Why is my uni so white?

By Julia Parris

The TedX LSE organised a talk by Julia Parris on the 18th of June.

The transcript of Julia’s talk is given below

When I was ten-years old, I moved from Georgetown, Guyana, to Brooklyn, NY. 

Growing up poor in East-Flatbush, Brooklyn meant I attended racially segregated and underfunded public schools. I entered the 5th grade and was quickly told by my teacher that I could no longer speak with a Guyanese accent because she could not understand me.

This is why I now speak like this instead of like this to explain to you that you should care that there are few students of colour or of poor and working class backgrounds in our classrooms.

As a first-year student at a predominately white college, Black feminist thought only came up during Black history month; the curriculum was all white the rest of the year.

In my second year, non-Western philosophy was entirely excluded from the introductory course curriculum. There was no attempt at inclusivity or diversity.

One would assume this kind of bias would stop when I arrived at LSE. It didn’t.

My graduate program, Human Rights and Politics, reflects a continued colonial agenda. The majority-white faculty and student body judge others based on their competence in Standard English, ability to display bourgeois worldviews, and accommodate dominant, Eurocentric teaching.

LSE’s clout as an institution of higher education wouldn’t exist without legacies built from the wealth of slavery and its deep entanglement with race science.

LSE founders were all prominent believers in eugenicist thought, actively believing that people of colour were intellectually and genetically inferior to white people.

The university has never delinked itself from its historical legacy of maintaining white supremacy, which even today is visible in its student body, faculty, course curriculum, and grading discrepancies that contribute to students like me feeling as if we do not belong here.

Western education can be summarized as: Okay, but what happened in Europe? What did Europe do and think? How did Europeans save this nation? Almost nothing is taught about the history of colonised people before, during, or even after European intervention—the little that is taught, is shown through a Eurocentric lens.

As a self-proclaimed “global university,” LSE’s 2030 strategy includes buzz phrases like “shape the world’s future” and “LSE is for everyone.” To be sure, the university should be a leading force towards a decolonial, anti-racist future. But it is falling short.

Recently, after attending a Decolonise LSE Collective meeting, I talked with other students of colour and realized that my story is not an anomaly.

Universities like LSE reinforce and perpetuate the idea that only Eurocentric views hold academic value and prestige. That is why LSE needs a decolonising framework. 

A decolonising framework would approach decolonisation of the university from the perspective of coexistence, rather than opposition to Euro-centric ideologies. Because unlike Euro-centric universal aims, decolonising academic projects seek to include and not exclude. 

We need more people like me in academia. Not because I’m a success story of someone from the hood who made it to a top-tier university, but as an insistence that historically repressed people’s narratives belong in academia.

Maleness, whiteness, upper-class, Euro-centered pedagogy is the universal currency of power and influence in western academia.  But it is time this changes.

LSE should be a leading institution that unpacks why our uni is so white and how to decolonise it.

Slide 2

The history of colonialism refers to violent promotion of the ideologies, beliefs, and cultural practices of dominant groups, to maintain centered positions of cultural, social, and economic capital.

Colonisation dehumanises, destroys, and forcefully assimilates indigenous, enslaved, and indentured peoples.

Colonialism has created intergenerational inequities in the distribution of wealth and entrenched systems in education that maintain the colonial agenda today.

Diversity is devalued and associated with low educational or cultural capital. This then establishes the notion that dominant cultural practices are the right way or the norm.

Academic institutions have passed down their Eurocentric origins and history of privileged faculty, administrators, and students while placing marginalised people with post-colonial and decolonising viewpoints at risk.

In elite white academic spaces, I am reminded that I do not belong. 

It is intentional that these spaces are exclusive.

Historically, academic spaces have kept people like me out.

Although we have come a long way, we need to recognize and finally address the fact that western universities still embody a colonial structure of keeping academia as exclusively white spaces.

The ways these microaggressions show up in practice are through financial and mental health pressures, a void of cultural connection to the curriculum, and a lack of professors of Black professors at LSE.

