29-12-2014

Why Isn’t My Professor Black? – My Reflections

Yewande Okuleye, UCL Alumni and Doctoral researcher

Although I compiled snippets of the conversation about the ‘Why isn’t my professor black, I have also received quite a number of emails and phone calls from friends with polarised views. This has prompted me to reflect further.

It has become increasingly obvious that the experience, research and insights shared by the panellists are useful to other black professionals. This was confirmed by a conversation with a black colleague who commented that:

“The audio, introduced new concepts to me and I was motivated to compile a glossary. Words like intersectionality, coloniality, marginlisation, social closure, racialised as black and unconscious bias, serve as the beginning of a new vocabulary for me.
The language used to describe these barriers has given me some distance from race inequality issues encountered at work. It has allowed me to look at institutional barriers, without thinking or feeling like a victim. This is truly empowering. I will have to teach this to my daughter. I don’t think this will ever be taught in schools and I can’t allow my daughter to go into the world so unprepared. It is like throwing a child into a lion’s den. I just can’t do this” she sighed.
Yet, conversations with other friends and colleagues indicate the problem of racial equality in HE is not evident. These are some comments brought up in conversation

“We live in a multicultural society, especially London, so I don’t believe the statistics.”
“Yewande, please don’t be offended (pause) maybe these academics are not up to scratch and are playing the race card.” Awkward silence.
“Racism is a thing of the past.”
“Have you listened to the Why isn’t my professor black audio?” I always ask.
“Yes” they respond. “You are right.” “The event sounds interesting.”
Here, is the conundrum. Why don’t some of my friends and colleagues see the problem the same way I do? Surely, it is obvious. Things seem crystal clear from my perspective. Here is the problem. There are 18,510 professors in British universities and only 85 are black. This figure indicates an under- representation of black intellectuals. Therefore, the logical course of action is to ask questions. Why? What are the barriers impeding black academics from becoming professors in British universities?

Racial Attitudes ≠ Racial Equality

Then, a realisation slowly dawned on me. No, it is not obvious. There seems to be a gap between the perception and reality about the change in societal racial attitudes and racial equality in institutions.

Phillip Atiba Goff, social psychologist at University of California, notes:

“The latter part of the 20th century saw an impressive decline in the overt expression of racial animosity towards non-Whites. This decline, however, was largely unaccompanied by a reduction in racial inequality.”
It seems there is a quite a lag time between the change in racial attitudes within society and racial equality within institutions.This time lag, might not necessarily be perceived by the general public, who might assume the positive changes in racial attitudes naturally translates into racial equality in Higher Education.

Perhaps, it is fair to speculate that the people who might have an increased awareness about racial inequality within the context of HE are the academics, students and staff affected by racial inequality. Humanities scholars, studying racial inequality through the lens of feminism, psychology, social theory and philosophy are also stakeholders.

What do you think?

Is your perception about race equality in HE contingent on your experience of racial inequality?

This article originally appeared in Yewande’s London

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