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White Elephant #4: Decolonising History? Reflections on the Royal Historical Society’s 2018 Report

  • 23 September 2019
  • By Professor Margot Finn

This blog by Professor Margot Finn, President of the Royal Historical Society, originally appeared in HEPI report 120 The white elephant in the room: ideas for reducing racial inequalities in higher education.

In October 2018, the Royal Historical Society published its first systematic assessment of Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History. Subtitled A Report and Resource for Change, this study combined statistical analysis of how History as a discipline is configured in UK education (from school to university level) with qualitative interpretations of how History is experienced by students and academic staff, predominantly within the higher education sector. The report, published during the Royal Historical Society’s 150th anniversary year, was intended to make academic historians in the UK both take stock of and responsibility for History’s place in higher education’s equalities landscape. It makes for grim reading. However, at departmental level within universities, it is now also proving a catalyst for discussion and (we hope) change.

As the data surveyed at the beginning of the report reminds us, UK-domiciled students in HESA’s ‘Historical and Philosophical Studies’ (H&PS) category are significantly more likely to be racialised as white than candidates in most other subjects: 89.0 per cent of H&PS students are white, compared to 77.3 per cent in all subjects and 65.9 per cent in, for example, Law. Whilst there is little difference between H&PS undergraduate attainment of 2:1 degrees (BME 64.2 per cent and white 62.6 per cent), First Class degrees (which can play key roles in postgraduate funding decisions) in H&PS are awarded disproportionately to white (22.8 per cent) compared to BME students (14.2 per cent). Unsurprisingly in this context, the underrepresentation of BME History students persists at subsequent levels of study. Just 8.6 per cent of H&PS UK postgraduate research students are from BME backgrounds, compared to 16.8 per cent of all UK postgraduate research students. Staff in UK History departments are likewise overwhelmingly and disproportionately white. In the UK as a whole, 85.0 per cent of university academic staff are white; in History 93.7 per cent of academics are white, with only 0.5 per cent black.

Using the Jisc online survey platform, the Royal Historical Society surveyed UK-based university historians (MA and PhD students as well as postdoctoral research and teaching fellows and academic staff) in May 2018. The 737 respondents provided hundreds of pages of qualitative commentary to amplify their answers to the survey questions. Twice as many BME respondents (32.6 per cent) as white colleagues (15.8 per cent) reported witnessing/experiencing discrimination or abuse, with staff in respondents’ own departments (36.7 per cent) most often reported as the source of abuse, and students (20.5 per cent) the next largest group. Coupled with these data were reports that BME histories and BME historians are routinely marginalised in UK History departments. ‘The worst is being the only BME member of staff in a department’, one respondent wrote. ‘Whenever I tried to discuss it with my colleagues (all of whom were non-BME), I was told unequivocally that I was imagining it.’

The report runs to 121 pages, including targeted recommendations for different groups of historians (heads of department, postgraduate tutors, conference organisers and editors, for example) and an extensive bibliography of further reading. There is no space here to do justice to the findings (much less to the many previous expert studies that informed our research), and no set of bullet points can adequately outline an effective programme of change. Here instead I have suggested four basic actions drawn from the report and from the workshops organised around it since autumn 2018 that merit reflection from staff, students and policy-makers committed to change.