A study on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic students’ experiences done by LSE’s Dr Sara Camacho Felix, an Assistant Professorial Lecturer, found that social and familial pressures contribute to the staggering attainment gap between white and BAME students.

Felix’s study highlights the cycle of elite institutions primarily serving a white, affluent majority student population and maintaining those structures despite their ostensible promotion of inclusion and diversity.

Next slide:

Although, ‘I’ve made it’, I am reminded that I don’t belong here, where bourgeois Eurocentric practices maintain powerful social capital.

Growing up poor in Guyana to two parents who did not graduate high school, I know that I am at a disadvantage. I also know that a degree from the LSE will open a door of opportunities that otherwise would not be afforded to me.

My grandmother was a newspaper saleswoman. And she instilled in me at an early age that succeeding in school would bring us out of poverty. Although she didn’t know how to read and write, she would have me read sections of the news to her as well as count her daily earnings. Education was important to my family and they expected me to do well. 

Research has proven that education can pull working class people out of dire economic situations. But according to the Office of Students, LSE has the widest “access gap” between wealthier and poorer students,[1] which means that if you come from a poor background your chances to attend LSE are slim. The Education Policy Institute also found that students from affluent areas are six times as likely to attend schools like LSE than those from the most deprived areas[2]

Next slide: lack of cultural connection to the curriculum and grading discrepancies

Once I have made it in the door, there’s the expectation that I am supposed to speak on behalf of my race. At the same time, I am expected to develop a strong cultural connection to the curriculum while that curriculum teaches me nothing about my race.

For example, look at your course reading list: how many sources aren’t white?  From the beginning of my western education, people of colour are “othered” and white Eurocentric writers and thinkers are placed above them.

We are told we have only been accepted because of our skin colour and not because we have earned it. It is assumed I am taking the place of a more qualified white candidate.  White parents who have actually been prosecuted for buying their children’s places at Ivy League Universities aren’t nearly as stigmatised.

When it comes to demanding a place in higher education, we’re often told to go the extra mile to prove our worth and not let our background define our future success. Except, my race may be costing me my grades.

At LSE, BAME students are less likely to obtain a degree with honours than white students; a trend that is worsening over time. According to research done by LSE in 2013-14, BAME students whether (home, international, undergraduate, or postgraduate) are less likely to obtain a 1st or 2:1 than their white peers by 16.4 percent.[3] 

We are faced with being continually required to demonstrate knowledge, skills and attitudes that keep in line with colonial agendas. We are sanctioned when we push back against these systems. Even when faculty and my supervisors try to understand me and my different perspective, I’m marked down for not matching their colonial standards of academic writing. 

The demand is for students of colour to assimilate. These requirements are frustrating and on top of this, they remind me that this academic space wasn’t created with me in mind.

My inclusion is based entirely on my assimilation to eurocentric standards.

LSE should create an academia space that encourages students of colour to break these Eurocentric standards like anti-racist writer Sara Ahmed. In her latest book Living a Feminist Life,she created a new practice citing only works written by women. This shattered the mold where ideologies of canonised male Eurocentric works are the standard.

Next slide:

In the last 15 years, the percentage of non-white professors at western universities has not changed. Representation matters. The presence of a Black professor at an elite white institution shows me that I have a place in academia. It breaks the barrier.

According to the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Office at LSE,  there has been one Black professor at the LSE since 2011. That professor, Paul Gilroy, left LSE in 2012, so there are currently no Black professors.  In contrast, the number of White professors has risen from 157 in 2012 to 214 in 2016.[4]   What stops western universities from hiring more black professors?

Instead, LSE should change its hiring practices to target more professors of colour.  The resulting lack of diverse viewpoints does academia a disservice. It literally is one of the ways academia maintains exclusively white spaces, even as there are qualified and deserving Black professors available.

Next Slide:

As historically oppressed people, we need to be in academia.  It will take the full creativity of humanity to shape the world into a more inclusive and better place for all.

