Building the anti-racist classroom

Building the Anti-Racist Classroom is a collective that has comprised five women of colour working as academics in higher education in the UK and Australia.

Based in the field of Business and Management, we are working across disciplines to create spaces where students, academic staff, and professional services staff come together to develop and promote anti-racist practice in our learning environments.

Why “anti racist”?

Sectoral policy mechanisms to address racism have not worked as intended: the Race Equality Charter was first launched in 2014 as a voluntary method for universities to avoid regulation on race-based issues. Twenty-one universities applied for the charter, with eight receiving the Bronze award, which would indicate “ a solid foundation for eliminating racial inequalities and developing an inclusive culture that values all staff and students”. Despite this policy-led intervention, on December 4th 2018, the Equality and Human Rights Commission launched an investigation into racism in the UK HE sector, claiming that “the level [of racism] we have seen occurring within universities is particularly concerning.”

Recent figures suggest that the attainment rate in higher education (students graduating with a first class or 2:1 degree) is strongly associated with institution, however this leads to racialised outcomes across the sector. For instance, the proportion of Black students admitted to Russell Group universities has risen over five years, but this figure is 8.6 per cent to just 10.9 per cent.

In our own discipline, business and administrative studies is the most popular course among students of colour, with subjects allied to medicine second, yet the attainment gap in this discipline stands at 16.6 per cent. Academics of colour represent just 9.5 per cent of those in professional occupations (SOC2) compared with just 5.5 per cent who worked as managers, directors and senior officials (SOC1), and of 18,000 professors only 2 percent are women of colour. Staff of colour are more likely to hold precarious contracts and Black staff have been found in higher numbers in higher education as cleaners, receptionists and porters than academic staff.

As academics, we are working within a context where there is a wider social trend toward white supremacist hostility toward people of colour and backlash toward the apparent advancement in rights and representation over recent years. It is paradoxical that we witness this alongside a pervasive ‘post-race’ discourse in which it is claimed that race no longer constitutes a salient organising feature of society.

This highlights the fact that the problem is one that extends beyond representation in numbers: it is important that we understand racism and white supremacy in the Global North as a set of socially constructed dynamics of power that continue to pervade from a legacy of colonialism, imperialism and slavery; they are forms of structural oppression that serve to dominate and exclude. This contrasts with the way that racism has been characterised in contemporary discourse as acts that can be identified as individual, conscious and malicious in intent.

Classrooms

Inspired by Professor Shirley Anne Tate and Dr Paul Bagguley’s call to build the ‘Anti-Racist University’, we choose a focus on anti-racism to insist on the necessity of an active development of practices that challenge and disrupt the racialisation of higher education, and the urgency to act in response to the violence of marginalisation. This focus also differentiates the work from ‘diversity’, and perhaps even ‘decolonising’, that has largely become part of routine institutional practice without true reflexivity on the political economy of higher education and its role in reproducing racial inequalities.

Whilst policy plays an important role in formalising governmental and institutional commitments to reducing inequality in higher education, critical diversity scholars have shown how policy-writing can stand-in as a proxy for intervention. The idea of building an anti-racist classroom addresses not only the review and reformulation of our curricula to redress the Western-centrism the issues, perspectives and authors included; but of all elements that contribute to the construction of the learning environment including classroom dynamics, extra-curricula and home lives, communities of belonging, and institutions set up to represent students.

Collective

We work as a collective because we believe the issues cannot be addressed at the level of a single institution – the work demands a coordinated and structural approach, outside the norms and practices of current university management. Collective thinking and anti-racist organising combats the sense of isolation and competitiveness that is bred amongst academics in a neoliberal university context.

Unlike much academic work, our collective efforts are not focused on individual gain through career development or progression. Instead, they are focused on anti-racist consciousness-raising and community-building to support scholars of colour on the margins to collaborate with each other and determine our own agenda for challenging white structures.

This work has also enabled us to connect and build with other anti-racist feminists, Black feminists, decolonizing scholars and activists outside Business and Management, which keeps us accountable to disciplinary debates that challenge the orthodoxies of our own field. Because it is anti-competitive work, collectivity is a journey of collaborative education that is continually developing as we build the movement.

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