Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
Following the EHRC’s report of Racism at British Universities published last year, publicity around British universities’ poor public records in handling racism scandals, and the sudden eruption of racial awareness that has emerged throughout societies here and overseas in the wake of the racist murder of George Floyd; racism, in both the institutional and abusive forms, is being publicly condemned in a way that has not been seen in recent years. Our higher education institutions are finally scrambling to tackle racial injustice in the areas that students and staff of colour have been pointing out for longer than I can recount.
Our institutions have made the grand gestures of changing to a black profile picture on social media accounts, posting black squares, and issuing statements detailing their support for ‘racial justice’. Some may have published the Equality/Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) work that they have been carrying out, perhaps their access and participation plans or their Race Equality Charter accreditation. It seems important to administrations that we know they are stepping up and no longer ignoring racial injustice.
However, some such as myself remain sceptical. While these actions point in the direction of ‘right’ and away from ‘wrong’, I believe that the compasses our institutions use need re-calibrating. Students and staff at universities across the country who hold similar positions have formed anti-racist and decolonising initiatives and campaigns: University groups and collectives from Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action and Warwick Anti-Racism Society to Decolonise UCL and Decolonising SOAS, as well as even national campaigns like Unis Resist Border Controls have established themselves to push efforts in the true direction of liberation in ways our administrations are blind to on their own. It is these staff and students who take it upon themselves to leave their university in a better state for future generations.
As research and testimony have uncovered and clarified, the experiences of students and staff of colour at UK universities show that these institutions are not only-white dominated, but uphold and perpetuate the construct of whiteness itself. In other words, western universities are institutions of whiteness. Students and staff of colour – be they undergraduates, postgraduates, cleaners, security, academics, administration – may often experience anything from incidents of racist abuse and unfair treatment on- and off-campus, disparities in degree classifications (often called an attainment gap), disparities in pay, as well as eurocentric curriculum, fewer of academic opportunities, mental health and pastoral support that does not fit their needs, facing policing measures if they are of non-British nationality/migrant status or Muslim religion… and that’s if they get in! Despite ‘equal opportunities’ policy, students from poor and radicalised backgrounds (often called ‘disadvantaged’) face more barriers to entry compared to their white middle-class counterparts who are over-represented within the higher education sector, especially considering privately educated children who go on to reinforce this very hierarchy that intersects both race and class.
The success of racialised students is too-often tied to their ability to appeal to whiteness; to ‘integrate’ into a juxtaposition that punishes diversity in academia while simultaneously claiming to champion it in ‘representation’. It expects students and staff of colour to (often voluntarily) carry out the emotional and mental labour of participating in consultations and initiatives and committees and leadership roles to tackle the aforementioned side effects without giving them the tools to tackle the cause. For example, universities wishing to address systemic disparities in grades approach the problem by positing the responsibility and onus on students’ attainment without considering that the process of awarding could itself be the problem. They call it an ‘attainment gap’ instead of an ‘awarding gap’ as if students of colour have created this problem for themselves. Sticking plaster efforts to decolonise have been reduced to ‘diversifying curricula’ and calls to hire more Black professors while leaving the rotten core of whiteness intact.
Now that race is on the agenda, I declare as others have before me that nothing short of a complete overhaul of our institutions of academia as they currently exist will fix racism at our universities. Such radical change requires a kind of bold commitment that I am yet to see.