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Racism and anti-racism in Education

This is the fourth post in our miniseries exploring the contexts of racism and anti-racism as part of our action against workplace racism. Tomorrow, we will share examples of actions being undertaken at and by members of Sheffield UCU, based on crowd-sourced submissions. A link to contribute is provided at the bottom of this blogpost.

The University of Sheffield has a BAME Staff Network and launched a Race Equality Strategy and Action Plan in 2019. Yet educational institutions, often thought of as vectors of social mobility, are also ridden with racial discriminations. In today’s blogpost we explore resources that discuss racism in the educational system more broadly, and others which draw on particular examples and experiences to illustrate the lived realities of racism and its impacts on individuals.

A 2016 UCU study highlighted the stark experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic staff in further and higher education in the UK. The study revealed issues around career progression, with an overwhelming majority of survey respondents reporting they had faced barriers to promotion; 59% across both sectors reported they had not been supported by senior colleagues and managers when seeking to progress their career; and about half of respondents saw no positive career development path with their current employer. When it comes to bullying and harassment, around 70% of respondents in Higher Education reported they were “sometimes” or “often” subject to it from managers and/or colleagues, while 86% of respondents in HE said they were “often” or “sometimes” subject to cultural insensitivity. This confirms findings from other literature: Black and minority ethnic staff in UK higher education routinely report being undermined and marginalized whilst their knowledge and experience are frequently called into question (Leathwood, Maylor & Moreau, 2009; Shilliam, 2015) [cited in ‘Staying Power’ The career experiences and strategies of UK Black female professors’].

In August 2020, ten Black women involved in UK research wrote an open letter highlighting the urgent need for greater transparency, accountably and inclusion in the distribution of research funding. Concerns had been raised about £4.3 million allocated by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to examine the relationship between COVID and ethnicity. £0 was allocated to Black academic leads, while one individual on the assessment panel was also co-investigator of three of the six awards. The letter-writers met with UKRI representatives in October 2020, and UKRI identified actions to be taken. Dr Addy Adelaine and colleagues have summarised this process in Knowledge Exchange, 2020. A reluctance to disaggregate data by ethnicity makes it very difficult to discern what is really happening–beyond that the distribution of funding remains unequal.

Turning to students, a 2020 study entitled Ethnicity, Race and Inequality in the UK: State of the Nation led by researchers from The University of Manchester’s Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) and the Runnymede Trust found that “ethnic minority groups constitute 26% of all undergraduate students in England [but] are less likely to attend Russell Group Universities, with the Black group particularly under-represented” and that “all ethnic minority groups are less likely than White students to receive a ‘good’ (2:1 or first class) degree”. In terms of representation, the report (drawing on 2016/17 data) highlighted the “under-representation of academic staff [in Higher Education] from all UK-born ethnic groups, notably from Black and Muslim groups”.

Part of the explanation for this underrepresentation in academia is to be found in access to funding. A 2019 Leading Routes report entitled The Broken Pipeline: Barriers to Black PhD Students Accessing Research Council Funding examines the link between the UK BME attainment gap at undergraduate level and students’ success rates in receiving research council funding for postgraduate research. The report found that “sector wide discrimination and bias continue to play a significant role in restricting access to funding and in consequence limiting the number of Black PhD students and academics in the UK”. The report reveals shocking numbers: “just 1.2% of the 19,868 studentships awarded by all UKRI research councils [over a three-year period] went to Black or Black Mixed students and only 30 of those were from Black Caribbean background”.

Equally striking are the statistics for professors in the UK. A recent AdvanceHE staff equality data report for UK Higher Education Institutions showed that for the academic year 2017/18, only 10% of professors came from categories racialised as BAME (7.7% men and 2.3% women). Breaking this down, just 0.6% of UK professors were Black, in the narrower sense (90 men and 35 women). Across the whole of the UK, fewer than five heads of institutions were identified as belonging to groups racialised as BAME (3.1%) and of UK origin. A 2019 UCU study on the career experiences and strategies of UK Black female professors evidences “a culture of explicit and passive bullying [which] persists across higher education along with racial stereotyping and racial microaggressions”. Meanwhile, interviewing 37 UK senior academics racialised as BAME about their experiences of mentoring, Kalwant Bhopal (2019) found that the rhetoric of equality and diversity does not match up with experiences of policy and procedure.

