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'By any means necessary': strategies for racial equality in UK universities

Updated: May 22, 2023

I'm for anybody who's for equality. I'm not for anybody who tells me to sit around and wait for mine.
Photo im[ression of Malcolm X smiling wryly behind a large professional microphone
Malcolm X. Copyright of author

INTRODUCTION

In accordance with the Race Equality Charter, University Senior Management Teams (USMT, or those figures, including in HR, whose leadership directs the entire institution rather than an element within it) are tasked with leading anti-racist change. It's a move towards decolonizing UK Higher Education. Like any other management system that works according to neoliberal, market principles, change is partly shaped by the need to protect institutional reputation. A reputational 'hit' on, for example, social media or in court, can damage a company's profits or, in the case of universities, impact student recruitment. These are basic, everyday realities. Neoliberal bodies like universities act to mediate risk to reputational harm.


They can also act to enhance their institutions, for example through external accreditation with professional bodies like medicine and law. Or more recently, they have begun to seek accreditation with the Race Equality Charter. They do this through providing evidence of confronting institutional racism. Accreditation would help a university market its equality credentials in the various League Tables that people use to help choose where they study. As Alexis Hoag said,

it is now popular and financially advantageous to be anti-racist.

Universities showcase antiracist commitment by ‘celebrating’ Martin Luther King Day, holding a Black History month, publicly supporting the taking of knees and condemning racism in sports. But critics contend these are too easily acts of virtue signalling designed for public consumption. They maintain that this managerial grandiosity masks a lack of engagement to undo substantive institutional systems that underpin and reproduce institutional racism. To engage beyond the superficial would necessitate change that might impact negatively on an institution’s reputation. Prevailing rules, governance structures and processes, and the senior managerial elites that perpetuate them, would need to be confronted about their place in protecting the institutional racism they acknowledge in the abstract, and avoid in reality. If too much of the institution’s hidden interior were exposed, the risk to that institution’s reputation might be damaged, with concomitant impact on League Tables ratings.


Universities are built in part on legacies. One legacy comes from elites that supported imperial exploitation of the former colonies. Another legacy is their latter-day descendants. This managerial elite, according to research published in April 2023,

still resembles that of the last century with just minor changes
The past in the present; only minor differences. Copyright of author

The managerial order, in determining the limits of what can be challenged and what can change, has colonized, or captures and commands, the contemporary institutional racism agenda. This has reduced a social project aimed at justice to a managerial process aimed at institutional reputations. USMT engagement is, to use Baltaru's term, 'agentic'. It achieves an unstated managerial goal at the expense of authentic and honest engagement with a stated social goal. It's a bit like gaslighting, and leads to ‘greater control of Black people’ for organizational ends. As I have discussed in another blog about decoloniality, ownership of the narrative of institutional racism has been repossessed. It has been shifted from those in whose name it was meant to be held, to those in power who wish to control it. Very limited elite participation in the process masks great power over it. Achieving REC status can ironically mask the persistence of the institutional racism it is meant to undo.


With our power through the REC usurped and redirected, how do we reappropriate, or reclaim, race equality in UK universities in the wake of its managerial colonization? I'm going to look at two 'spaces' that may support further conversations, partly informed by my academic career in post/colonial spaces in Southeast Asia and Africa.


An elephant walks among car traffic and bicycles in Cambodia's capital city
A scene on the first day of my PhD research, Monivong Boulevard, Phnom Penh, 1991. Copyright of author


INTERNAL

This refers to working within existing institutional structures and rules, as opposed to beyond their regulation. An increasingly popular way to challenge institutional racism is 'unconscious bias training'. This aims to 'reduce bias in attitudes and behaviours at work, from hiring and promotion decisions to interactions with customers and colleagues'. It falls short too readily, however, because it is a means to sidestep and avoid being overtly racist, instead of transforming racist mindsets, logics and structures. For the former head of the Institute of Race Relations, unconscious bias training avoids real conversations about racism and systemic behaviour. It also fails to address the role of elite power in reproducing racism in institutions.


