Extent of institutional racism in British universities revealed through hidden stories

“So how’s it going at work?” It’s a common question. The kind of question which normally opens a nice warm catch up between friends. But if you are a non-white academic, the question carries a different connotation.

You might respond to it with an eye-roll and a sigh, which tells your friend what they already know – work isn’t going well at all. For years I have been having this same conversation. It begins with that question. And just like that, we share.

We share the all too recognisable stories of racism. The frustrations and the relief that we are not alone, paranoid, or being unreasonable. These conversations equipped me mentally, they prepared me practically, and in doing so they have helped me to survive my workplace for the past 12 years.

But as I continued in my academic career, I soon got to thinking about all those people who were unable to share, who haven’t had the luxury of having others to speak to, who have felt alone, excluded and isolated. And so the foundations of my research began, as I sought to speak to those silent voices who as yet have not had the opportunity to fully communicate the depth and complexity of their answer to the question: “So how is work?”

Endemic racism

The fact is everyday racism is hiding behind a string of superficial tag lines that have come to brand universities across the UK. Myths about the “liberal” university can often be seen touted in marketing brochures, job announcements, and website pages, promoting the values and responsibilities of the institution.

Myth 1: Universities encourage inclusivity and diversity

Myth 2: Universities invest in non-white academics

Myth 3: Universities are “post-racial”

Myth 4: Universities desire curriculum reform

Myth 5: Universities are committed to race equality

Beyond these false advertising scams, the real message is clear and simple: racism in British universities is endemic. Academic research has pointed to this fact for well over a decade. Alongside the studies, there is also a catalogue of data that explicitly shows the bleak prospects for non-white academics. For example, statistics around Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) representation in universities continue to demonstrate that non-white academics are marginalised from British universities.


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Data generated from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) in 2012-2013 revealed that out of 17,880 professors, only 85 were black, 950 were Asian, 365 were “other” (including mixed race). The majority of 15,200 were white.

In terms of black female professors, there are just 17 in the entire British university system. And in January 2017, for the third year in a row, HESA figures recorded no black academics in the elite staff category of managers, directors and senior officials in 2015-2016.

As a result of this skewed landscape, non-white academics are on the whole less likely to be shortlisted, appointed, or promoted in comparison to their white counterparts. In addition to this, it has been reported that BME academics at top universities across Britain earn on average 26% less than their white colleagues.

The data is therefore showing us that very little has been done to encourage progress and racial equality in British universities. The failure of senior managers to accept or even acknowledge the existence of systematic racism operating in their universities, departments and boardrooms is where the heart of the problem lies. My research exposes the entrenched practices of structural and everyday forms of racism in the white academy.

Students celebrate as the sculpture of Cecil John Rhodes is removed from the University of Cape Town in April 2015. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

Read more: Race and academia: diversity among UK university students and leaders


Personal stories of racism

I conducted 20 in-depth interviews ranging from early career, mid-career, and advanced career academics, working either as lecturers or researchers, on permanent, part-time or fixed-term contracts. I spoke with a fairly equal mix of male and female respondents, and they came from a range of racial, ethno-national, and religious groups based at Russell Group and post-1992 universities across Britain.

The research is a collection of different voices. These people shared with me their pain, their strength, their challenges, their courage, and their resistance to racism in the academy. Whether in their office, or in a coffee shop, the conversations flowed. For some, it was like they needed the space to finally get things off their chest – a kind of therapy session, where they could speak about their experiences in the academy.

There were tears, sometimes from them, and at other times from me. There was also a sense of defiance, perseverance, and hope. Some conversations were particularly emotional and harder than others. On some occasions, hours and even days after they had taken place, I found myself replaying their experiences in my head, overcome with a deep feeling of sadness that our bodies had all been injured in some way or another by systemic, structural, and symbolic manifestations of racism in our universities.

‘Liberal’ racism

Subtle practices of racism in the form of micro-aggressions are often more challenging because they operate against the common sense understanding of racism as easily identifiable. My interviews reveal the way in which micro-aggressions – the everyday slights and indignities non-white people encounter all the time – are intensely bound up with forms of structural “liberal” racism.

In the British university setting, liberal racism is perhaps the most dominant form of racism practised by white faculty staff members. For Eduardo Bonilla Silva, professor of Sociology at Duke University, liberal racism – or what he characterises as “colourblind racism” – takes the form “racism lite” or “smiling face discrimination”.

