful how we deal with our colleagues and their behaviour. We know that it’s racism, we just know – but how can we prove it? How can we prove it if it’s the small things like putting you down and undermining you – how can we attribute that behaviour to racism? We can’t say we know it’s racism, even though it is (original emphasis).

Tony, a Black Caribbean lecturer, was cautious when mentioning race as he felt his colleagues would assume that Black academics used their race as an advantage, for special treatment.

If you talk about your race, it could be seen as special pleading which gives White people more ammunition against you. They may think you have a chip on your shoulder. People are polite to me, but at the same time they don’t know how to take me so they are cautious around me. We [Black people] have to be careful that we are not accused of ‘playing the race card’ because then that means that racism and this kind of behaviour will just become devalued and seen as not being real or as not happening. There has to be a careful consideration about race and how it is used.

Tony described the overt and covert, subtle forms of racism he had experienced.

They don’t come and hit you over the head with a baseball bat and call you a [racist name], but they do other things that you know are based on race. Like excluding you from conversations by not asking your opinion which means they don’t value what you have to say and don’t want you to be part of the team. They do it by not giving you eye contact and not making you feel as though you are part of the group and that ultimately means your voice is not valued and not heard. That can be very frustrating and upsetting.

Many of the respondents spoke about how they were judged based on stereotypes of being Black or Asian. Tony, however, made a conscious effort to demonstrate behaviour that countered such stereotypes.

As a Black male, it is important to be polite and professional at all times, more than it is for other males, because otherwise you will just get labelled as an aggressive male. White people will hold it against you and think you are a stereotype confirming their views on Black people – aggressive and have a chip on your shoulder. So you have to be careful, you have to try and behave against the stereotype at all times and show that this is a stereotype and it is not the way that all people from one ethnic group behave. You have to challenge the stereotypes (original emphasis).

The findings suggest that respondents from the UK and the USA have similar experiences of identity and positioning in the White space of the academy, but the political identity of being Black has different historical meanings for those from the USA.

  • The experiences of Black and minority ethnic academics: a comparative study of the unequal academy can be purchased from Amazon here, at £90 hardcover. ISDN 978-0-415-73669-5

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