Race Equality Champions in Academic Institutions - A Personal Perspective

Race Equality Champions in Academic Institutions - A Personal Perspective
2021-08-10

As a recently appointed Race Equality Champion within The School of Medicine, Medical Sciences and Nutrition, Dr Sadaf Ashraf, a research scientist at the Centre for Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Health, reflects on what encouraged her to apply for the role.

Personal Experience:

My dad came to Britain from South-Asia as a teenager in the sixties and decided to settle in East London. “Focus, work hard and get-on-with-it” was a phrase that was often said by my parents. I was privileged to grow-up in an ethnically-diverse neighbourhood and attended multicultural schools. At university, whilst the student population was extremely diverse, there were very few academic staff members from the Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups.

I had a hugely positive PhD-research experience. My mentors were not only socially and culturally aware individuals but they were also extremely supportive. I don’t remember ever feeling excluded or having the need to alter my personality to fit in. They knew as a female, hijab-wearing British-Muslim what my core values were, for example, they never arranged a social-event which was based around “drinking”. I remember when it was Ramadan, and I was fasting they were aware of it and I didn’t have to tell them. These small gestures of acknowledgement and understanding made me feel comfortable in my new environment and as a result I thrived during my PhD.

Unfortunately this is not the case for many BAME students, who often face micro-aggressions and racial discriminations but they don’t know how to address these issues, or whom to turn to for professional advice. Some international students that have different cultural norms find it challenging to adjust to their new environment and are often labelled as being “rude”, “troublesome” and told to “adjust to the British way-of-life”.

I became acutely aware of my race and ethnic background when I started applying for postdoctoral positions. Till date, I have not been interviewed by a diverse interview panel. I have worked in several universities and have yet to come across “someone that looks like me” leading a research group. As an aspiring academic, I often wonder why this is the case. A recent study by UKRI highlighted that ethnic minority and female academics were less likely to be awarded research grants than their white and male counterparts. https://www.ukri.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/UKRI-300321-DiversityResultsForUKRIFundingData2014-20.pdf I guess if you are a female and that too from the BAME group the chances of securing your own funding and leading a group are probably even smaller!

Unlike before where “getting on with it” was an acceptable solution, I have now come to realise that in addition to “focusing on my goal and working hard to achieve it”, I also need to “question these disparities” around me and endeavour to provide solutions to these challenges.

Importance of Culturally Diverse Institutions:

There are clear benefits of having culturally diverse educational and professional environments. Diversity enriches our learning experiences, providing different approaches and perspectives with which to view the world, creating more empathy and compassion. So why have the Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) been so slow in implementing this change? Maybe because conversations around diversity also highlight racial inequalities and institutional failings, which often directly impact academic reputation and commerce. However racial equality is paramount in creating a culturally diverse environment as highlighted by the Race Equality Charter (REC) introduced in 2012. https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/equality-charters/race-equality-charter In-order to achieve the REC award, HEIs are required to show a clear commitment towards providing long-term cultural change that enhances the experience of and provides support to staff and students from the BAME groups. One way that universities have decided to showcase their commitment to the cause is by appointing Race Equality Champions who are required to work alongside senior management to support the implementation of good practice in race equality and are the first point of contact for staff and students to discuss race-related issues and challenges.

Why did I choose to be a Race Equality Champion:

Many staff and students from BAME groups in higher education face racism which directly impacts their wellbeing and can lead to anxiety and depression. Often these individuals do not seek help and advice because they are reluctant to engage with white colleagues for the fear of being misunderstood. As a race equality champion I hope to (i) act as a point of contact for these individuals and (ii) to provide them with a safe space where they can openly talk about race-related issues which can then be addressed in a transparent manner or referred to appropriate bodies for action. This initiative will no doubt have a real benefit for staff and students from the BAME communities in ensuring that their voices are being heard.

Concluding Remarks:

My only concern is for these initiatives to not become mere “tick-box exercises” or “tokenistic gestures” to meet metric targets for the REC award. I hope this to be the starting point of real commitment towards integrating staff and students from the BAME communities by hearing their concerns and working together to create a welcoming and inclusive culture. 

Alongside working on her research project focusing on arthritis-pain, Sadaf Ashraf is actively involved in teaching, is a member of the Inclusivity, Diversity and Equality for All (IDEALL) committee and Nvision-postdoctoral Society. Sadaf obtained her PhD from University of Nottingham and worked in several institutions prior to moving to Aberdeen.

Published by StaffNet, University of Aberdeen

Comments

  1. #1
    Kirtiman Srivastava

    It was a pleasure reading your blog Sadaf. Made me reflect on my own experiences as a post-graduate student from India. I do agree with you that those who are teaching/managing (PIs, senior academics) home and international students as well as junior staff members from diverse backgrounds need to be culturally aware of the diverse groups of people that they are teaching/managing. Training should be provided by the institutes to address these barriers (cultural/race-related) and how to overcome them. This enhanced awareness will not only create an inclusive work environment but also give students a positive experience during their time at Uni as they will feel accepted and not excluded.

  2. #2
    Marwa Tawfik

    Many Thanks for this article.
    Marwa

  3. #3
    Farzana Qadri

    Such an intelligent accurate thought-provoking article

  4. #4
    Sadaf Ashraf

    Thankyou for your comments. Indeed Kirtiman, providing appropriate training and awareness are the key. I guess this is a "top-down" approach. In addition, I do believe "engagement" with this training is also a factor. We need to consider a "bottom-up" approach as well. How do we increase engagement?

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