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I am a postdoc at a university in the UK. Before I came here, a friend warned me that racism is common in the UK. True enough, during my first few months here, I have already received a couple of racist gestures and jeers, including one instance inside the university campus, possibly from a student.

What I would like to ask is this: what part can we play, as academics and students, to reduce such instances of racism in the academic settings?


I come from Indonesia, and being Chinese, racism has been a part of my life. I have seen signs of improvement, but when I grew up, I still remember how it was. I am not complaining about UK, although I must admit that during my study in Norway, I experienced hardly any instances of racism or discrimination whatsoever. I am not asking which country is the worst. I share my experience just to show that it is real. I am not asking how to cope with racism, either. I am asking if there is anything I can do, or we can do, as academic community, to reduce instances of racism in academia, to make it a better environment for an increasingly international academic population. I am citing UK, because that's where I am now; it could have been another country. But wherever I am, I have a part to play in making it a better place.

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Is this a case of boat programming ? I.e is there any reason that academia is special and different from other workplaces with regards to racism ? –  Suresh Feb 4 at 19:23
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@Suresh I think there are issues that are particular to universities. See my answer below. –  Lembik Feb 4 at 19:36
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@Aaron I am sure you are right that UK universities are not markedly more racist than in many other countries. However I don't think that was the question or even a suggestion in any of the answers/comments. The question as I read it was about an absolute level of racism. In relation to your specific question, of the UK's 18,510 university professors, 85 are black according to the Guardian newspaper. This figure on its own does not tell me anything about university level racism however. –  Lembik Feb 4 at 21:19
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As Aaron rightly pointed out, UK isn't especially racist, at least not more than most of the other countries. I tend to think that bigger the city in which the university is located, the less is the overall prevalence of racism. That being said, I am sorry to hear you encountered racism in your profession. I do think that the advice by @Shion is a valuable one, and "Do onto others 20% better than you would have them do unto you to account for the subjective error" should be your modus operandi. –  Watto Feb 4 at 21:41
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Examples of how to treat people well??? If you need to ask for examples, I would have to question whether it's due to your race that you are experiencing adversity... –  Aaron Feb 4 at 22:05

4 Answers 4

up vote 16 down vote accepted

One of the forms of racism that UK universities suffer from is that they use unfiltered student opinion to inform hiring as well as evaluation of academics. Academics with foreign accents or unfamiliar (or particularly formal) appearances that the students don't like then suffer.

Interestingly this form of racism is widely understood and largely eliminated in the retail sector where no one would be allowed to choose the race of an employee based on the preferences of their customers. It is also a form of racism we could easily eliminate from academia if we honestly faced up to it.


I think the point of my answer has been slightly lost (see comments below). The point is that the students are not asked "Can you understand what the academic says clearly?". They are merely asked to rate the academic using a number and are not required to give any reasoning. This hides any prejudices they have and allows the hiring/evaluation committee to use racial preferences without have explicitly to admit they are doing it. The committee just says "They got low student evaluation scores".

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Academics with foreign accents I think that a line needs to be drawn here between racism and objective concerns. I, for example, had an opportunity to listen to a middle-eastern researcher affiliated with a UK University at a conference. I literally have NO words to describe how horrible his accent was. If he wasn't reading his power point presentation word for word, I would have absolutely no idea what he was talking about. I wouldn't be able to attend his lectures if he were my teacher. –  AndrejaKo Feb 4 at 21:37
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@AndrejaKo In my experience it's not that the students literally can't hear the words, it's that they don't like the accent. But actually it is more that they don't feel the academic is the sort of person they would want to go to the pub with. I also think you are on very thin (legal and moral) ice if you allow discrimination based on how familiar a particular accent is to the students. Can you imagine not hiring someone with an Afro-Caribbean accent in a shop because some of the white customers find some of the words he or she says confusing at first? –  Lembik Feb 4 at 21:40
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Yes, I can. The worker in the shop should be capable of communicating with the customers efficiently. Some accent would be OK in my opinion, but if customers can't understand the worker, what's the point of having a worker? That's why I said that a line needs to be drawn. I can't say that it is easy to make objective criteria for the levels of acceptable accents and I also can't say that the cases you may be thinking of aren't just racism pure and simple. I just want to point out that there could be real problems which should not be dismissed because they can be classified as racism. –  AndrejaKo Feb 4 at 21:53
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@MaciejPiechotka I agree that if someone's accent is so strong he/she cannot be understood that is a real problem. However I have never seen that. What I have seen is people with foreign accents and unfamiliar manners (for example always wearing a suit and tie and being very formal) being given low ratings by students and then those ratings being used in hiring decisions or evaluations. –  Lembik Feb 4 at 22:10
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As @AndrejaKo says, accent can certainly be a concern (how frequent of a concern it is or should be is a different matter entirely). My freshman year of university in the US saddled me with a calculus professor with a particularly thick Hungarian accent, which was very difficult for me to understand (and from what I could tell, my peers had difficulty, too). Combined with a soft voice and illegible handwriting, there was no reason for me to attend the lectures save to find out what the homework would be... which required understanding his accent and/or handwriting. (I dropped that class.) –  Brian S Feb 4 at 22:55

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

I believe that this is really the only thing that is in your control.

As the popular song goes, "Everybody's a Little Racist". :D

You cannot change minds of people forcefully but you can only change the way in which you behave.

Having said this, I don't think that I have faced any instance of racism inside the ivory tower in the US. Socially, yes. Academically, no.