An alternative is conscientization. We may recognise this from Paulo Freire's work on pedagogies of power. It's a type of learning that is focused on perceiving and exposing contradictions and [taking] action against the oppressive elements of reality. Freire believed, not unlike Derrick Bell, that management would be relatively passive and peaceful as long as their role in oppressing remained unchallenged. Conscientization will allow management to question their own roles in reproducing racial and other harms (like paying women less and discriminating against transgendered people), rather than having others expose such indiscretions, reducing the risk of public embarrassment. It's been used to help senior managers in industry and commerce for many years, offering a way to begin to hold conversations at the managerial levels where institutional racism is reproduced. It would also tick the box of being 'innovative' in our context.

Becoming conscious. Copyright of author

Also internally, we can create safe spaces for the kinds of conversations we need to have. These can happen in the 'parts of an institution that are generally below the radar for managers and administrators'. Here, quiet collective action can mobilize, strengthening and protecting resistances within university communities. My own best-performing experience so far has been a WhatsApp interest group. Off the radar, approved membership only, no managerial/HR access, for discreet planning, sharing and recuperating.


Internally, we can also advocate for procedural change, which is why I used the Malcolm X quote at the start. University management keenly publicly expresses an urge for equality. But its structures are heavy, slow and rooted in regulations created by the elites that stymie the race change we have to wait for. Arguing procedurally to change the mechanisms that slow down equality is an act of resistance in itself, and another means to demonstrate how the institution and its leaders repress reform. It also insinuates us into the intuition's structures and makes our formal presence more forceful, whilst remaining procedurally correct.


EXTERNAL

My teaching has covered colonial struggle, imperial power and the paradox of post/colonialism. Contemporary institutional racism shares with that era at least three structural dynamics: the colour-power dynamic, of a racist elite, dictating life trajectories for People of Colour; the asymmetry of that relationship backed by institutional rules and norms that preserve the stasis; and the desire to be liberated from the oppression of institutional racism writ large.


Black David, White Goliath: asymmetric race conflict. Copyright of author

We may turn to many writers to help us deal with our struggle. This work falls under the category of ‘anticolonialism’, or political struggle against colonization. For example, JC Scott's award-winning Weapons of the Weak conceptualises the problems associated with weaker parties and more powerful dominators. Sun Tzu advances the means to relocating an unwinnable conflict to a place where it is winnable. The writings of North Viet Namese General Giap and Ho Chi Minh, and of the African National Congress throughout Apartheid, guide us on protracted conflict and media manipulation.

Recalling General Vo Nguyen Giap. Copyright of author.

I'll begin with external pressure points like public accountability. When elites seem invulnerable to challenge within the institution, they may be held accountable by external agents. This might involve, for example, anonymised mainstream and social media writing bringing institutional racism to the attention of legislative bodies, charities, pressure groups and micro-movements. But perhaps more impactfully, since institutions prioritise reputation above transformation, such dissemination of truth can reach future students, who are less accepting of institutional racism than our leaders. The student-led #RhodesMustFall campaign at the University of Cape Town later ‘inspired epistemic disobedience’ in the UK. HEIs are held publicly to account when their actions are exposed to future student intakes.


Impression of the imperial power of the past to inform Oxford's present. Copyright of author

We can also publish in the academic press. There is more awareness now of racism in the academy and greater interest in associated research. Double blind peer review legitimates such content, placing the author beyond easy reach of a disciplining institution. Abridged research like this can be circulated through blog posting, anonymously where necessary, to Student Unions, FE Colleges, OneHE, AdvanceHE, larger employer recruitment bodies, social media student groups and so on. The conflict is removed to places where asymmetry is shifted. We can also get involved in Whistleblowing activities. Whistleblowing is an increasingly common procedure with free help-lines and a growing associated protection industry. It is not to be taken lightly and Union support is important.



The REC process itself can also become an external space. In a number of cases, AdvanceHE have listened, noted and protected anonymity when we have reported abuses of the process, so disciplinary retaliation for extra-institutional reporting is less likely, while a formal record is created of institutional misconduct. Similar approaches may be taken regarding university affiliation with professional standards bodies like the Chartered Association of Business Schools, and professional qualifications bodies like those responsible for Accounting, Medical and Legal certification.


CONCLUSION

These are but a handful of examples of resistance. They illustrate the practice of decolonising university repossession and manipulation of the race equality process and anti-racism. It is not a radical strategy by 'extremists' without precedent; it is a just resistance borne of a reaction to an older, imperial racism. It is as necessary now as it was then.




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