As Black British scientist Winston Morgan writes, a lot of his time “was spent defending [himself] against those who found it difficult to accept that [he] could be a good scientist”. Because many still refuse to accept “that racism or even unconscious bias exists in academia”, forming racial justice equivalents of gender equality initiatives such as Athena Swan has proved challenging. The rebuttal of the very existence of racism is a hurdle that is both frustrating and discouraging, as Leona Nichole Black explains:

Having to shoulder the burden of proof, we as Black and Minority Ethnic communities often refer to the ‘covert’ nature of British racism. I suggest this speaks to our self-doubt, and frustration that the legitimacy of our experiences is routinely called in to question in the face of a tolerant and multicultural Britain. What clearer demonstration of this than the “I, too, am Oxford” initiative by Black students at Oxford University, a campaign exposing BME experience of racism at the institution, and the faux civility of the rebuttal staged by white students, “We Are All”.


This discussion frames some of the problems and offers some suggested resources. Tomorrow, we will be sharing examples of actions that are being taken by Sheffield UCU members as part of our action against workplace racism. The Google Form will remain open to contributions throughout the day; in the event that we cannot transform all of them into public posts in a timely fashion, you will see that the form requests (optional) permission to store the information provided until a later date.

Racism and anti-Racism in Unions

This is the third post in our UCU Week of Action Against Work-Place Racism series. See the previous posts from Monday and Tuesday. You can also contribute to our crowd-sourced actions (to be released on Friday).

As a trade union, UCU is committed to improving the working conditions for all university staff. It provides specific spaces for Black members — such as its Black Members’ Standing Committee (see the film ‘witness‘ which chronicles the lived experiences of Black members) and an annual Black members’ conference, as well as a Black Voices webpage.

In this respect, UCU operates with the framework of political Blackness, “an umbrella term …encompass[ing] minorities with family origins in Asia and the Middle East as well as in Africa and its diaspora.” Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and law at New York University, explains the British origins of this inclusive approach to Blackness in a recent New York Times op-ed, “What we can learn from the rise and fall of political Blackness” (7 October 2020).

In 2016, UCU launched a week of action against workplace racism, supporting its wider campaigning against racism. In the past year UCU has published a short guide for branches to build anti-racist workplaces as well as several reports on racism in the education system (see below). UCU also incorporated a sector wide action plan to address race and gender pay gaps into its 2019-2020 pay claim, extending this to include disability pay gap in the 2020-2021 claim.

Student unions too campaign for race equality. The National Union for Students Black Students’ Campaign, for example, recommends ‘A Black Students Officer in every Union’.

In spite of these efforts, it is important to be aware that, as the majority of members of UCU are white, there is a danger of overlooking or ignoring the needs of those who are not. In addition, UCU must be understood within the broader union environment and history, which itself is not devoid of racism.

In Comrade or Brother? A History of the British Labour Movement, Mary Davis looks at patriarchal divisions as well as imperialism and racism and the ways these have shaped the British working class. In ‘connecting the separate spheres of class, race and gender,’ she highlights how UK trade unions too have had to deal with questions of racism and xenophobia. Reviewing the second edition (Pluto Press, 2009), Ronaldo Munck writes:

The term social imperialism, first coined by Karl Renner in 1917, accurately sums up a system in which the spoils of empire would be used to finance social reform at home. Racism, eugenics and jingoism or national chauvinism united in a potent mix. For Mary Davis this constellation “provided the new unifying antidote to the emerging socialist consciousness of the 1880’s which threatened to expose the possible class conflict of a declining economy” (p.88). Social imperialism continued as a powerful force into the 20th century, and not even all the socialist organizations took an anti-imperialist stance. As to the mainstream labour movement at the very best it was silent on Empire, the partition of Africa was simply never referred to, but much more common was a fervently pro-Empire stance. Notions of the ‘white man’s burden’ were more or less dominant with a racial chauvinism greatly weakening the unifying potential of the trade unions. Overt racial prejudice and an effective colour bar in many areas contributed to high Black worker unemployment, a situation that only changed with the acute labour shortages during the Second World War. Unfortunately, the contemporary debates around racism, black worker self-organization and the trade union relationship to immigration lie outside the scope of this book.

