Black Cultural Archives, Brixton, during lockdown
My friend Roshi’s son likes a song called ‘My Aunt Came Back‘. It is a call and response song that has a line in it that goes ‘oh, my aunt came back from Guadeloupe, and she brought with her a hula-hoop’. My friend had to laugh when I told her that I actually have an aunt from Guadeloupe, although she divorced my uncle around the time I was born. I did not know about my aunt until I mentioned to my parents that I was reading interesting environmental literature by authors from Guadeloupe, Maryse Condé and Daniel Maximin. They replied: ‘Oh, wow – what a coincidence! Your aunt Lili was from there, your uncle’s wife!’ I had grown up just knowing my uncle’s girlfriend, so this was news to me. It was also surprising, because one of my uncles is Thai, and to have two spouses from ethnic minorities in a White lower middle class family in rural Germany – marriages that took place in the late 1950s/early 1960s – is unusual. On the other hand, the more cosmopolitan port city of Hamburg was not far away, which is where my uncle and my aunt met their partners.
Over the last few years, my parents, and other family members have told me a few things about her, including the racism she faced from the family and other people, as well as her wit which enabled her to win over difficult family members. Sometimes it is difficult to tell which information is assumption, and which is reality. Prompted by my accidental connection to my aunt’s birth place, my dad has been looking for a photo of her. It turns out that no one in my rather large family even has the wedding photo (I did not want to ask my uncle, because I don’t feel that I have a right to this picture, or to information about his or her life). On the one hand, my mother’s family is not particularly well documented in photographs, on the other hand, there are photos of pretty much every other living family member. Again, I wondered how this came about, and, although this led to difficult conversations, I received some answers. In a way, these conversations did not just give me a personal connection to my research, but it also made me more conscious of the erasure of racialised authors in academic research.
In the present, the protests sparked by police violence in the United States have prompted people and institutions to respond. Or rather, they feel pressured to respond and to show solidarity and commitment to anti-racism. UK Universities have released statements that have received cynical and angry responses on social media. While universities, as Robbie Shilliam and other Black academics have pointed out, are keen to draw in a larger paying student body – mostly from Black British and British Asian backgrounds at the undergraduate level – they are also failing them on a number of accounts, including their response to experiences of racism, lack of acknowlegement of Black and Asian experiences and authorship in the curriculum, and even failure to account for economic pressures and inequalities that affect some Black, Asian and ‘ethnic minority’ students (exacerbated through lockdown – who has own computer, wifi, space to work? who can go on fieldtrips?). This year, A-level students will be entering universities with predicted grades that have been shown to be underpredicted for Black students in particular – how are universities accounting for that?
When it comes to research, universities, and the academics working for them, fare no better. The academic system encourages competition over ethics. In the last two weeks alone, I witnessed four instances of academic misconduct, one so severe that it was reported to the RGS-IBG Race, Culture & Equality (RACE) Working Group of which I am a member. Academic ambition encourages things for which we punish our students: plagiarism, racist attitude towards research participants, and the colonisation of research areas by systematic silencing of Black, Asian and other ‘ethnic minority’ colleagues. The staff and student experiences combined result is an uneven academic landscape, in which there are only a handful of Black professors. In addition, anyone who is not a White hetero cis-male is punished in the National Student Survey through a proven bias. As universities keep publishing statements, more and more examples Black student and Black staff experiences become revealed on social media and online newspaper comments sections. They include UCL being attacked for putting on eugenics focused conferences that have links to the neo-Nazi scene. The comments are hard to read, and they reveal a maze of punishing and ineffective administration of race issues. Even the RACE Working Group is in constant danger of becoming co-opted, and has been forced to work on documents to explain its purpose.