Take canonised philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose racism isn’t a concern for philosophy historians. They tend to excuse him as a product of his time.  Except, he stated, “One could prove whatever one chose to prove” and had access to periodicals by famous opponent of slavery, James Tobin. So, his failure to oppose the trans-Atlantic slave trade represents a philosophical and moral shortcoming. This does not mean we should not read his work, instead we should interrogate it more critically.

Kant’s work cannot be interpreted as anachronistic because he knew better and choose not to condemn chattel slavery. If we can better understand racism, we can work together to combat it and ignoring racism in academia does not allow that.

My story matters; after being violently erased because of colonialism, it is time for academia to rid of its racist past and include people of colour. To do that, I propose a decolonising agenda. To be sure, decolonising academia doesn’t discard white Western ideologies but recognises the promotion of dominant groups which have systematically communicated that certain people do not belong.

Decolonising movements at universities like SOAS and the University of Capetown in South Africa, recognise the “other”: making minorities visible, addressing the legacies of colonialism, racism, heterosexism, patriarchy, and working towards a world beyond these repressive structures.

Final: What’s Next

Audre Lorde said,” For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

Do you want this structure to change? because the responsibility of decolonsing academia needs to be a collective action of educators and students alike, regardless of your identity. 

A starting point for decolonising academia, creating an inclusive student experience could adhere to Dr. Sara Camacho-Felix Inclusive Education Action Plan, developed in collaboration with LSE Teaching and Learning Centre.

In addition to structural changes in hiring practices to include more Black and queer professors, include translated books in languages other than English in the library, revamping course selection and curriculum to be more inclusive.  And encourage students of colour to draw on their histories and previous knowledges to contribute to an otherwise diluted curriculum. 

Students are calling for academia to change from the #RhodesMustFall campaign at the University of Cape Town. To “Why Isn’t My Professor Black?” and “Why Is My Curriculum White?” movements that started at University College, London, to Oxford University and anti-racist initiative by LSE’s Decolonising Collective. Ethnic minority students are demanding exposure to non-European thinkers on their courses, and an improved historical awareness of the contexts in which the materials were created. 

The reality is that western university departments will continue to exclude, marginalise and undervalue non-western pedagogies, staff and students.

Although I am included within this elite academia space, I am forced to perform whiteness for my writing to be taken seriously, to get good grades, or be published. My background of being black, poor, a woman, and a Guyanese immigrant makes my contribution to academia valuable.

We should care that there are few students of colour in most of our classrooms. We should care that they are not performing as well as white students. And we should be concerned with the effect that this has on their mental health.

LSE has rightly introduced blind grading, a practice to mitigate grading bias. But if we haven’t confronted white hegemony in academia, then how will we dismantle white dominance in education? How can you assume that blind grading fixes the prejudices against non-western styles of educational pedagogy?  This only outsources the problem to minority students, who are made to feel inferior, when the problem lies within the system producing and reproducing whiteness and maleness.

Minority stress theory describes the chronic stress that minorities experience because of discrimination and prejudice, which significantly affects their mental wellbeing. How and why am I expected to bear this burden while fighting to succeed?

So, ask yourself why are you okay with your university being so white and what are you willing to do to change it?

Julia is a current MSc. Human Rights and Politics at LSE. She was born and raised in Georgetown, Guyana and Brooklyn, New York and considered both her home. Prior to LSE, she was a writing advisor at the Minds Matter Mentorship Program and a former Hansard Scholar for Baroness Ruth Lister of the House of Lords. In her spare time, she enjoys taking instant photographs and watching Ru Paul’s Drag Race.

[1] https://beaveronline.co.uk/ofs-raises-access-gap-concerns-names-lse/

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/access-gap-university-poor-students-rich-education-policy-institute-a9297426.html

[3] ‘The Attainment Gap at LSE https://www.lsesu.com/pageassets/campaigning/student-reps/Attainment-Gap-at-LSE-v2.pdf

[4] https://info.lse.ac.uk/staff/divisions/equity-diversity-and-inclusion/EDI-objectives-data-and-research/Race-in-the-Academy

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