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Tales from the Ivory Tower, No. 6 of 6

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

The Colour-Power Matrix: how institutional racism is preserved and perpetuated in UK universities

University Senior Management Teams, abstyracted to appear homogeneous, indistinguishable, universal
The Colour-Power Matrix. Copyright of author.


I've referred to a Colour-Power Matrix present in UK universities throughout this series of research posts. I want now, as I wrap up the series, to focus on how it operates to stymy, limit, resist and reduce racial change processes. This image below is the result of analysing the data in the survey. It expresses the interrelatiopnships and power dynamics of the Colour-Power-Matrix.

Colour-Power Matrix. Copyright of author

UK universities are presented as bastions of Liberal Enlightenment: repositories of scholarly wisdom, impartially adjudicated, unencumbered by prejudice and bias. But until perhaps the 1970's and decolonization, Universities had grown on racist assumptions (racial/eugenicist superiority), delivered White academic and government agendas (colonial anthropology and administrative and constabulary control methodologies), recruited from White-dominated locations (top private schools) and served elite White institutions (government and media agencies). The Race Equality Charter is the latest attempt to transform deeply historical, ideological, institutional racial prejudice in UK Higher Education.

When institutions collide

The REC process is in part a meeting place of progressive and traditional ideas on reform; an intelligent conversation amongst thoughtful people. But the data developed in the research shows it is also a clash, between two competing agendas. USMT’s work to ensure acquisition of Charter status. People of Colour (PoC) within the universities work to ensure USMT understand and implement what that means to them. The survey shows unequivocally that, just because both bodies professed to be aligned, it does not mean that their agendas match. Beneath the presentation of concordance over a putatively-agreed socially-just goal lay competing interests, priorities and agendas that frequently come into harsh contact.

Difference between these competing agendas is managed by USMT, as the more powerful agency, to ensure it brings the anticipated benefit without, for example, damaging institutional reputation. The Charter has power too: its verdict will determine whether a university achieves recognition, which is a key marketable asset. But the collision to which I refer - and the term should not be interpreted as solely a destructive or negative thing - is greater than a simple two-element asymmetry. The recounted, lived experiences of the REC process reveal a more nuanced interaction evolving in a liminal, third space.

Between social and institutional cultures, between external persuasion and internal accommodation, between the universities and the Race Equality Charter, we find Homi Bhabha’s Third Space: a hybrid zone of intermingling, adaptation, give-and-take, change, conflict, assimilation, modification, rejection and reformation between multiple forces and agendas. In this process come the revelations, accusations, challenges, denials, refusals, grievances, fights, hostilities, confusion, confrontation and resistances common to conflicts of race and power.

Silhouetted man flying in the space between two trapeze swings
The liminal space between two points. Copyright of author.

Bhabha said that where cultures intersect, one does not necessarily or wholly overwrite the other. Instead, he said, both persist in altered forms and create new ways of being for and with each. There becomes a third, liminal space. Inside that space is a melee of interests, power, inequality, reform, resistance, actions, interactions and counteractions. It is the everyday space of conflict, continuity and transformation between competing priorities. This space creates, reveals and conceals, depending on where power lies over any given issue. It is this Third Space that houses a matrix of power relations that both precedes the REC, and is also revealed by it. Inside this interface that has resulted from the combining of two institutions and their respective priorities and agendas, evolve the consequences of that enforced cohabitation.

Homi Bhabha's idea of the Third Space. Copyright of author

Based on the data accumulated in the national survey, we may discern within this Third Space, at the intersection of two sets of interests, a phenomenon I refer to as the Colour-Power Matrix. A matrix is an arena of intersecting activities from which something else evolves. It is the ‘cultural, social, or political environment in which something develops’. I define this Colour-Power Matrix as

a multi-layered space in a university system dominated by an almost-exclusively White management and human resources elite, who project ex officio power to manage the conflicting agendas of external and internal agents in the treatment of institutional racism.

This matrix is composed of interlocking elements, like a self-sealing petrol tank, such that when one part is harmed, another element moves into position to repair that harm. This matrix is composed primarily of older, White people inhabiting a near vacuum of racial diversity and deploying their institution’s corporeal and procedural mechanisms to control the extent to which anti-racist agendas challenge their beliefs, values, assumption, reputations and priorities. This Colour-Power Matrix is broadly indifferent to or ignorant of the racial power it wields until it finds that it needs to protect itself from the consequences of its choices.

The matrix in question is composed of four overlapping, interlocking elements that I introduced at the start of the blog series. Nearly-exclusively White University Senior Management Teams limit REC reform to that which will not harm their priority, which, when race failings are exposed, is the institution's reputation.