What is essentially being described here is the idea of the “post-racial” which signals an apparent “end” of racism. This post-racial logic has steadily cemented itself into the very culture of our universities. The idea that we are “over race” is precisely how racism is sustained. This manifests itself in the dismissal or trivialisation of racism and operates to both facilitate and embolden it. The liberal, post-racial culture of denial, which my interviewees say is operating in British universities, has meant the daily realities of racism experienced by non-white academics are obscured, as white faculty members are unable to conceive themselves as perpetrators of racism.

As one said:

Racism is much more insidious in HE (Higher Education). It’s this idea that they don’t want to look bad that gets to me the most.

The notion that white colleagues are more nuanced in their exercise of racism – as they are keen to present themselves as “nice”, “respectable” and “tolerant” people –- was also echoed by another respondent:

People in academia are a bit smarter, they’re more subtle and they understand what they can’t say. Everything is just a bit more institutionalised. But you get the sense that it’s also the place where things are unchecked. I think in general people try to be nice and they want to be nice but they have all these ingrained biases.

‘Sometimes it’s just so damn subtle’

My participants frequently felt that such enactments of liberal racism produced hidden forms of differential treatment, which in most cases could not be placed as direct discrimination due to their very subtleties. Another academic told me:

The problem with the day-to-day encounters of racism is that it’s difficult to pinpoint them down. I’ve felt that I’ve not been included a number of times, or I am the last person to be consulted on something. Sometimes it’s just so damn subtle. It’s in the gestures, it’s in what’s not said.

Feelings of otherness, marginality, and white discomfort around difference, were all common, everyday experiences. Those I spoke to shared examples of their names being mispronounced by white staff members, being mistaken for the only other academic of colour in the department and being made to feel both visible and invisible at the same time.

These daily realities are indicative of the racism lurking beneath the “liberal” university, in which white colleagues like to claim that they are tolerant, and certainly not racist. But the examples given by my interviewees show that when confronted with these situations they can only revert back to their ingrained biases.

My participants went on to point out that the lack of other minorities within the institution produced feelings of alienation and discomfort as they were positioned as “outsiders”:

I always feel like an outsider in the academy … like I am the only one … my experience of the academy is that I’m a black man in a white world. All it takes is for you to go to a meeting and you immediately realise that the one thing that is missing here is colour – there is no colour … it’s a colourless environment.

Are universities truly ‘post-racial’?. Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock.com

Teaching and decolonising the curriculum

The classroom is often thought to represent a “safe space” that encourages critical learning and the exchange of ideas. But it would be naive to simply suggest the classroom is free from antagonism because it sits within the broader university environment which is structured by institutional racism.

In fact, my research demonstrates how the classroom can often become a key site in which white students may express feelings of resentment and guilt, as well as a place to confront their privilege. One respondent recalled:

A white male undergraduate student challenged me on a series of issues when I explained the topic of political violence. He started to ask questions and make points that were Islamophobic. He was talking about child molestation by the Prophet Muhammad, how Islam had been a religion spread by the sword, how Muslims believed in female genital mutilation, and so on. I was constantly having to explain and defend a religion of over a billion people, because somehow in the eyes of the student, I was Islam. So I found that to be a really uncomfortable experience.

All my participants said they were made to feel as though they lacked authority and credibility by many of their students. The notion of having to “prove” themselves was an experience that came up time and again. These incidents demonstrate the insidious workings of racism at play, whereby non-white academics have to almost always go the extra mile to prove their competence.

For example, another participant recalled how students “snigger”, “roll their eyes” and walk out of their classes and how uncomfortable this makes them:

I start sweating, I start rushing my material and I just want to get it over with because it’s such a horrible experience. They make out over and over again that I don’t know what I’m talking about, or that I’m biased and it makes me extremely uncomfortable.

From direct insults, to accusations of being biased, my interviews reveal that for some non-white academics, teaching can be a challenging experience. By being made to feel as though they lack authority or having to prove themselves, non-white academics encounter disruptive behaviour that is fundamentally racialised in nature.


Read more: Whiteness characterises higher education institutions – so why are we surprised by racism?


The inability of the largely white student body to critically reflect upon their own histories, practices, and structures of oppression is symptomatic of white privilege, white entitlement and a lack of awareness of other cultures in general.

This suggests the need for universities to take seriously calls to decolonise the curriculum as a way to dismantle discourses and practices that reaffirm white superiority. Currently, intellectual agendas in British universities operate to maintain a narrow, inward looking perspective that reinforces the logics of Orientalism (the Western attitude that views Eastern societies as exotic, primitive, and inferior).