Source: [Review of] Mary Davis. Comrade or Brother? A History of the British Labour Movement. London: Pluto Press, 2009. 304pp.

To this day, the ambiguity of unions’ anti-racism stance remains: EU-funded research led by Steve Jefferys (2006) showed significant differences between the tolerant and even positive discourse and national policies of trade unions against racism and xenophobia, and the reality in the workplace.

More recently, Jeffreys and Nouria Ouali have continued to explore how European trade unions have responded to workplace racism against minority and migrant workers, with reference to the impact of the 2008 recession. In “Hard times for trade union anti-racism workplace strategies” (Transfer, 2015), Ouali and Jefferys explain that while “union pressure for equal treatment had already weakened somewhat before the crisis”, “subsequently, unemployment levels for ethnic minority and migrant workers rose much faster than for “national majority’ workers, and levels of tension in the workplace have often increased”. They highlight four main union responses: “denial of racism and protection of the interests of national majority workers; the demand that minorities assimilate without special provisions; recognition of the need for minorities to have some special services and support; and the adoption of positive measures to promote equal treatment.”

Employing survey data from the largest (known) sample of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic staff in British higher and further education, and drawing on the psychology of social movements, Joseph Sweetman examines minority leadership within trade unions in the paper “When Similarities are More Important than Differences: ‘Politically Black’ Union Members’ Experiences of Racism and Participation in Union Leadership” (Social Issues, 2018). He finds that perceptions of racism and experiences of bullying may contribute to minorities attending union meetings and raising issues of racism with the union, but does not foster other forms of union involvement. He suggests unions need to do more to ‘build trust in the union’s position on racism’ and to improve politically black members’ levels of trust and commitment in order to make union leadership more representative of its membership.

If you are interested in taking action in this area, Sheffield UCU Anti-Racism Working Group welcomes new members. As with other areas of union work, how much we can achieve depends on our willingness to contribute time and energy to the cause. There’s space to volunteer and seek more information in the actions form, which complements this blog miniseries.

Racism and anti-racism in Social movements

This is the second post in our UCU Week of Action Against Work-Place Racism series. See the previous post here. Contribute to our crowd-sourced actions (to be released on Friday) here.

Historically, many white-led groups committed to social justice have been instrumental in perpetuating oppressive structures by ignoring and silencing people of colour. In The Progressive Plantation: racism inside white radical social change groups, Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin reflects on his own experiences within anarchist and anti-racist organisations; while Emahunn Raheem Ali Campbell responds to media comments on the absence of African Americans from the Occupy Movement by highlighting a misplaced focus on “togetherness” (being physically in one place) rather than “unity” (having a clear common cause).

Feminist movements, equally, have proven to be problematic when it comes to race. Writing in a US context, Monnica T. Williams highlights areas pertinent to black women’s lives which white feminism ignores–maternal care, infant mortality, the disappearance of native women, etc. Separately, Rachel Elizabeth Cargle analyses how practices such as tone policing in feminist movements uphold white supremacy, thereby oppressing, rather than liberating, Black women. Both are written for a general audience. In the journal Hypatia, Mariana Ortega’s 2006 article “Being Lovingly, Knowingly Ignorant: White Feminism and Women of Color” offers a more in-depth analysis of potential issues that arise in the relationship between white feminists and women of colour; Ortega recommends the concept of “world”-travelling as a solution, inviting white feminists to experience differences affecting the lives of women of colour, rather than merely acknowledging that differences exist. Sirma Bilge’s 2014 article, “Intersectionality Undone: Saving Intersectionality from Feminist Intersectionality Studies”, highlights appropriation and misuse of the concept of intersectionality in feminist academic circles.