Infographic diusplaying the structure and composition of the Colour-Power Matrix
Structure and composition of the Colour-Power Matrix

They rely on Human Resources. HR protects the elites, their priorities and their institutions from exposure to publicly-damaging acknowledgments of racial infidelity. Or as Martin Parker says, HR is

the part of the [institution] most likely to be dealing with the problem of... resistance to management strategies. In its most ambitious manifestation, it seeks to become 'strategic', to assist senior management in the formulation [and deployment] of their plans

In lock-step, they control formal procedural resistance, complaints and grievances and further compromise already-limited elite accountability by using and abusing sometimes partisan institutional Statutes to support this shared, corporate, agenda. This collusion is masked and secured in its unaccountability. This elite level is ‘the one area of higher education that has not been … made accountable’ (Shore and Wright 2004, 109). Racialized power is in this way protected and preserved, reinforcing the Colour-Power Matrix.

Giant microscope with cap on its lens looks down at miniature version of Ivory Tower
Accountability lacuna in the Ivory Towers. Copyright of author


The survey reveals a Colour-Power Matrix, and demonstrates where power lies, how it is used, who uses it, and for what. But its presence is indicative of a space shared with other occupants whose own power is far less in conventional terms, but present, nonetheless. The university subaltern is not voiceless, impotent or otherwise without capacity, and there are very good reasons to examine more closely how the subaltern ‘speaks’ in these spaces, to appropriate Spivak’s term (Morris 2010). Dar et al, for example, look to the margins to organise subaltern activity and to ameliorate the negative impacts of USMT in order to 'build intergenerational support systems which will be key to dismantling racialised power structures'.

There's much that can be done, however, including a more guerrilla approach that decentres the institution geographically, acting outside those margins where employees are still vulnerable, and where it cannot use its Colour-Power Matrix to crush dissent. This decentring draws on whistle-blowers, activists, union support, private individual conversations with the REC, social justice charities, academics at other institutions and so on. It is in many cases the story of resistances that fought the wars of decolonization, from Algeria and Angola to El Salvador and Viet Nam and which still persist today, against neoimperial domination.

Some final thoughts...

More expansively, what has this blog done? Institutional racism in the UK is now being acknowledged as commonplace. It doesn't seem too much of a stretch to think that a nation that once ruled an empire based on racial superiority, has such values rooted broadly and deeply in its institutions and its society. We should expect to find it in universities still managerially dominated by White elites, and the Race Equality Charter was advanced as a means to address that situation. It was touted as an equality regime that contested an inequality regime; a binary relationship that did not fully acknowledge the asymmetries of power at work in the process and the priorities of USMT in a harsh marketplace.

The survey revealed a third space, where such asymmetries of power can subvert the imagined outcome of the REC process. We knew this would happen because we knew USMT wouldn't realise they would have to change themselves and their institution beyond what would allow them to carry on as if nothing had happened, as George Orwell said of English society after the war. Things would have to happen; like that EDI committee that had no idea that to allow more People of Colour onto a fixed-size committee would mean White people having to surrender their privileged places. White Power would have to reduce its ownership of the institution. Competency would be questioned. Reputations could be harmed. Market positions might change. These things were not understood by USMT and in many cases, came as a shock to them.

What next?

The survey confirmed at least three things can happen now. First, the fight for justice against institutional racism will have to go beyond the university, to where it is not (to paraphrase several Asian guerrilla leaders). This is so activists, actors, subalterns and People of Colour in universities generally do not lose their minds and their jobs in the conflict. It is also so we can bring external social, legal and political pressure to bear. We already do this when we deploy our Unions, and there are many other ways. Second, those in the margins within the universities must shore themselves against the threat of White USMT continuing to manipulate this space for change. The war on racism is far from over; those who fight for social justice are defamed as 'woke', by society, by institutions and by the government, as if we are somehow unhinged in our goals of ending racism. Third, we must recognise that once a university achieves REC status, there will be little incentive for further structural change. They will be able to close the chapter that will 'Get REC Done!', without having undertaken the change without which REC can't be done.

This survey on institutional racism didn't capture anyone from the echelons of power that have presided over this problem for decades and centuries. Truthfully, we didn't really expect it to. It captured instead the everyday, normal experiences of People of Colour in dealing with everyday, normal institutional racism in UK Universities. For the much larger part, it captured stories of resistance and hope, of failure and reprimand, of pain and overload. It has come to paint a larger canvas of how the institutions themselves react to, manage, manipulate and actively resist the change they signed up to without realizing they might have to change themselves more than they could recognise and understand. USMT has tolerated, even partially facilitated, a degree of tinkering at the edges within the 'bounds of the expressible', but in far too many cases, the structures of power that enable and preserve institutional racism remain firmly in place.


Law, I. 2017. "Building the Anti-racist University, action and new agendas." Race Ethnicity and Education 20 (3): 332-343. doi:10.1080/13613324.2016.1260232.

Shore, C, and S Wright. 2004. "Whose Accountability? Governmentality and the Auditing of Universities." Parallax 10 (2). doi:10.1080/1353464042000208558.

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