BHM: We’re not good at speaking about race in the UK

Valerie Amos

Last week the Guardian ran a story stating that barely 3% of Britain’s most powerful and influential people are from black and minority ethnic groups and just seven (0.7%) were BAME women. I hope that these dismal figures will spark a deeper debate about what’s happening in our country beyond a narrow focus on who is in and who is out as happens every time one of these lists appears.

I arrived in a very different Britain 54 years ago. Although it was the early 60s it still felt (looking back) as if it was recovering from the shortages of the Second World War. So much has changed, particularly but not only in London. But deep-seated structural discrimination continues to be part of the everyday life of millions of ethnic minority Britons. And it’s a hard thing to say and an even harder thing to face when we look at the huge strides we’ve made. But we’re not a culture that’s good at looking deep into our national psyche. And we’re not good at speaking about race and class discrimination, because it feels so personal. But we have to.

Let’s look at the sector I am now in: higher education. I remember how shocked I was when I found out that I was the first black women to be appointed to lead a university in the UK. And everywhere I turn in the sector I see discrimination and inequality.

The number of  female BME professors is 1.6%. In terms of senior management, the figure is even less at just under 1%.

Since 2010-11, the number of BME students attending university has increased by 34 per cent and in total around 29 per cent of all entrants consist of BME students.

So why is this not being reflected in the job market? Despite equality legislation action places and goodwill, BME representation remains unacceptably low. We have to tackle the culture and stop telling ourselves how good we are. And I haven’t even started to talk about gender, disability and LGBT and the challenges with those issues.

Deep-seated, structural and cultural issues need to be tackled at a societal, institutional and individual level. The big challenge is where best to intervene to make the long-term shifts needed. It is important to understand specific institutional challenges.

That is why at SOAS our Equality and Diversity & Inclusion Strategy takes a comprehensive and structural approach. We are actively working to increase the proportion of BME and female staff in senior academic roles. We want to ensure an inclusive approach to curriculum review and are providing new guidance for staff on inclusive teaching and assessment practices and addressing under-representation of BME and female staff in REF submissions. We know that we can’t be complacent. SOAS is already very diverse with staff and students from over 130 countries. But that in and of itself is not enough. Because it’s also about the experience of SOAS staff and students. It’s about the culture on our campus.

Whoever is assessed as being among the 1000 “most powerful” in years to come, to be truly successful and thriving country the nest needs to be representative of our nation as a whole.

 This blog was originally published on Valerie Amos’s LinkedIn page.

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