Guest post: #BlackLivesMatter

Last week in my Black lives matter, black careers matter post I asked for people who know more about this subject to contribute guest posts to the blog. I’m very grateful to Dr Iwi Ugiagbe-Green who of Leeds University Business School for sending me this guest blog about the relevance of #BlackLivesMatter to higher education. Iwi has been working with her research assistant Will Southall on a project to explore the experiences of black students seeking graduate work opportunities.

The recent #BlackLivesMatter uprising is a pivotal moment in our current history.  The movement is a coming together of a global community, rightfully outraged by the horrific brutality against black people, that people have seen with their own eyes and heard with their own ears.  Social media has enabled the daily lived experiences of racial inequity painfully endured by black people on a daily basis, to be shared and witnessed first-hand by people across the world.

The immediate response to #BlackLivesMatter, with #AllLivesMatter shows how ‘the depth of black suffering can only be made legible through analogising it with the violence that other people have experienced’ (jade @divanificent, 9th June 2020).  

Black people have had to defend #BlackLivesMatter by making clear that ‘we never said that only black lives matter, ‘we know all lives matter.’   To advocate for #BlackLivesMatter is not to deny the experiences of other marginalised groups with protected characteristics (e.g. age, disability, gender reassignment, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation).  

Racialisation is a grouping of humans based on rules made by society.  As such, these societal rules are often used to stereotype people and assign stereotype attributes (both good and bad) to people of different racial groupings.  How often have we heard about ‘angry black women’ and ‘aggressive black men.’?   

Systems of whiteness

The Colour of Power report (2017) states that there is an ethnocultural representation of 97.6% white amongst the senior leadership of the Russell group universities.  On 25th September 2017, The Guardian ran an article entitled, ‘Snowy peak syndrome: why UK organisations remain white at the top, in which they report, ‘Racism has never been about calling people names. It’s a system of power.’

Whiteness is about more than being white.  It is the centring of white as the dominant racial grouping with everything else positioned relative to it.  Whiteness is what enables policies, processes, opportunities, and strategies that advantage white people.

Whiteness is centred within the (higher education) academy.  It is in our curriculum, our recruitment and reward systems, our strategic priorities.  It is this centring that has led to the ethnic minoritisation of black people, positioned relative to white people into one group of non-white people i.e. Black and Minority Ethnic i.e. ‘BAME.’

To be clear, there is no such thing as a BAME student or a BAME academy member.  Black members of the academy, identify as black and have unique, proud identities based on history, culture and values.  Black members of the academy should own their own experiences, the narration of those experiences and most importantly, own their truth.

The deficit model myth

The dangerous common narrative of black students in the academy, is one of under-performance, lack of ambition and aspiration, lack of engagement and attainment.

In fact, there is a high representation of black students within the UK academy.  The BBC (2018) reports that black students represent approximately 8% of the UK university population, but about 4% of 18-24 year olds in England and Wales.  

However, what is clear, is that something goes terribly wrong when black students enter the academy.  A black student who enters the academy with AAA is less likely to achieve a ‘good degree’ (2:1 or 1:1 degree classification) than a white student with BBB. (See Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic student attainment at UK Universities: #Closing the gap, 2019).

The awarding gap (NUS, 2011), the opportunity gap (ISE, 2018), the achievement gap (Gov.uk 2015), the attainment gap (Advance HE 2019), the employment gap (OfS, 2018), the pay gap (Runnymede Trust, 2015) are outcomes that insinuate that black students are intellectually inferior to their white counterparts.

Yet these are persistent, prevalent and generalisable outcomes, across institutions and over time, that demonstrate that these life defining outcomes are a consequence of systemic racism.  Systemic racism is the result of ‘white supremacy’, the centring and normalisation of white domination, in which DiAngelo (2011) explains, ‘processes and practices include basic rights, values, beliefs, perspectives and experiences purported to be commonly shared by all but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people.’  

Systemic racism within the academy is not a matter of debate.  It is a fact.

On 1 February 2019, a package of measures aiming to tackle ethnic disparities at universities was announced by the UK government through the Race Disparity Audit. In it, the government reinstated its intention to hold institutions in England to account for the attainment gap through university access and participation plans. The government also announced Advance HE’s review of the Race Equality Charter, undertaken with a view to improving research into addressing ethnic disparities in university workforces, and an intention to encourage the compilers of university league tables to account for performance in access and attainment in their methodologies.

#Black careers matter

My primary concern is the impact that systemic racism in the academy has on the experiences and life opportunities for our black students in the academy. 

The aspiration of black students is no less than that of white students.  Black students arguably work harder in some ways to navigate their way through, as they do not benefit from ‘white privilege.’

I have been working with a brillian white undergraduate student on research that explores the experiences of pre-professional black students seeking graduate work opportunities.  These black students have shared with me deeply personal stories of brutal strategies that they employed to in an attempt to successfully navigate themselves through the transition from the academy into graduate labour market. 

I am proud of how this important work has reframed, reshaped and educated my brilliant white undergraduate researcher about racial inequalities and the structural racism that prevails in the academy.  He will undoubtedly become a leader with a different mindset as a result of the work that we have done.

I hope this blog has got you thinking too.

#BlackLivesMatter, #BlackCareersMatter

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