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The fallacy of race and the reality of racism at British universities

Luqman Onikosi 

A case for why Sussex University and its Union needs to de-colonise whiteness in their institutions

During Black History Month 2015 at Sussex Dr. Alana Lentin delivered a reflective presentation on the discourse on ‘the Problematic Separation between Race, Class and Gender’. Recently, there have been raging debates on the politics and economics of race, racism and anti-racism with regards to the connections between race, class and gender. Lentin argued that the problematic misunderstanding of race, lies in the approach which is taken to define race by the ‘white left’. This, she suggests, overlooks racism in the blindness that comes from believing we are in a so-called ‘post-racial’ era.

In my view, Lentin’s talk emphasised the necessity that we critique the accusation that marginalised racial groups play ‘victim cards’ as a justification for ‘affirmative action’. Lentin explained that in the ‘post-racial’ era, the problem is that race and racism have been thought of together. However, it makes more sense to think of race and racism separately, or at least to think more deeply about how they relate to each other.

On the genealogy of racism, Lentin (2015) argued that ‘racism invents race’. In other words, race is a social construction. Lentin demonstrated that there are no significant biological differences between groups of people who originate from different parts of the world. In fact, since the emergence of genetic research, science has shown that there is more genetic variation among people thought to belong to the same ‘racial’ group than there is across the ‘races’. Therefore, she affirms that, race is not an objective, ‘scientific’ fact.

However, referencing Stuart Hall, Lentin (2015) claimed that race has social significance. For instance, if you are subjected to a differential treatment because you are racially different, it doesn’t really matter if there is any scientific truth behind race or not.

Lentin argued that as Black people have been historically discriminated against on racial grounds, it makes sense that ‘Blackness’ as a ‘collective social identity’ has been built on ‘racial’ grounds. Driving her point home, Lentin also cited the great African American sociologist, W.E.B Du Bois, who argued that ‘race is a badge worn by those who share a long history of discrimination and insult’. In essence, racial collective identification has been a rallying point and a source of strength and resistance for black people.

The work of Alana Lentin takes its place amongst an enormous catalogue of work that shows how the structures of race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability work in tandem against black and ethnic minority people . Lentin’s talk drove home the reality that racism, whilst a social construct, is also a lived reality. Whilst it may seem – especially for those benefitting from white privilege – that we live in a post racial society the reality is that we do not.

So, why isn’t my Professor Black?

According to Kehinde Andrews and Lisa Palmer, (2013) of the Black Studies Association, the way in which universities (including Sussex) approach Race Equality in staffing lecturers and creating diverse curriculums is problematic. One of the ways in which universities approach these issues is by isolating the axis of equality issues into a single framework which most often benefit ‘white men’ and then ‘white women’.  Without realizing that the characteristic of the axis of each equality areas converge to form a multiple layer of discrimination.

For instance, according to the Independent Newspaper UK (2015) report on Runnymede Trust research on how diverse how British Universities are and how accessible it is to racialized and minority Black professors, racial inequality is widespread in British universities. According to a report, in the British academic community, there are 18,510 university professors, 85 are Black origin and only 17 are Black female professors in the entire system. Overall, 92.4 per cent of professors are white, while just 0.49 per cent are black. Only 15 black academics are in senior management roles.

For reason for this, Andrews and Palmer (2013) claimed that university campuses, whether they are predominantly left wing or libertarian, are like the ‘colonies’ of British imperial times, ‘where intellectual power and authority are in the hands of the ‘white’. Drawing on Walter Mignolo, who explained that historical colonialism has been constitutive of the foundation and unfolding of western civilisation from renaissance till today, which has manifested itself in higher education and its curriculum.

Furthermore, aside the condition of coloniality being the ‘darker side of modernity’, it exposes the embedded structural and institutional racism in British universities against racialized and minoritised people. However, more often than not, this is downplayed by the institution’s bureaucratic process in the day-to-day collegial interactions between the BME students, staff and non-BME students.

