Gender and race equality initiatives failing Black women in academia

It was great to see an effort being made by the University of Hertfordshire to highlight issues around race equality during Black History Month at their all-day conference on 25 October.

Min Rodriguez-Davies, Erika Masefield and all those involving in organising the conference did a fantastic job. The Fielder Centre is a great venue and everything was thoughtfully considered from the seating arrangement designed to promote interaction and engagement between delegates, to the workshops and catering.

My only criticism from a female perspective is that all of the morning speakers were male and from a Black female perspective, I was the only speaker who did not have an allotted time for delegates to ask questions after my presentation. This made me feel somewhat marginalised and treated differently to everyone else- even if that was not the intention.

However, this does serve to illuminate the topic of the presentation I delivered at the conference: An Afrocentric Feminist Perspective on Racism in Academia. As Aisha Richards, founder of Shades of Noir tweeted, it was the first time that the terms ‘racism in academia’ and ‘institutionalised racism’ were used at the conference up to that point in such quick succession.

I repeated these words several times during my presentation to emphasize the point that whilst universities are comfortable talking about ‘race equality’ they are less comfortable talking about racism.  I also stated that there can be no serious discussion about racial inequalities within academia without raising the issue of white racial power and privilege.

I am frustrated by the constant claims of ‘advances’ made towards gender equality within academia. Yesterday I stated that those advances have largely benefited white women and data I presented demonstrates that there is a larger percentage of white female professors than there are Black female professors.

I stated that both race and gender equality strategies fail to deliver improvements for Black women due to the inadequacy of the single axis framework. Dealing separately with issues of race and gender fails to address the combined impact of both. The single axis framework cannot address intersectionality or intersectional invisibility.

Any strategies designed to improve race equality in higher education, such as the Race Equality Charter Mark, must address the specific type of racism experienced by Black women and must take steps to tackle white racial power and privilege in the higher education sector.

The best way to ensure that universities prioritise the interests of Black women is by monitoring outcomes. This necessitates the use of de-homogenised data to uncover differentials that are hidden when some ethnic groups are clumped together under the terms BME or BAME.

Tackling white racial power and privilege should begin with universities demonstrating that  African, Caribbean, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian and Chinese staff are involved in the process of shaping and influencing race equality policy and practice. 

One way of achieving this is through consultation with Black British Academics, who of course will be hosting focus groups every year on issues around race equality with all of the above mentioned ethnic groups. We are also planning to host an annual forum with university leaders to discuss the issues raised in the focus groups and suggest recommendations future implementation.

We will also be undertaking a special focus group in the coming months on the Race Equality Charter Mark, as part of our consultation with the Equality Challenge Unit. It is imperative that the framework is not determined purely by a small scoping study that has an institutional focus, but by proper consultation with the groups bearing the brunt of institutionalised racism.

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Dr Deborah Gabriel

Dr Gabriel is a Senior Lecturer at Bournemouth University in the Faculty of Media and Communication and during her academic career has lectured in journalism, media, politics, culture and communication. She is concerned with contributing to social change through the innovation of pedagogies of social justice and cultural democracy and prides herself on creative thinking and embedding her philosophy of social justice and equality across teaching, research and professional practice. Her research interests are focused around online political communication, political discourse, raced and gendered constructions and representations in media and popular culture, equality, inclusion and liberation in teaching practice and the dynamics of race, ethnicity and culture in higher education.

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