Last week the Royal Historical Society launched a report on race, ethnicity and equality within academic History in the UK. The findings were damning. The Report found that 93.7% of historians are White, a figure considerably higher than that for sector as whole (85%) making the discipline one of the least diverse in the sector. Almost all BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) groups are underrepresented, but the proportion of Black academics is especially low. Across the sector, only 1.5% of academic staff are Black. In History the proportion is 0.5%. In addition to this overwhelming ethnic homogeneity, workplace racism was found to be alarmingly widespread. In a survey of over 700 historians working in UK Higher Education Providers, nearly a third of BME respondents reported having directly experienced abuse or discrimination on the basis of their race. The vast majority of these incidents were perpetrated by their colleagues and students.
The early response to the Report within the higher education sector has been very positive. Scholarly societies, heads of departments and policy-makers have acknowledged the urgency of the problems identified in the Report, and some preliminary discussions of how to implement its wide-ranging recommendations have already begun. More generally, many academic historians have expressed their disappointment, concern and outrage at the state of the discipline across social media. Some have noted that the report reinforces and furthers the excellent work done by earlier groups and individuals. BME colleagues have stated that it validates their personal experiences of working in History departments. Feedback received by the Report’s authors from historians has praised its thoroughness and practical utility. However, alongside these welcoming and constructive responses, there have been some critical and hostile voices. These have come from predictable quarters and have railed against the Report’s call for curriculum reform in order to make teaching provision more inclusive and less Eurocentric.
Some newspapers have taken this line. The Times coverage of the Report focussed on its finding that creating a more inclusive and diverse curriculum could encourage BME students to study History. It concluded with comments from three White men questioning the need for reform and lamenting the work entailed in implementing any such change. The Times also printed a piece by historian (and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society) Michael Burleigh, which opened by discussing BME underrepresentation among staff and students and ended by endorsing the report’s call to ensure that ‘all minds’ can share in ‘the incredible richness of the human past’. The paper subsequently printed four letters in response to Burleigh. All four attacked the idea of curriculum change. One letter, written by the controversial Oxford Theologian Nigel Biggar, stands out. It contrasted ‘”Black History”‘ with the history of ‘we British’. This was either a deliberate attempt to provoke, or is otherwise a revealing insight into Biggar’s understanding of the relation between race and nationality. Black Britons evidently are not encompassed within his use of ‘we’.
Aside from Biggar’s ethnic absolutism—to borrow Paul Gilroy’s apt phrase—the silence in much of the newspaper press and its associated media on BME underrepresentation or workplace racism speaks volumes. Although curriculum reform was identified as an important component of reform in the Report, the great bulk of its findings, discussion and recommendations in fact focused on BME underrepresentation and experiences of bias, discrimination and workplace racism. Evidently, there are a minority in the sector who either refuse to acknowledge these problems, or simply do not care. While not everyone is willing to demonstrate such a callous disinterest through publishing their own words in national newspapers, prior to the publication of this Report this was effectively the default position of many, if not most, academic historians working in the UK. Historians have long been more-or-less aware of the problem of BME underrepresentation, even if its exact magnitude has been unclear. And, given the reported scale of the problems, some historians working in UK universities must have wilfully overlooked discriminatory attitudes and behaviours. Without concerted and continuous efforts, the discipline could easily return to this default.
Many reflections on the Report have described it as ‘sobering‘. The word choice is appropriate. It captures how the urgency of the findings necessitates serious action. However, it also has an interesting, if inadvertent, implication: that the Report has brought historians out of collective intoxication, that it has spoilt the fun. The use of this adjective calls to mind Sara Ahmed’s phenomenological approach to Whiteness. Drawing on experiences of working in universities, she argued that Whiteness was embedded in institutional arrangements and practices that had built up over time becoming so commonplace as to fade into the background. This structural Whiteness allows some bodies to be able to inhabit space with ease, comfort and confidence, while others are conspicuous, unwelcome and self-conscious.
To sober up is to become newly, and acutely, aware of ourselves and the effects of our actions on others. If the Report is sobering for some colleagues it could be because Whiteness impairs the faculties: it is a set of structures so familiar they are often not apparent to those who benefit from them. The Report has made the marginalising effects of these structures apparent to many historians in a form hard to dodge; by documenting the overrepresentation of White historians and revealing racial inequality across the discipline in detailed empirical evidence. While a minority may wish to deflect attention away from these issues through a myopic focus on curriculum reform in isolation, the rest of us must commit to doing our part to bring about meaningful change.
Jonathan Saha is Associate Professor of Southeast Asian History at the University of Leeds, co-chair of the Royal Historical Society’s Race, Ethnicity and Equality Working Group, and one of the co-authors of the Report itself.