Moving online offers BAME academics the chance to out-cool their masters

BAME scholars have relished the chance to be creators and performers in their own space, free to express themselves fully and creatively, says Jonathan Wilson

April 1, 2021
Person performing on stage, with neon green suit and blonde wig relating to scholars performing in their own online space, and being free to express themselves
Source: Getty (Edited)

The virtue-signalling bandwagon − or should I say “brandwagon” − in response to Black Lives Matter and Covid-19 has led to my receiving more invites than usual. I’ve been asked to jump on to podcasts, Zoom live streams and virtual conferences to discuss race, identity and inequality.

Actually, I hate the term “jump” – being locked down and locked on to screens is far from a dynamic, athletic experience. Searching the internet and the virtual world in the absence of (rather than in tandem with) a connection with the real world is virtually crippling and soporific.

Depending on your tastes, social media is ready to punctuate living with equal sprinklings of salty and peppery utopia or dystopia. Its platforms offer us quick and convenient solutions − to help tick diversity boxes in every hue, spice up lives, serve up delicious eye candy and snackable edutainment, get woke, seek new pastures during an economic meltdown and dodge cancel culture.

Recently, I co-edited a special journal issue and, in my editorial, I highlighted a widely reported lack of black professors, ethnicity pay gaps and BAME academics facing double penalties or taxes within UK universities. Elsewhere, I described academia as being like a pint of Guinness – where the white rises to the top. But if we sip through the froth, a body of BAME trailblazers are making waves online, in a landscape where universities are scrambling for student satisfaction and magic.

So, the silver lining within a climate of doom and gloom and our forced movement online is that BAME scholars and students now have an opportunity to put their full selves in front of the gaze of power and shine like never before.

THE Campus resource: Leading with humanity in your online classroom

You could argue that online gives BAME academics a proper chance to showcase their talents in a way similar to the Rooney Rule in the NFL, which ensures a BAME candidate has to be interviewed for head coach or senior manager jobs. Online levels the playing field to more of a flat foot race – we are comfortable and brutal about simply switching off if people don’t have what it takes.

Plus, universities are all out of ideas and cash, yet there remains an increased imperative for external, public-facing engagement that demonstrates diversity, grabs eyeballs and puts bums on seats. While on-campus activities are largely paused, online anything and everything is in pole position. With lower cost barriers and less red tape required to go live, plus the use of media platforms such as LinkedIn, Zoom, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, power lies in the hands of individual academics and their accounts.

Being able to beam to someone’s screen anywhere and everywhere has been a challenge that many BAME academics have relished. They are the creators, conductors and performers in their rooms, free to express themselves more fully and creatively. Working remotely means we’re on home soil, and the suffocating pressure of having a master breathing down your neck is distanced. This space gives academics the time needed to show tangible proof of appreciative audience engagement – before they’re put in their place.

If you are in any doubt that BAME scholars and students have the juice and are the trailblazers to watch, remember that they have been forced to be more creative, innovative, entrepreneurial and nimble in order to navigate banks of storm clouds and impediments time and time again.

This is BAME “cool”, right? But what is cool? The younger me would have replied: “If you need me to tell you what cool is, then you’ll never know what cool is, and you never will be cool.” However, the older, academic me discovered that cool traces some of its origins back to African slavery. In these roots lies the concept of crafting an unemotional mask as a survival means of signalling grace under pressure and not being broken. Words that will, I think, resonate with minorities.

Cool today has become more about commodified popular culture, and black contributions are still framed as intriguingly exotic – but I would argue that universities are well off the pace, if not proactively indolent. Within ivory towers, cool remains anathema, where tradition, monotony, conservatism and staleness are badges of honour. Disagree? Cool people don’t chase league tables.

So maybe instead we chase cool BAME students and find superhuman BAME academics. The Magical Negro is a term popularised by film director Spike Lee − a trope explaining the occurrence in literature and film of a particular black supporting character with special powers who comes to the assistance of white protagonists.

THE Campus resource: Using digital scholarship to enhance public engagement

As an extension of this phenomenon, I talk of a Super Negro who, against all odds, rises above the struggles shackling and disadvantaging ethno-racial communities and is then cited as either an inspirational example or evidence of equality or change.

During online lectures, MS Teams meetings and conferences, I have experimented with brightly coloured tracksuits, jingles, playing guitar, neon signs, triggering canned laughter and applause, and a bunch of other things that I wouldn’t ordinarily get away with.

You might think it’s a pathway towards becoming a children’s television presenter but, in fact, my antics have led to more serious and high-profile offers because I realise now that what people want is an extraordinary television-talk-show experience – a reality that our institutional gatekeepers in power for years have not realised.

The future calls for superhuman, cool, BAME edutainers to save the day. Just don’t wait to be invited − go live.

Jonathan Wilson is professor of brand strategy and culture at Regent’s University London. He has two doctorates, received a LinkedIn Top Voices Award for four consecutive years and is a former advertising professional and musician.


Print headline: BAME academicsout-cool their masters

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