The call to decolonise seeks to equip students with more complex and critical understandings of global debates and issues as a way to generate more productive and insightful accounts, beyond eurocentric narratives. Decolonising the curriculum is vital to both the transformation of higher education and the development of inclusive, non-hostile spaces where difference is respected, not denigrated.

Career progression

On the surface, universities have strutted out various strategies that seem to promote positive action around equality.

But beneath these jamborees the reality is dire. My respondents shared their experiences of being unsupported in applications for promotion, a lack of mentoring, job insecurity, and an overwhelming sense of being undervalued. The obstacles and challenges that they have encountered in relation to hiring practices and career progression are immense and for the most part appear impossible to overcome. One of my interviewees said:

I don’t get the support networks, I don’t get the mentoring, but I get overburdened with teaching. I don’t see a future where I will progress. I see my white colleagues being encouraged, but that never seems to happen to me. There really is no support. It’s dismal.


Read more: Why a post-racial British society remains a myth – even in universities


Both my research and my own personal experience have shown that non-white academics are at a real loss without proper mentoring. It is so often the case that we go to other non-white academics (externally and informally), who take on mentoring in an unofficial capacity. This support has often been crucial for us, however, at the same time – as my respondents pointed out – it is utterly disgraceful that they have had to actively seek support in other places as a result of their own institutions failing to provide them with sufficient or appropriate mentoring.

Feelings of being “expendable” or “disposable” were common across my interviewees who frequently said employment opportunities tended to be “rigged” in favour of white candidates.

The inability to access (white) hidden rules or (white) hidden networks was a common experience across my interviews. The academics felt their future prospects, particularly in terms of promotion, were negatively impacted as a consequence. One said:

I’ve always struggled to know what the rules are. I’ve gone to sessions on what you need to do to get promoted, but I think there’s a whole set of hidden rules that I don’t know or that I can’t find out and that’s frustrating.

It comes as no surprise then that many of my respondents, despite having all the skills and knowledge, often found themselves continuously blocked from promotion and career advancement opportunities that were frequently afforded to their less established, white peers.

Another respondent commented:

I know people are less experienced than me, who might have a similar role, but are on higher pay and at a higher grade. I look at the rate at which white colleagues are promoted and I often think how have they got that? I thought promotion was to be based on your value and what you put in, and it seems that isn’t the case. This is definitely about race.

Meanwhile another academic said:

We have to be exceptional just to be ordinary. And I’m so sad this has manifested in higher education the way that it has. There’s no reprieve for us, there’s no meritocracy.

Discriminatory practices are entrenched within the university environment. My respondents felt that no amount of achievements could surpass whiteness, in other words, meritocracy in the academy is a myth. If non-white academics are to feel truly valued and supported then a series of structural, intellectual, and ethical obligations, must be implemented in higher education to ensure advancement and inclusion for all.

There must be a commitment across the university sector that recognises racism as a fundamentally structural issue. This means engaging with strategies that actively promote the inclusion of non-white academics and students (including those who are classified as international) to ensure that their needs are being addressed appropriately.

Universities need to take steps to live up to their liberal reputations. CappaPhoto/Shutterstock.com

Those of us from non-white backgrounds working and studying within British universities are quite simply fed up of the racism that we continue to endure on a daily basis. If universities are serious about tackling racism, discrimination and under-representation they must take the following steps.

1) Senior management must set annual targets to increase BME representation. To ensure this process is formalised, they must implement a systematic monitoring unit to measure hiring rates of BME staff and student admissions against targets. Regular audits of the data must be made available to all staff and failure to meet quotas should result in penalties.

2) Race equality needs to be on the agenda in every department across every university in the UK. Management committee meetings must report on these issues as a standing item to demonstrate the work that they are doing to tackle institutional racism.

3) Mentoring schemes for new and current BME staff members need be formalised, and they should be partnered with a colleague who is sensitive and fully committed to supporting their needs around career progression and personal development.

4) Promotions committees must take equality issues into special consideration for BME applicants.

5) An independent ombudsman must be established who can properly investigate racist and other discriminatory practices.

6) A commitment to decolonising the curriculum must be led by university management.

7) University and departmental policies on race equality must be fully implemented and formally reviewed and updated on an annual basis.

For too long, non-white academics have been absent from the conversation. We need to feel like we are included within the debate and that our voices matter. The day-to-day and structural racist operations of the university need to be systematically reviewed and these failures need to be addressed seriously. Race equality must be practised in the academy, not just preached.


Katy Sian’s new book Navigating Institutional Racism in British Universities is published by Palgrave Macmillan.