This has fed in to the notion and belief in black intellectual inferiority, which remains profoundly persistent and pervasive. To me, this suggests something fundamentally terrifying about the way in which blackness and black bodies are too often conceived in relation to intellectual space. It seems as if the presences of a black body is representative of a ‘body out of place’, an ‘interloper’ or more precisely an ‘intruder’ that does not really belong in the tradition of ‘production of academic knowledge’ in Britain or anywhere (Andrews and Palmer 2013).

Andrews and Palmer stressed the negative impact of coloniality, that it leaves many BME students and staff with the feeling that they ‘do not belong’ and are burdened with the ‘weight of racism’ causing ‘fear’, ‘anxiety’ and ‘heaviness’.

They affirmed that the reason why this subtle and nuanced coloniality on campus persists is because of the unquestionably confirmed institutional resistance to take Black Studies seriously, combined with a nonchalant attitude to tackle related issues of institutional racialized discrimination that have become so deeply ingrained in higher education. In addition, the resistance of university senior management to critically examine and deconstruct discriminating practices has been a huge problem. A very familiar case that comes to mind is the case of Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, a lecturer and research associate in the philosophy of “race” at the University College London, who happens to be one of the few black philosophers in the UK. He had his application to become a permanent lecturer turned down because the post was contingent on the creation of a new black studies MA, which UCL claimed was ‘unviable’.

Dr. Coleman clarified his opinion to Times Higher Education (2015) that his contract was not renewed because he tried to ‘put white hegemony under the microscope’, by proposing ‘critical White studies’, a course that did not find favour with colleagues, who wanted to offer a black studies programme less critical of the white establishment.

Conclusion: ‘Bodies out of place’.

Tate (2013) argued that instead of positing the question ‘why isn’t my professor black?’, we should ask instead ‘under what condition could my professor be Black?’ Tate affirmatively reasoned that what needs to change is the racial contrast that exists within British higher education, where procedures of staffing and promotion produce a particular mind set. An ethos that reproduces black academics as ‘bodies out of place’. Black Academics invariably find themselves struggling against exclusion once they are included within academia or within the senior management. Therefore, ‘inclusion’ as a tool-kit of racial equality and diversity is problematic. This makes Black Academics and university/union management staff live and work within the context in which they are surrounded by negative affects such as discourse and contentious tolerance. Black academics and university/union management staff struggle because inclusion acknowledges that  ‘race’ marks some as lacking in proficiency, intelligence and talent so that those left unmarked – ‘white bodies’ – are seen as able, intelligent, proficient and having the temperament for success. Therefore, ‘inclusion’ does not empower the minority. Instead, it charges longevity of White hegemony at Sussex and perpetuates White privilege because the ‘White’ body continues to be the unmarked norm.

Yet the sector, such as at Sussex, is not alarmed. According to Andrews and Palmer (2013) this is because both young Black students aspiring to go in to academia and those Black people who have already made it in to academia face a multitude of issues that range from  tuition fees, zero hour temporary contracts, austerity and marketization of the university  education. These issues have all played a role in silencing the problem of race in British universities.  Sussex need to face up the condition of coloniality by starting to dismantle its intersectional discriminatory practices.

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5 Comments

  1. Not a single policy of the university is given as an example, and no concrete changes are suggested, just “Don’t be colonialist.”

    Reply
  2. It would also help to think about racial sensitivity training for non-black faculties who are in supervisonary roles and do not realise often in academic conferences and seminars how their suggestions can be racially biased. How do we measure the racial bias objectively? They are completely aloof about how Eurocentric views are completely alien to non-white cultures and that it is a scientific and genetically proven fact that embodiments of theories and concepts are shaped by racial experiences. That said, Sussex department just hired three non-white faculties, two permanent positions and one contract. So, I am confused as to what happens to non-white successful academics who make it in a predominantly white institution. Do they get hired because they don’t have any racial politics and give in to the dominant curriculum and whether there are some lessons to be learnt.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Epistemicide in Universities: My conversation with the Co-Holder, UNESCO Chair in Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education – Prof. Budd L. Hall. | Hearalkebulan*

  4. Pingback: My conversation with the Co-Holder, UNESCO Chair in Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education – Prof. Budd L. Hall. | Hearalkebulan*

  5. Pingback: My conversation with the Co-Holder, UNESCO Chair in Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education – Prof. Budd L. Hall. – Hearalkebulan*

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