Racists in our house

February 4, 2000

Racism is entrenched in universities, but there is no momentum for change, argues Lola Young.

Consider the following: a black female lecturer is given the results of a student survey of a course she has run with a group of white students, a number of whom commented adversely on her hairstyle.

Or the predominantly white third-year students at another institution taught by a black female lecturer complain: "Why do we have to study black women writers? They're irrelevant to us."

The assumptions underpinning these remarks are confirmed by deeply embedded practices in the universities concerned. The ethos of neither the department nor the institution does anything to challenge such views. Indeed, the narrow curriculum base and the failure to appoint black staff at all levels of the hierarchy endorse such attitudes and their expression.

How does this serve the needs of white students? Inadequately. If they are unable to recognise the contribution of black people to British society, they are not being equipped to engage with the world as it is now or will be in the future. Moreover, neither of these universities is supporting the lecturers who have to face such students - they are not helping to develop confident, skilled teachers.

Conversations I have had with colleagues about racial discrimination in higher education seem to have intensified, and changed, over the past few years. There is more to talk about - the problems facing black lecturers, confessions of bewilderment regarding "race" from white colleagues, complaints from black students, personal resistance to change.

Issues concerning institutional racism following the Stephen Lawrence inquiry were given an airing just before Christmas at a conference organised by the lecturers' union Natfhe. The research done by Tariq Madood and his colleagues at Bristol University, which revealed that ethnic minority academics are half as likely as their white peers to be professors has also received publicity. But there seems to be no momentum to change university culture.

Institutional racism is difficult to define. What is important is to understand the experiences generated by the systemic discrimination that confronts black academics and students. One point that sometimes gets lost in trying to define institutional racism is that individuals can make or break a system, however refined and sensitive the procedures.

Too often I hear colleagues claim: "There isn't a problem here; of course, we're not racist," or "It's nothing to do with us, it's those people in X faculty," or the vacuous "We value academic freedom above political correctness and see no reason to change".

These responses to demands for equality indicate nothing more than some white academics' strong investment in maintaining the status quo. Personal reputations, notions of academic integrity, traditions of professional conduct and judgement, the enjoyment of privilege - all are implicated in such statements. The consequence is the enactment of essentially racist attitudes and beliefs.

I sometimes hear white colleagues declare that their institutions are racist and - more rarely - that they are racist too, but they seem incapable of doing anything about it. They are unwilling to analyse how they perpetuate discriminatory practices in their behaviour and professional and social interactions.

Some would argue that extra money would enable more black staff and students to be recruited. More money is required in higher education, especially with the need to increase access and to maintain high-quality academic provision, but the issue of racial and gender inequality is not just a question of finance: mind-set is important, too.

There are still far too few black people in academic posts in universities, especially in senior positions. I do not know how many more pieces of research we need to tell us this.

It is not due to lack of talent, training or skills, and it should be unacceptable that in the year 2000 fewer than 10 per cent of professors are women, a tiny proportion of lecturing staff are black, there are no black VCs, and only a handful of women leading our universities and colleges.

It is a daunting task to overturn these self-perpetuating systems - but that is what is required as part of our everyday work. We need to continue to demand a more diverse university population. If each of us takes up the challenge of tackling these problems - personally, professionally and politically - then a better, fairer system all round should result, and the concept of institutional racism might be consigned to the history books.

Lola Young is professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University and project director of the National Museum and Archives of Black

History and Culture.

Have you experienced discrimination in your university or college? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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