British academia's colourblind problem: an interview with Dr Nicola Rollock

Dr Nicola Rollock, lead author of the award-winning book The Colour of Class: the educational strategies of the Black middle classes, discusses race, equality and education in the UK.

Che Ramsden
10 March 2017
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Dr Nicola Rollock. Credit: Dr Nicola Rollock

Dr Nicola Rollock is Deputy Director of the Centre for Research in Race & Education at the University of Birmingham. She is Editor of the journal Whiteness and Education and lead author of the award-winning book The Colour of Class: the educational strategies of the Black middle classes (2015). Nicola was recently selected as winner of the 2016 PRECIOUS Award for Outstanding Woman in Professional Services for contributions to race equality. She is speaking on ‘Code Switching: How Black Women of Colour Survive in the World of Work’ as part of the Southbank’s WOW – Women of the World festival, on Friday 10th March 2017. Ahead of the festival, she spoke to openDemocracy 50.50 about race equality in the academy.

Ché Ramsden: In 2015, there was a brief moment of outcry – or perhaps awareness – when the Runnymede Trust released a report showing there were only 17 black women professors in the UK. I don’t think the data has changed much since then. Why is the academy so lacking in diversity? 

Dr Nicola Rollock: The latest statistical data published by the Equalities Challenge Unit – the body responsible for equalities in the higher education sector – shows that there are 75 UK Black Professors. Around one third of these are women. Of all ethnic groups, Black academics are least likely to be Professors.  While the sector has seen the recent introduction of the Race Equality Charter – aimed at improving the progression and success of faculty and students of colour - I know of no single initiative that specifically seeks to support Black academics in their career progression despite what the data shows about their small number and their experiences.

You ask about diversity but I want to be specific and talk about race. The word ‘diversity’ glosses over the actual issue we are talking about. I find that people are generally either scared of race as a subject or, believe that because they have knowledge about say gender then they can simply transpose that onto race.  That is not the case.  By and large, the academy tends to embrace a colourblind approach to engaging with race though I hope the introduction of the Race Equality Charter - for which I am a Patron - may force change in this area.  Personally, I would like to see benchmarks on race equality included in the performance reviews or appraisals of all senior leaders. 

By and large, I tend to prefer talking about equity rather than equality.  Equality assumes that treating everyone exactly the same is the right approach and ignores contextual or group differences and needs.  For example, suppose you have three people of different heights trying to look over a wall.  If you believe in equality you think that giving everyone a box of the same height to stand on is the best approach to help each person.  You’ll pat yourself on the back and say that you treated everyone equally.  Equity pays attention to the context and the different heights and gives each person a box, according to their needs, to enable each person to see over that wall.

CR: How do you manage the navigation of a white space day-to-day?

NR: I’ve been working in the field of race for a long time and am often invited to give talks or advice about race equality to higher education institutions and organisations in other sectors.  I am also frequently contacted by people of colour who are experiencing challenges and great distress in the workplace.  Many do not feel their experiences are acknowledged in mainly white spaces.  Their knowledge or expertise is questioned in a way they don’t see happen with white colleagues.  Despite the amount of work they put in, they find that they are consistently marked down in appraisals or other work evaluation processes.  Recent research by Business in the Community - published in their report ‘Race at Work’ – found that put downs and racial harassment were common experience for people of colour in the workplace.  People tell me that if they do report it, such incidents tend to be ignored or trivialised. Some might argue that they must be doing something wrong but when that pattern is repeated consistently across different sectors you have to start asking questions about how organisations understand race equality and put it into practice. 

Some people of colour respond by withdrawing from institutional activities or actively deciding against going for promotion because of the stress involved in trying to get there or because of what they see happen to others already in those positions. For some, race specific affinity groups and other support systems represent a welcome space away from the injustices of the wider workplace.  These groups offer a place where they can be themselves, talk about their experiences and have them understood, and receive additional support.  In my view, organisations suffer a significant waste of talent by not taking the time to engage properly with race equality and understand the experiences of employees of colour.

CR: How does an inequitable institution, a ‘pale, male, and stale’ academy, affect students?

NR: In addition to the low number of UK Black Professors, the Black-white degree attainment gap is an issue that really concerns me.  Of all ethnic groups, Black students are least likely to graduate with a first or 2.1.  Around half of all Black students do so compared with around three quarters of white students.  This is even when prior attainment is taken into account. Research also shows that Black students are most likely to drop out after their first year of study.  It strikes me that we need to better understand Black students experiences while they are actually at university and from there introduce specific initiatives to support them.

CR: Movements like Rhodes Must Fall, which have spread to the UK from South Africa, have highlighted Black students’ experiences within higher education – from daily micro-aggressions to structural racism, syllabus and curricula and the very foundations on which some of these institutions are built (including wealth gained through colonization and the transatlantic slave trade). Yet a lot of focus in the mainstream press has been on symbolic demands, such as the removal of statues, which are for the most part belittled by commentators. How do you see universities balancing, on the one hand, the need to better understand Black students’ experiences and, on the other, a reluctance to change?

NR: You’re right to say that the Rhodes Must Fall campaign was largely misunderstood and belittled. Many people considered that it was only about the removal of a single statute when in fact the statute symbolised a bigger issue, namely, a call for universities to rethink entirely how they engage with race and be more comfortable spaces in which faculty and students of colour can truly thrive. In the first instance, universities need to better understand what racism is and be more comfortable talking about it.  I’m running a programme with the Equality Challenge Unit at the moment called ‘Achieving Race Equality in Higher Education’ and part of our aim is to challenge the idea that racism is only overt and attributable to far right groups.  We’re highlighting that just like sexism there is also everyday racism that blights the success of people of colour.  Second – and I alluded to this before – I would like to see specific race-related objectives embedded in existing measurements and mechanisms that universities care about, such as University Rankings.


Athinangamso Nkopo from the Rhodes Must Fall In Oxford group , 1 Feb 2016. Credit: John Stillwell / PA Images

CR: You are speaking at the 2017 Women of the World Festival this week, which last year made a really noticeable effort to be more intersectional in its contribution to feminism. What kind of response do you get, when you’re speaking in feminist spaces about your experiences as a woman of colour?

NR: It depends whether the event has been organized by a white-led organization or a Black one.  In the former case, it is highly likely I will be the only women of colour on the platform and the only one to name intersectionality and race, both of which are important issues to the broader gender debate.  When I raise these issues, it is generally welcomed but as I said at LSE’s Literary Festival recently, I would like more white women to channel their inner Adele and pay explicit attention to race, privilege and advantage – not just with words but with actions. If it is a Black-led event, there is no need to push race or intersectionality as an issue; it is a natural part of our lives.  The conversation therefore starts from a fundamentally different place.

Southbank Centre's WOW - Women of the World festival runs 7-12 March, supported by Bloomberg.

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