Out of limelight but no shrinking violet

January 12, 2007

Sociologist Kay Hampton has stepped into the lions' den of the race debate, taking over from Trevor Phillips as chair of the Commission for Racial Equality.

Unlike her predecessor, Professor Hampton does not expect to be in the forefront of many public rows. "I'm always a background worker.

Academics are like that - we like to be in a dusty old room," she says.

But Professor Hampton, who has just been given a chair by Glasgow Caledonian University, is certainly not noted for hiding herself away in dusty old rooms in her academic research.

Born into an Indian family in South Africa during apartheid, she studied at the University of Durban-Westville, which was set up as an institution for Indians.

"I had a strong motivator in my father, who always said you only become a victim if you allow yourself to be one. My choice in becoming a sociologist was not to be an armchair sociologist - I've always related my theory and academic work to having a real impact on people's lives."

Her research took her into Durban Municipality to plan for post-apartheid South Africa but, during that time, she met and married a Scottish urban designer and moved to Scotland in 1993, before the elections in which Nelson Mandela became president. "I voted for the very first time in my life in this country," she says.

Glasgow Caledonian offered her a research fellowship in the Scottish Ethnic Minorities Research Unit, which she subsequently directed. "For me, it was a dream come true, a job with the luxury of doing research only. I raised something like £250,000 and did a lot of research for organisations."

But these were often internal reports, and she was only recently able to complete a PhD on the basis of these previous publications. She accepts that this is the price she had to pay for focusing on applied research, a decision completely supported by Glasgow Caledonian.

"This university has given me the opportunity to do sociology in the way I would like to do it. Social justice means so much to me on a personal level," she says. "I have the privilege of combining my personal interests with my academic interests."

She has always been keen to challenge the belief that racism is linked to skin colour. "You have black on black racism, white on white, there's resentment levelled at the new Polish immigrants," she says.

"Racism isn't about colour, it's about prejudice constructed around anything that people find different from themselves."

When she first came to the UK, she says race was seen as a specialism in sociology, but it has now become mainstream. "If you're a sociologist you should be qualified to teach race. There's heightened awareness because of heightened interest, and students are more informed than five or six years ago."

The worst thing people can do is not to challenge racism, she says. She lived with racial abuse in South Africa and has not been immune from it here.

Recently, she and her daughter were subjected to racial abuse by a man in a shopping centre. She remonstrated with him and found herself supported by passers-by.

"The nice thing was that all the people that surrounded me were not my skin colour and were really disgusted by what he was saying. That would not have happened 15 years ago. It was very heartening to see this protective instinct."

I GRADUATED FROM  the University of Durban-Westville, South Africa

MY FIRST JOB WAS research assistant in the Social and Economic Research Unit, Durban-Westville

MY MAIN CHALLENGE  is time. I wish I had more

WHAT I HATE MOST is small mindedness

IN TEN YEARS I would like to be writing my memoirs as I have had an exciting life

MY FAVOURITE JOKE IS  one by Ali G: "Is it because I is black?"

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