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Race, white privilege and business as usual

  • 21 July 2020
  • By Kalwant Bhopal

This blog was kindly contributed by Kalwant Bhopal, who is a Professor of Education and Social Justice, the Director of the Centre for Research in Race & Education (CRRE) and BAME Academic Lead, in the School of Education at the University of Birmingham. Her recent book, ‘White Privilege: the myth of a post-racial society’ was published by Policy Press. 

On Thursday, HEPI will be publishing its first major paper on decolonising curricula.

The protests against the murder of George Floyd by police in the USA have been widely noted as marking a significant ‘moment’ in the history of race relations, not just in the United States but across the globe. The problem of such ‘moments’ is that we have seen so many of them before. #BlackLivesMatter itself was a response to a previous ‘moment’, the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida. In the UK, the racism of police officers to cover-up the murder of Stephen Lawrence was another such ‘moment’. 

Is this a real moment in our history, or will it be ‘business as usual’? 

Following the waves of protest at George Floyd’s murder, many universities in the UK rushed to release empty, bland, hollow statements declaring they do not tolerate racism at their institutions and offering support for students and staff. The reason for labelling such declarations of solidarity as ‘empty, bland, hollow’ is the striking distinction between the tone and content of these statements and the historic actions of the same universities. The evidence of institutional racism at all levels of university life is overwhelming; from the large BME attainment gap of students to the dearth of BME academics employed as professors or within senior management roles. I had visions of vice-hancellors suddenly spurred into action and firing off demands to Human Resources and Recruitment departments demanding immediate compliance with the Race Equality Charter. A sudden acknowledgement of longstanding inequalities has nothing to do with a ‘moment’ in which structural change emerges and everything to do with getting back to ‘business as usual’. 

Universities are institutionally complacent in reproducing the status quo. Issues of racial inequalities are only of significance when they impact on day-to-day concerns such as the university bottom line. In 2020, the sight of global protests by young people (the same young people who will be recruited as fee-paying students) seemingly sent many universities into knee-jerk outpourings of their commitment to social justice. History tells us that these statements will never be followed up by real change in the future. There is a plethora of evidence to suggest that higher education institutions are spaces where institutional and structural racism is perpetuated and spaces of white privilege reserved for the privileged few (Bhopal, 2018). This is evidenced by the 15 per cent BME attainment gap; by the appointment of only 75 Black professors in the UK, by a Eurocentric curriculum; by students and staff experiencing covert and overt racism (Bhopal, 2018; UUK/NUS, 2019); by low rates of progression of BME students to PhDs; and by the poor employment prospects for BME students (they are less likely to be employed six months after graduation and earn less than White graduates). Poor longer-term employment prospects for Black graduates are mirrored in the academy itself; of 154 higher education institutions in the UK, there are only four vice chancellors who are from a BME background (Advance HE, 2019). 

Higher education works to perpetuate and reinforce white privilege through a discourse of denial. On a daily basis it fails to acknowledge and accept that racism exists. You do not have to look far to see how white privilege is perpetuated in higher education; editors and editorial boards of high impact journals, funding awarding panel members, Research Excellence Framework panels and presidents and vice presidents of learned societies are overwhelmingly white. Furthermore, higher education has been (and continues to be) dominated by white privilege in its subject matter and the value placed on different types of ‘knowledge’; research on race and inequalities when conducted by BME academics is seen as either ‘deficit’ or ‘personal research’ (Bhopal, 2016). White privilege dominates the construction of knowledge and the communication of that knowledge. Such knowledge is conveyed through a white lens within a white normative framework. 

Universities’ public statements in response to Black Lives Matter protests benefited the self-interests of already powerful white groups (such as vice chancellors and senior managers). In the ‘moment’ of the killing of a Black man they showcase and sell themselves as inclusive and anti-racist. In the long-term, institutional white privilege remains intact, unthreatened and fostered. Anti-racism is performed rather than enacted. It is a sales pitch for the next generation of fee-payers as universities position themselves to protect their own established interests. Business as usual.

There are long-standing debates about the divergence between policy making as a means of implementing improvements and how the enactment of such policy making works to reinforce socially constructed norms of behaviour. The danger of policy making designed to improve racial inequalities adopts both a narrative of positive change while either not addressing an issue, or reinforcing existing inequalities. Despite this, significant policy making is needed to address racial inequalities, as long as policy making through a rhetoric of inclusion does not continue to privilege white groups and reinforce exclusionary practices. For this reason, the Race Equality Charter must be mandatory, rather than at the discretion of vice-chancellors and senior managers. It should be attached to research funding (just like the Athena SWAN charter). BUT it must not become a simple tick box exercise, it must be followed by real actions.

In addition, universities should be financially penalised if they fail to address racial inequalities (such as the BME attainment gap and the lack of BME professors), and provide bursaries and scholarships based on targets for the brightest BME students which would ensure access to post graduate degrees based on ability, rather than their access to financial and economic capital. Furthermore, if universities are serious about addressing racial inequalities, they must first confront their own white privilege. 

It is time for white (woke) academics to question their own privilege, their own complicity in reinforcing a racist system which benefits whites and disadvantages people of colour. Let’s hope the collateral damage from this ‘moment’ isn’t the perpetuation of white privilege and business as usual. Perhaps we may see some significant change from the global protests. I for one am not holding my breath. 

Further reading

Advance HE (2019) Staff Statistical Report. Advance HE: London

Bhopal, K (2016) The experiences of BME academics in higher education: a comparative study of the unequal academy. Routledge: London and New York

Bhopal, K (2018) White Privilege: the myth of a post-racial society. Policy: Bristol

UUK/NUS (2019) Black, Asian and minority ethnic attainment at UK universities. UUK/NUS: London

3 comments

  1. Alas, I am inclined to agree with you respecting the visible inertia at our centres of learning. Indeed, I am not very sanguine that much will change, as we have fallen upon evil times, and the heart of many people has waxen gross.

    I recently published a little blogpost, ‘Religion: The true cost of relativism to democracy – Part 2,’ in which I attempted to answer a question: Who is my neighbour? I concluded the blogpost by quoting Sophie Scholl, a young German woman who was executed by the Nazis in 1943, at a tender age of 21. She wrote thus: “The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive’. The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take a measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves – or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who like small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming touch does. I choose my own way to burn.”

  2. albert wright says:

    The key question for me is, “Are quite a lot of individuals who have black skin being held back from achieving positions and opportunities that they would hold if their skin were white and all other things were equal”?

    The answer would seem to be YES.

    It is not for me a “numbers game”, which seems to me to be the argument being put in the article above.

    I don’t think asking for number equality in professors appointed or students getting first class degrees would be acceptable based on the colour of a person’s hair or the colour of their eyes.

    I believe we are wasting talent because many people can’t see beyond the outer”packaging” to the real people underneath.

    The English have made this type of mistake many times before with the Irish and the Jews and other foreigners who are not Church of England.

    Unjustifiable prejudice needs to be tackled and I believe the best way to do this is to provide additional support to the BAME community much earlier in life, ideally from the age of 3.

  3. John bird says:

    Good stuff! The issues in HE – small numbers of BAME staff, BAME attainment gap, lack of diversity in curricula, BAME student isolation in HE and so on –
    go backs years and almost nothing has changed or progressed.

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