Staff and students of colour speak out on racism in academia

These are the lived experiences of those often spoken about but rarely spoken to. These are the stories that do not make it into reports or inform the decisions made by governing bodies or HE sector organisations.

These short narratives have been collated from focus groups, forums and email exchanges with members from two specific networks; the Critical Race and Ethnicities Network, a postgraduate led network designed to provide a safe space for students of colour to critically discuss issues of race and racism, and Black British Academics.

As a doctoral researcher I adopt a narrative approach to exploring the lived experiences of young Somali men, and outside of academia I am a poet and storyteller.  I believe we are all storytellers and our lived experiences are made apparent to others through the stories we choose to share. So here are the stories that have been shared with me (with permissions, of course).

Our Stories

I’d like to start off with the moment I realised what indirect racism on campus actually was:

"It was a September morning and my induction day for the BA in Education Studies. I was told that I had to go to what was then the Furnival building, and me being me could not understand the campus map to save my life so decided to walk into the nearest building and ask for directions. I walked in and looked around for a reception or someone with a staff badge that could direct me. I was approached by a White man in his late 40s with a staff badge. Before I could even say a word the man hunched his back, peers over me, and in a loud, slow voice said “Oh I just directed someone else, English language classes are that way” and proceeded to give me directions. Giving me an occasional glance and noticing the confused look on my face, he assumed I could not understand his instructions and said “If that’s not clear, maybe just follow him” pointing to another BME student who was walking in the other direction, also holding a campus map…. I thanked him and walked away."

I continue to find myself in positions where I feel like I have no choice but to walk away. What evidence do I have of microaggressions and indirect racism, other than my stories? Experiences such as these are not unique and concerns over what constitutes racism in universities is share by many of the people I spoke with. Here are just a few examples:

Sara identifies herself as a second generation British Pakistani. She is in the first year of an undergraduate course in politics at a Russell Group university and is the first generation in her family to go to university. She is one of three students of colour; all female; one Nigerian and the other Palestinian. She is yet to work with either of them. When asked about her experience on the course she said:

“In the very first lecture the three of us sat next to each other. We didn’t know each other but I was just drawn to them as the whole room was White and majority male. The next day we had our first seminar and the lecturer told us… literally told us to sit in different parts of the room. The explanation he gave was that it would encourage us to share and hear more ‘diverse opinions’. Clearly as three women of colour we shared a single opinion? Or maybe we were too diverse and he wanted to separate us so that we could offer others some experience with diversity? I feel so isolated on this course… I’m going to try and finish the year but I really don’t want to be here.

Fahim identifies himself as a British born Muslim who is of Algerian decent. He is in the final year of a Chemical Engineering undergraduate degree at a ‘New’ university. He wanted to share his experience of being the only student of colour on his course.

“I feel like I always need to work twice as hard to get half the recognition and there is always a level of suspicion whenever I successfully complete a task. Last semester I completed a report on a project we were asked to work on, there were five of us as part of the team and each of us had to write a report on the work [we] had done within the group. I was the only member of the group who was BME, I’m the only one on my course that is BME and when the reports were submitted I was immediately called for a supervisory meeting. The lecturer had accused me of plagiarism because he said, and I quote: “The work you produced is above the quality of work you are capable of.” Do you have any idea what it’s like to work your butt off to get a good piece of work done, and then be told you were never expected to do well to begin with?”

David identifies as British Nigerian and is a third year undergraduate studying Philosophy. When asked to share his experience on the course, he said:

“This course is as Eurocentric as it gets. You don’t see any Black faces, you don’t read any Black authors, and the building itself is filled with portraits of dead White men looking down on you as you study. Imagine that – there couldn’t be a more apt description of my experience. Sat in a room, surrounded by White men looking down at me from all directions, me reading their books… seen but not heard. I’ve wanted to quit so many times but it’s hard to explain to seniors on the course that you feel uncomfortable with their overwhelming Whiteness. I pushed through and now all I want to do is finish, I don’t care what grade I get, I just want to finish and leave.”

Tyson identifies as a British born Jamaican. He is in the final few months of completing his PhD and is working in his first academic teaching post at a Russell Group university. He decided to share some instances of implicit and explicit racism.

“When I went into the staff room early one morning because I was teaching at 9am, a cleaner rushed in to ask me: “Are you supposed to be in here?” I wish I had the quick thinking to say “no apparently not. I, as a person of colour am not supposed to be in an ivory tower like this”, but I didn't. It stunned me and I had nothing really to say. It took a White male PhD student to tell me that [the] question only arose because I was not white! [On another occasion] I was warned at a departmental party to watch myself speaking to the female students.  This is despite it being well known that certain White professors here spend their entire evenings flirting with female students! But for some reason, it is assumed that as a Black man this is the role that I would play at a staff/student party. The problem is as you know; with microaggressions they are very hard to challenge but they are a cumulative burden that shape the way I understand my position here.”

What is clear from the first three stories is that acts of racism are not always overt – these are very subtle day-to-day microaggressions that are often dismissed, and as a result make such behaviours difficult to challenge and report.

