Subtle racism is alive in the academy’s corridors

To eradicate the problem, we need everyone to examine their consciences and recognise their biases, says Kalwant Bhopal

April 7, 2016
Goldfish staring at black fish in bowl (racism)
Source: iStock

“When I told my manager that I thought it was racist bullying, he just said: ‘You and X don’t get on it, it’s probably just that and nothing else.’”

This is what I was told by one of the black and minority ethnic academics whom I interviewed recently for a study into their experiences of the academy — and it was not an isolated case. My research suggests that it is commonplace for managers to seek to trivialise or make light of any suggestions by BME complainants about bullying that their treatment carried an overtone of racism.

This phenomenon has its roots in two complementary features of university life. The first is the institutional discourse in which universities understand and situate themselves as liberal organisations: champions of diversity and engines of social mobility. At an institutional level, it therefore becomes almost unimaginable that racism could find a foothold.

The second explanation is more generic to many organisations: the legal duty to abide by the Equality Act. Introduced in 2010, this brought together previous legislation to provide a basic framework to combat direct and indirect discrimination; race was one of its “protected characteristics”, along with things such as religion, gender reassignment and sexual orientation. Hence, the assumption is that an institution that complies with the law in this area must, by definition, be free of racism.

But this is patently false. The report of a recent University and College Union survey of 7,000 BME staff, The Experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic Staff in Further and Higher Education, reveals that 72 per cent of workers in higher education are “often” or “sometimes” subject to bullying and harassment from managers. Moreover, 69 per cent of respondents said that they were bullied by colleagues and 86 per cent said that they were subject to cultural insensitivity (“‘Harassment and racially insensitive comments’ mar higher education”, News, 4 February).

These shocking statistics highlight the gap between the official narratives of universities being diverse and multicultural institutions and the harsh realities of life on the front line for BME educators. The Equality Challenge Unit’s Race Equality Charter, introduced this year, hints at part of the reason for this gap. It includes as one of its key principles that racism is a part of everyday life, and that racial inequalities manifest themselves in everyday situations, processes and behaviours. Put more starkly, racist bullying often manifests itself in subtle, covert and nuanced ways.

The majority of the 65 BME academics working in the UK and the US whom I interviewed for my own research, published in February, said that they had experienced some form of racism or racist bullying – including all the UK-based interviewees. They talked about racism as a factor in all aspects of their working lives: how they were treated by their white colleagues and students, the professional roles they were asked to perform and how they were judged by peer review and promotion committees. In addition, many were afraid to complain about racist bullying — and when they did, managers tended to disbelieve or dismiss their complaints, insisting, as in the example above, that the offending behaviour was due to “a clash of personalities”.

While legislation such as the Equality Act is clearly a move in the right direction, it serves to curb only public displays of racism: it is not a panacea for changing covertly or perhaps even subconsciously held views within the confines of a largely white academy. As another of my interviewees remarked: “It doesn’t matter what the policies say: racist bullying exists in universities. In fact, I don’t have to look too far to find examples of subtle racism. I only have to walk to the end of my corridor.”

This is not something that politicians can change. Only a serious examination of their consciences and their biases by those who consider themselves to be liberal will permit BME academics to walk to the end of their corridors without feeling uneasy.

Kalwant Bhopal is professor of education and social justice at the University of Southampton. Her latest book, The Experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic Academics: A Comparative Study of the Unequal Academy, was published this year by Routledge.


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Reader's comments (2)

I am a Southern European and I did my post-graduate studies in the UK. After I arrived in the UK, the accommodation company working for the university gave me a room in a shared flat. Some of my flatmates were British students, one of which was black (I will call him X here). There was also a girl. X bullied me, another flatmate and the girl. It was my first time living in the UK and this took a heavy toll on me. I went to the office of the RE company inside the property and asked to be given a room in a different flat, describing the difficult situation to a member of the staff. I never asked them to take action against X, but simply to be allowed to move to another flat in that very large property. The head of the office, a black woman, came out from her office and spoke in private with the staff I just spoke with. I pleaded with her to let me move. She attacked me shouting at me through the office, saying that maybe I was the problem and that I was not going to move from my room. (Please note that I had paid 1 year of rent in advance). So I kept living in the flat. X kept bullying us, teasing me and eating my food (even in front of other flatmates to tease me). Once he started a conversation when we were alone, and I was answering by saying just yes and no, because I didn't want to talk with him. He said, Maybe you don't want to talk with me because people from your country are racist, isn't it? I said nothing. The situation continued until one day he came back drunk and started a fight with the other student he was bullying. They smashed stuff and the accommodation office of the university intervened. The accommodation company sent a guy to apologise to me and give me a voucher of 20 pounds in exchange for the promise not to complain again with the university. I kept living in the same flat until the end of the contract. Now I work in a university in a different country. What did I learn? Sometimes we just have to listen to people who have a complaint and try to honestly assess where it comes from. Racism is rife everywhere, including academia. Sexism and homophobia are too. So we have to listen without prejudice and help people, not condemn them before we have really understood what is actually going on.
*I must specify that I spoke with the accommodation office of the university only after the fight between X and the other flatmate occurred. This happened because the flatmate involved in the fight told the university that I was bullied too. So the university officer asked to speak with me. Then the company sent the guy to apologise.