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  • Writer's pictureBorgel

Invitation to Speak

‘Invitation to Speak’ is the subject of the email. I notice three other persons on the emailing list as I read not only ‘We would like to ask if you would be happy to do a 2 mins presentation/talk on your experiences of being part of the BAME community' at my university*, but also to ‘discuss issues surrounding tackling institutional racism’.

How comfortable can Black people feel talking about race and in white majority spaces? Is it a bit like asking a woman to stick her head up above the parapet in what is still largely a male led Euro-American globalised world? I see bodies, identities lumped into a label: BAME: Black Asian Ethnic Minority. A set of letters that diminishes prospects of an intersectional approach and implies ethnic minority people experiences are the same (1). Who makes up these labels and how do they work? Guess I am in the B for the blackness put on me by white people in 1681 (2). Today, we are homogenised into BAME, people of colour, 'under-represented groups' by institutions, in their confused attempts to legitimize and manage my existence. As if I am like a non-white invader of white spaces. What is whiteness (3) doing in welcoming BAME people to speak?

The purpose of writing this is to both (re)introduce the concepts developed in Sara Ahmed’s 'On Being Included; Racism and Diversity in Institutional life' to disrupt the way we think of institutional inequalities (including but not only racism) in science institutions and propose a potential way forward (4). In my view of the UK context, it seems the way 'BAME' labels are institutionalized, reproduces the status quo of white people in power structures, and shifts the problem and responsibility onto BAME people.

If we truly want to address structural inequalities, (race, gender gaps, etc.) in our institutions, who speaks out matters. When they speak out matters. Who endorses what they say, matters. While it is important to platform Black (BAME/ marginalized) people's voice on these issues, shouldn’t more white people (including high-profile ones) also be invited to publicly speak out and reflect on being white?

A colleague's experience highlights the lack of understanding the extent of the issue. A Black female post-doc was asked and consented for her photo to be displayed as the main one on the department's website. It is clear what this is; a way to mask an entirely white-washed department with a smiling face of 'diversity' (5). Tokenistic and performative. Black in Black Lives Matters, actually does matter. The far-right response of White in White Lives Matter, doesn’t. Pause. Really think about it. Not only do white people (tend to) not see their whiteness but also, they (tend to) not see or deny their structural advantages. Even we, as people of colour can get so used to inhabiting white spaces that we also learn not to see whiteness. Given the current political context of BLM movement, it might be tempting to think racism is the issue underlying inequality. To me however, the situation is nuanced, and I recognize even in white majority spaces, some white people can feel they do not fit (e.g. resulting from their working class, gender, sexual orientation, various disabilities etc.). I acknowledge their struggles. My desire is both for academia to be even more open and transparent on institutional 'failures' and to express my optimism that we can do better (at the end, is a proposal of how).

This point of doing better was crystalised at the university's online Town Hall – ‘A conversation about race at: a lived experience’. A pond of blackness; both academics and professional workers on the panel. The surprisingly energising feeling to not be singular reflects the exhausting effort to not notice! I remember seeing this and resonating with Prof. Paul Gilroy (Founding Director of Centre for the Study of Racism and Racialisation) at the end of the Town Hall, when he remarked on how meaningful it was to have this conversation out in the open rather than just with the security staff in his department!

In other words, to be Black is carrying the weight of navigating an ocean of whiteness and feeling you are the problem because the system presents itself to be inclusive and diverse. This is reinforced in my job applications, where in bold it often states; ‘We particularly welcome applications from Black and minority ethnic candidates as they are under-represented’. Well, bol***ks to that in bold? This unassuming gesture masks what is implicit: whiteness is already there. They are the structural hosts, welcoming 'us' and BAME people should be grateful for this hospitality. This welcoming, simply acts to maintain exclusion (6). This is not to say the welcoming is wrong, but rather for a balanced emphasis on the institution's structural and support, changes are needed, to align with the welcome. Instead, now it seems the focus is on the agency of individuals or groups who are underrepresented.

Dear (white/male) Dean of my Science faculty. I channelled my energy into constructing an email to get a sense of his position on tackling institutional racism, inequalities and colonial legacies at my university. Specifically, how relevant these issues are in relation to the quality of science research today as well as the level of resolve in following up with sustained action. My heart skips a beat when I see a response from him within 15 minutes. I read a positive, thank you response for raising the issue and an acknowledgment of it as a matter of importance. By the end of the day, I am invited to be part of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) committee.