Other students and staff spoke about how they feel racism is manifested within the university space with some stating that their opinions are not valued as much as those of their White colleagues and having to publish a greater number of articles before being considered for promotion.

Others who engaged in the discussions decided that they wanted to share what they terms ‘strategies for survival’; moments that gave them hope or actions they have taken to gain some control over the situations they found themselves in.

Aisha is an early career researcher and a lecturer of International Law at a Russell Group university. When asked to share her experiences of working within academia she said:

“One of the highlights of my academic career arrives every semester when the feedback from students rolls in. When I receive good feedback it silences the imposter syndrome I normally battle on a daily basis. But the types of feedback that make me feel the most positive come from students who praise me for looking like them and doing what I do. It is part of what fuels my academic ambition.”

Dr Deborah Gabriel, Founder and CEO of Black British Academics said:

“I have found that on a personal level there are five key areas in which to be proactive: voice, visibility, opportunity, priority and community. I took the decision early on that I will work proactively to use my voice both in the physical and virtual worlds, to ensure that I am never invisible.

Within my institution, I always take advantage of staff development opportunities that are available (e.g. leadership course, bid writing academy, internal grants, opportunity to lead on course units etc.) and I use my voice to speak out if I feel opportunities that should be available to me are denied. I ensure that in my own teaching practice and research, racialised experiences are included and given the priority so deserved.

My community, which consists of multiple spheres from family and long-term friendships to students and staff of colour within and beyond Black British Academics’ networks – are both my strength and survival. My community motivates me to survive and thrive within a Eurocentric space dominated by whiteness, power and privilege.

Being a Black female is a unique gender identity as being a woman in the academy means being a white woman, still able to enjoy power and privilege and still able to exclude women of colour and ignore our experiences while claiming to be victims of inequality.

Within my community there is a special space reserved for women of colour and in the past year I have endeavoured to enhance the voice and visibility of women of colour through the Black Sister Network, creating an opportunity for our voices to be heard through our research project, so that the experiences and outcomes of women of colour in academia are given priority in our faculties, in our institutions, across the HE sector and in the media.

To empower ourselves we must be active agents of change and build a strong community where we can all work together for our collective survival and success.”

The handful of stories above and many others not included in this article highlight a plethora of issues including:

  • Indirect and implicit racist language
  • Lack of visible representation (particularly amongst staff)
  • Inability or unwillingness of staff to acknowledge their White privilege
  • The impact of low expectations on motivation
  • Suspicion and lack of trust between staff/ colleagues and the institution
  • Lack of support offered or not feeling as though the support in place was tailored to their needs
  • Experiences of imposter syndrome and discomfort in spaces of Whiteness.

However it is through these conversations that we are able also discuss strategies for survival and in so doing help ourselves and each other. hooks (1991,1994) reminds us that without the naming of one’s experiences there can be no counter- hegemony, resistance or new growth.

In sharing these stories and acknowledging these experiences and working together through our challenges, we edge closer to creating new possibilities.

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Muna Abdi

Muna Abdi

Muna Abdi

Latest posts by Muna Abdi (see all)

6 Comments On “Staff and students of colour speak out on racism in academia”

  1. Dear Muna, congratulations on the excellent work you have done and are doing in brining to greater light, the lived experiences of people of colour in spaces dominated by Eurocentric ideas.  I did a PhD in the UK several years ago and can identify with some of the shared experiences of your respondents.  Thankfully, I was able to maintain my sanity as I was in a very diverse group in which people of colour were not a small number and provided support. What amazed me though, was that the persons who we felt were passively aggressive and subtly discriminatory, appeared not to even be aware of their unjust actions.  This underscores the value of your study, as it points to the need to EDUCATE others of the effect of stereotyping and projecting supremacy upon others.  I look forward to reading more about your work and would be happy to share more of my personal stories with you.   Best Regards, Garfield Young, Ph.D.

    • Dear Garfield,  Thank you for taking the time to read the post and for sharing your experience. Indeed micro aggressions are not always deliberate but are often the product of racialised institutional practices that become normalised and unquestioned.  We cannot change unless we know and we cannot expect our stories to be heard, unless we are willing to tell them. This was just a small piece of research, but it is an area I would like to explore further in the future.    Warm regards    Muna

  2. As an academic I relate to your comments. The criteria which has been developed in the main is for Black academics because if you are white it is all about 'fit' and opportunity and not experience and knowledge. 

    • I absolutely agree. Black academics are held to a different set of criteria….often resulting in double the work with half the recognition.

  3. Thanks for the blog post Muna. Enjoyed our discussion when we met too. I have never experienced racism in this country so could consider myself to be the 'lucky' one. In one incident, I was a junior doctor working with elderly patients and was to assess someone on a medical ward. The senior staff nurse warned me that the lady (in her 80s probably) was known to be a bit of a racist. I said, 'Oh, don't worry. I will handle it.' The nurse replied,'You may as well do. She is racist towards the Irish, Welsh and Scots too'. Needless to say, she was most polite and pleasant when I saw her. This was more than 15 years ago now. Girish

  4. Great piece Muna!!! 

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