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By Deborah Gabriel

As a Black female academic, I welcome comments by Baroness Amos on the scale of institutionalized racism in the higher education sector, evidenced by the lack of Black academics in senior roles and the attainment gap affecting Black students, reported by BBC News.

Baroness Amos captures the mood succinctly, referring to the anger and frustration among Black students and academics at these long-standing disparities. However, as the Founder of Black British Academics, it is my belief that complacency is not the sole factor in the lack of progress on race equality. Baroness Amos speaks of “deep-seated prejudices and stereotypes which need to be overcome.” I would add to that the prevalence of a deep-rooted indifference to racial inequality that is directly attributable to White privilege, and a form of anti-Black, gendered racism.  

One of the disparities highlighted in the BBC news story is the lack of Black  in senior roles. It’s not clear which academic year the data refers to, which states that there are only 110 Black professors out of around 18,000. Figures I previously obtained from the HEIDI database, show that for the 2014/15 academic year, out of 19,630 professors, only 110 are Black – and of these just 30 are Black women.

The issue of anti-Black, gendered racism is very real and yet the marginalisation, exclusion and under-valuing of Black women in academia is rendered invisible and ignored in public debate on gender equality. Writing in the Times Higher in February 2017, Laurie Cohen and Jo Duberley bemoan that “just 24 per cent of UK professors are women. That is a deplorable statistic for a sector that purports to champion diversity and inclusion.” Yet they completely ignore the more deplorable reality that just 0.15% of UK professors are Black women. Such prioritising of White interests characterises the indifference with which many White academics treat racial inequality, even whilst denouncing other forms of discrimination.

One dimension of White privilege is the power of being Colour-blind – ignoring the impact of race and how it creates disadvantage for people of colour, which is felt most acutely by people of African descent – as evidenced by the attainment gap among Black students and the lack of Black academics (especially women) in senior roles.

The thorny issue of White privilege is strategically side-stepped through concepts used in equality and diversity circles like ‘unconscious bias’, through claims that it doesn’t equate to ‘racism’ since the routine privileging of White interests is purely unintentional. Injustice and oppression do not cease to exist because they are masked by benign phrases; they are all too visible and deeply felt by those who experience them.

White privilege and anti-Black gendered racism manifests in a variety of ways, from overt displays of prejudice, stereotyping, dehumanisation, exclusion, and sexual abuse, to more complex and subtle examples, that whether deliberate, purposeful or unintentional, have real consequences for Black women – and there must be accountability for these failings, as well as concrete actions to address them.

Tackling anti-Black gendered racism requires critical understandings of the nature and complexity of this specific form of discrimination, and the agency to effect change. Both are accessible through the first Black British Academics publication: Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of Colour Surviving and Thriving in British Academia. Preliminary findings of quantitative data collected from readers suggest that senior White operational and academic staff engage well with the lived experiences of women of colour and learn much more about White privilege and raced/gendered inequality than statistics alone reveal.

The higher education sector needs ‘critical leaders’ at the helm of higher education institutions, in faculties, schools and departments and also within the Office for Students and Advance HE. Critical leaders do not merely comment on racial inequality and its persistence but work collaboratively with stakeholders like Black British Academics to develop solutions. 

​Deborah Gabriel is a senior lecturer at Bournemouth University in the Faculty of Media and Communication.

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