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Katy Sian on Navigating Institutional Racism in British Universities

By the author of Navigating Institutional Racism in British Universities and Conversations in Postcolonial Thought

Racism in British universities is systemic. Year after year, data continues to demonstrate vast racial inequalities swamping the sector. Those from BME backgrounds are less likely to be shortlisted or appointed for academic jobs, they are less likely to be promoted, and on average they earn 26% less than their white counterparts. At the senior level, less than 1% of black academics hold professorships. My research on institutional racism in British universities critically examines the processes that both perpetuate and maintain the marginalization of racially marked academics.

I conducted 20 in-depth interviews with female and male academics, from different racial, ethnic, religious and international backgrounds, based at Russell Group and Post-92 universities. They ranged from early career, mid career, and advanced career academics, working either as lecturers or researchers, on permanent, part-time or fixed-term contracts. All my respondents spoke of feelings of isolation against a backdrop of whiteness, and agreed that the racism that they experienced was subtle and hidden in nature.

Liberal racism is perhaps the most dominant articulation of racism exercised by white members of staff in the university setting. For Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, liberal racism, or what he characterizes as “colourblind racism” takes the form of “racism lite” or “smiling face discrimination” (2003: 3). These enactments go hand in hand with the notion of the post-racial, that is, the idea that racism has come to an end. Over the years universities have been central in reinforcing post-racial politics through agendas that have replaced anti-racism with the language of ‘diversity’ (Ahmed 2012).

The idea that we are ‘over race’ is precisely how racism is sustained, that is, the dismissal or trivialization of racism operates to both facilitate and embolden it. As my research shows, the liberal, post-racial culture of denial, operating in British universities, has meant that the daily realities of racism experienced by racially marked academics, are obscured and difficult to pin-down, as white staff members are unable to conceive of themselves as perpetrators of racism.

My respondents commonly expressed feelings of otherness, marginality, and white discomfort around difference. There was a gendered particularity here, in that the majority of those who articulated specific instances of ‘otherness’ tended to be overwhelmingly racially marked female academics, who were subjected to processes of exoticization and infantilization. Racially marked male academics on the other hand, spoke of their experiences of hyper-visibility and being located as ‘troublemakers’ ‘aggressive’ ‘angry’ and ‘loud’.

Common complaints included white staff members mistaking my respondents with the only other academic of colour in the department; mispronouncing their names; excluding them from particular opportunities; subjecting them to scrutiny and surveillance; and failure to invest in their development. Furthermore, the lack of other minorities within the institution made those few present feel highly exposed, leading to alienation and vulnerability. In terms of career advancement, my respondents all felt that they had been unsupported in applications for promotion, in addition to this, they all spoke of a lack of mentoring, as well as their achievements being constantly undervalued.

In the classroom setting, respondents shared experiences of frequently being challenged by their white students, who assumed they lacked authority and credibility. There was a clear student backlash against subjects being taught related to racism, colonialism and Islamophobia, whereby white guilt and resentment were manifested through antagonisms with racially marked academics. For my respondents such reactions were symptomatic of the lack of engagement around these issues, as such, it was felt that decolonizing the curriculum should be a priority in universities as a way to disrupt the presumed superiority of Western/European thought, and ensure the cultivation of inclusive, critical spaces through the teaching of diverse knowledge.

My research argues that racism in universities can longer be simply ignored, treated as an individual phenomenon, or merely framed as a series of isolated experiences. Instead, it has to be understood as that which sits within wider, structural, discriminatory contexts, underpinned by the logics of whiteness. Race equality needs to be practiced, not just preached. There needs to be a clear and obvious commitment to dismantling systems of racism that currently shape the academy. Only then can the vision of an anti-racist university be actualized.

The findings of my research are not only of relevance for higher education, but also link to larger political and public debates around institutional racism, whiteness and discriminatory cultures in organizational settings. Furthermore, in a time of the renewed energies of the extreme right, this research draws attention to the continuing struggles for justice among racialized minorities and the broader struggles of achieving racial equality in this conjecture. In such times of growing insecurities and xenophobia, universities should be focused on challenging racism, rather than reinforcing it.


Dr Katy Sian is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York. ​​​​​​​


Ahmed, S. (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003). Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.