Racism is a problem in UK universities. For academics, this is not something we can simply put aside for another time.
Racism involves putting people into categories based on their appearance (such as “white” and “black”) and then assigning these categories a hierarchy.
But is placing people as one side of the divide or the other as simple as it seems?
It has been argued that we cannot understand racism, that is, the constructed hierarchy of these racial categories, without first understanding whiteness, where whiteness is defined as white privilege.
This is about the privileges that many people in predominantly “white”, so-called “westernised” countries take for granted, such as being prioritised for job interviews over those with “foreign-sounding” names, never being harassed due to the colour of their skin, and so on.
This doesn’t mean that all “white” people are automatically privileged, however. What it does mean is that if a white person experiences a lack of privilege, it is not likely to be due to the colour of their skin.
It has been argued, for example, that discourses about “white, working-class boys” being excluded from university be adjusted to discourses about, simply, “working-class boys”, since the “white” aspect is not relevant here in the way that gender and social class are.
Whiteness in higher education
The manifestations of whiteness in the academy are many and varied. These include:
- A lack of infrastructure for responding to complaints of racism by students, suggesting that issues of race are neither understood nor prioritised within higher education institutions.
- Ignorance from staff and students about what counts as appropriate and respectful behaviour and language when speaking to or about students of colour.
- Gaps in interest or understanding relating to black history and culture – for example, the politics of colonialism, the contribution made by soldiers from the Commonwealth to both world wars, or the knowledge of indigenous populations.
In the revised edition of our A-Z of Creative Teaching in Higher Education book and elsewhere, we consider in particular, the impact of whiteness on the taught curriculum. Thinking of our own subject specialist disciplines, for example, to what extent is it assumed that the “western” way of doing things is “natural”, while other ways are “exotic”? Whose knowledge and value systems are being left out of your curriculum? In many cases, has the eurocentric curriculum has become the “norm” or the default, presented as if this is just the way that the world “is”?
This raises the question of who stands to benefit from this “hegemonic canon” or “white ideology”, and who feels threatened by the idea of deconstructing and reinventing it. To answer the question of who is threatened, one need only look at who protests the loudest when such a curriculum is under attack. The authors of the recent Sewell report are one such example.
In their account of racism in the UK, for instance, they deny the existence of the structures of oppression that enable “white privilege” to exist, and instead, blame minority groups – such as our aunties of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin – for failing to assimilate, all the while peddling their own imagined curriculum full of bigotry and misplaced national pride.
Other examples might include those who oppose the removal of statues celebrating the lives of slave traders and colonialists, or those who refuse to interrogate the traditional curriculum that they teach as they simply do not see the relevance.
It’s all about power
The Sewell report creators – who wish to deny the existence of institutional racism – are all themselves people of colour. Individuals such as these, who appear to deny anti-racist counternarratives in order to aspire to whiteness themselves, have been assigned labels such as “token” or “honorary whites”, “native informants“, “coconuts” and other terms.
But perhaps equating whiteness with being “white”- and to label those non-white people who aspire to whiteness as anomalies – is a mistake.
Whiteness is ideological in nature, a social construct with boundaries that change over time. As Arwa Mahdawi puts it, ultimately, what really defines whiteness is not melanin or nationality – it’s power. And this makes the debate in higher education about whiteness much more nuanced than we think.
Rather than restricting whiteness to those who “look” white, it is worth examining, as an alternative, how and why different groups have aspired to whiteness over time and space.
We must also stop demanding that “white” people account for their whiteness, and instead focus on who pays the cost of white privilege and the mechanisms that enable this to happen. An example of this is the relatively high percentage of black african and black caribbean students attending low-tariff universities, and the increased likelihood of students from this group dropping out.
In higher education, this work involves unpicking and interrogating many assumptions that we take for granted about students. To what extent do our students feel they can claim their rightful “entitlements” at university, for example? In our book we talk about making university processes and rituals more transparent to students, asking them where (or to whom) they would go first for specific information about an assignment, for instance, and thus uncovering differences in student approaches and expectations which can then be addressed.
We also push past eurocentric notions of knowledge to reveal a wealth of content relating to diversity in the curriculum, and we present case studies of what this might look like across a range of subject disciplines. These range from exploring how ethnicity might relate to expressions of nationality in sporting events on a sports course to interrogating the imperialist culture behind the western on a film and media programme.
The work of dismantling notions of identity, privilege and power in higher education applies to us all, regardless of how light-skinned or dark-skinned we may be or which “category” we most identify with. As academics, we need to lead by example. Rather than pointing the finger at those who might benefit from – or aspire to – white privilege, and demanding that they account for their advantage, let’s work with our students to reveal what they themselves feel it is that they are entitled to (or not entitled to) at university.
Let’s also mine the subjects we teach to reveal the rich diversity contained within, and let’s reinvent the traditions and trappings of higher education so that privilege of any kind becomes, simply, redundant.
This does not mean ignoring the existence of racism in universities – far from it. It means acknowledging that the work of addressing such institutional oppression is a collective endeavour for us all, regardless of which “colour” we are identified as.
On 30 June 2021, join us for a free event that asks: Do black lives still matter in higher education?