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Tales from the Ivory Towers, No. 4 of 6

Updated: Apr 25

A Colour-Power Matrix in evidence. Or, how power and collusion pervert authenticity

DB Roberts

Bland boardroom in muted colours, with uniform anonymous adult males in suits, representing the uniformity and homogeneity of UK senior university management
Homogeneity in the University boardroom. Copyright of author


The previous blog post sketched a quantitative picture of Colour, power and accountability in UK universities. It reveals weak foundations in the relationship between People of Colour (PoC) engaged in the Race Equality Charter (REC), and the almost exclusively White University Senior Management Teams (USMT) appointed by ex officio virtue to lead that process. The evidence showed that none of those tasked with leading this change were known to have acquired competencies that qualified them in this task. The data further revealed that enabling reform processes that compromised institutional reputation or elite preferences was frowned upon at best and actively prevented at worst. It spoke in numbers.

This post is about the voices of the survey respondents. They describe courage and pain, and resilience and fear in an asymmetrical conflict. And to be clear from the outset, it should be called a conflict, rather than an institutional collaboration, because it involves power, domination, control, multiple forms of violence, collusion, treachery, resistance, hostility, and anger as well as vestiges of symbiosis and cooperation. Derrick Bell said that this war would never be over as long as interests did not converge. The evidence below shows that such interests are a long way from such a convergence in UK universities.

The qualitative experiences shared here suggest that racial peace making, as well as representing a nascent institutional force in UK HE, also masks the continuation of war by other means. This qualitative element of the survey explores interactions between USMT, and the academic activists who took the REC process as an opportunity to bring greater equity to race dynamics in their universities. Those experiences are compelling for what they reveal about the structures of power in UK universities. I've organised responses into four themes that I announced and introduced in the first post. A fuller account in the academic literature is forthcoming. These themes will be deepened and more conceptualised in the final blog.

Theme 1. White Dominion

Respondents describe decision-making environments dominated by what they referred to as ‘White Power’, reflecting the perpetuity of colour dominance in USMT. One respondent wrote that this elite was

trying to engage without understanding or seeing how they cause [or aggravate] such dysfunctionalism in [the first place]

This elite seemed, the same respondent noted, not to see 'incongruity' in 'more White Masters dictating how they will deal with their own racism’. There was a sense of ‘overlordship' about the process...

An elite to whom we were responsible but not one which was accountable to us. They watched in meetings, said little, but if one of us said something out of order, it came back to us after the meeting was over. Their displeasure was made known in different ways: asides from line managers, queries from HR as to the definition of a word we had used, sudden new meetings with HR, messages from administrators we had not previously been in touch with asking about the meeting’s content…
Giant, crusades-type figure looming over all White buildings, in cinematic style
White Overlordism. Copyright of author

Respondents were pointing out that diversity does not automatically mean equity. Anne Phillips showed twenty years ago that equalizing numbers does not necessarily enhance equality. ‘Two things are apparent’, wrote a respondent:

Diversity lower down [the institution] is proportionately dilute compared with at the top. [And] having people like me in places of power does not mean they have my interests at heart. There’s a lot of coconuts near the top.

‘Coconut’ refers to being a race traitor; black on the outside but acting White. This respondent experiences elite diversity, as it presently stands, as

betrayal, and worse still, the creation of the impression of equality and diversity actively masking the same old White Power agenda.

They went on to comment that an appointment at Pro-Vice Chancellor level, in charge of Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity, might create an impression of substantial progress. But it was subject to the idea of the politics of presence, which originally investigated the idea that 'adding women and stirring' would even out gender disparities. Similarly applied to disparities in race, adding People of Colour and stirring may be imagined to reduce inequality. But adding a PoC to the upper echelons does not, by its presence, mean elite dominion changes its agenda. It does not mean they support other PoC, and are, in fact, likely to support the agendas of White USMT that installed them. One respondent said that in any capitalist system, ‘those appointed to the top of a corporation are appointed to advance that body’s objectives. They have to be on-side’. They added that

no Black VC will be different from a White one. They are necessarily servants to capital, and racism is built into capitalism. ****, it was built on it.

I imagine the Rhodes statue might have been in the back of her mind, kept in place by White USMT defiance at Oxford. It's disturbing to walk by that thing and try to imagine just how uncomprehending, how arrogant, how superior and how callous they would have to be, to act to keep it there. We have added black people and stirred. But nothing stirred.

Rhodes still towers over the racist Ivory Towers. Copyright of author.

Theme 2. USMT White backlash and HR complicity

The qualitative data suggests two things have been happening in parallel. First, the REC process was raising evidence of racial wrongdoing at the highest levels, and USMT were reacting in ignorance, fear and denial. Second, when that happened, HR was becoming an Ally of USMT. One respondent remarked that REC had:

made White [managers] very defensive, which has made resistance and speaking up more consequential. They're acting out of fear, hostility, entitlement and anything that challenges [them].

Another commented that she had ‘seen [PoC challengers] get eviscerated, demeaned, disciplined, humiliated and punished, for doing the very things the REC process seeks of us - enable change’. Challenge and resistance, another wrote,

results in intimidation, normally using the hint of ‘informal action’, bullying, public humiliation by powerful institution-level actors and the constant fear that they will take any path to getting rid of you.