Much of what is written on this topic draws necessarily upon personal and culturally-specific experiences. In Them Goon Rules: Fugitive Essays on Radical Black Feminism (2018), Marquis Bey brings together personal experiences of social justice work in the United States (especially Philadelphia and New York) and the exploration of queerness, Black studies and Black feminism. The history and practice of Black feminism and Afrofeminism in Europe is the topic of attention in Akwugo Emejulu and Francesca Sobande’s edited collection To Exist is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe (2019), a portion of which is available open access courtesy of the publisher Pluto Books. There they explain their goal to ““correct the record” and “talk back against both American domination and European silence about Black feminism”. For a dense but enlightening account of British Black Power and its similarities and differences with the US Black Power movement, we also recommend John Narayan’s article British Black Power: The anti-imperialism of political blackness and the problem of nativist socialism (Sociological Review, 2019).

Look out for the next post in this series tomorrow, which will focus specifically on the role of Trade Unions in perpetuating and combatting racism.

Racism and anti-racism in unions and educational institutions: a mini-series for the 2021 UCU Week of Action Against Work-Place Racism

Today (22nd February) we mark the beginning of UCU’s Annual week of Action Against Work-Place Racism with the start of a short blog series on racism and anti-racism in contexts relevant to our Union. SUCU members Enja Helmes, Caroline Metz, and other members of the Sheffield UCU Anti-Racism Working Group have written a series of posts highlighting key issues and resources in relation to race and racism as it affects social movements, trade unions and education.

Monday: Introduction

It is easy to fill a reading list, but we then face the important question: how to turn learning into action? Action cannot wait until we are experts. We write as white-identifying members of UCU and with the acknowledgement that if we are to be active anti-racists and effective allies for colleagues, co-unionists, students and citizens racialised as BAME, then we need to get better at moving from words to deeds. That might apply to you too, so this first blog post comes with an invitation:

On Friday (26th February), we’ll be sharing actions that our members have been involved with, and pledges of action members intend to take. As well as collecting together formal actions taken by Sheffield UCU, we will be crowd-sourcing examples. So if there is something you are already doing that others might be interested in, or you have suggestions about what Sheffield UCU can do as we seek to translate knowledge into action, please let us know. Share your responses via this Google Form.

We will be capturing email addresses of those who share answers in case we have follow-up questions (e.g., if something you write is unclear); responses will be published anonymously unless you request otherwise. We welcome responses from non-UCU members too, though the form is only accessible to members of the University.


Following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police, the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum, including in Sheffield where a new BLM group was created.

The BLM movement is part of the wider racial justice movement, and in past months we have seen many ‘anti-racist reading lists’ published in various media outlets and on social media platforms. Most highlight non-fiction books about racism (including anti-Black racism), colonialism and white supremacy, their origins and how they have operated to this day. (This one, compiled by Foluke Ifejola Adebisi from the University of Bristol, is very comprehensive.)

Others suggest novels, graphic novels and poetry on racism and resistance to racism. Some university departments have focused on their own areas of research (see for example this anti-racist legal pedagogy resource), and Sheffield University library itself has shared a list of anti-racism resources.

As university workers and as members of a union, we need to be critical about our own institutions and practices. In this blog series we will be introducing resources—some accessible freely online, others available via the University library—that show how social movements and social change organisations such as schools, universities and unions are often complicit in perpetuating racial inequalities.

Speaking and writing as white people, it’s important to note that although we experience racism as a hierarchical and discriminatory system in that we benefit from white privilege (even when we might not be aware of it), we do not directly experience racism as a system of oppression. As such, we will be foregrounding the work of people who are much more qualified to speak about racism, and sharing resources that helped our understanding of racism. In doing so, we hope to provide a launch pad—and not by any means a definitive list—for others who want to learn, or learn more. The concluding post will include a reference list with further readings.