What universities need to be doing is to start looking at how their structures are enabling racism. This includes looking at its pet obsessions such as the Research and Teaching Excellence Frameworks (see RACE REF report here). It includes creating space for employees to engage with race issues, instead of doing anything in their power to make people more ‘productive’, competitive and insecure. Universities keep saying that there are ‘financial realities’, but many of them have embraced privatisation rather than fought it. It also means defending Black, Asian and ‘ethnic minority’ staff and students, rather than focusing on appeasing White middle-class entitlement. This especially means moving particularly Black, Asian and ‘ethnic minority’ staff from precarious contracts to permanent positions, and to work against a focus on only recruiting ‘international students’ from a global financial elite. At present, universities mainly serve to maintain an established elite, but sell upward social mobility by preying on people’s insecurities about the job market. This contradiction needs to be resolved. Such an opening would ideally lead to a further dismantling of the current purpose of the university. This may seem utopian under a capitalist system and defunding of universities, but at least this path is worth following, and, where there is no support, a path worth performing. Perhaps then we won’t see Black students just valued for advertising materials, but also for their entirety of their university career.
Here are some reports and resources upon which this blog post was based. Please add additional resources in the comments.
Nicola Rollock on Black Female Professors
Kalwant Bhopal on The Experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic Academics
Robbie Shilliam on Black Academia in Britain
Leah Cowan (gal-dem) on the impact of A-level cancellations on Black students
RGS-IBG Race, Culture & Equality Working Group on the Research Excellence Framework (link to pdf)
Ahmed, S. (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press.
Akala (2018) Native: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Andrews, K. (2018) Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century. London: Zed Books.
Area Journal Race & Teaching Special Issue (link to follow, some papers are in Early View)
Featuring Akile Ahmet, Amita Bhakta, Kehinde Andrews, Margaret Byron, James Esson, Global Social Theory team, Mark Hinton & Meleisa Ono-George, Jayaraj Sundaresan.
Bhambra, G.K., Nişancıoğlu, K., Gebrial, D. (eds) Decolonising the University. London: Pluto.
Bains, H. K. (20??) Experiences of South Asian Students in Higher Education. University of Sheffield (link to pdf)
Bryan, B., Dadzie, S., Scafe, S. (1985) Heart Of The Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain. London: Virago.
Campt, T. M. (2017) Listening to Images. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Chantiluke, R., Kwoba, B., Nkopo, A. (2018) Rhodes Must Fall Oxford. London: Zed Books.
Desai, V. (2017) Black and Minority Ethnic (BME ) student and staff in contemporary British Geography. Area 49 (3) (Decolonising Geographical Knowledge in a Colonised and Re-colonising Postcolonial World Special Issue), pp. 320-323
Dwyer, C., Bressey, C. (2008) New Geographies of Race and Racism. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Elliott-Cooper, A. (2017) ‘Free, decolonised education’: a lesson from the South African student struggle. Area 49 (3) (Decolonising Geographical Knowledge in a Colonised and Re-colonising Postcolonial World Special Issue), pp. 332-334.
Esson, J., Noxolo, P., Baxter, R., Daley, P., Byron, M. (2017) The 2017 RGS‐IBG chair’s theme: decolonising geographical knowledges, or reproducing coloniality? Area 49(3) pp.384-388
Esson, J. and Last, A. (2019) Learning and Teaching About Race and Racism in Geography. In: H Walkington, J Hill and S Dyer (eds) Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Geography. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Gabriel, D., Tate, S. A. (2017) Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of Colour Surviving and Thriving in British Academia. London: UCL Institute of Education Press.
Holmwood, J. (ed) (2011) A Manifesto for the Public University. London: Bloomsbury Press.
hooks, b. (1994) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. London: Routledge.
Jackson, P. (1989). Challenging racism through geography teaching. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 13(1), 5-14. https://doi.org/10.1080/03098268908709054
Mahtani, M. (2006). Challenging the ivory tower: proposing anti-racist geographies within the academy. Gender, Place & Culture, 13(1), 21-25.
Mirza, H. S., Meetoo, V. (2012) Respecting Difference: Race, Faith and Culture for Teacher Educators.
London: UCL Institute of Education.
Noxolo, P. (2020). Introduction: Towards a Black British Geography? Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. DOI: 10.1111/TRAN.12377
Salt, K. N. (2019) Decolonising Everyday Practice. (Video Link)
Tate, S. A., & Page, D. (2018). Whiteliness and institutional racism: Hiding behind (un) conscious bias. Ethics and Education, 13(1), 141-155. https://doi.org/10.1080/17449642.2018.1428718
Tolia-Kelly, D. P. (2017) A day in the life of a Geographer: ‘lone’, black, female. Area 49(3) pp. 324-328.