The REC should have been a safe space in which positive change could happen without negative consequences for honest accounting. But 79% of respondents in the survey consider spaces of REC conversations to be ‘rarely’, ‘seldom’ or ‘never’ safe places. This is because the processes used to make decisions or resolve conflicts were ‘never’, ‘rarely’ or ‘seldom’ perceived as fair by 79% of respondents. Respondents were quick to stress this was not a new phenomenon. A common theme identified through Nvivo and hand-coding was that the ‘safe space’ was damaged by two overlapping ways in which HR acted.

First, respondents remarked on commonly-held beliefs in HR that sexism, like racism, was not structural (reflecting a neoliberal feminist position). In one example, a White Head of HR declared she had worked in equality and diversity for 20 years, but rejected any notion that sexism and racism in the workplace were anything other than a handful of anomalies. HR, for several respondents, was incapable and therefore incompetent in this area [and] unable to see itself as part of the problem, not the solution, because it doesn’t understand the problem as structural'. Examples cited by respondents ranged from ‘procedural failings’ through ‘deliberate misrepresentation of offences as non-offences’, by way of HR ‘gaslighting’ and ‘collusion’ with USMT. One respondent despaired that

nothing can be done because [USMT] … is too fragile to withstand public condemnation [but has] HR to ensure it doesn’t have to... It makes me feel sick, and I know others have taken sick leave and disguised the reasons so as not to anger management here.

In other instances, Black HR/EDI elites were identified as harassing PoC taking sanctioned sick leave on the basis of race-based stress because the associated paperwork highlighted racist practices in HR and USMT. HR was

comfortable and smug in their views of themselves as good guys, they don’t see the damage they do every time they sit down on the management side of the table.

The second harm HR was seen as propagating is what I will call ‘toxic Allyship’. Allyship was something touted as a means of supporting, on their terms, PoC on the REC journey. Lynnette Stallworth introduced its meaning eloquently when she asked an intending White Ally how they, 'as a white person, were holding other white people accountable'. They would have to recognise that, to paraphrase Robert Terry, being White in the UK is not to have to think about it. Overcoming this and becoming an ally, says Melanie Morrison, 'requires arduous, persistent, and soul-stretching work' independently by White People that renders their own roles in all racism visible. The survey data shows no efforts on this scale evident in PoC's experience of HR, or USMT, because the notion of 'allyship' itself has been co-opted by White Power to present itself as being an ally without even understanding the level of understanding and commitment required. Instead, the survey data shows an inversion of the objectives, wherein toxic allyship is holding People of Colour accountable for white racism, ignorance and failure.

Toxic allyship from Human Resources. Copyright of author

This is happening partly through ignorance and partly through incompetence, but either way, the data shows that HR works with USMT to ameliorate the proposed effect of the REC on White USMT. Seventeen cases at 17 universities were identified in the survey where, ‘despite clear cases of USMT racism having occurred’, formal challenges by PoC were ‘negated’ through alignments between senior managers and others in HR, and USMT members who had been challenged as racist or as involved in institutional racism. One respondent wrote that USMT 'are always declared innocent or, where they are not, the charge is misrepresented as something far less serious' by HR. This is 'toxic allyship', a relationship between Human Resources and USMT that protects racist power structures under the disguise of anti-racist practices.

Commonly in this process the victim is blamed, gaslit or otherwise discredited, silenced, realigned or removed. In one case, a purported HR ally was unable to see her own role in perpetuating institutional racism herself, failed to understand the terms of the grievance carried against her, misrepresented the grievance in internal communications, privately gaslit the complainant and then complained that she felt racially abused when the PoC complained about this behaviour. Such extremes of institutionally-racist behaviour were plentiful. The combination of HR incompetence and alliance with USMT constitutes an axis of malpractice that cripples efforts to reform institutional racism in UK universities.

Theme 3. USMT authenticity

A third theme emerging from the survey concerns the authenticity of USMT commitment to the REC's objectives, to reduce and eliminate structural impediments to equitable race treatment. This theme emerges in the literature too; Roxanna Baltaru did an excellent job of framing tensions between commitment to institutional EDI and to institutional reputation. She concluded that inclusivity was frequently - normally - agentic: deployed to protect institutional reputation in a competitive marketplace, up to the point that revelation of REC failings would harm that reputation. One respondent maintained that

The fear of negative publicity from what the REC exposes, and [of] internal institutional damage to senior offenders, almost always means [racist revelations are] hushed up, denied, delayed, confused, misrepresented and, in one case, bought off.

Others echoed this sentiment. REC is about confronting institutional racism. But engaging with it ‘is strategic in the corporate sense’. A respondent described the process as

a top-down push to achieve a tick box exercise [wherein] the concern seems to be about completing an exercise in… achieving minimum benchmarks.

Another declared that their university would not ‘go for Silver or Gold unless Bronze was devalued by everyone having it’.

Last words…

If the quantitative data provided foundations, the qualitative data reveals a structure we can more readily see, combining to create what I have called the Colour-Power Matrix. This concept refers to the means by which USMT's deploy their institution’s bodies (corporeal and procedural) to manage the extent to which the RECis permitted to challenge institutional racism. This will be fleshed out and considered in the last of these 6 posts, after a forthcoming detailed case study that illustrates, in one example, all the aspects of institutional racism raised by survey respondents in this blog series.

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