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2022 has been a turbulent and challenging year for many. Social inequalities and disadvantage are rife, with those in power repeatedly making bad, inhumane decisions and with very little, to no, accountability or consequences (insert your favourite example from the sh** storm that is the Conservative Party here). Union after Union, across sectors, engage in industrial action in response to poor working conditions and pay, amidst a cost-of-living crisis. And although seemingly unconnected, as the year comes to a close, the Sentencing Guidelines (2022) report on Public Confidence in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) has got me feeling frustrated. My previous blog entries have often been ‘moans’. And whilst January is often dubbed the month of new beginnings and change for the year ahead: we’re not quite there yet so true to form here is my latest moan!
The report exists as one of many conducted by Savanta to collate data on public confidence, in terms of effectiveness and fairness, in the CJS and public awareness of the sentencing guidelines. The data collected in March 2022, was via online surveys given to a “nationally representative sample of 2,165 adults in England and Wales” (Archer et al., 2022, p.9). Some of their highlighted ‘Key Findings’ include that confidence levels in CJS remains relatively stable in comparison to 2018, on the whole, respondents viewed sentences as ‘too lenient’ however this varied based on offence, the existence of the sentencing guidelines improves respondent’s confidence in the fairness of sentencing, and that engagement with broadcast news sources was high across respondents (Archer et al., 2022). It is not the findings, per se, that I take umbrage with, but rather the claim it is a “nationally representative sample of adults in England and Wales” (Archer et al., 2022, p.9).
I take issue on two fronts. The first being that the sample size of 2,165 adult respondents is representative when the demographic factors included are: gender (male and female), age (18-34yo, 35-54yo and 55+), region, ethnicity (White, Mixed, Asian, Black and Other) and socio-economic grade. Now considering we are, thankfully, at the end of 2022 we should all be able to recognise that a sample which only includes cis-gendered options, narrows ethnicity down to 4 categories and the charming ‘other’, and does not include disabilities is problematic. There has been a large body of research done on people with disabilities and their experiences within the CJS, the lack of representation, the lack of accessibility to space and decisions, potentially impacting a defendant’s right to a fair trial, and a victim’s right to justice (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2021; Hyun et al., 2013 ). So I ask, is this not something which needs considering when looking at public confidence in the CJS of a “nationally representative” sample?
In addition to this, I take issue with the requirement that the sample be “nationally representative”. We have research piece upon research piece about how Black men and Black boys experience the CJS and its various agencies disproportionately to their white counterparts (Lammy, 2017; Monteith et al., 2022; Parmar, 2012). Their experiences of stop and search, sentencing, bail, access to programmes within the Secure and Youth estate. There is nothing representative about our CJS in terms of who it processes, how this is done, and by whom. According to Monteith et al., (2022) 1% of Judges in the CJS are Black, and there are NO Black judges on the High Court, Court of Appeal of Supreme Court: this is not representative! Why then, are we concerned with a representative sample when looking at public confidence in CJS and the sentencing guidelines, when it is not experienced in a proportionate manner?
Maybe I’ve missed the point?
The report is clear, accessible, visible to the public: crucial concepts when thinking about justice, and measuring public confidence in the CJS is fraught with difficulties (Bradford and Myhill, 2015; Kautt and Tankebe, 2011). But this just feels like another nail being thumped into the coffin that is 2022. Might be the eagerness I possess to leave 2022 behind, or the impeding dread for the year to follow but the report has angered me rather than reassured me. As a criminologist, I am hopeful for a more inclusive, representative, fair and accountable CJS, but I am not sure how this will be achieved if we do not accept that the system disproportionately impacts (but not exclusively) Black men, women and children. Think it might be time for another mince pie…
Happy New Year to you all!
Archer, N., Butler, M., Avukatu, G. and Williams, E. (2022) Public Knowledge of Confidence in the Criminal Justice System and Sentencing: 2022 Research. London: Sentencing Council.
Bradford, B. and Myhill, A. (2015) Triggers of change to public confidence in the police and criminal justice system: Findings from the crime survey for England and Wales panel experiment, Criminology and Criminal Justice, 15(1), pp.23-43.
Equality and Human Rights Commission (2021) Does the criminal justice system treat disabled people fairly? [Online] Available at: https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/inquiries-and-investigations/does-criminal-justice-system-treat-disabled-people-fairly [ Accessed 4th November 2021].
Hyun, E., Hahn, L. and McConnell, D. (2013) Experiences of people with learning disabilities in the criminal justice system, British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 42: 308-314.
Kautt, P. and Tankebe, J. (2011) Confidence in the Criminal Justice System in England and Wales: A Test of Ethnic Effects, International Criminal Justice Review, 21(2),pp. 93-117.
The Lammy Review (2017) The Lammy Review: An independent review into the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black Asian and Minority Ethnic Individuals in the Criminal Justice System, [online] Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/goverment/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/643001/lammy-review-final-report-pdf [Last Accessed 14th February 2021].
Monteith, K., Quinn, E., Dennis, A., Joseph-Sailsbury, R., Kane, E., Addo, F. and McGourlay, C. (2022) Racial Bias and the Bench: A Response to the Judicial Diversity and Inclusion Strategy (2020-2025), [online] Available at: https://documents.manchester.ac.uk/display.aspax?DOCID=64125 [Accessed 4th November 2022].
Parmar, A. (2012) Racism and ethnicity in the criminal justice process, in: Hucklesby, A. and Wahidin, A. (eds.) Criminal Justice, 2nd ed, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.267-296.
TW: mentions of rape, child rape, racism, and misogynoir.
Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple is a story loved around the world. So, when I saw that it was adapted to stage and touring the UK, my interest was peaked just enough to consider a visit to my local theatre the Royal & Derngate in Northampton. A Curve and Birmingham Hippodrome co-production, it came to Northampton in the first week of October. Largely, audiences that frequent my local theatre are overwhelmingly white – thus, watching The Color Purple it was a joy to my heart to hear Black people in my community engaging with the arts, because the last time I heard so many Black people attended, was for Our Lady of Kibeho as part of the R&D’s Made in Northampton season. This dates back to 2019, a production I reviewed for The Nenequirer showing that Northampton(shire) arts has work to do.
Social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram showed me the pretty unanimous positive praise for the Leicester-Birmingham co-production, while local critics also enjoyed it – including reviews from The Chronicle & Echo and The Nenequirer as well as further reviews by The Real Chris Sparkle and Northampton Town Centre BID. However, there were elements of the show that caused me great distress, no less than the perpetuation of misogynoir and racist stereotypes against Black men. It was deeply triggering, showing how historical trauma and vicarious trauma are ever present, including when white organisations have not done the work of protecting Black mental health when producing “Black-centred media.”
At the head of this cast, Me’sha Bryan gives a knockout performance as Celie (previous played by Whoopi Goldberg in the film) accompanied by Aaliya Zhané as Nettie, with Bree Smith as Shug Avery, and brilliant musical numbers grounded in the traditions of blues music that finds its origins in the trauma of enslaved Africans in the American South. They sang when “they got the blues” … and as far as performance and the commitment from the cast, I couldn’t ask for better.
However, whilst I have praised the musical numbers above, I did not believe it fitted with the tones of The Color Purple curating a rift between what the actors were saying and doing on stage, and the intonations of the music – as well as the lighting design. And despite the directorial position deciding the rape of a child wasn’t musical material (rightly so), the choice to have it as a passing detail with no further discussion, I found particularly off-key. This is one of the moments that highlights that The Color Purple may not have been musical material and better considered as a serious drama. I did not walk away feeling that bleak, much ado with contradictory lighting choices to character moods. The characters were feeling one away and lights did something else. By the by, rather than skip over the rape to maintain “the musicalness”, it may have been more effective to have done this story as a stage drama (with musical elements, if at all). The horrors depicted at the beginning of the novel are pretty nonexistent in musical.
