Discrimination recently faced by an Indian lecturer at a UK university suggests that a post-racial British society remains a myth – even in liberal, ‘progressive’ universities.
Racism is truly alive and kicking, while race continues to disadvantage people of colour.
Dr Kajal Sharma, Associate Head for Organisational Studies and Human Resources Management in the Business and Law Faculty at the University of Portsmouth, is the victim of a racist reappointment process. The university in an “extraordinary” manner did not reappoint her for the position she had held for five years since early 2016. While the contract was almost up for renewal, Sharma was not alerted by any notification that an advertisement for her job had been posted.
But after appearing before the interview panel, which also included her manager and Head of Department – Professor Gary Rees – as one of the interviewees, she lost out to Kerry Collier, “a white English, or British woman,” in a two-to-one vote.
After ignoring Sharma’s subsequent complaints, the university after an “unnecessarily slow investigation” concluded that she had not been treated unfairly. Following this, she then took the institution to the Employment Tribunal. Being highly critical of the university’s handling of the case, it ruled in Sharma’s favour.
Universities legally abide by the UK’s Equality Act 2010, which categorically brought all previous legislation together into a single act to offer a legal framework to safeguard people’s equal rights.
However, previous standalone legislations on race, such as the Race Relations Amendment Act, have been merged with the Equality Act, eroding the focus on racial inequality. Because of this, the very people it was designed to protect continue to be marginalised.
The fact that “a senior member of the academic staff who was a BAME (Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic) woman” with a “marked Indian accent” was not reappointed, is a grim reminder that despite universities posing as bastions of equality and diversity, they remain sites of white privilege, with mechanisms in place to ensure that people of colour are positioned as ‘outsiders’ in the white realm of academia.
In the UK, policies that strive to be inclusive nevertheless illustrate an image of a post-racial society devoid of racial inequalities and prejudice. However, in reality, enormous inequality continues to exist between white, black and minority ethnic communities.
According to the Equality Evidence Challenge Unit, which works to enhance equality and diversity for staff and students at UK universities, black and minority ethnic staff are under-represented in senior positions, contributing only 1.6% of institutional heads and 2.9% of senior managers and directors. Sharma was one of the two senior lecturers who were not reappointed when their contracts expired, whereas 11 of the 12 white lecturers were reappointed at the University of Portsmouth.
Though women have firmly established their presence in academia, their participation at the top level – in the roles of professor and chair – remains regrettably low. Despite gender equality being a priority for most UK universities, white women have overwhelmingly benefited from recent equality policymaking.
About 2.1% of black and Asian minority ethnic women hold positions of senior managers, professors and vice-chancellors, in contrast to their white women counterparts at 23.9%. This disappointing and glaring prioritisation of gender over race has resulted in an oppressive hierarchy where white women’s experiences are privileged over those of women of colour.
In a damning judgement, the tribunal ruled that the recruitment process “was tainted by race discrimination” and that the failure to recognise skills and abilities of Sharma over “white members of staff, points towards a subconscious or unconscious bias”. The recognition of unconscious bias — rooted in centuries of slavery, colonialism and privilege — provides an insightful explanation for how, despite equality appearing to be codified in law, injustice continues to prevail.
Even at times of overt brutality like this, universities across the world need to apologise for their shameful complacency and knee-jerk reactions in tackling the issue of social justice. Though it is a reflection of how societies have always been, the lingering question is: how will Indian universities – and the academia space – get their act together where discrimination based on religion and caste is an accepted norm and racism seems to be a matter of pride?
Kalrav Joshi is a journalist based in London and studied Media, Communication, and Development at The London School of Economics and Political Science.
This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.