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White Elephant #2: Talking about Race in Higher Education

  • 21 September 2019
  • By Professor Shân Wareing

This blog by Professor Shân Wareing originally appeared in HEPI Report 120 The white elephant in the room: ideas for reducing racial inequalities in higher education.

To put this section in the context of my background, I am a white employee of a UK university. In 2018, I led the University’s Race Equality Charter mark preparations, and I lead the development and delivery of our education strategy, which has a reduction of the gap in award outcomes between BME and white students as a primary goal. I am also a sociolinguist, with a PhD in gender and communication, who taught courses in language, society and power, exploring how the words we use, and the way we use them, encode, reproduce, and challenge assumptions, culture and values.


We have a way to go to create an equal society. Our Race Equality Charter (REC) data left us in no doubt that our students face barriers to success connected to race and ethnicity at every stage of their higher education journey, from admission, to their likelihood of completing their award, their academic results and their chances of graduate-level employment afterwards. Staff were less likely to have permanent contracts, less likely to be in senior roles and less likely to have complaints and grievances upheld if they were BME. We know we have a journey to undertake, and we must undertake it, because higher education is a gateway to social mobility. Degrees are necessary to entering the professions, and graduate careers are routes to financial security, social, economic and political influence. Higher education institutions needs to analyse their role in the student attainment gap and reduce it, and analyse the reasons for the lack of BME senior academics and managers, and change them, to succeed in our missions as organisations, to be the universities we want to be.

Being able to talk about race within London South Bank was an essential starting point for our journey. To make the changes required, we needed to understand what was going on and why so far change had happened too slowly, or not at all. To achieve this, we needed to hear the perceptions of BME individuals and groups, as well as review the quantitative data. Because it was going to take all of us, we needed to work together, which was only going to be achieved through honest conversations.

More than that, the way we talk, or do not talk about race, are themselves part of the practices which create and embed inequality. Avoiding talking about ethnicity, when people have different outcomes that correlate with ethnicity prevents us analysing and challenging the causes of inequality. Talk can also be how inequality is accomplished, if there are systematic differences in how and when people talk based on ethnicity. Who talks first, and who talks longest can reflect assumptions about relative power and also be an act of power, if members of some demographic groups regularly dominate conversations and decisions.

What words can we use?

Talking about race is hard, for a lot of reasons. For a start, the language we can use is always problematic, as Jeffrey Boakye explains in Black, Listed. ‘Politically correct’ words can be controversial, even before a politically incorrect word is uttered. Words in common use define race crudely, abstracting and simplifying skin colour, from the perspective of white-as-normal, and black-as-other. ‘Minority’ in black and minority ethnic (BME), or black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) is numerically wrong; it captures, and linguistically preserves, differential privilege. Anyway, who wants to be referred to by an acronym? To complicate the situation, geography has a role. Different countries and cultures use different terms; thus ‘people of colour’ is fine in the USA, but not in the UK by and large. ‘BME’ on the other hand isn’t a term much used outside the UK, so there was a bit of establishing who came from where and what was considered acceptable accordingly. Time and generational transitions were also a factor. Language many of us learnt as children is not any longer acceptable, but if we had not been talking regularly about race in an enquiring way, we lacked confidence that our lexicon was up to date. In a room of people talking about race, there will be people confused about which words are okay and which are not. And there will be people in the room who will not join in the conversation, for fear of appearing racist, of being called racist, and perhaps of finding out when it comes down to it, they are racist. All of which will impede any kind of open discussion.

But in the face of these challenges we do still have to talk about race, because these conversations are the first steps to ceasing to perpetuate institutionally racist structures and systems. So when we wanted to start an institutional conversation, we needed to agree ground rules from the outset. These included that it would be okay to explain if someone used a word that made you angry or offended you, why it did and to suggest what words they could use instead. Another ground rule was to agree to be patient with one another and be tolerant or appreciative of our collective hesitant steps. If we could have these conversations with many voices participating, and with attentive respectful listening, it would be the start of constructing a lexicon we can all understand, use and feel comfortable hearing.

Apart from considering the very first basic steps of what words to use, there were numerous other challenges to constructive communication.

Who gets to talk

Who speaks, and who listens, was a challenge I definitely should have foreseen. There is a very significant body of research in language and gender that looks at time spent talking. It shows both men and women expect and enable men to speak more, and that women who do speak more than their socially-allocated amount are considered over-dominant or abrasive. As Chair at the first meeting of our Race Equality Charter Steering Group, I failed to anticipate that the white participants might speak first, might speak more frequently and at greater length than the black participants. Talk time demonstrates dominance, and also obviously influences what gets talked about, and what gets decided. Clearly it was unacceptable to have Race Equality Charter meetings dominated by the white participants, after that I structured meetings so that black colleagues led discussions and reported back on discussions.

Small group discussions and micro-aggressions

As part of the Race Equality Charter meetings, we used small group discussions, and during these, I became aware of patterns of micro-aggressions. Micro-aggressions are behaviours which can be hard to challenge and easy to wave away but are systematic variations in ways that have a cumulative effect. They can include less eye contact, uninterested or hostile body language and less frequent use of people’s names. They stack up to indications that someone is less valued, less worthy of attention and less respected than someone else whose contributions were affirmed through positive body language, name use and so on. The long-term effect of micro-aggressions is usually to sap someone’s feeling of belonging and their confidence. Micro-aggressions are often a result of unconscious bias – attitudes we have which we may be unaware of and which can arise in response to a challenging or unfamiliar situation. They may be very fleeting but they affect how conversations take place, who shares information and how open people are, all of which influence how decisions are arrived at. We can minimise the impact of unconscious bias expressed through micro-aggressions by becoming more aware of their many forms. One way to find this out if you do not have personal experience is to find someone who does and is willing to talk about it.

One of our Race Equality Charter Steering Group members had been the only black person in her university cohort. I asked whether she would sit down with me, and we talked about her experiences growing up, being at home, walking down the street and entering a lecture theatre. As a white person leading the Race Equality Charter process, I was conscious I would also have unconscious bias and that in all likelihood I was displaying micro-aggressions. One of things that this conversation helped me with was understanding my colleague’s priorities, what concerned her most, and what I needed to work hardest on to avoid or overcome.

Hearing people’s stories

At the outset of our Race Equality Charter preparations, Steering Group members were invited to share their reasons for being part of the Group, and in response, staff and student members of the group shared experiences of inequality and their personal drivers for their desire for change. We heard about people’s grandparents’ and parents’ experiences, of casually racist comments at school and university (for example, ‘you are very ambitious for a black woman’), which had fired anger and ambition. We heard about people wanting things to be different for their children and grandchildren from how things had been for them. It was very moving and humbling, a privilege to be given these insights. Afterwards, we felt like a team, honouring what was shared and with mutual trust and commitment to joint goals.


Language and communication are key to effective collaboration, to analysis of how people’s opportunities within organisations are affected by their race and ethnicity, and to developing effective solutions. Language is also a site where inequality happens and is normalised; our communication practices are part of what we must understand and change to create more equal universities. Talking about race and ethnicity brings inherent challenges but accepting and rising to those challenges is part of our institutional process of change.

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