“I read in research that blacks are lazy and not intelligent” – those were the words uttered by my classmate on the first day of my master’s programme. My heart sunk as I was the only black student in class and also because it was the first time in my life that I had heard such a statement. I felt I had suddenly become data that could support or reject that ‘research’.
Unfortunately, higher education has had a huge role in perpetuating racial superiority/inferiority and or essentialism. This particular student had had no exposure to any black person in their life but was confident that they knew all about them because they had read it in research and well, I was soon exposed to many such literature, all discussing the inferiority of people of colour especially African Americans.
This happened in 2018; it’s 2022 but a quick skim through course outlines of various universities would show that many universities still provide such articles to students and while some now try to provide alternative articles, others don’t bother to do so. This has meant that harmful stereotypes and narratives continue to be perpetuated and are then carried out into the larger world by highly educated students and educators.
A recent webinar I attended on publishing mentioned how papers from the Global South and generally countries which were not the USA or U.K. were bad, with a member of the panel mentioning confidently that their PhD students could write better. Again, I wondered if it never crossed their minds that a person of colour specifically from the Global South could be listening to them.
People in academia constantly belittle and underestimate knowledge that isn’t WEIRD (“Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic”) and refuse to acknowledge that people of colour from the Global South or even those who grew up in the Global North are already producing relevant and important research. Lack of collaboration and negative assumptions have meant that most of the time, we have a case of ‘Columbus discovering America,’ and these ideas are rarely challenged. The ground-breaking knowledge is often old knowledge that has been available to an often ignored populace for years!
Why I decided to be an REC Doctoral intern?
I share what I consider to be progress… In 2020/2021, I decided to audit a course and for one of the tutorial sessions, we had to discuss Steve McQueen’s movie “Mangrove”. In the middle of the discussion, a student remarked “I didn’t know blacks were so intelligent!” Again, I was the only black person there – I wasn’t sure what to feel, or if I should feel anything at all, but I did appreciate that this class had proven to be useful. It provided students with a different perspective and knowledge that would hopefully help them recognise that knowledge could come from anywhere and everyone could contribute meaningfully to it.
Also, I spent two years on the Rector’s committee as one of the Racial Equality Coordinators because I felt that issues of race equality needed to be clearly defined so that solutions could be attempted. My time on the Rector’s committee was awesome as I got to learn about what the university was doing in terms of race, disability, sexual orientation, bullying and harassment, but also contribute to ensuring that student stories/ experiences were shared with the relevant authorities and/or groups and action taken where necessary. However, my work on the Rector’s committee focused a lot on the experiences of undergraduates to the neglect of postgraduates.
I took on the role of a Race Equality Charter Intern because I hope that its focus on the experiences of PGTs and PGRs would provide me with an opportunity to learn about the experiences of postgrads and together we could learn to thrive in St Andrews and Higher Education as a whole.
What plans do I have and what can you do ?
I’ll tell you in my next blog but till then do read about the race equality charter here Race Equality Charter | Advance HE (advance-he.ac.uk) and the report here Race Equality Charter Review Phase 2 | Advance HE (advance-he.ac.uk).
Also, the September theme for SGSAH’s blog is Race Equality in Research and so it would be great if readers especially researchers of colour contribute. We are open to stories/ experiences of any kind – what you’ve done to thrive in your research/ Higher Ed, your effective coping skills, favourite books, battle songs (I do have them), cultural misunderstandings that you later understood, PGT/PGR groups that you would love to signpost us to and then maybe even share some failures with us. Again, don’t limit yourself to what has been suggested, we would love you to freely contribute.
Gyasiwa Arhin (she/her) is a 3rd year PhD student at the School of Psychology & Neuroscience, University of St Andrews. Her research focuses on Mob justice/ vigilantism and she’s currently looking at that from an interdisciplinary perspective – Psychology, Sociology and Legal studies. The goal is to ensure that evidenced-based interventions can be done in communities where this phenomenon is prevalent.