Depending on the theme I often organise my posts into a kind of order – giving them a flow that shows the gravity of discrimination gradually increasing as the weeks go on.
This month I’m starting with a bang, and absolutely no order, as I want to focus on a number that has stood out to me ever since it made headlines in February this year:
There are only 25 black female professors in the UK.
Nope, you didn’t read that wrong. No, that’s not 25%. That’s twenty-five. Twenty. Five. Black women make up 0.1% of professors in the UK, despite Black and Asian minority ethnic (BAME) people making up 13.6% of the UK population and 40% of London’s population. And as there are only 85 Black professors in total, Black people only make up 0.6% of the UK professoriate.
Every week I encourage readers to follow the sources in my articles and to read up a little more on each subject I write about – I find all of the sources fascinating so it’s no surprise that I would offer such advice, but I also know there aren’t many people out there reading up on feminism ‘for fun’. This is one of the few occasions when I’d say you have to read the articles. You must read them. Read them and think about how often you’ve been on the right or the wrong side of the situations that the professors in these pieces describe. Here’s a taste of what they have to say about their terrible working environments:
One academic told me that professors are the “mules and donkeys of the [academic] workforce” with some saying that the work pressures were so extreme that they had been unable to pursue a personal life and that relationships had suffered.Nicola Rollock in Vogue We Urgently Need More Black Female Professors In UK Universities
Being a Black woman in academia is exhausting. By both colleagues and students, you are assumed to be incompetent. You really must work twice as hard to be considered half as good as your peers. It will be incredibly difficult for your scholarship to be taken seriously and, consequently, it will be a struggle to get a permanent, full time job, to be promoted and to achieve equal pay. You will be perceived as aggressive and angry when you are simply existing.Akwugo Emejulu, professor of sociology at University of Warwick in Stylist
One professor related how even contributing to departmental meetings was made humiliating: “I had my hand up for about half an hour,” she said. “The debate was going on and I just kept it up and everybody was looking at him and eventually everyone was looking at him, looking at me.”The Guardian
I asked Germaine* about her experiences of her workplace. She described in painful detail how she was mistaken for the student rep by a white male colleague chairing a meeting.Nicola Rollock in Vogue We Urgently Need More Black Female Professors In UK Universities
Why is this important?
As Leona Nichole Black writes for the Runnymede Trust “there are 85 Black Professors to 121,000 Black students in Britain.”
With the UK population composed of 13.6% BAME people it’s unbelievable to find ourselves in the 21st century with such a terribly low representation of Black women (and men too) amongst the professoriate of the UK. For a deep and meaningful examination of why it matters so much for all of us (but particularly Black students) to be taught by Black teachers and professors, I’d urge you to listen to what I consider to be one of the best Revisionist History podcast episodes that Malcolm Gladwell has created: Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment; in it he breaks down the consequences of having Black students educated by white teachers who at best just aren’t invested in their success.
This matters for many reasons, but two of the main ones are that this miniscule number of Black women professors is symptomatic and emblematic of systemic sexism and racism in our institutions – it’s not an accident. Further, poor representation equals worse outcomes for Black students. As Grissom and Redding write:
We document that even among students with high standardized test scores, Black students are less likely to be assigned to gifted services in both math and reading, a pattern that persists when controlling for other background factors, such as health and socioeconomic status, and characteristics of classrooms and schools. We then investigate the role of teacher discretion, leveraging research from political science suggesting that clients of government services from traditionally underrepresented groups benefit from diversity in the providers of those services, including teachers. Even after conditioning on test scores and other factors, Black students indeed are referred to gifted programs, particularly in reading, at significantly lower rates when taught by non-Black teachers, a concerning result given the relatively low incidence of assignment to own-race teachers among Black students.Jason A. Grissom and Christopher Redding Discretion and Disproportionality: Explaining the Underrepresentation of High-Achieving Students of Color in Gifted Programs
This statistic fits with an already well established pattern on how intersectionality affects black women, where they’re five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth, and with Black and Asian women MPs more likely to be abused and less likely to be represented in Parliament. Please don’t mistake this for an accident or an unavoidable, natural situation. Reading the testimonials of Black women professors it’s clear that the obstacles in their path are entirely preventable.
What can you do about it?
Like I said above: read the articles and sources.
Next, read Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga and Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, and more loosely connected to this topic, but still an excellent study in power and discrimination (and a great destroyer of ignorance) Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India. If you enjoy poetry pick up Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine and beautiful writing grab something by Zora Neale Hurston (so far I’ve only read Their Eyes Were Watching God). Clearly a reading list so short only goes to show my own ignorance rather than being something to be proud – but we all have to start somewhere. I’d gladly hear more recommendations.
Change the narrative for yourself. You can think of it as changing your real world timeline. You can change the messages you’re being fed by finding role models and examples of Black women (and men) doing amazing or inspiring things. Whether that’s mathematicians such as Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson who changed the course of history (as seen in the film Hidden Figures); sports superstars such as Venus and Serena Williams, and Alysia Montaño who has fought for maternity rights while winning medals on the track; or a personal hero of mine: the media mogul and business woman Karen Blackett. In Week 33 I covered The Female Lead’s research Transforming Your Feed and I think there’s a lot we can use from that to change our feeds into something beautifully intersectional too. Just a quick Google gives you plenty of accounts to start with: 6 Of The Most Inspirational Black Women On Instagram, These Activists Are Using Social Media To Empower Black Women — & You Should Be Following, 18 Motivating Instagram Accounts Every Black Woman Should Have on Her Timeline, Here Are 25 Black Female Influencers That You Need To Follow On Instagram.
I’m not going to pretend that reading some books and following some new people on social media is going to give us 26 Black women professors, and then 27, and then 28, but remember that knowledge is power; the better you arm yourself the facts the stronger your impact can be. And it all starts with you. So educate yourself, and then start to question. Speak up. Say it out loud. When you catch someone (or yourself) giving out microaggressions, call it out. When the only people in positions of power are white, call attention to that fact. This all begins with acknowledging that the status quo isn’t normal and that it needs to change.
Finally, if you’re in a position to give up your seat at the table, do so. By that I mean: there are times when the only way in which women and particularly Black women (but really, any disenfranchised group) is going to get ahead is for people in power to voluntarily give up some of that power. If there are twelve seats at the table, and the table’s not growing any bigger, and there are no more seats to be added then someone needs to give up their place to make room for someone new. Be big enough to see the potential in people who’ve so far been refused a seat.
Advance HE Equality in higher education: statistical report 2019 25 September 2019
Professor Kalwant Bhopal for the Runnymede Trust The experiences of Black and minority ethnic academics 17 July 2015
Richard Adams and David Batty in the Guardian Black female professors must deal with bullying to win promotion, report finds 4 February 2019
Nicola Rollock in Vogue We Urgently Need More Black Female Professors In UK Universities 6 February 2019
Sarah Shaffi in Stylist “Self-care is absolutely essential”: black female professors offer advice to the next generation April 2019
Richard Adams in the Guardian UK universities making slow progress on equality, data shows 7 September 2018
Leona Nichole Black for the Runnymede Trust Why Isn’t My Professor Black? On Reflection 21 March 2014
Jason A. Grissom and Christopher Redding in the American Educational Research Association Discretion and Disproportionality: Explaining the Underrepresentation of High-Achieving Students of Color in Gifted Programs 8 January 2016
The Female Lead Transforming Your Feed 8 October 2019