Why do we go abroad? There are no opportunities for us in Britain

March 4, 2005

Mark Christian, who has left for the US, argues that the UK's lack of a multicultural curriculum has caused an exodus

The British higher education system still has some way to go before it is considered a prime example of multicultural Britain in terms of its share of black faculty at all levels. Sadly, if we are honest with ourselves, there is a major problem within the culture of the British academy that is stifling the creativity and potential of black academics.

The prognosis for improving this pandemic exclusion is rather bleak, as many black British academics have felt it necessary to emigrate to secure a worthwhile career in the US academy rather than continue their individual struggles in the UK. Arguably, apart from the intellectual disrespect and poor working conditions in the UK academy, it is the paucity of opportunities to develop British black studies perspectives that makes many of us leave for greener pastures.

It is in this light that I would like to consider a few points in the case for black studies in Britain and to provide some insight into the problems concerning the insidious exclusion, or conspicuous absence, of black British faculty in UK universities at the outset of the 21st century.

Given the longevity of black British presence, which goes back far beyond the 1948 Tilbury docking of the Empire Windrush , it seems incongruous to have to argue in 2005 the case for black studies to be institutionalised in Britain. Indeed, the need to address a situation that should have been remedied at least 35 years ago is the greatest indictment one could direct at an increasingly indefensible ethnocentric education system. It is also a sign that Britain's education structure has failed its citizens of African heritage, and those of the broader population, too.

Black educationists have long argued for black perspectives to be taught in schools, colleges and universities. In the US, black studies grew out of the civil rights movement and aimed to appease the unrest of mainly black student activists in higher education. In Britain, however, black educationists focused on schools, on teaching black children (most of them aged 11-16) their history beyond that of the largely negative and Eurocentric mainstream variety. I believe that this was primarily because most of the black British population was a young cohort in the late Sixties.

A British black studies programme was first advocated in the late Sixties and early Seventies by black community representatives across the UK's major conurbations, especially those with black populations. Black educationists such as Bernard Coard argued that many black children in Britain were unfairly labelled "educationally sub-normal" and that this damaged their self-esteem and school performance. He further maintained that black children of African-Caribbean origin were receiving no formal schooling that related positively to their collective black identities.

In regard to the lack of black history lessons, Coard states in his influential 1971 book How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System: "Black history and culture, ie, the history of black people throughout the Caribbean, the Americas, Africa and Asia, should be made part of the curriculum of all schools, for the benefit of black and white children."

But little changed over the years. Almost 15 years after Coard's book, the 1985 Swann report again noted the institutionalised racism that held back multicultural education for all. Among other things, it highlighted my place of birth, Liverpool, as having one of the worst "minority" experiences in Britain even though a black community had been established there since at least the 19th century. It stated that "Liverpool blacks" were a totally assimilated group, yet oddly they remained a socially excluded group in terms of the white majority community's employment and social environment.

This is the kind of experience that lay behind black communities' advocacy of black studies in educational settings. It drove them on an academic and social mission to provide an education that improved the individual as well as the broader community. Twenty years later, we have yet to reach a more balanced and diverse curriculum that offers cultural pluralism without hierarchy - in Liverpool and elsewhere.

Since the Seventies, there has been an emphasis on race relations legislation to prevent discrimination, but this has not thwarted subtle forms of racism that endure in all spheres of our professional and social worlds. Anti-racism and multiculturalism policy initiatives in education have also largely failed.

This is not to suggest that "race" has not been an influential topic in higher education. Indeed, during this time it developed into an industry, led mainly by white academics. Race, class and gender and later identity politics were to become pivotal themes in the ever-increasing number of postmodern analyses in the academy.

Arguably the most respected black scholar to emerge in the Seventies, and one who would come to dominate any race-related analysis in the British academy, was Stuart Hall, who can be considered the "godfather" of Gramscian cultural theory. He led the way, with his students, Paul Gilroy and others, following and building on his mantra: "Down with essentialism and the naive craving for black solidarity."

From this group came volume after volume of largely inaccessible writings that attacked any idea of commonality among black peoples struggling to overcome the reality of everyday white supremacy. Instead, we were to think of ourselves as individuals divorced from any sense of collective black experience. I believe that advocates of the race industry cannot therefore be deemed scholars of black studies in the sense that the scholarship and teaching they produce does not empower black students to be knowledgeable and proud of their history and culture.

Gilroy, a shining example of the postmodernist perspective on racelessness, recently suggested that there should be an institution in Britain that focuses primarily on the history of black British settlement, yet he questions the African-American focus in US black studies. His position is all the more incredulous as he heads the programme in African-American studies at Yale University (although he is about to become the first holder of the Anthony Giddens professorship in social theory at the London School of Economics).

There appears in Gilroy's work a fundamental theme that is opposed to the philosophy and practice of black studies. It is made clear in the introduction to his book Small Acts (1993): "The idea of a common, invariant racial identity capable of linking divergent black experiences across different spaces and times has been fatally undermined."

In reading this, one realises why we have never been able to convince the power brokers to institutionalise black studies in Britain. How can we focus culpability on the higher education system when our top scholars write against any form of commonality in black experience?

I agree with Gilroy that our experiences of blackness vary in terms of time and place, but I believe that black people have just as much in common as we have things that separate us. For example, the fact that Gilroy is from London and I am from Liverpool makes us different within the black British experience (and of course there are the manifold nuances that make us individual entities), but that does not mean that we do not share a broader commonality regarding blackness.

It seems a great contradiction that Gilroy can hold such a view and sit as the chair of African-American studies at Yale. That position does not exist in a vacuum. It was born out of a struggle fought by African-Americans for intellectual participation in their nation. We black British scholars ought to take heed and not trivialise communities that have accepted us, just as the African-American studies community has embraced many black British scholars.

The argument for researching and teaching from the perspective of black peoples' varied experiences is more than valid. Why it has been stifled or excluded is for those in power to answer. Since at least the late Sixties, black educationists and white progressives have fought for a more inclusive and multicultural curriculum throughout the British education system. This has yet to be realised.

Those with the authority to make positive changes cannot hide from the fact that Britain has many black experiences that need to be researched and studied by college and university students. From the responses of those black British scholars who have left to teach in the US, it appears that many would have stayed in Britain if there had been opportunities for them to do so.

For the British education system to lose such an array of talent is unpardonable. However, given the historical struggle against racialised discrimination that black people have faced in Britain, is anyone really surprised? More to the point, does anyone really care?

Mark Christian is associate professor of black world studies and sociology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

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