Why isn’t my professor black?
By Guest Blogger, on 21 March 2014
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.
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.
Watch the discussion below: