Tackling Whiteness in the Academy

Ian Clark
16 min readJul 20, 2018


I’ve been mulling over writing something on this topic for some time now, but I really wanted to wait until there were some substantial, practical things that I can point to. However, in recent weeks I’ve increasingly been approached about work in this area, what I’ve learnt and what I can share. Rather than tap out roughly the same email to different people in different places, I thought maybe I should write up my reflections on discussions I have had so far, because I think as much as anything it helps me to reflect on what I have learnt since first engaging in these discussions. Also, I worry about the somewhat zeitgeisty nature of the topic and I really wanted to nail down a few things that have struck me about work in this area.


I think it’s important to reflect on the nature of the environment I work in order to help explain the work I am currently engaged in, because it will help to put a lot of my following reflections into context.

For those of you that are unaware, I currently work at the University of East London, a university with a majority black and ethnic minority student population (71%). Clearly, given the nature of the student population, the issue of whiteness in the curriculum (and indeed the academy) is one that we cannot (and must not) ignore. The impact upon and experience of our black and ethnic minority students (and colleagues) is one that we have to recognise and tackle. Ultimately, we need to reflect and challenge the whiteness of the library collections, the curriculum and the wider academy. We need to ensure that the academy is a place for all, not one that privileges whiteness.

Rather than talk through every single discussion I’ve had and every action that’s resulted over the course of the past year, I thought I’d focus the rest of the post on a number of questions that seem to me to be key around work in this area, particularly in a library context (it’s worth emphasising that this is written by a white library worker aimed at offering perspectives for other white library workers seeking to do work in this area — it may prove useful to others, but I think it’s important this is put into its proper context and to put into context the privileged lens in which I am reflecting). They are either questions that have been raised during this process by others, or have come from my own reflections. Each are, I think, crucial points to consider in this area (and of course there will be many other points to reflect on…I’ve just boiled this down to a selection of ones that I see as crucial). Above all, I should add that I am undergoing a continual process of learning, and the following is a reflection of my current stage in this process.

“Decolonisation” is a problematic term…

The following is an extract from an exchange with my colleague Carol Hughes (reproduced here with her permission). Following a discussion with a number of academics, I went away and put together a display at our campus and contacted Carol about doing something similar at our other campus. In the exchange below, Carol explains the issues around the use of the term.

Carol: The ‘decolonised’ and ‘decolonising’ space are two different places in my mind and are informed from my experience as a Black British person of Afro-Caribbean decent. The thing being is it is a term we as a community has not had much control over the definition, choice or influence of use, whether in the Caribbean, Windrush generation or now, as Black and British in Europe. So often terms are specifically used and then redefined to describe something or someone by those from an empowered and privilege position in a western societal structure. These then get appropriated and even re-redefined but without an understanding provenance or original significance and that those it would have greatest impact on as a term of use had very little input in how, why and where it was used from the start. you don’t want me to get started on the origins and usage of the term ‘modern slavery’ that is now being appropriated and organisations encouraged to add to their company statements and websites as if being socially conscious, but without asking what this actually means or defines and what they are supposedly signing up to, and who for or what for, and who does this term have the greatest impact on. In fact, who said to use this very term and why?

So what I would say is, there is time and space to discuss and consider how we use, define and call what we want to do, intend to do and then can do. Decolonization is a big all-encompassing term, with a long involved history, so is it really the most useful starting point to an enterprise that is meant to be more reflective, positive, empowering, equal and inclusive ? (initially and historically, decolonisation was not about freedom or freedom of speech or inclusion, it was the end of empire in a post war world made imperial change inevitable, but not necessarily willingly). Now if we were to select terms from groups involved in freedom fighting and resistance to colonisation what would we have instead?

The library can play an important role…

We are in a unique and privileged position within the academy. We work in a service that the vast majority of academics and students connect with. This provides us with a number of opportunities, but particularly in terms of research support.

We know that academic labour is increasingly precarious. We know that many academics across the university never see or speak to each other, not only across disciplines but within disciplines. This is a huge barrier, and one that the status quo benefits from. If academics with similar research interests are never aware of each other’s work, they of course end up conducting their work in silos, weakening the power of the work they are engaged in. If you have social workers looking at the whiteness of the experience of social work students, and psychologists looking at the whiteness of the experience of psychology students and the two never connect, never meet, never discuss their work, or are completely unaware of each other’s work, then the problem will remain unsolved. Indeed, it will ensure the status quo prevails.

So how do we tackle this?

I think everyone in the library has a role to play here in helping to connect researchers doing work in this area, but I think perhaps the most crucial players are those working in research support. The research support team are in an ideal position to see all the research outputs from across the university, particularly when working in conjunction with the academic liaison team. They are able to identify who is doing work on what, which puts them in a powerful position to enable links to be made between researchers working in this area, researchers that may not be aware of the work being conducted in other silos across the university.

Bringing people together, bridging those silos, can be a crucial component in bringing about change and challenging the status quo.

…but the library alone won’t change things

I cannot emphasise this point enough. Examining your book collections and increasing the number of texts by people of colour will not tackle whiteness in the academy in anything other than a very superficial sense. Even just examining the curriculum and changing reading lists to be more reflective of works by people of colour will not in any real sense challenge and dismantle whiteness in the university. It’s important not to see the library as the crucial piece of the jigsaw, it is one element amongst many. Indeed many of those pieces do not even exist within the academy.

This is not to say the library role isn’t important, but I think it’s important to recognise that working in isolation, trying to dismantle whiteness without going beyond the library (and indeed beyond the academy), will not bring the change required. We have to work with others, collaborate across the academy and ensure that library change is part of wider structural and institutional change. We also need to be on guard in terms of the way institutions are resistant to any efforts to tackle inequality (see: The neoliberal university is the barrier).

Reading is transformative

“Reflecting on my journey in academia, I can see that it would have made a positive difference to me as a student if I had been able to read and discuss a wide range of literature by many diverse authors. The literature assigned for my undergraduate and master’s curricula was largely authored by White men. It was only when I was doing my PhD that the curriculum and the resources were more diverse. Through most of my academic career as a student, I felt deprived of learning about any topics that were not White and male. It was up to me alone to look beyond what was set as the academic norm to discover a whole new world of diverse scholarship. I valued this scholarship but this knowledge was not regarded by the powers that be as of significant worth.” (Wilson, 2017, pg 119)

“Changes to the curriculum that include contributions from Black psychologists, philosophers and sociologists that are not marginalised as ‘alternative perspectives’ but positioned as of equal value to ‘mainstream’ psychology. The normalised absence of Whiteness should be deconstructed and the pathologised gaze on Blackness challenged. Training programmes could begin by using existing guides (Patel et al., 2000; McIntosh, 1995) to create dialogic spaces to examine the function and consequences of White privilege in the training context.” (Paulraj, 2016)

It’s easy to be dismissive of the transformative act of reading, but it is important not to underestimate the impact availability of texts written by people of colour can make a huge difference, so long as it is not tokenistic. It’s not enough to ensure representation, it must be part of an effort to break down the alienation felt by people of colour in the academy.

Not only do we need to recognise the transformative effect on reading for those otherwise marginalised by the academy, we also have to recognise its importance for us as representatives of the academy. As Andrew Preater outlines here, reading should be a key element of personal development, of learning and educating oneself in the work that needs to be done, with a focus on the works of people of colour, so that we are better equipped to support colleagues in tackling the inequities faced by marginalised groups. We (white people) should not attempt to provide support or take any action in this area from a position of ignorance. Equally, by learning and educating ourselves, we can “support and scaffold” each other and ensure the work is effective rather than piecemeal and existing in silos (whether it be silos within the institution or across institutions).

You may not have the answers…

We work in a profession that is heavily dominated by whiteness. With that in mind I think it’s important to emphasise the dangers of white knight-ing and white saviorism. As white library workers with the privileges associated with our positions, we need to be conscious that we do not have the lived experience of people of colour. This should be obvious, but we have to understand that we do not have the answers, nor should we seek to provide any for people of colour. Instead we must listen, read and learn from staff and students that lack the privilege we enjoy. Our actions must be guided by people of colour, it must not be guided by a white liberal lens. Doing so would only perpetuate the structures that we are claiming we wish to dismantle by embracing work around whiteness in the curriculum.

Equally, speaking as a subject librarian/academic liaison librarian, we need to be conscious of the limits of our subject knowledge. I, for example, support the psychology programmes in my workplace. I do not have any psychology subject knowledge. Therefore I am not in a position to recommend changes to reading lists and the curriculum without consultation and liaison with those that do have subject knowledge. My role, as I see it, is to support the change that needs to happen, not to charge in and tell academics what texts they should include in their reading lists and how the curriculum should be constructed.

As before, work in this area needs to be collaborative, it must not ever be solitary or wrapped up in ego. We have to acknowledge our privileges and our limitations in order to make progress in this area, without that acknowledgement, tackling whiteness will not only fail, but the outcomes will perpetuate whiteness because we cannot escape the white privileged lens in which we view our environs.

But sometimes you will need to be visibly challenging whiteness…

However, being aware of one’s white privilege does not mean one should go into hiding, that you should avoid heavy lifting and look to people of colour to do it for you. You will need to step up and you will need to be visible in taking on this work, accepting that your efforts will be flawed and be prepared to put aside your ego to take onboard critique of your efforts. You will not be without mistakes, and this needs to be recognised. It’s easy to hide and avoid taking actions that will be flawed, but this is not an option if change is to take place.

This visibility is particularly important in terms of discussions with white peers. One thing that has come up in discussions I have been involved in with people of colour has been the resistance they face when talking to rooms full of white people about challenging whiteness. When discussing how staff are brought on board with efforts in this area, the effect of a person of colour setting out the issues to rooms full of white people is highlighted as one that will most likely engender resistance. White allies may be met by resistance, but not in the same way (nor to the same extent) as people of colour. There are times to listen and follow, and there are times to lead. Interactions with white colleagues is where we must step up to support people of colour, as those of us with privileged identities are less exposed to personal risk in doing so.

Tune out the white noise

One thing that has really struck me since getting involved in this work in my institution is the “white noise” around anti-racism work. Of course, white folk are resistant to this work because it dismantles their privilege. It is hardly a surprise that some white people are resistant. What’s interested to me is the range of critiques from white folk…from the liberal resistance (“we don’t need to do this work”) to the radical perspective (“you’re doing it wrong”) to the obvious racism inherent in the conservative perspective (“this is a threat to the established order”). White noise (in all its forms) encourages inaction and breeds stasis. It’s important to be aware of it because it will help to inform your arguments for the work that needs to happen, but broadly speaking it must be ignored (by which I mean those specific perspectives should be ignored).

Priority should be given to listening to the voices of people of colour. It is important to recognise that there is a diversity in what people of colour are saying about tackling whiteness in the academy. The important thing is to listen to those voices carefully and to let those voices be the ones that guide your work. Yes, you’ll make mistakes along the way, but only by focusing on the voices of people of colour can you make progress. White noise can be hard to deal with and draining but, ultimately, the important voices are those of people of colour, not those of white privilege.

The neoliberal university is a barrier

This is not meant as an effort to point to the huge obstacle in the way and thus breed inaction because of the size of the task, but we have to be aware of the nature of the institutions we work within. We operate within a neoliberal society and in a structure that has been designed as a neoliberal institution of education. As such, there are inevitable barriers that come with neoliberal structures, not least the resistance of the academy to adapt.

In On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, Sara Ahmed explains how the neoliberal model can inhibit work in this area, not least in terms of the “diversity agenda”. Ahmed writes:

“The shift to the language of diversity could thus be understood in market terms; diversity has a commercial value and can be used as a way not only of marketing the university but of making the university into a marketplace…More specifically, and perhaps given the widespread use of ‘business case’ arguments for diversity within public and private sector organizations, ‘diversity’ has been identified as a management term. Diversity becomes something to be managed and valued as a human resource. Scholars have suggested that the managerial focus on diversity works to individuate differences and conceal the continuation of systematic inequalities within universities.” (pg 53)

In short, as Ahmed puts it, “diversity provides a positive, shiny image of the organization that allows inequalities to be concealed and thus reproduced” (pg 72). Work in this area has the danger of being co-opted and becoming nothing more than a marketing exercise, a Unique Selling Point that sets the academy apart from the competition. Setting out in this area, therefore, can lead to work being watered down and co-opted for marketing purposes, or to merely meet some requirements set out by the Office for Students, with the real change that’s required never actually taking place.

The neoliberal framework is a huge barrier to work in this area. It would be far more preferable, to my mind, to engage in this kind of work in a truly co-operative environment, whereby staff, students and the local community all own the academy and can co-operate to construct an alternative framework (something like the Mondragon system). However, we don’t have this and we have to work within the structures we have. But this shouldn’t stop us from taking action in this area, we just need to be mindful of the barriers so that we recognise them when we are confronted with them and so that we don’t simply give up. Denying the existence of these barriers will not help any of us.

Discomfort is good.

Something that has repeatedly occurred to me is the feeling of discomfort. I have put myself into situations where ordinarily I would not feel comfortable. I’m naturally nervous about putting myself out there and engaging in difficult situations. I’m almost always worried about making mis-steps, about not being a good ally. I’ve had meetings with people of colour to find out what I can do to support work in this area, whilst also being terribly nervous about whether I was approaching things in the right way, whether I was being perceived as a white knight coming in to save the day and whether I’d reveal my own glaring ignorance as privileged white man. Of all the nerve-wrecking moments, perhaps presenting my thoughts on tackling the whiteness of the library at a meeting of our Race Equality Charter group was the most nerve-wracking. Sitting there with respected academics and heads of department of a range of ethnicities and talking about the library and its resources in the context of race made me feel particularly nervous, not least because I primarily deal with students and staff associated with the school I support, rarely with staff from across the academy.

But… this discomfort is a good thing. You should feel discomfort. The work is large and requires you to go outside your comfort zone. You are, after all, stepping up to help dismantling your own privileged position. As Tuck and Yang argue “decolonization is necessarily unsettling” (Tuck & Yang, 2012). It is not meant to feel easy and comfortable, it’s supposed to feel challenging and uncomfortable. That’s dismantling privilege. We should be prepared to experience discomfort as part of the process. Discomfort will remind us that what is being done is important and necessary. Discomfort needs to be embraced and accepted as part of the process that we need to go through if we are to be serious in tackling whiteness in the academy.

What we are doing now…

We are continuing to examine our collections and to look at the readings that are used to form the foundation of teaching and learning. At present myself and colleagues are examining readings to produce data that we intend to share at an upcoming learning and teaching conference. We hope this data will spark discussion and reflection amongst colleagues and, hopefully, result in positive change.

If you would like to find out more about the work we are doing, please do drop me a line (I’m on Twitter at ijclark) and I’ll be more than happy to share what we are doing (as well as to learn from others to refine our work).

The post above was informed by discussions with a number of colleagues. Many thanks to Dr Deanne Bell, Dr Rachel Liebert, Dr Marcia Wilson, Dr Tehseen Noorani, Quevarra Moten, Clare Matysova and Carol Hughes for the many ongoing conversations that have educated me and continue to educate me. Thanks too to colleagues on the Race Equality Charter group at UEL, and fellow library workers Andrew Preater and Binni Brynolf.


Below are texts I’ve either directly referenced above or have influenced me over the course of the year.

Ahmed, S. (2012). On being included: racism and diversity in institutional life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Baldwin, J. (2017). Notes of a native son. London: Penguin.

Boutte, G. S., & Jackson, T. O. (2014). Advice to White allies: insights from faculty of Color. Race Ethnicity and Education, 17(5), 623–642. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2012.759926

Carolissen, R., & Bozalek, V. (2017). Addressing dualisms in student perceptions of a historically white and black university in South Africa. Race Ethnicity and Education, 20(3), 344–357. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2016.1260229

Chung, R. C.-Y., Bemak, F., Talleyrand, R. M., & Williams, J. M. (2018). Challenges in Promoting Race Dialogues in Psychology Training: Race and Gender Perspectives. The Counseling Psychologist, 0011000018758262.

Eddo-Lodge, R. (n.d.). About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge. Retrieved from https://www.aboutracepodcast.com/

Eddo-Lodge, R. (2017). Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Kessi, S. (n.d.). Decolonising psychology creates possibilities for social change. Retrieved 21 March 2018, from http://theconversation.com/decolonising-psychology-creates-possibilities-for-social-change-65902

Law, I. (2017). Building the Anti-racist University, action and new agendas. Race Ethnicity and Education, 20(3), 332–343. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2016.1260232

Le Grange, L. (2016). Decolonising the university curriculum. South African Journal of Higher Education, 30(2). https://doi.org/10.20853/30-2-709

Lorde, A. (2017). Your silence will not protect you — essays and poems. Silver Press.

Olusoga, D. (2017). Black and British : a forgotten history. London: Pan Books.

Paulraj, P. S. (2016). How do Black Trainees Make Sense of Their ‘Identities’ in the Context of Clinical Psychology Training? (Doctoral thesis). Retrieved from http://roar.uel.ac.uk/5401/

Pillay, S.R. (2017). Cracking the fortress: can we really decolonize psychology? South African Journal of Psychology, 47(2), 135–140. https://doi.org/10.1177/0081246317698059

Tate, S. A., & Bagguley, P. (2017). Building the anti-racist university: next steps. Race Ethnicity and Education, 20(3), 289–299. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2016.1260227

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1). Retrieved from: http://www.decolonization.org/index.php/des/article/view/18630/15554

Wilson, M. (2017). The search for that elusive sense of belonging, respect and visibility in academia. In D. Gabriel & S.A. Tate (Eds.), Inside the ivory tower: narratives of women of colour surviving and thriving in British academia (pp. 108–123). London, UK: UCL Press.

Wood, N., & Patel, N. (2017). On addressing ‘Whiteness’ during clinical psychology training. South African Journal of Psychology, 47(3), 280–291. https://doi.org/10.1177/0081246317722099

X, M., & Haley, A. (2001). The autobiography of Malcolm X. London: Penguin Books.