Racism and Higher Education Institutions in the UK: meditations from The Black Register

The animation of thought by those who have their humanity questioned presents an ontological scandal. It is here that the human question becomes central, and yet it is still raised as an ire by blacks who are dwelling in blackness. The stance adopted here is the one that undertakes serious reflections on foundational and constitutive problems that are marked by dehumanization.

Sithole, The Black Register

Drawing upon the work of Tendayi Sithole, The Black Register, I introduce the concepts of (1) black register and (2) authorial blackness to interrogate, but particularly to scandalize, the constitution of Higher Education Institutions (HEI) in the UK. I am interested in the following question: how are HEIs (this includes universities and colleges) in the UK constituted in ways that perpetuate anti-black racism? Specifically, this invokes questions of representation, including the curriculum, student attainment gap, staff employment, retention, and progression, bullying and harassment, and so on. To be clear, these questions are not novel, however this intervention is marked by the sobriety that superintend the ongoing protests, conversations, and other forms of engagement, as per #BlackLivesMatter. 

Although the racial architecture of HEIs in the UK goes without saying, it has become increasingly pertinent in the context of the recent social movement against anti-black racism #BlackLivesMatter, to continue (or rethink) the re-configuration of the status quo in HEIs. This is also relevant against the backdrop of the inclusion and diversity discourses of “decolonising the curriculum”, as the recent instances of racism in the US forces us to rethink and scandalize all forms of injustice within the HEI, especially anti-black racism of which the right of black people to breathe continuously pose ontologico-existential questions.

Indeed any intervention on anti-black racism will have to clarify, and perhaps defend, if racism is approached as a ‘thing’ with a given ontological essence; everything is not white vs black, there are nuances of racial injustices, race is a social construct and racism is the systemic reproduction of injustices on the basis of race(s), what about white allies, among other clichés. While recognising these inflections of race and racism, analytically– and as a black student– I focus on the systemic marginalization of black people and cultures within the HEI in this brief meditation.

Conceptually, black register denotes the ways of thinking, seeing, and doing that emerge from the lived experiences of “being-black-in-an-antiblack-world.” In short, Sithole describes black register as streams of thoughts that evolve from the experiences of black people. It presents the conundrum of a register that is not yet registered; or if you like, the unregistered register that must be registered for the sake of humanity. On the other hand, authorial blackness speaks directly to the question of agency: who is it that inscribes or foregrounds the experiences of black people? Fundamentally, this moves beyond the pacifying discourses of decolonisation, diversity, and inclusion. It seeks to centre the experiences of black people, rather than quick fixes that leave the status quo effectively unaltered.     Agreeably, there has been some improvements in HEIs, particularly since the introduction of Race Equality Charter mark (REC) in 2014 with regard to the recruitment of black staff (both

academic and professional and support staff), and the increase of black students in HEIs. Similarly, the discourse of ‘decolonising the curriculum’ allows for the tinkering around the curriculum by updating the reading list, adopting reflective pedagogies and blogs, support groups and networks, and introducing modules and programmes that addresses the issue of anti-blackness. Nonetheless, the curriculum – or rather the register – remains evidently white, as seen in the conceptual tools deployed in teaching and research which are more or less extrapolated from the lived experiences of Euro-North America. This contention almost reads off the question posed by the NUS journalist, Mariya Hussain: Why is my curriculum white? A question which at once spurred stakeholders into action and continues to re-emerge as if to suggest that nothing has yet been done. Ultimately, this implies that there are other registers–ways of knowing, seeing, and doing– that remain effectively unregistered.

The implication of the above is far-reaching. For one, it alters the role of the university as the moulder of society and a space for the expression of freedom of thought(s). In a sense, the lived experiences of black people are excluded from the curriculum, which in and of itself perpetuates racism on different levels– from the lack of understanding and appreciation of black cultures by all races, to the racial slurs in the university corridors often taken as ‘banter’ or free speech, to the feeling of alienation and aloofness by black students, and so on. Reading along with Sithole, black register is thus:

The inscription of the denied, erased, distorted (through forms of tokenism and co-optations), muted, and censured grammar of blackness; the coerced expression that insists on saying things no matter what–the reorganization of the ordinariness of order.

In short, black register seeks to unmask this status quo and re-imagine other ways of constituting Higher Education Institutions to foreground the experiences of black people.

Correspondingly, the question of black register invariably invokes the “issue” of agency. That is, who can inscribe or foreground the lived existence of black people within Higher Education Institutions? According to the University and College Union funded project on race (in)equality, carried out by Bhopal and Pitkin (2018), black staff (academic, and professional and support staff) and students are still disproportionately represented in universities and colleges in the UK. Also, the report reveals that there are 80 black professors compared to their 13295 white counterparts. To be sure, black academic – as well as professional and support – staff are typically on short-term contracts which complicates their recruitment, retention, and progression.

On the other hand, black students do not fare any better either. They are less likely to receive a first or 2.1 degree, gain employment after six months of graduating, or even progress to a research postgraduate degree. As a black PhD student, I am constantly reminded of the limitations and exclusiveness of these so-called white spaces –specifically, the university– due to the way in which it is constituted. Of course, gaining employment in the university is competitive and challenging, however I am aware of the extra hurdles that I face as a result of the colour of my skin. Rejecting this status quo invites us to (re)think along with, again, Sithole on the notion of authorial blackness:

It is not about giving a voice to blackness. It is, more properly, blackness rewriting the world. What is written is what should be revealed as opposed to being hidden…It is a rewriting…the authorial modes of what might generally be called black writing or, more preferably, the black authorial inscription. it is blackness foregrounding itself by itself.

It is, in case of any doubt, black students and staff foregrounding their lived experiences by themselves for the sake of humanity.

Finally, as I clarified that this meditation recognises the nuances of racism as well as other forms of social injustices, it is important to conclude that foregrounding blackness is not necessarily a totalizing project or one that seeks to centre black experiences by displacing other epistemes. Rather, it behoves us to rethink the constitution of HEIs, as Mbembe suggests, as a vast space of circulation of knowledges that caters for all forms of lives. In this sense, the limit of HEIs becomes exteriority, exclusion, and anti-blackness.            


Tendayi Sithole, The Black Register. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2020)

Bhopal Kalwant and Clare Pitkin, ‘Investigating higher education institutions and their views on the Race Equality Charter.’ 2018 University and College Union.

Kodili Chukwuma is a Ph.D. candidate and Associate Tutor in the School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communications at the University of East Anglia.

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