by Nathan Richards

“There’s an intellectual hierarchy in the world, where European cultures and intellectual traditions are seen as superior. So even if you have a very sophisticated philosophy or art form and it is somehow associated with blackness, it is automatically seen as inferior. And that’s the very nature of white supremacy; it is possibly one of its defining features.”

Adam Elliott-Cooper, Absent from the Academy

Research suggests that within the national academies of higher education (universities) there are only 85 black professors out of 18,550 (0.4%) throughout the United Kingdom. This figure does not reflect the demographic make-up of black people in this country, and as such raises a number of important questions.

If universities and higher education institutions exist as key sites for the manufacture of culture and knowledge, what impact does this lack of representation within Higher Education have on our nations and institutions? When we discuss issues such as institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police, or the excessively high rates of black underemployment, or growing ethnicity related health inequalities, is it possible to make sense of these phenomena without also looking at cultural reproduction? How are such phenomena created and shaped by experiences and discourses within the academies?

With these questions in mind I wanted to use film to find out more about what lies behind the dearth of black professors within Higher Education. Absent From The Academy attempts to trace and uncover the impact that the lack of black professors has on the UK. I won’t go into too much detail here about my findings, as you can watch the film below. There were however a number of tangents that I was unable to include in the film, a few of which I think would be relevant for us to discuss now.

In footage that didn’t make the final cut of the documentary Dr. Robbie Shilliam speaks about the importance of having black people present around the proverbial ‘table’. While these individuals need not necessarily be ‘radicals’, Shilliam feels that just their sheer presence in the room will foster another kind of conversation,

If there’s a meeting, whether it’s a governmental meeting, or university department meeting, and that meeting is about black people, and there are no black people around the table, those present will be saying certain things and assuming certain things, and allowing themselves, despite themselves, to have certain assumptions that they wouldn’t have if there was just one black person around that table. The presence of difference in these institutions around a table makes a difference; because it means people have to check themselves. The more senior you get, the more tables you sit round, the more power and influence you have. If there are no black academics moving up, then you end up with a lot of precarious black labour in universities, with no power and no ability to set an agenda or to even check an agenda that is being set.”

roundgroup_aIn both the UK and the United States massive racial underrepresentation and flagrant misrepresentation also blights much of the media industry. The discourses and practices that feed into this industry, incubated in universities around the world, are marked by an implicit whiteness. I was reminded of this in the Award Season Roundtable series, featuring director Steve McQueen that took place in 2012. In the presence of some of Hollywood’s most well renowned directors, all of whom were white (and male), except McQueen – the interviewer asks McQueen specifically, why there are so few female and black directors. At this point it is only possible to imagine the conversation that would have ensued without the presence of McQueen.

Alas, instead of answering the question posed, McQueen sidelined it in favour of another, asking instead how it is possible for directors to make films set in places such as New York and LA and not cast a single black or Latino person in any role of relevance. ‘Why is that?’ asks the interviewer, ‘I don’t know’ McQueen responds, ‘Ask them’, pointing to his fellow directors.

The silence that follows is mesmerizing. McQueen has shone a light directly onto their previously invisible and naturalized whiteness. There is little they can say by way of response. The only option available is to question their own motives, their own positions in relation to accepted modes of Hollywood practice. They of course collectively decline to engage in such a conversation, but by that point it doesn’t really matter, the implications resonate across our screens.

On another kind of show, in another segment, it may have been possible to further interrogate the racial and sexual disparities and discourses that circulated within the media industry. We could have had a conversation about the history of black and brown representation in Hollywood, why films with all black casts automatically become ‘race themed’, or perhaps, in a lecture setting, we could have deconstructed the racialised and gendered connections between blackface minstrel shows of the early 20th century and contemporary corporate Hip-Hop.

Yet it was just by McQueen’s presence that we were able to glimpse in that moment an entirely implicit body of knowledge  that is shaping the Hollywood dream. This is what I think Dr. Robbie Shilliam was getting at with his observations about the bodily significance of having black academics in our universities.

Though certain voices and experiences, often embodied in black and brownness, can be vital sources of knowledge beneficial to education, it would be unwise to reify ‘experience’ or to think of these academics as existing solely to deal with race topics. This would only serve to further entrench the marginalization of these academics and would fail to recognise the diversity of black academics across disciplines.

Screen Shot 2013-11-06 at 21.20.30Both Rob Berkeley and Dr. Shilliam spoke off-camera with me about black academics that have specialized in topics such as German philosophy or Greek ethics, only to find gainful employment in those fields a struggle. A struggle not because they lacked the relevant knowledge to teach or to pursue further research in these areas, but because they were often overlooked for those roles, as they did not fit the image of such a scholar.
This notion of racial specialization plays itself out everyday in HE in obvious but unchallenged ways – such as in the notions that Indians excel in computer science, blacks the arts, East Asians in mathematics. These types of stereotypes exist within universities and can impact upon the ways in which heads of departments, lecturers, teaching assistants and senior administrators interact with new academics and learners, as well as who gets funding and additional support.

Professor Laura Pulido, in her bookBlack, Brown, Yellow and Left’, explores how such subtle forms of racialisation exist relationally – with meanings and associations of one group being contingent upon that of another. This type of differential racialization Pulido concludes ultimately benefits the dominant racial group.