Progress? Uncanny this; in 2000, Sara Ahmed also emailed her (white/male) Dean challenging him on his perception that ‘race is too difficult to be dealt with’ and that his view is symptomatic of how racism gets reproduced (7). In response, she was also asked to be part of the race equality team and became the race person. Is that me now? The race person? I read her observation that how the responsibility for EDI is unevenly distributed, being predominantly made up of women and/or people of colour to do incredibly exhausting work. It becomes a tick in their institutional boxes (8). Meaning that it is political and in part unpaid work, reflecting how little EDI is valued and in turn a mechanism for perpetuating the inequality they are set up to eradicate.

Political? Only the next day the (white/male) Director of my department sends a departmental email stating in bold - An important update for all! As you scroll towards the bottom, you can read his matter-of-fact acknowledgement of the BLM movement. He proceeds on what seems to be a defensive protection of the institution’s image, by promoting how ‘diverse and multicultural’ (whatever that means?) it is. Something about having a ‘Silver Athena Award’ and that they (they who? the white majority in senior management?) are striving to work with the ‘BAME community’. Sounds political.

It might be tempting to think I am writing to only criticize and inadvertently dismiss the progress that has been made (that also included white people) in challenging inequalities. The intention is to encourage more nuanced, open conversations on the extent of the problem and therefore allow for more sustainable solutions.

For example: given the current political/social unrest, is his email, a 'reputation-management' or 'containment' strategy to avoid the sh!t*** hitting the fan? Take how terms like 'diversity' are deployed. Ever noticed how they are used with such organizational pride? The pride conceals the way systematic inequalities operate and makes BAME people the problem. Confirming this in the Director’s email; another ‘bite size’ training workshop with a long title of buzzwords like 'Racialised Implicit Bias' and 'Diversity' in it. Yay? To what extent can another standalone mandatory workshop resolve an issue that is partly unconscious? Or does it become another HR tick box and preaching to the converted? A kind of institutional therapy culture, creating an illusion of getting over racism but that in reality is only performative. That is to perform the look of a 'commitment' to anti-racism (9). In other words, ‘solutions to problems (can) become the problems given new form' without thoughtful considerations (10). Now you are up to speed, following his email was my ‘invitation to speak’ for 2 minutes to my department.

Hold up! Remember my invitation mentioned ‘tackling institutionalized racism’? Does the Director mean the institutionalized racism from the Macpherson Report 1999 in relation to the racial motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence and institutional racism within the UK police? What is troublesome is the lack of specificity of his words. Is vagueness a way to not name the problem? How is he reflecting and acknowledging to what extent science is institutionally racist? What would his admission of racism mean in practice? What is being recognized? We could speculate that these omissions are protecting white people from being uncomfortable. Instead, the responsibility falls with individuals from the BAME community to speak out, educate and give their insights. The questions of ‘'institutionalized racism' however, are part of a wider struggle to recognize all forms of power, inequality and domination are systematic rather than the individual' (11).

The (white/male) Director of my previous position seems to disagree, as I found out on my last day before redeployment. With nothing to lose, I buckled up the courage and asked him for his thoughts on institutionalized racism in a face-to-face meeting. Three things stand out from our conversation. Firstly, at his helm ‘there are no real barriers’, the barriers are psychological on the part of the applicant. Secondly, for him there are ‘equal opportunities’, which is in contrast (somewhat ironically) to his favorite song this year; ‘Black’ by rapper Dave, (the lyrics are about lack of equal opportunities). Thirdly, his palpable frustration at how he wants people from 'diverse backgrounds' without compromising on the 'highest quality teams', and his irritation at the proportionally lower applicants, (particularly at PI level) from 'underrepresented' groups. For him it sounds, this isn’t institutional racism; if there are equal opportunities, it implies the problem comes from the cultural and the mindset of the applicants, in this case BAME people. The paradox: those who feel the problem, can become the problem. This is also particularly the case when racism is heard as an accusation and then immediately silenced (14)

How do we even begin to tackle a problem without consensus or clarity of the nature and extent of the problem, a problem that is both individual and structural?

In drawing this writing to a close, I will raise two significant challenges facing Science and a proposal. Firstly, Science in the UK is significantly publicly funded. Does Science in turn reflect the creative minds of the public? Rejection is the norm! Huge failure rates! You need to be tough and exceptional! Of course, all under a thinly veiled meritocracy. Yet, it is not unusual to see job positions open, with a particular person in mind. Interviews, a HR tick box formality. How surprised would we be if the rejection data is stratified to see if there is disparity between BAME people and white people? Instead a significant proportion of Black staff at universities are the security guards. In effect, a PhD is questionable on the wrong body (e.g. a black body) (12). This isn't to say a white person has it easy, as reflected in a thoughtful post by a white/male University Lecturer on his journey to a permanent Lectureship.

