The “significant lack of diversity” within higher education “needs to be cracked open”, and “polite silence” on the issue risks failing to address the problem.
That is the view of Pat Loughrey, the warden of Goldsmiths, University of London, who was speaking on 13 October at Challenging the Silence in Higher Education: Race and Racism in the Academy, a conference jointly hosted by Goldsmiths and the London School of Economics.
He said that the UK government being “hell-bent on excluding international students” and “reducing diversity even further” meant that “the debate about race and representation has never been more urgent”.
"The significant lack of diversity within higher education needs to be cracked open. There is a danger in the polite silence of not addressing the issue,” he said.
In an opening keynote presentation, Heidi Mirza, visiting professor of race, faith and culture at Goldsmiths, spoke about her research on “respecting difference in so-called post-racial times”, when “the discourse about who is really disadvantaged focuses on the white working class or white majority”.
This meant that “the continuing long tail of underachievement” among black and minority ethnic students came to be seen as “personal rather than about policy”.
In an era when diversity is seen as valuable, Professor Mirza went on, “institutions target black bodies and point to how many they’ve got”, but those black students then “have to operate within a world of monolithic whiteness”. She herself had often experienced “the disorientation of walking into a space where you are not meant to be” – or attending committee meetings where it was assumed she was there to make the tea.
Claudia Bernard, professor of social work at Goldsmiths, described the research she had carried out for the UK’s Department of Health on why black and minority ethnic students either took longer to progress or dropped out altogether from social work training.
Many such students pointed to “a devaluation of the richness of their life experience and their struggles”; “micro-aggressions” such as staff confusing, failing to remember or unilaterally shortening their names; and accusations of being “aggressive” or “prickly” if they raised concerns about racism. What went largely unrecognised was “the emotional labour [that] black academics devoted to supporting black students”.
In a session on “the student experience”, Busayo Twins, general secretary of the student union at LSE, described how universities seized on any articulate black student and used them to “do all their outreach work to attract more black students”.
Although wary of being typecast as someone who knows only about “black things” such as “racism and suffering”, Ms Twins reflected, “If we don’t talk about racism, who else is going to?”