“The risk of internalising your own inferiority”: In conversation with two black female academics at UCL

Black female academics

As of 2016-17, only twenty five black women were documented to be working as professors in the UK. In light of a report published by the Equalities Challenge Unit, now known as Advance HE, about the experiences of BME academics in higher education, The Cheese Grater Magazine interviewed two black female academics at UCL, who have asked to remain anonymous, to understand some of their personal experiences.

The research report detailed how academia can be “a challenging environment for BME staff”; BME academics were reported to feel under greater scrutiny and felt that they had to work harder to prove themselves. After conducting an interview with two black academics at UCL, we have found that their experiences match up with some of the sentiments expressed in the research report.

Has the amount of discrimination you have experienced intensified/lessened over the course of your career?
Academic 1: ‘There is more unconscious bias; microaggressions that play out, things people do without reflecting. I feel there are mechanisms in place to protect the bully. As a female academic, they often think you are support staff.’

Academic 2: ‘You can’t always identify if the negative experiences can be attributed to discrimination or based on the general difficulty to get into academia in the first place. It can be difficult to separate the two.’

Do you think you have been able to advance in your career at a similar pace to your white/male colleagues?
Academic 1: ‘I have not necessarily had as much encouragement to apply for a position, but conversely, have not failed to get positions. However, it is naïve to expect to get encouragement to apply for a promotion.’

Academic 2: ‘Women in academia are at a disadvantage in many ways, particularly mothers, and if you have young children, you are at a disadvantage. With race, it is a difficult one. You have to work harder to be taken seriously, and some of the times I was subjected to negative stereotypes and certain types of treatment that I don’t think white academics would have been subjected to the same extent – but these things are very difficult to prove because at the surface no one is racist, and very often those kinds of behaviours are not conscious.’

Do you think that being a black woman meaningfully impacts your everyday experience as an academic, and if so, how?
Academic 1: ‘I don’t know, I just don’t care. It is difficult to deal with support staff who come from a corporate environment, because it can hinder everyday workings. People also tend to stereotype the “angry black woman”.’

Academic 2: ‘It enabled me to create a rapport with black women students in a different way. They have said “I didn’t used to think this place was for people like me, but you’re here, so there is space for people like us here.” Whether it impacts everyday experiences is difficult to say, because in many contexts, you have to work harder to be taken seriously. To me, the most serious consequence of not being taken seriously as a non-white academic, or having to work harder at being taken seriously, is that over time, the risk is you come to internalise your own inferiority; you come to think that you are where you are, because you don’t deserve more. That means you are less likely to put yourself forward. There’s a self-fulfilling aspect to these things, and it’s very difficult to break.’

Why are there so few black females in academia in the UK?
Academic 1: ‘Some women could be disadvantaged due to their background, as they do not expect the mannerisms of the field. Race and social class are also intertwined, as well as culture.’

Academic 2: ‘Partly, unless you have broad models, then many black women think that this is not a world for them. If they’ve experienced discrete forms of discrimination and bullying, then they are less likely to have the confidence to put themselves forward for these positions.’

What, if anything, should be done to help more black women get into academia?
Academic 1: ‘Everybody has to contribute to help this. This has to start from early on, as race is highly correlated with social disadvantage. A lot of work to be done with unconscious bias. It is instilled from a young age. They do not offer enough unconscious bias training. We have to acknowledge history correctly – the shame, and the mistakes made by the Empire. Overall, UCL is a good place to work, and probably one of the most inclusive amongst Russell Groups.’

Academic 2: ‘Having more of a public conversation about these problems and trying to identify them is the first step. Those conversations should not only happen among non-white people, but should involve everybody, as part of the problem is that many non-white people think race issues are a problem for non-white people to figure out. But it has to be done in a way that is not going to alienate people and make them more uncomfortable; it has to be done
in a constructive way.’

Do you think there are differences across academic fields/ universities you have worked at in terms of how easy/difficult it is to be a black woman in that space?
Academic 1: ‘The most difficult experience was as an undergraduate in my home continent. It is emotionally challenging, but easier to deal with explicit racism. However, unconscious bias, you cannot pin. In continental Europe, the issue was culture, and related to authority in a different way.’

Academic 2: ‘High prestige institutions have probably historically been more reluctant than others to have those conversations, because the idea that they worked as meritocracies, and nothing else, was so entrenched.’


Riddhi Kanetkar

Additional reporting: Sasha Baker