Secondly, Science isn’t singular; it is also ways of tackling problems and in my view has the potential to do so much more for humanity, if freed from the competitive shackles of a ‘first past the post system’. Especially if Science went beyond being locked in a pressure cooker of neoliberalism (13) and power structures (under the hegemony of English as the dominant valued language of research). Fundamentally, Science is largely based on personal networking between individuals. One of the challenges is in understanding how networking works and making them more inclusive. Put differently, now it is in the hands of broadly (self-unreflective) white Euro-Americans taking a cup dipped in a vast ocean of knowledge and saying, ‘this is Science’, while excluding and devaluing other ways of doing Science. They must then say that Science is not political, Science is objective, and data driven to conceal the contradiction. In effect, Science in the Euro-American context, means, if you are not at the table of power and influence in, then you are on the menu, so to speak; and more white bodies than others are given a place at the table.

Sir Patrick Vallance (Chief Scientific Advisor) 'I don't want to get involved in politics at all'

My proposal here is based on critical thinking that inequalities are structural and political, and therefore can change (15). That is to say, this isn’t about fundamental mysteries of the brain-mind dualism or how the universe began. We can do better! Especially if we rethink what is 'value', and how we've come to value what we value (16). Data can be effective. More transparency? Racial pay gaps report and accountability? Who gets called in for disciplinary meetings? Who gets promoted? Who leaves? Data that is gathered and interpreted not only by the positivist, reductionist scientific approach, can help towards a wider understanding of the extent of the problem. How useful would (or has) a funded post be (been), in building on Sara Ahmed’s work, employing methods from cross-talks between faculties to investigate the 'sociology of the science'? Seems to me a unique opportunity for Science to rethink itself outside of itself.

I propose an interdisciplinary research project: qualitatively investigating inequalities within institutionalized power structures and how it is concealed, reproduced and sustained. Detailed quantitative (statistical) analysis underpinning this project would help with higher resolution of the extent of the problem.

This way we can begin to grasp the extent of the problems, and then explore a multi-pronged approach to finding sustainable deliverable solutions. If not, it seems science will be left found wanting with a wealth of knowledge resources not tapped into which could help solve 21st century increasingly complex problems. Crucially, the barriers in challenging inequality absolutely cannot and should not be an externalized issue to the BAME community (and marginalized groups). Ultimately, it is the responsibility of ‘everyone’. Only with support, specialism and drive can we ensure that ‘everyone’ doesn’t translate into ‘no one’. I click reply to this invitation to speak. Dear Whiteness...


  1. Intersectionality is a theoretical framework that takes into account the different facets of a persons identity such as gender, race, class, sexuality and how combined, functions in discrimination or privilege. Interestingly, the 'BAME' might have been an attempt to be intersectional by acknowledging Black and Asian people. However they way the labels are used can be problematic and dismiss intersectionality as an approach.

  2. Whiteness is a conceptual framework in this blog that I use relationally and comparatively to explore power relations and privilege. Dr. Steve Garner, Robin DiAngelo and others on BBC radio 4 Analysis podcast discuss whiteness and might be of interest. What is whiteness when you take away its associations with racism and neoliberal power structures?

  3. ‘Which Box to Tick’ explores how whiteness was invented in 1681!

  4. Ahmed, S., (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. London: Duke Univesity Press.

  5. Ibid., p.151

  6. Ibid., p.43

  7. Ibid., p.3

  8. Ibid., p.5

  9. Ibid., p.55

  10. Ibid., p.143

  11. Ibid., p.44

  12. Ibid.,p.177

  13. Neoliberalism is complex term and I wouldn't do it justice in defining here. Simply, I use it in the sense that it relates to capitalist principle of the free trade and free will which are now embedded in our ways of living.

  14. a personal ethnographical and relatable account of the deafening impact of exclusion and the silence around race.

  15. Critical in my thinking include but are not limited to Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, Peggy McIntosh’s White privilege, Frantz Fanon's Black Faces White Masks, Angela Saini’s Superior

  16. In the later book Mazzucato (2018) 'The value of everything: Making and taking in the global economy' challenges us to fundamentally 'ReThink' what is and what creates value.

* I have kept the university and names of institutes anonymous because of 'good practice' : sounds like reputation management, for example not making it readily public the racial pay gaps data and conceals inequalities? ...

***The intention here is not to offend, but to challenge and encourage ReThinking Matters

**** I didn't actually reply with 'dear whiteness', it is a thought experiment capturing that in a/effect, that is what I am likely to be doing when I reply

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