News blog: How does the term ‘BME’ operate in higher education?

Matthew Reisz reflects on his own prejudices as he asks who really associates with such general terminology

August 17, 2015
black, scholar, academic, BME

Earlier this summer, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education held a conference to mark the launch of a “stimulus report” titled How Can We Make Not Break Black and Minority Ethnic Leaders in Higher Education?

“We are seen as invisible when it comes to potential and promotion,” argued Deborah Gabriel, lecturer in marketing at Bournemouth University, “but visible in all the wrong ways when we start talking about BME issues.”

Josephine Kwhali, senior lecturer in social work at Coventry University (and co-author of the report), noted that “black leadership is not something rare or unusual. Black leaders led us out of slavery, apartheid and segregation – and into universities where we can experience racism.” Unfortunately, she went on, “most organisations don’t want black leaders but black managers”.

Despite the occasional comment about positive developments, such as the fact that “BME candidates are now selected by both parties in safe seats”, it was a challenging, even uncomfortable day for a middle-class white man rightly encouraged by one of the speakers to reflect on “unconscious bias in oneself and others”. I was left with a much sharper sense of how discrimination operates in job markets (and glad that I have no personal responsibility for recruitment decisions).

But I was also left puzzled – and not least by how the term “BME” itself operates. It is often – and surely rightly – said that white people have the luxury of never having to think about colour or whiteness, while black people in Britain are never allowed to forget that they are black. But does anyone actually experience or identify themselves as BME or even generically “minority ethnic”?

Rich philanthropists are happy to give money for chairs or centres devoted to the study of specific groups, cultures, religions or religious denominations. But are there many cases of individuals wanting to promote BME studies instead? 

A delegate at the conference made the (very plausible) point that, while one can undoubtedly find prejudice in recruitment procedures, this may well play out rather differently for, say, middle-class Asian men and working-class black women.

But although Dr Kwhali warned about “talking of BME groups as if they are homogeneous”, the Leadership Foundation report seems to be offering some largely generic solutions to the generic problem of the lack of BME leaders. Is there a tension here or am I missing something important? I’d welcome some further insights into this urgently important issue.

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Reader's comments (1)

The interests of academic and non-academic staff in UK higher education will never be served by structures/spaces premised on white, Eurocentric norms, populated largely by those from the dominant group and with the odd Black 'face' (not voice) that only serve to reinforce the status quo. I don't recall making that particular comment. The issue is that most people of colour know only too well that we have to work 10 times harder and be twice as productive as our white colleagues just to be visible . We have 'voice' and some of us dare to use it but those that should be listening don't want to hear what we have to say. There is an abundance of people of colour already performing leadership roles - who are only welcomed into 'white' management spaces when we uphold the status quo and share their vision of 'cultural diversity' no matter how flawed! Black British Academics is leading on the application of cultural democracy to teaching and pedagogy and race quality practice. Thus we will be developing workshops on culturally democratic leadership - since cultural democracy is premised on equal and active participation and equal access to social power.

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