Challenging the Silence

Challenging the Silence: Race and Racism in the Academy

Challenging the Silence in Higher Education: Race and Racism in the Academy’ was a one day symposium organised by the London School of Economics and Political Science and Goldsmiths, University of London which took place on 13th October 2016. The day consisted of an array of speakers from the London School of Economics, Goldsmiths, University of London, Birmingham City University, University College London, Greenwich University as well as the Equality Challenge Unit.

The aim of the day was to highlight the need to speak about race in UK universities, to talk about the under representation of black and ethnic minority academic staff in the academy, to address experiences of race and racism by both staff and students in the academy and to begin to find collective solutions. The talks highlighted how the very same institutions that pride themselves on being liberal and egalitarian do need to address the negative constructions and experiences of race, and the very worrying statistics around progression, retention and satisfaction – with only 85 Black professors in the UK. The speakers emphasised that UK universities need to move away from the deficit model, the idea that black and ethnic minority staff and students need “extra support” or are in some way deficient in comparison to white peers, and so become accountable to the maintenance of institutional racism.

There are currently only 17 Black female professors in the UK and we were privileged to have 2 of those professors speaking: Professor Heidi Mirza and Professor Claudia Bernard. Professor Heidi Mirza, opened the day by highlighting the importance of critical pedagogy for practice educators. Heidi discussed issues in the recruitment, retention and progression of BME students. Similarly Professor Claudia Bernard’s presentation, titled Can’t you give us some good news’, highlighted the experiences of Social Work students across 6 HEIs. Echoing Heidi, Claudia spoke of the experiences of black and ethnic minority, disabled and LGBTQ students, with a focus on how the institutional climate of whiteness, marginalisation, Eurocentricism, racial micro-aggressions and devaluation of the intellectual and cultural capital of Black students effected progression and retention. The research also highlighted also the emotional labour of Black academic staff who support black students.

“There is a need to utilise pedagogical strategies that can critically engage in dialogues about racism, for it is then that we can begin to own that racism is everyone’s problem”.

The experiences of black and ethnic minority students ultimately affects their progression, leading to the ‘attainment gap’. This is defined as the difference in the top degrees i.e. a first or 2:1 awarded to different groups of students (Equality Challenge Unit, 2012). The gap between White British students and black and ethnic minority British students for 2013/14 was 15.2%. Over the past 8 years the attainment gap has remained consistently around the 15% mark with only a small reduction for this year (2014/2015). Professor Steve Garner in his presentation spoke of thinking outside the ‘power neutral circuits’. The need to ‘diversify’ the curriculum, often highlighted by students themselves as a key aspect of their negative experiences of higher education.

In the second panel of the day which was entitled ‘The Student Experience’ gave the students time to talk about their needs and experiences. The panel was led by Busayo Twins the General Secretary from the LSE Students Union, Suheda Top, BME officer for Goldsmiths Students Union and Millie Brown, a PhD student from Goldsmiths, University of London. The students emphasised the importance of having themselves represented in the academic staff body and within the curriculum, saying “If we don’t talk about race who will”. Many speakers on the day agreed that the student movement is one of the most powerful tools that we can all use to implement change.

Many also spoke of the need for research to help implement institutional change. Dr Louise Owusu Kwarteng from Greenwich University spoke of the research being carried by Greenwich and the Brighter Futures Symposium series that they have been running for over a year. The Race in the Academy project based at the LSE, led by Dr Akile Ahmet and Dr Caroline Howarth, are examining why the LSE has been less successful in attracting and retaining black and ethnic minority academic staff. Dr Kehinde Andrews also highlighted the important work being carried out at Birmingham City University and the new BA programme launching in 2017 ‘Black British Studies’.

Our keynote speaker was Dr William Henry ended the day saying: “We need to have open and honest conversations about perceived cultural/racial differences that far too often cause conflict and misunderstanding. Such conversations may cause discomfort but will, in my humble opinion, make us aware that as human beings we belong to one big family and it’s the divisive aspects that need to be challenged head on; like white privilege, especially within the hallowed walls of academia.”

The symposium was followed by an exhibition of photographs taken by LSE postgraduate students who identified as black and ethnic minority. The photographs highlight not only the experiences and feelings of the students but also black and ethnic minority academic staff. We end this blog with two images from the exhibition taken by a student:


Us. Dreams of Possession

At all times, it appears, that people like me are propping up the institutions of which they should be a part. Even when we are inside, we are outside.

Fanon tell us “The look that the native turns on the settler’s town is a look of lust, a look of envy; it expresses his dreams of possession–all manner of possession: to sit at the settler’s table, to sleep in the settler’s bed, with his wife if possible. The colonized man is an envious man. And this the settler knows very well; when their glances meet he ascertains bitterly, always on the defensive, “They want to take our place.” It is true, for there is no native who does not dream at least once a day of setting himself up in the settler’s place.”

Perhaps it is the notion of replacing of one group with another that keeps the cleaners, security guards and maintenance men Black and the academics White. A constant reminder of our true place at LSE. A constant reminder that we will never set ourselves up in the settlers’ place accept in the service of maintaining it.

Dr Akile Ahmet is a researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science, currently working on a project entitled ‘Race in the Academy. For more information about the project:

Twitter: @RaceinAcademy



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