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Would you please add some examples of changing the way in which we behave? –  adipro Feb 6 at 11:39

Recognize that you may or may not have an implicit bias, and examine your own actions accordingly. This also goes for sexism. For example, rather than simply assuming "I'm not a racist!", sit down with something like the list of invited speakers for a conference and genuinely ask "Did we include people of color? Did we include women? Were they more than tokens?"

Like all things in academia, reducing bias benefits from rigorous, systematic thought.

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It is really unobvious how to implement this in a lot of fields. Assuming that the speakers are chosen because of a) their relevance b) the quality of their recent work and c) their availability, I am not really sure what steps you, as a conference organiser, could take in practice to have more people of color or women (for example) that wouldn't be tokenism. Also, there are many academic fields where women are in the majority so the whole basis seems slightly off. –  Lembik Feb 4 at 21:01
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First clue they're not a token: They were chosen because they were chosen, not because 'Oh crap, we need a minority'. Also, you'd be astonished how many academic fields where women are the majority don't see that reflected in panels, senior researchers, chairs etc. Just because its "unobvious" doesn't mean you, as an individual, cannot sit down and make a considered effort. –  Fomite Feb 4 at 21:04
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@jwenting: Fomite is not proposing "not enough X = racist", but rather "did we fairly consider X?" If the answer in good conscience is yes, we fairly considered X, then job well done. But given well-documented implicit biases in academia, refusing to even ask the question is unjust. –  JeffE Feb 6 at 11:30
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@jwenting You're denying the existence of implicit bias, which is well documented. Again, the question is not "Did we invite enough blacks?" but rather "Did we fairly consider the black applicants?" –  JeffE Feb 6 at 11:39
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@jwenting I'm sorry you have such short-sighted colleagues. Please don't assume the same of mine. –  JeffE Feb 7 at 6:09

There are many things we can do, here are some that I have been doing as a foreign student in the US and now an edcuator. And hopefully it would help sparking some more new thoughts.

Aim for promoting diversity, NOT eliminating racism

Politically, you will have a lot more buy-in in organizing a "diversity week" than an "anti-racism week." Racism is not something we can eradicate because it stems from the sense of superiority and difference in power, which will always exist in various degree. And in a personal level, given the same race/ethnicity, one person may think a certain treatment is totally fine while the other one may show a strong sign of being offended because the treatment promotes racism. You cannot win.

In most cases, the more one tries very hard not to be a "racist," the more difficult situations one can get into. A fun example: an African American colleague of mine went to watch 12 Years a Slave with her husband and after the movie ended, a white couple came up and said, sorrowfully, "You people really had it hard, didn't you?" I found that attitude of "We had treated your ancestors so badly that now I am going to make up for it," a bit of, well, racist.

Instead, promote diversity. Diversity is less "silo," it incorporates many other aspects like religions, sexual orientations, races, ethnicities, etc. What's more, it gives us some goal to achieve, something to build instead of some infinite amount of pests to destroy. This new goal will certainly improve your mental health and open up a lot more possibilities in improving the situation.

Promote critical thinking

Embrace critical thinking in both study and teaching. A lot of racism-related phenomena wouldn't pass the most fundamental critical evaluations. Equipping students with this invaluable skill will help them dissect the situation with higher clarity and certainty. Racism itself is very biasing, to the extent that it's nearly hilarious. For instance, if a member of Purple race commits an atrocious crime, the members of Green race tend to attribute the blame to the whole Purple race. While among the Purple race they tend to attribute the blame to the very criminal as a "bad seed," outlier, or isolated incidence. A simple thinking exercise on situations like this one opens up discussion among students quite well.

An additional benefit of being able to critically think on your feet is that you can instantly downgrade an intense racism argument to a logic-based, evidence-based discussion, pointing out the pitfall in their thought process rather than pointing out that they are a racist.

Know your history well, and be ready to listen to other's history

I found myself somehow have become the go-to person when someone has questions about my country. It is, to some degree, a polymorphic racism. Just because some girl is born in Japan doesn't mean she can dance like a geisha, just because some guy is from China doesn't mean he can recite all the characters in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. However, I do take this consultant role seriously, and try my best to be an ambassador. I tell them the good, the bad, and the disgusting, no reservation.

Don't check your identity tags too soon

This is somewhat similar to that poor answer with like 10 down votes. Sorry to say that but I do agree with that answer to a certain extent. I have never sorted out a clear list of identities for myself. It's not like I am in denial, my identities are always somewhere but I don't tend to flaunt them right at the beginning of an interaction. I feel that in a lot of the times, conflicts happen because we decided that the action or treatment has clashed with our identity a little bit too soon: You said something against penguins, and I am a penguin, so I have to be upset now and punch you in the face. I would, instead, opt for understanding where they come from first. If the situation is non-hostile, I would proceed to explain (with critical thinking and evidence) that it's not always the case, and move on. You can correct the information, you can never correct a person's attitude, they have to do that bit by themselves.

Find an optimal environment

Lastly, it's important that you are promoting diversity in a place that you feel reasonably tolerable and accepting. This whole process of achieving understanding is going to be very long, and it's not worth risking your happiness or even life just because you want to make a statement in a hostile place. In conclusion, don't cave in, be present and remind others of our existence. They don't need to like us, but they do need to know we are here to stay, with a strong will.

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+1 for Know your history well. (Plus one for the rest as well, but I can't upvote twice!) –  J. Zimmerman Feb 5 at 21:22

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