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UCL events news and reviews


Why isn’t my professor black?

By ucyow3c, on 21 March 2014

Members of the event panel

Members of the event panel
Photo: Rachna Kayastha

pencil-iconWritten By Jamilah Jahi (UCL Medical Student)

After three years of studying at UCL, I can count the number of black lecturers who have taught me on one hand: zero.

Perhaps this is not alarming, after all, black people are a minority ethnic group in the UK. Surely we should expect low numbers amongst our teaching staff too. Is it, therefore, acceptable that only 0.4% of professors in the UK are black? At least six black academics disagree.

On 10 March 2014, UCL hosted the live panel discussion, ‘Why isn’t my Professor Black?’ It was clear that many were longing for an answer to this “interesting but depressing” question. Due to popular demand, the event had to be relocated to the Cruciform lecture theatre, which holds just under 350 people.

Professor Michael Arthur, UCL’s President & Provost, chaired the event. Sitting on the panel were black academics from across the UK, including UCL’s Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, who organised the event.

The evening began with a video. BME (Black and Ethnic Minority) students from UCL were asked if they would pursue a career in academia. At least three of the students who said they would not felt that there are not enough BME staff members teaching at UCL. It is unfortunate the students feel this way given that UCL tries to promote racial equality.

The panel discussion
Each panel member had 10 minutes to discuss the question, why isn’t my professor black? They all engaged in a unique way by drawing on their personal experiences. Here are some of the highlights.

First to speak was Dr Nathan Richards from Goldsmiths University. As a black student he saw no black scholars on his reading lists. He wants to see a shift from black students being the recipient of academic knowledge to being recognised as being part of its creation.

Deborah Gabriel is the founder and CEO of Black British Academics, a company that specialises in tackling racial inequality in higher education. She revealed the results of a BME staff and student survey about race equality in their institutions:

  • race equality was rated as either poor or very poor by 2/3 of participants
  • 58% of participants had experienced racism
  • some participants felt they had a lack of opportunity to progress

Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman’s speech swept away the audience and his contribution was striking.  There are only five black philosophers, including Dr Coleman, teaching in higher education in the UK, none of whom are professors yet. He pointed out that, historically, there has been a failure to recognise black scholars as philosophers and this still continues. He also said that the achievements of black academics are usually attributed to “outside help” rather than hard work.

Twitter snapshot

Snapshot of the Twitter feed using #blackprofessor

Dr Lisa Palmer from Newman University said that for BME students and staff “campuses often resemble colonies” and that this “coloniality reveals structural and institutional racism.” It could be argued that this is downplayed in our day-to-day interactions.

Dr William Ackah from Birkbeck, University of London, finds it curious that institutional racism exists in academia, a field that is supposed to have high standards. He sees this as a barrier for black academics in the UK. Ackah said that having more black professors would benefit all students, not just BME students.

Dr Shirley Tate, from the University of Leeds, concluded the panel discussion by asking “under what conditions could my professor be black?” In her contribution, Tate identified areas in academia that need to be modified in order to tackle racial inequality.

Contributions from the audience
Following the panel discussion, the audience was invited to supplement the discussion with their own thoughts on the subject. Some built on points made by the panel whilst others picked up on issues that had not been discussed.

One audience member identified that a lack of support from society was another barrier to the progression of aspiring black academics. Another attendee wanted to know why UCL celebrates “racists like [Francis] Galton” (a scientist who contributed to a wide range of subjects, including the infamous eugenics) but does not appear to celebrate BME academics and students in the same way.

‘Why isn’t my professor black?’ was an insightful event that exposed racial issues in the academic system which may not have otherwise been approached at UCL. The audience and panel hoped to be involved in similar events in the future.


The UCL Equiano Centre

Joint Faculty Institute of Graduate Studies: Friday Forum on ‘Race’
UCL’s Race Equality Group

Watch the discussion below:




4 Responses to “Why isn’t my professor black?”

  • 1
    Yishebah Baht Gavriel wrote on 23 March 2014:

    This debate was a courageous and cutting-edge one into and area of the British education system that has shown how racism has posited Afrikan ‘Black’ people as not only consumers of their creation of knowledge and superior but, the distorted subject of their knowledge system. After all, white racism and it’s concomitant white supremacy find their premise in superior cognitive, intellectual and academic abilities of simply being a Caucasian. Epistemic violence has been the experience of the Afrikan ‘negro’ since our encounter with the European and bodies of knowledge have in history, philosophy, psychology, biology, anthropology and other pseudo scientific subjects been created to confirm in the white psyche the inferiority of the Afrikan The academic intellectual arena is the last bastion where the myth of white intellectual superiority has its fragile hold as it debunks the bedrock of the .claim to the superior Caucasian mental capacity over the Afrikan if they feature on this platform, alongside them as creators of knowledge and not only defined by it as a subject. Philosophy, as the epitome of this human mental capacity, as a subject where thought is crafted into knowledge systems is my reason of why it will be the last area of study that African Heritage peoples will break through in numbers and latterly saturate . There are, however, many Community philosophers in the ‘Black’ Community in the UK who are valued at the heart of the creation of applied- based knowledge of critical review and healing to the grassroots community. So, we can find many who are marginal to the formal academic institutions by virtue of its gateway and pathway access but remain active teachers in the Saturday School Supplementary Education System, on the lecture circuit and in the thousands of family homes where parents have been the ‘philosophers’ teaching their offspring about racism by debuking and challenging what has been written about the Afrikan race by their white historian, philosophers and pseudo-scientists for centuries and embedding in their sons and daughters their equal abilities to their white counterparts in education and academic achievement capacity.

  • 2
    Black Academia in Britain | Robbie Shilliam wrote on 28 July 2014:

    […] and studying in the UK higher education system. Issues of the relative absence of Black people in influential positions have taken centre stage, alongside the direct and indirect discrimination that both black students […]

  • 3
    Black Academia in Britain | The Disorder Of Things wrote on 28 July 2014:

    […] and studying in the UK higher education system. Issues of the relative absence of Black people in influential positions have taken centre stage, alongside the direct and indirect discrimination that both black students […]

  • 4
    South-East European Studies in the ‘House of International Relations’ – TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research wrote on 15 September 2016:

    […] The campaign, which began in 2014 and spread to other UK universities including Leeds, Birmingham and Warwick, framed its title as a challenge which, if a teacher were to answer it, would involve unpicking a complex of assumptions about rationality, modernity, and which people and places have become entitled to set themselves at the intellectual centre of producing knowledge about the rest of the world. Exposing the ‘unmarked nature’ of whiteness in the design of teaching and learning, and the unquestioned assumptions about which scholars represent the theoretical heart of a discipline and which are added on as marginal radicals or providers of empirical area-specific knowledge, would thus be the first step in ‘dismantling’ the white curriculum and starting to decolonise the university, alongside confronting structural racism in the academy itself (as a panel discussion at UCL organised by Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman had asked earlier in 2014: ‘Why isn’t my professor black?’). […]

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