This October marks Black History Month (BHM), a moment in the academic calendar where universities (hopefully) offer a series of events to celebrate and commemorate Black life. Whilst the offerings vary greatly between institutions, and often become the responsibility of a few individuals, BHM offers a brief opportunity to correct what is often forgotten or erased.
That this year’s festivities will not be business as usual almost goes without saying. In addition to the practical changes and move towards online gatherings, political events of this year cast a particular light that shows both the urgency and limits of BHM activities.
In May, we watched and listened to the explosive chants of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in the wake of George Floyd’s racist murder. This occurred at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic – a global crisis which has further exposed the structural nature of racism around the world (for example, see Khan 2020; Sandoiu 2020). Quick to follow, were university statements pledging support for BLM, as well as institutional commitments to race equality.
Quite rightly, those statements provoked responses that highlighted the continued lack of Black professors, issues with access to PhD scholarships, attainment gaps and clamp downs on anti-racist student activism. Such rejoinders have once again shown that both students and staff are seeking more profound forms of change in the places where they work and study. This includes, among other things, calls for pedagogical engagement that extends beyond BHM Of course, sociology, like many other disciplines has not been exempt from criticism.
In spite of its limitations (see Bhopal and Pitkin 2020), the Race Equality Charter Mark is an important step in the right direction, insofar as it encourages institutional commitment to sustainable structural changes around race equality issues which otherwise tend to be lacking.
However, this year universities could, and should, take heed of these critiques and borrow from some of the inspirational momentum created by BLM protests. In doing so, they ought to be considering how institutional race equality work might better resemble a movement with longevity, rather than being a performative spectacle or flashpoint moment in the academic calendar. As it stands, BHM offerings are largely symptomatic of the slow and insufficient incremental approach to change to which we have long been accustomed.
As BHM approaches, and with BLM protests ongoing, we want to draw attention to our British Sociological Association (BSA) commissioned report on Race and Ethnicity in British Sociology.
The report draws attention to sectoral data which paints a worrying, although not entirely unsurprising, picture of the demographic composition of both staff and students’ bodies in the sociology discipline area. For example,
- 85.7% of Sociology staff are White, and 14.3% are BME. (This is in comparison to the Sociology undergraduate student body where 75.5% of students are White and 24.5% are BME).
- Amongst the UK professoriate, there are only 25 Black, Asian, Mixed and Other Sociology Professors. This constitutes 9.8% of the total number of professors.
- BME Sociology students are under-represented at Russell Group universities;
- BME representation in Sociology decreases at postgraduate level, down to 20.2% of postgraduate taught students and just 16.9% of postgraduate researchers.
Sectoral data also shows that there is an awarding gap of 14.9% between White and BME students in Sociology which is higher than the sector average of 13.4%. The awarding gap is particularly high for students from Black African and Pakistani backgrounds.
As well as the well-documented absence of Black staff and other staff of colour, our thematic analysis of undergraduate sociology degree programmes reveals that almost a quarter of the programmes sampled made no explicit reference to the terms race, ethnicity or racism. Not only this, where race, ethnicity and racism are part of the curriculum, it is often taught as an optional rather than compulsory module in the second and third year. This finding was echoed in the responses given to the open-ended questions in our online survey, with some colleagues noting that there is a general ‘not-until-week-10 side-lining of race’.
At the same time, a number of survey respondents noted that while recent student movements, particularly calls to decolonize the curriculum, had started to have a positive impact, the absence of departmental mechanisms for documenting the presence (or absence) of teaching of race and ethnicity, makes it difficult to know precisely what is being taught.
Responses to our open-ended survey questions provided further insight into the everyday working lives of colleagues in sociology departments up and down the country, including the various challenges they face with regard to the teaching of race and ethnicity.
Almost half of BME participants (46%) reported that they had experienced and/or witnessed racism and/ or any other form of discrimination, harassment and hostility when teaching race and ethnicity. A further 12% said that . In addition to this, nine of the survey’s seventeen participants self-identifying as Muslim (51%), and two of the five respondents self-identifying as Jewish (40%), also said that they had experienced and/or witnessing racism and/or other forms of discrimination, harassment and hostility when teaching race and ethnicity.
Hostility from colleagues, in the form of defensiveness, or dismissal. Saying things like you can teach all the brown and black scholarship, we will just do white theorists on our module because we feel most comfortable with that. Literally feeling forced into doing my own modules because co- teaching felt completely like a waste, and me doing all the race labour (BME, non-Russell Group).
I witness white staff members denying institutional racism and not being able to engage into discussing strategies that would tackle the problem (White, non-Russell Group).
I don’t think it’s really taught. Factors influencing this include deeply entrenched imperial, racial and white exceptionalism, racism and privilege, at every level. I think fear and guilt are often expressed by white colleagues which is, at an individual level, understandable, of course. But there needs to be a systematic response to this rather than just refusing to teach it (BME, non-Russell Group).
Whilst survey responses suggest that microaggressions are particularly commonplace, and more explicit forms of interpersonal racism were also reported. In some cases, these were experienced directly by staff, in other cases, they were experienced indirectly, often through the experiences of BME students.
There have been blatant comments made such as saying Pakistanis are physiologically Indian, without even recognising why statements like that are problematic, or claiming that someone’s race/ethnicity is a predisposition or a cause for poorer health and lower socio-economic attainment (BME, Russell Group).
Throughout the years, I have listened to complaints from BAME students who experienced being silenced, called ‘n’ word and feeling uncomfortable with discussing their own experiences of racism (they are sometimes explicitly asked to share those) (BME, Non-Russell Group).
This October marks the beginning of an academic year like none we have seen before. As our report shows, the need for deep introspection in our departments and institutions with regard to the impact of both everyday and structural racism on Black staff and other staff of colour clearly remains. This seems particularly important in a context of ongoing debate around academic freedom, anti-racism and the alleged silencing of ‘right-wing’ thinking.
As BHM approaches, we are presented with an opportunity to reflect upon how we might collectively support and strengthen the transformative work we do around race equality both in our discipline and across the Higher Education sector more broadly. This October there needs to be discussion about how we bring about substantive and lasting, rather than slow and incremental change.
For the full version of the Race, Ethnicity and British Sociology Report, click here.
Bhopal, K. and Pitkin, C. (2020) ‘Same old story, just a different policy’: race and policy making in higher education in the UK’, Race, Ethnicity and Higher Education, 23(4), pp.530-547.
Khan, O. (2020) ‘Coronavirus exposes how riddled Britain is with racial inequality’, The Guardian, 20th April 2020, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/20/coronavirus-racial-inequality-uk-housing-employment-health-bame-covid-19.
Sandoiu, A. (2020) ‘Racial inequalities in COVID-19 — the impact on black communities’, Medical News Today, 5th June 2020, available at: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/racial-inequalities-in-covid-19-the-impact-on-black-communities.
 Our online survey was completed by 188 respondents (This equates to 9.5% of all Sociology staff employed on teaching and research contracts in 2017/2018).