It is also important to understand that the sociocultural phenomenon of whiteness and its interrelations with patriarchy, play a crucial role in shaping the ways in which women and black and brown bodies enter and exist within the academy. And this brings me to another important fact I discovered while working on this project in the UK. Out of the 85 black professors in this country only 17 are black women, less than a quarter, around 0.1% of the overall figure for professors. This data reflects the national statistics on female professors in the UK in general. And the figures are not any better at the general academic staffing level.

Screen Shot 2013-11-06 at 21.23.19A recent study, Global Gender Index 2013, undertaken by Thomas Reuters in association with Times Higher Education, found that out of the top 400 ranked research universities across the world, less than 35% of academics employed within the UK’s 48 institutions that took part in the study, were women. The only country in fact that came close to reaching a gender balance was Turkey, where women made up 47% of academics in HE. These types of disparity are hard to ignore and are at the heart of discussions on women in science, politics, management and national policy.

We should not forget that the make-up of our institutions also affects our everyday experiences. In her essay on the Phenomenology of Whiteness, Sara Ahmed has discussed the ways in which whiteness can operate within institutions. Ahmed identifies reciprocal relationships between bodies and institutional spaces. She writes,

‘Spaces also take shape by being orientated around some bodies, more than others. We can also consider ‘institutions’ as orientation devices, which take the shape of ‘what’ resides within them. After all, institutions provide collective or public spaces. When we describe institutions as ‘being’ white (institutional whiteness), we are pointing to how institutional spaces are shaped by the proximity of some bodies and not others: white bodies gather, and cohere to form the edges of such spaces.’

Ahmed goes further, outlining how these processes inform the recruitment practices of academic institutions,

‘Some bodies more than others are recruited, those that can inherit the ‘character’ of the organization, by returning its image with a reflection that reflects back that image, what we could call a ‘good likeness’. It is not just that there is a desire for whiteness that leads to white bodies getting in. Rather whiteness is what the institution is orientated ‘around’, so that even bodies that might not appear white still have to inhabit whiteness, if they are to get ‘in’.’

Ahmed’s point is that not only can Black and brown people appear as aberrations within the spaces shaped by institutional whiteness, our bodies can also feel the weight of whiteness. We do not blend into the environment. Instead we can remain in a perpetual state of an excruciating Fanonian self-awareness ‘exposed, visible and different’, with our aspirations, capacities and habits held in check by the structures around us.

While our experiences of university life can be personally disorientating and problematic, I don’t think we should be discouraged. There are increasing numbers of inspirational black academics and for that matter, fellow students, that are transforming the classroom, institutional cultures and knowledge itself. There is much to be gained from our presence.


Nathan Richards is a freelance digital journalist specialising in digital video production for the web. He is currently a doctoral researcher at Goldsmiths University with a focus on Digital History, and online  communities. @umanyano


This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam.

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6 thoughts on ““Blacks around the table” Absent from the Academy

  1. A very well written article!
    It’s got my mind running about the various power structures within universities in the science departments. Who are these schools accepting and why? There’s a huge difference between the representation of black science students in universities vs in the general population.

    One thing I would like to note, Mr Richards, is that in your article you write “Indians …, Blacks …, East Asians …,” you write only “Indians,” rather than ‘South Asians’. Perhaps this was your intention, but I would just like know if it was.
    As someone of South Asian, but not Indian, descent, I constantly witness people refering to all South Asians as Indians, which is not at all the case. As you were speaking of stereotypes, I would say that not only Indians are often referred to as computer science specialists, but many South Asians in general.


  2. Black academics go to the universities of America from the UK in the same way that black actors go to the American casting agencies from the UK. How can we learn from this? Denise Noble has got it right. But she will not be heard here in England Scotland Northern Ireland or Wales. And there lies the problem in which we squander, skills, spirit and beautiful minds.


  3. What a thought provoking piece! The primary question that needs to be asked is this: What kind of ‘education’ is being purveyed to ALL students from institutions dominated by a white approach and culture, yet serving a multicultural society? The contradiction, exclusion and bias inherent in such an education are almost tangible.

    Great article.


  4. I think the point that Black academics mustn’t be pigeon-holed into “race” issues is a valid one. However, as this excellent piece (which I can personally relate to) illustrates “race” issues in the discursive space of academia (and life outside our venerable institutions, for that matter) are ever present and as yet, unresolved (albeit slowly resolving). Perhaps, as Black academics we need to be more interdisciplinary where our collective knowledge(s) can come together in various discursive contexts, in ways that make it harder to marginalise our spheres of (academic) interests and expertise. Having expertise and knowledge(s) in silos ultimately makes us weaker, I think.


  5. “[T]he weight of whiteness” is an excellent phrase to describe my own experience of being a person of colour in the academy. Since entering graduate school in history 18 months or so ago, I have consistently found myself the only person of colour in the room. The history department where I study has one other person of colour among postgrads and staff. She and I share an ocassional joke when meeting up that ‘every black person in the school is in the room.’ As a young academic, only just embarking upon my career proper, the burden to conform to the dominant whiteness of my environment is weighty indeed. To bring attention to my blackness through speech or mannerism is to cast my academic credibility into doubt and cast myself as an outsider or, worse, a charity-case. No amount of whiting myself through speech or dress can erase my outsider status, however, and I am often received as an interloper in what is taken to be a white space.


  6. Very interesting that some of the speakers felt that the USA has more space for Black academics, while in the UK the entrenched class system reinforces and provides a narrative of apologism for the othering and exclusion of White supremacy. Shows how our academy is uniquely elitist, and how our racism has many convenient masks.


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