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BME Experiences in Higher Education: policy making, social justice and white privilege

During Black History Month, the Centre for Democratic Futures together with the School of Economic, Political and Social Sciences and the School’s Athena Swan initiative who sponsored the event was delighted to welcome Kalwant Bhopal, Professor of Education and Social Justice and Director of the Centre for Research in Race and Education (CRRE) in the School of Education at the University of Birmingham. Kalwant is internationally known for her research of the achievements and experiences of minority ethnic groups in education and how processes of racism, exclusion and marginalisation operate in predominantly White spaces. Her research has informed policy making in higher education, particularly the development of the UK Race Equality Charter. Her many publications include her highly influential book White Privilege. The Myth of a post-racial society (Policy 2018) and she is currently working on her forthcoming book with Martin Myers ‘Elites and the Making of Privilege’ (forthcoming with Routledge, 2022).

Her powerful keynote ‘BME Experiences in Higher Education: Policy Making, Social Justice and White Privilege’ gave a chilling overview of the limited impact that policy making has had so far to reduce racial inequality in Higher Education. Kalwant presented quantitative and qualitative data that painted a damning picture of the underrepresentation of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups among students and staff in UK higher education. These two aspects are of course interconnected. If BME pupils are less likely to enter higher education and obtain the marks that are needed to enter post-graduate degrees, then the pool of BME academics will remain small. However, this is not just a ‘pipeline’ problem. The pipeline is leaking when BME students feel that they are not adequately supported or – worse and unfortunately well documented – experience racism. Similarly, BME staff are exposed to microaggression, conscious and unconscious bias which Kalwant illustrated with quotes from interviews that she conducted with BME academics in the United States and the United Kingdom. She also pointed out that the category ‘BME’ is highly heterogenous and that the experiences of various racialised groups differ greatly. In the United Kingdom, there are currently only 100 Black professors, less than 1% of the professoriate, of which 30 are women. Furthermore, she highlighted that racial inequality intersects with class inequalities. Access to higher education requires knowledge about the application process and the differences between different types of universities. This knowledge is disseminated in early socialisation processes, at home as well as at school.

The discussion following the keynote addressed strategies to challenge white privilege and racism in higher education. It was expertly moderated by Dr Bindi Shah, one of the members of the steering group of the Centre for Democratic Futures and Lecturer in Sociology in Dept of Sociology, Social Policy & Criminology. Bindi had led the School of Economic, Social and Political Science’s Athena SWAN Committee from 2017 and 2020 and secured the Bronze award for the School. In this role, she promoted an intersectional perspective to ED&I, not just a focus on gender. The discussion highlighted the complicity of those who benefit from white privilege rather than becoming allies who call out racial discrimination. It is important to keep in mind that the gender equality initiative Athena Swan, which includes a financial incentive for universities to promote women, has so far benefited primarily white middle class women. One solution is therefore to create financial incentives (or penalties) in relation to the race equality chapter. Formal and informal mentoring is also important to navigate recruitment and promotion processes, this includes providing meaningful and constructive feedback on job applications, grant proposals, and manuscripts. Hiring committees and line managers should regularly undergo bias training, not as a tick box exercise but to challenge uncomfortable truths about white privilege, how it is perpetuated and how it can and must be challenged. Paying lip-service to #BlackLivesMatter, celebrating Black History month once a year and half-heartedly ‘decolonising the curriculum’ will not suffice as long as BME staff and students remain underrepresented and experience racism in UK Higher Education.

BME Experiences in Higher Education

During Black History Month, the Centre for Democratic Futures together with the School of Economic, Political and Social Sciences at the University of

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