“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.