Some books, such as Taking up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi, share individuals’ experiences of what it means to enter academia as black womxn. See also the edited collection, The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship in Times of Explicit Racial Violence, which features chapters from Dr Azeezat Johnson, “An Academic Witness: White Supremacy within and beyond Academia” and Dr Muna Abdi, “I am not a Writer”–both of whom completed their PhDs at Sheffield in 2017.

In upcoming posts we will focus on the plethora of reports, articles and books that examine the various ways in which Black people, as well as other racialised communities, face disadvantages and discrimination in Higher Education and within social movements.

A note on language:
The vocabulary used to talk about race and racism is itself at issue. This blog series is written from the standpoint of white-identifying female academics who seek to be anti-racist. We have aimed to reflect the chosen terminology of the writers discussed and are aware that each terminology has its limitations and critics (Black vs. people of colour, vs. non-white, vs. BAME, etc.). We note that whereas the acronym “BAME” has been widely adopted by HE institutions and is commonly used for statistical purposes, it serves to obscure difference and is not ordinarily a component of the identities of those to whom it seeks to refer. In that respect, we use the more accurate “racialized as BAME”.

Tomorrow’s post: Racism and anti-racism in Social movements

Take action today to support service workers on campus!

Dear fellow members,

As you know, over the past month, representatives from UCU, Unite, and UNISON have been meeting with the University of Sheffield human resources team twice a week to negotiate over issues related to the safety and security of all of the workers on this campus.

We are writing to you today to make you aware of the unfortunate policy which UNICUS, a wholly owned subsidiary of the University of Sheffield, has adopted during the current crisis. While the University has agreed to top up the government furlough scheme from 80% to 100%, UNICUS has elected to adopt the government furlough scheme only. This means that UNICUS staff, a mixture of students and non-students, will be making only 80% of their usual salaries during this time. UNICUS workers have been speaking out about the unequal conditions they are experiencing and The Forge Press has also written about Unite’s call for pay parity for UNICUS staff.

The bottomline is that many of the lowest paid staff members working at our University will now be making less than the living wage, threatening their ability to provide basic necessities for themselves and their dependents during a global crisis. It sends a clear message that some members of our campus community matter more than others.

UNICUS, which helps to run accommodation, commercial, and hospitality services, including many of the food service venues at the University, is a legally separate employer from the University of Sheffield. However, as a wholly owned subsidiary, it is nonetheless heavily intertwined with the University. For example, the two employers share a Chief Financial Officer, and the director of UNICUS is also the director of University of Sheffield Accommodation Services. Line managers employed by the University of Sheffield are in many cases responsible for managing employees from both TUoS and Unicus. In addition, the University is far and away UNICUS’s largest client.

For all of these reasons and more, the University ultimately bears a moral responsibility for the treatment of UNICUS staff.

After an extensive lobbying campaign by the Student Union and campus trade unions several years back, the University agreed to pay a living wage to all staff. UNICUS subsequently committed to paying “the equivalent of the Living Wage” as well and claims it has “an ongoing commitment to our most valuable asset, our staff; recognising their talents, the great customer service culture they display and the positive way they contribute”. A policy which denies workers a living wage during this crisis belies this commitment.

Many of you have already contacted us asking about the conditions of UNICUS staff and expressing your support. The Unite, UNISON, and UCU branch committees have jointly written to the director of UNICUS asking the company to provide proper support to their staff during this crisis. However, it is imperative that we speak up collectively as a campus community to make it clear that the University bears a moral responsibility to ensure that all workers labouring at the University, whether directly employed or not, must be able to provide for themselves and their dependents.

If you are able, please take 5 minutes today to email UNICUS director/ University accommodation services director Caryn Masters at c.masters@sheffield.ac.uk and copy in the VC at vc@sheffield.ac.uk.

An injury to one is an injury to all!


Sheffield UCU Branch Committee