Reflecting on Racial Inequalities in the Discipline of History

By Kerry Pimblott

In October 2018 the Royal Historical Society (RHS) released a landmark report on Race, Ethnicity and Equality in UK History. Building on the foundational work of student-led educational justice movements such as the National Union of Students’ Black Students’ Campaign, ‘Rhodes Must Fall’, and the UCL-founded ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ campaign as well as initiatives led by Black historians and teachers like History Matters, the RHS report spotlights systemic inequalities in the way History is taught as well as in the underrepresentation and discriminatory treatment experienced by BME historians.

Chief among the report’s findings were the following:

  • Historical & Philosophical Studies (H&PS) undergraduate student cohorts are overwhelmingly White, and have lower proportions of BME students (11.3%), than the overall UK undergraduate population (23.9%);
  • BME representation in H&PS departments diminishes further at postgraduate level, with just 8.6% of H&PS UK postgraduate research students from BME backgrounds, compared to 16.8% of all UK postgraduate research students;
  • History academic staff are less diverse than H&PS student cohorts, with 93.7% of History staff drawn from White backgrounds, and only 0.5% Black, 2.2% Asian and 1.6% Mixed.
  • Discrimination or abuse based on race or ethnicity had been witnessed by 18.8% of all respondents to the RHS survey. 29.8% of BME respondents had directly experienced such discrimination or abuse.

The report also offered a package of recommendations designed to assist staff in confronting institutional racism within the discipline.

It was in this context, that the University of Manchester History department welcomed the RHS President, Professor Margot Finn, to campus on February 21, 2019. This event – co-sponsored by the Race, Roots & Resistance Collective – provided an opportunity for staff, students and community members to critically reflect on and respond to the report’s findings as well as learn more about ongoing initiatives within the department.

Margot Finn
Professor Sasha Handley introduces Professor Margot Finn, President of the Royal Historical Society

Our discussions were structured around three important themes raised by the report, including the need to (1) decolonise the HE-sector History curriculum; (2) create a safe, inclusive, and equitable culture for teaching, learning and research; and (3) forge effective pipelines for BME student recruitment from schools into undergraduate and postgraduate study.  

Decolonising the HE-Sector History Curriculum

Some of the RHS report’s key findings and recommendations relate to the ‘the narrow scope’ of university History curricula and their contribution to the under-representation of BME students in the discipline.

‘To be sure, questions of representation and inclusion are not solved by reforming the curriculum: the content and diversity of the curriculum do not map directly onto issues of BME equality. But evidence from both students and staff suggests important linkages between them. A White-centred and Euro-centric curriculum is a racial problem within the discipline.’

Thus, the report calls for strategic curricular interventions designed to ‘challenge the racial foundations of the discipline and to reflect the full diversity of human history.’

During the event, Danielle Chavrimootoo (Senior Lecturer in Teaching and Learning, Kingston University) and Eloise Moss (Lecturer in Modern British History, Manchester) presented on a number of such interventions currently underway in the History department.

RHS_Danielle
Danielle Chavrimootoo addresses efforts to decolonise the Level 1 History curriculum at Manchester

Chavrimootoo emphasized the importance of an inclusive Level 1 curriculum to facilitate student recruitment and retention. Accordingly, Chavrimootoo has partnered with the department to undertake a participatory action project which involves working alongside student partners to embed equality, diversity and attempt to decolonise the Level 1 program. Focus groups will be held with students and staff will undertake a critical reflective audit of current year one modules.

The RHS report raises particular concerns about ‘the absences of Black British history’ in the university curriculum.

 

‘A 2013 study found that over 40% of all UK-based academic historians work in British history, a higher proportion of ‘own nation’ specialists than is found in the USA or Canada. The histories of BME communities in Britain are, however, often absent from school and university curricula. Even when those histories are present, a seemingly relentless focus on enslavement, abolition and exploitation is viewed by students as intellectually limiting and, at times, alienating. In diversifying the curriculum, it is especially important to go beyond these limited vantage points.’

In this light, Moss spotlighted the field-specific response of the department’s modern British historians, a full report on which is available on this blog here.

Creating a Safe, Inclusive, and Equitable Culture

While many curricula certainly constitute ‘an obstacle to racial and ethnic diversity in History as a discipline,’ the RHS report reminds us that it is only part of the problem.

‘Stereotyping of BME students’ and researchers’ interests, dismissive comments about BME historians’ language competence, funding constraints on research conducted outside the UK and a pervasive unwillingness to grapple with difficult histories all contribute to the underrepresentation of BME students and staff in our discipline.’

With these broader challenges in mind, student and staff representatives from the Race, Roots & Resistance Collective offered insights into their own efforts to foster a safe and equitable environment for teaching, learning, and research.

Kerry Pimblott (Lecturer in U.S. and African Diaspora History, Manchester) provided a broad overview of the Collective’s mission statement, spotlighting its concern with inter-generational and cross-disciplinary mentoring and networking through initiatives such as the Works-in-Progress Seminar and the In:Colour Zine.

The student editors of In: Colour, Amaal Cansuur-Cali and Hana Ward – both history undergraduates – described the genesis of their publication and its role in building community and facilitating the self-expression of BAME students and community members.

RHS_InColour.jpg
Amaal Cansuur-Cali and Hana Ward, editors of the In:Colour Zine

Forging Pipelines for BME Student Recruitment and Retention

Finally, Catherine Millan, Widening Participation Coordinator at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre, delivered a presentation on the groundbreaking work of the Diversity Champions Project in reaching BME students in schools across Greater Manchester.

RHS_Catherine4
Catherine Millan, Widening Participation Coordinator and founder of the Diversity Champions Project.

Millan traced the origins of the project back to the surge in hate crime that followed the Manchester terror attack in 2017. Inundated with requests from school teachers to perform trainings and deliver workshops, Millan launched the Diversity Champions scheme as a vehicle for developing the leadership skills of students vulnerable to harassment and hate crimes due to their race, ethnicity, religion, ability, sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Diversity Champions are provided with specialised training on how to be active bystanders and stand up to perpetrators of injustice. A key aspect of this training is exposure to historical cases of hate crime as well as examples of ‘rescue and resistance’. This content is delivered via a combination of lectures, interactive workshops, and field trips to Holocaust-related sites in Warsaw and Krakow.

Manchester’s History department is partnering with the Diversity Champions to deliver key content on the Holocaust as well as on histories of race and resistance in modern British History. A majority of the students enrolled in last year’s program have expressed a new interest in studying History at A-Levels. 

In the Q&A, we also discussed strategies to address BME recruitment and retention in the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate study. In addition to the mentorship systems already discussed, Finn stressed that positive action could and should be taken to create BME-focused bursaries to cover fees and maintenance. Such initiatives have been undertaken at UCL, Oxford Humanities, and Leicester Museum Studies.

For more information on – or to get involved with – any of the initiatives discussed at this event, please feel free to contact Kerry Pimblott (kerry.pimblott@manchester.ac.uk)

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