The Colour of Scholarship

By Dr Geetha Marcus, University of Glasgow

The BSA recently funded an early career event to bring together women of colour doctoral students and early career researchers in Scotland to participate in dialogue about their academic experiences. With additional support from the University of Glasgow, my colleague, Francesca Sobande and I, invited three key note speakers - Prof Vini Lander (University of Roehampton), Prof Akwugo Emejulu (University of Warwick) and Prof Heidi Mirza (Goldsmiths University) to provide insight and inspiration to 30 participants who came from all over the country.

As the first mentoring event of its kind for women of colour in Scotland, it was a great success, with participants sharing intellectual, practical and emotional accounts of their research both within universities and the third sector. We recognised that there were many common threads in our research and experiences. The symposium highlighted the valuable and exciting work being carried out by women of colour in a range of disciplines.

However, nearly all spoke of a lack of acknowledgement, encouragement, and understanding of their professional and personal circumstances. Examples of everyday racism, sexism and marginalisation were frequently cited – subtle, yet damaging daily micro-aggressions that can have a cumulative mental and emotional scarring on their confidence as scholars. As each woman spoke, there was deep empathy. None of us had to labour hard to convince the others present that what was happening to us was legitimate, real, and not imagined.  Mirza (2015) suggests that ‘we need to ask questions about what shapes these worlds and how we are implicated in racist and sexist discourses through our inclusion, exclusion, choice, and participation’.

In feedback that we gathered, all asked for the event to be repeated annually, affirming the need for a safe, communal zone of dialogue, comfort and healing, ‘without fear of dismissal or recriminations’. One PhD student wrote: ‘I left it remembering why I wanted to stay in academia! It's been quite a while that I've felt that inspired and motivated’. Another commented that the event was ‘a platform that needed to be harnessed’ as it ‘gave us a calm spirit of solidarity and it was an opportunity to pour out and reach out’. A final year PhD student remarked, ‘It was the first time I was in a room with so many people of colour in Glasgow. The solidarity and kindness shown by participants, mentors and organisers was truly heart-warming and the sense of community was energising. It wasn’t just the feedback I received from the mentors that has been helpful, but also the care and concern shown by them that is so rare in academia’.

The quality and range of work being done by these women was impressive, but I was dismayed by some of the accounts being articulated. Quite unprepared, despite my own recent challenging PhD journey, it was exhausting to listen to, and yet many wished the day was longer. We didn’t want the comforting ‘my space’ to end.

The power of their courage and resilience was palpable, but what also struck me was the underlying sense of fear and that, as women of colour researchers, they did not feel as valued as our white counterparts. The issue of safety was a disturbing running theme – many felt unsafe and undervalued at one point or other in the predominantly patriarchal institutions we belonged to. A culture of silence accompanies this fear. In her book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012), Sara Ahmed highlights such experiences of exclusion, a sense of not belonging, humiliation, silence and fear in her study of minority ethnic experiences in institutional spaces. Yet it is precisely this marginality that binds us, and empowers us to question, reflect and challenge modes of doing and thinking that run counter to our common humanity.

Many participants wanted to know how to overcome challenges, how to anticipate difficulties, and what strategies were available to counter deep systemic and individual prejudice. As women of colour, we lie at the intersection of race, gender and class, and can be blighted by all three sources of domination at once.  Women of colour remain under-represented throughout academia, particularly at professoriate and management levels. We can encounter specific challenges that relate to our identities and our scarce inclusion in various academic spheres. In Scotland, there arguably are a lack of visible role models. And why were ‘care and concern’ being cited as qualities that are ‘rare in academia’?

It was also interesting that when I offered to share the feedback we received with the Equality and Diversity Unit, who so kindly supported our event, they declined. ‘Diversity’ is a sexy buzzword, a modern must-have for the aspirational institution, a box to be ticked, this being an act in itself. Institutional spaces can be equally powerful in acts of inclusion or exclusion. Institutions like universities, for example, that presumably aspire to create a shared social space, can by this very aim ‘restrict to whom an institutional space is open’ by creating a space that is ‘not actually open to everyone’ (Ahmed, 2012: 39). The seeming lack of interest in the feedback (or follow through), despite words of support and funding, may reflect what Ahmed and others argue - the ‘non-performativity’ of the equality and diversity agenda. Rhetoric does not match practice, progress can be glacial.

The women of colour who attended our symposium, reflect Mirza’s (2015) argument that ‘ultimately, black and ethnicised women engage in embodied work to decolonize higher education. They challenge systematic institutionalized discriminatory practices deeply embedded in the academy through their collective agency and desire for personal transformation through knowledge and educational opportunities’. The challenge for academia is to promote and practice diversity and indeed excellence, by creating safe spaces for honest dialogue, to actively listen, taking care to be concerned and act upon meaningful inclusion of its women of colour researchers, who have much to contribute as scholars. The doctoral students and early career researchers at the event were perhaps at the genesis of their own journey of the rationalisation of their identities and paths to empowerment within structures that ought to be challenged if necessary.

Dr Geetha Marcus
Lecturer in Education
School of Interdisciplinary Studies
University of Glasgow