A hostile environment?

By Nicola Rollock, Goldsmiths College, University of London

I write this piece a few days after the wedding of Prince Harry to the American actress Meghan Markle. As someone committed to social justice and intensely troubled about the persistent inequalities in our society, the frenzied attention surrounding any major royal event supplemented by the taxpayer, is always difficult to digest.  However, I have been interested in the ways in which Markle’s racial identity and heritage came to shape the content and tone of the day, providing a refreshing break from what the author Diana Evans, writing for The Guardian[1], refers to as the austere traditions and “reserve of (…) pale and stately onlookers”.

Evans’ elegantly placed words evoked in me memories of the Stephen Lawrence Memorial Service held, as in previous years, in April at St Martins-in-the-Field in London. I was a young woman at university in Liverpool trying to make sense of my own racial identity and a student drinking culture, with which I could not relate, when I first heard about Stephen’s murder.  Many years later, I would interview Doreen Lawrence as part of research commissioned by the Runnymede Trust to establish the government’s progress in meeting the 70 recommendations of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry.  What I found radically overhauled my understanding of race and racism.  While there had been progress in implementing the majority of the recommendations during the 10 years since the Inquiry report was published in 1999, there remained serious shortcomings with regard to addressing the under-representation of Black and minority ethnic police officers and the disproportionate number of Black and Asian (as the data was reported) people stopped under stop and search legislation[2].  In short, despite the police training, the conferences, the fast-tracked implementation by the then Labour government of the amendments to the Race Relations Act 1976 and even the vague public awareness of institutional racism, race remained a problem.

Fast-forward to 2018 and the Memorial Service marking 25 years since Stephen’s death.  The 800 strong audience included friends and family of the Lawrence’s, advocates and champions of racial justice and an array of well-known politicians many with their own tailored version of pale stately reserve. I watched as the Prime Minister Theresa May initially baulked and then quickly regained her composure, as the comedian, actor and diversity campaigner Lenny Henry opened his section of the schedule with an incisively apt retort mocking the political response to what has now become known as the Windrush scandal.

That was not the first time that I had occupied a space with powerful senior leaders whose alleged commitment to social justice sat in tension with the actual lived experiences of people of colour.

These performances are evident across each institution and sector I have worked in or given advice to. These performances give the impression of engaging with race while, in fact, failing to address fundamental structural inequalities, such as the lack of representation staff of colour at senior levels, and the perpetual racial microaggressions with which such staff have to contend.  The higher education sector is no exception.  I watch as institutions implement gender focused initiatives while failing to acknowledge that a white woman’s struggles and a Black woman’s struggles are not always the same.  I watch as British educational institutions go out of their way to include high profile African American colleagues in conference programmes, while failing to address the ethnic diversity of their own staff or the divisive cultural practices of their own organisations. And as I collect data for a UCU funded project exploring the career experiences and strategies of Black female Professors, I am dismayed by how much extra burden – shaped by occupying that unique space at the intersection of race and gender – they have to endure.  There is no place on any workload management model to capture the time and energy it takes to address such injustices.

Running alongside this, is an additional strange element of higher education. We are shaped by rules and policies, which in true Bourdieusian style relegate some acts – certain journals, forms of impact or public engagement – as having more worth than others.  This point was made starkly evident (not for the first time) when I shared news with an academic colleague about having given the opening address at this year’s Women of the World Festival[3] for a panel called Code-switching: survival strategies for Black women at work.  The audience of approximately 100 women – which included the Southbank Centre’s Artistic Director Jude Kelly and Senior Programmer Hannah Azieb Pool – clicked fingers, nodded, murmured and even cried in heartfelt recognition at my words[4]. Afterwards, hugs of acknowledgement were shared, advice was given, and business cards were exchanged.  It was a powerful moment of uplift, of recognition and affirmation that many in that room seldom experience in the workplace.  And my academic colleague?  With the REF in mind, I was asked whether my presentation had been based on recent original and significant empirical research.

I continue to wonder about these austere higher education traditions and the never-ending accounts of racism as I am approached, often by women of colour, for advice about postgraduate study or how to progress in the academy. What do I tell them; that the academy is a radical place of reform, ready to embrace new ideas, creative thinking and actively engage with those at the margins? Or should I tell them that it will be, for them, a “hostile environment” only concerned with the quantifiable demands of a market economy?

Nicola Rollock is Reader in Education & Equity at Goldsmiths College, University of London

[1] Evans, D. (2018) Michael Curry’s royal wedding sermon will go down in history, The Guardian, 20 May,  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/20/bishop-michael-curry-sermon-history-harry-meghan-wedding (last accessed 23 May 2018)

[2] Rollock, N. (2009) The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry 10 Years On, London: Runnymede Trust https://www.runnymedetrust.org/uploads/publications/pdfs/StephenLawrenceInquiryReport-2009.pdf (last accessed 22 May 2018)

[3] https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on/festivals-series/women-of-the-world

[4] https://soundcloud.com/southbankcentre/code-switching (last accessed 22 May 2018)