  1. Acknowledge and own the problem: History is among the ‘whitest’ university disciplines in the UK. We can blame society or schools for this ineluctable fact, or point out that universities as a whole are disproportionately white institutions and that other disciplines are also unrepresentative in terms of race and ethnicity. But those are excuses, and we need solutions. We need openly to accept that we have a serious problem, that it is our problem and that we have means in our hands to address it. The entrenched habits of silence and denial so eloquently anatomised in Reni Edo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race need to be laid to rest. No BME historian with whom I have discussed the Royal Historical Society report or its underlying data has been surprised by our findings; in contrast, most white historians who have read it have been both surprised and shocked. Many BME students report being ‘spotlighted’ in seminar discussions, being expected to speak as ‘native informants’ about ‘their’ histories. Many BME staff report the pervasive expectation that they are responsible for bearing the burden of higher education’s failure to make equality happen. That has to stop. Acknowledging that both overtly and ‘casually’ racist behaviours animate the experience of History teaching and learning in schools and universities is the first step toward actively calling it out.
  2. Do not dodge difficult conversations about the curriculum: The taught curriculum is a problem in History. Both BME and white pupils in schools find the A-Level curriculum a disincentive for further study with its salient silences – on the British empire for example – and its overweening emphases – on black histories as histories of slavery. Lacking the obvious career trajectories of Law or Medicine, moreover, we do ourselves no favours in BME undergraduate recruitment by failing to explain the ways in which historical analysis opens up doors to both cultural understanding and paid employment. Whether in schools or universities, curriculum change in any context is however a minefield: it is time-intensive and inevitably involves both stepping on toes and prodding scared cows. In the context of race equality, the curriculum comes loaded with a host of additional impediments. Schools already stretched past their limits financially and caught in the crosshairs of the league tables are understandably reluctant to embrace radical reform. Academics, keen to ensure that ‘their’ sub-fields flourish, can be reluctant to welcome new approaches (such as global histories) that challenge established boundaries when appointments of new staff are being agreed. The press (like some History practitioners) eagerly dismiss efforts to question disciplinary foundation myths as ‘political correctness gone mad’. But if we want to shape a properly diverse and inclusive student and staff cohort in History, we have to come to grips with what we teach, and how it is taught. A repeated refrain in feedback to our survey was that historians have to get better at teaching ‘difficult’ histories. ‘It’s an ingrained problem within British society that has to be challenged from school’, commented one research student from a Black Caribbean background. ‘White Britons need to be able to discuss uncomfortable histories without becoming defensive’.
  3. Know the law: Both of the Royal Historical Society’s reports on gender and our 2018 report on race identify high levels of ignorance about the legislative frameworks designed to protect equal opportunities in the UK. Over a third (34.1 per cent) of respondents to the race report were unaware of the 2010 Equality Act and its provisions. Among BME staff (46.4 per cent) and early career / temporary staff (46.2 per cent) these figures were even higher. The inability of many academic staff to distinguish between positive action—as it is enabled by the 2010 Equality Act– and positive discrimination—as disallowed by equalities legislation– not only stymies our ability to think through what excellence really looks like in History, it also prevents us taking steps to promote equality in recruiting BME students and staff. Ignorance of the legal distinctions that obtain between recruitment of employees, on the one hand, and of students, on the other, exacerbates this problem.
  4. Do not mistake exclusivity for excellence: The scope for positive action in student recruitment is also wider than most academic staff think. ‘There is a complacency in the upper reaches of the profession about the idea of recruitment on the basis of narrow and unexamined ideas of “merit” and “excellence”, which has negative effects in terms not only of BME recruitment and representation, but also of gender and class’, one respondent to our survey observed. Coupled with a lack of knowledge about the forms that positive action can take in student recruitment, this complacency encourages academics to mistake exclusivity for excellence. In workshops organised around the race report, Royal Historical Society speakers underline that universities can — and, indeed, some now do — advertise postgraduate fellowships restricted to BME applicants. ‘Why didn’t they tell me we could do that?’ was one experienced postgraduate admissions tutor’s frustrated response to learning that this could be done. Good will is essential if we are to build an inclusive historical discipline. But it will not happen if we do not come to grips with the structural levers that positive action puts into our hands

Surveying 50 years of UK legislation to combat employment discrimination against ethnic minorities, the sociologist Anthony Heath concluded that ‘the contours of racial discrimination have been remarkably persistent over time’. Many of the structural and socio-economic obstacles that thwart equal opportunities in employment feed into the severe problems of exclusivity and under representation that face UK university History today. We obviously need to take these deep structures into account. But we also need to find specific points that allow us to address our grim complex history of racial exclusions as a discipline-based problem, at the granular levels at which we work, teach and recruit — at the levels that we own.

No one in the working group that produced Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History is so naïve or so ignorant as to think that the report is a silver bullet or a panacea. But we do argue that we will get closer to equality, diversity and inclusion — and thus to excellent historical practice — if we combine a better understanding of the national legislative and policy landscape with hard-headed commitment to ‘dig where we stand’.

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