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Emotional labour in the ivory tower: highlighting the experiences of academics of colour

  • 31 October 2022
  • By Blessing Marandure

HEPI is running a series of blogs on the changing faces of academia in collaboration with the British Academy. This post was kindly contributed by Dr Blessing Marandure, Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Fair Outcomes Champion on the Decolonising DMU Project at De Montfort University.

Emotional labour has several meanings, and inevitably some are context dependent. I use the term here to refer to a combination of ‘the process of managing and suppressing your feelings in order to do your job’. I also characterise emotional labour as the often-unacknowledged burden borne disproportionately by people of colour in the workplace. In this blog, my aim is to bring together a few exemplars of experiences by people of colour within academia. I use these to highlight the burden of experiencing racial micro-aggressions, being subjected to racial stereotypes and the precarity of employment.

When I reflect on experiences routinely experienced by people of colour in academia, what immediately comes to mind is the experience of racial microaggressions. These can be thought of as ‘everyday racial slights and degradations’ experienced by people of colour. They operate as an insidious and ‘invisible’ form of racism and are prevalent in wider society. Some instances of racial microaggressions in academia have been documented in various outlets, such as a Black female professor being mistaken for the coffee lady. I am also reminded of an incident of a Black male Oxford alumnus, Femi Nylander, whose only crime was to walk the grounds of the campus which resulted in a CCTV image of him being released to students and faculty warning them to ‘maintain vigilance’.  I am also reminded of my own experiences, too many to recount, one of which I recently shared on the HEPI blog. I must admit the most ludicrous experience was of a professor (who was a colleague) enquiring if I was drinking ‘some African hooch’ at a departmental social during my PhD, as he was unfamiliar with my beverage of choice. The sad reality of these instances is that most go unchallenged, and yet in safe spaces, stories are traded and shared as a form of a socially facilitated catharsis. Social media movements such as #BlackInTheIvory by Dr Sharde Davis from the University of Connecticut, have been useful in bringing these shared experiences to light. Books such as Inside the Ivory Tower highlighting the experience of women of colour in British academia highlight the interplay between sexism and racism, ensuring others’ experiences are not dismissed as idiosyncratic.

Racial microaggressions are a consequence of the racial stereotypes held about people of colour. In Femi Nylander’s case, he was subject to stereotypes of criminality commonly associated with young Black males. In a highly prestigious academic environment where he was perceived as not belonging, his mere presence was perceived as a threat. The recent Unite report on ‘living Black at university’ makes for some sombre reading and highlights the widespread nature of such racial stereotyping and racism across higher education institutions. Similarly, when detailing their university experiences, students of colour commonly report how they are perceived as having low intellectual ability.  Consequently, staff have low expectations of them. That the bar is set so low does not end with students: it is one of the reasons why some academics of colour are made to feel like they don’t belong in academia. Others report being overlooked for promotions despite having the necessary qualifications and experience.  And for those that do make it, they also face the prospect of their achievements being put down as being due to political correctness or tokenism. Because people of colour are very much aware of the stereotypes levied at them, this produces a fear of confirming or living up to these stereotypes. For example, male academics of colour report having to censor themselves, and being careful to avoid emotional overtones in communication. This is because they fear confirming the stereotype of the ‘angry Black man’ or the ‘angry racialised minority’. Not surprisingly so, this inauthentic existence is draining as one has to constantly remember to perform a role. Others report experiencing an added pressure to perform in order to dispel doubts over their ability.  There is also an added pressure to represent, due to being one of a few role models for students. Interestingly, students of colour also report being subject to similar pressures to represent their race positively by succeeding in their studies.

Finally, in considering the emotional labour of academics of colour, it is important to acknowledge the disparities in precarity of working conditions. Figures from Advance HE show that among UK nationals the proportion of staff on fixed term contracts is higher for non-White academics as opposed to their White counterparts, at 31.4 per cent and 27.2 per cent respectively. The gap is even larger for non-UK staff, whereby 50 per cent of non-White and 37.2 per cent of White academics are on fixed term contracts. This precarity contributes to the pressure to perform with the hope of securing a permanent contract. And for non-UK staff, the precarity is not only in regard to job security, but is also likely to include worry over UK visa implications when the contract expires. The figures show that these issues are disproportionately affecting academics of colour. This means that issues such as experiencing racial micro-aggressions and racial stereotyping are likely to go unreported and unchallenged.  The ability to speak up and defend yourself is likely to be diminished by precarious working conditions, whereby the worst-case scenario is not only being out of a job, but also potential relocation out of the country.

Emotional labour creates additional barriers that academics of colour have to break through in order to succeed. Real change efforts should start with listening sessions, whereby higher education institutions provide safe spaces for academics of colour to openly share their experiences and foster understanding, and co-production of solutions. Bold, anti-racist actions, which are supported by students, are needed. As Black History Month comes to a close, there is an opportunity for reflection. Whilst I celebrate and embrace the opportunity to showcase Black excellence, I also ask myself why we still need a specific month dedicated to these celebrations. Where is the acknowledgement, and embedding of positive Black contributions, both past and present, for the other 11 months of the year? For a celebration that was borne out of the need to awaken society to the contributions of Black people at a time when they were excluded and invisibilised, the fact that it continues to exist 35 years later serves as a painful reminder that this exclusion continues today. It allows organisations and society at large to tick the box of acknowledgement every October, only to forget for the rest of the year. That is, until October comes again.

The series so far:

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1 comment

  1. Dr Olufunke Aluko-Daniels says:

    Thank you HEPI for running this series and special thanks to Dr Marandure for her contribution highlighting the experiences of academics of colour.

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