So, this recent adaptation was a disappointment. Not from an acting point of view but behind-the-scenes pre-production elements like direction. The start of story includes a fourteen year-old who births two children after being raped by her father. So, the amount of trauma that exists around child sexual abuse and rape appear unconsidered when they glossed over these parts of the story. Furthermore, I do question if they consulted with any survivors when doing research for this adaptation. A ‘sensitivity consultant’ would not have gone amiss either, further to considerations of intersectionality and how cultural nuances in global, but still different Black communities, will be interpreted by white people, especially in provincial Little England.
Blown away by the musical abilities of the cast, stage productions (like much art) are often labelled as “escapist” so is not afforded the same criticality as for example – policing, education, sport and so on – we are all guilty of this and we can do better. This may be art; there were no redeeming Black characters, and Black men calling Black women “ugly” (written into the script) in full face of a white audience is cultural violence. In Northampton, the large white audience laughed at this example of ableist misogynoir, and in many ways this production felt to be played up for white audiences. Lots of white people are not used to seeing Black people as full human beings, and I do feel the play draws out our humanity. And by proxy centres white comfort with a Black aesthetic reinforced by white supremacy in media.
Disability justice activist Talia Lewis has released definitions of ableism every year since 2019. In January 2022, she discussed ableism as a violent social discourse that values people’s bodies and minds according to societally constructed ideas of “normalcy, productivity, desirability, intelligence, excellence and fitness …” Lewis (2022) states that these ideas are embedded in other violent discourses such as eugenics, capitalism, misogyny and white supremacy. The adaptation of these characters is only part of this debate, where another part may want to consider how this play has informed everpresent white superemacism pervasive across Northamptonnshire. It may impact how local white audiences may view Black people when they perceive that in this cultural text – ‘this is how Black people talk and act around each other.’
“This systemic oppression leads to people and society determining people’s value based on their culture, age, language, appearance, religion, birth or living place, “health/wellness”, and/or their ability to satisfactory re/produce, “excel” and “behave.” You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.”Talia Lewis (2022)
In Homegrown (hooks and Mesa-Bains, 2017), bell hooks tell us “We have to constantly critique imperialist white supremacist patriarchal culture because it is so normalized by mass media and rendered unproblematic. The products of mass media offer the tools of the new pedagogy.” Theatre is no different to films, literature or television programmes. Watching the musical, it struck me how the numbers of people who haven’t done the work of unlearning their own white supremacy would be impacted by such an adaptation (yes, as we know all humans can reproduce these isms but in a global western context, however, white supremacy has put white people on the top of that racial hierarchy).
One instance of misogynoir and ableism was underpinned by the three Black women singers (their character names escape me) who were written as Sassy Black Women inherently “comedifying” Black womanhood. Brilliant singers, but were written lazily reinforcing a damaging cultural media narrative that diminishes the three-dimensional personhoods of Black women. This was offered with no alternative. The Hypersexual Jezebel (named after the “sinful” Biblical character) appears in numbers of characters while Sofia was written as the Strong Black Woman. Black men were then written as violent, comedic relief, illiterate, and other harmful stereotypes, and domestic abuser Mr Albert is redeemed to the sound of musical harmonies and joyful lighting.
At a Northampton level, the critics from local media revisited a culture of uncritically discussing art. Stories aren’t just stories but a product of the society that created them, and we are a society that finds it easier to challenge the criminal justice system than it does liberal arts institutions, in spite of both having a say in how Black people are viewed and treated. Despite “Black theatre” not being genre, we need more shows at the Derngate that centre Blackness in Britain. And whilst commissioning and hosting shows about ‘Black issues’ is not evidence of an anti-racist commitment, it would be nice to see more shows locally about Black people in the UK by Black people.
When we do get “Black stories”, they so often centre the US, most recently The Color Purple (Oct, 2022) and Two Trains Running (Sept, 2019) – denying local audiences a context for Blackness within the United Kingdom, while recentring American Blacknesses is gaslighting through art. In November, Dreamgirls centring American Blackness is coming to the Derngate. A co-production between The Curve and the Birmingham Hippodrome, this adaptation of The Color Purple was deeply problematic on many levels that local white critics may not have picked up on because of their whiteness – drawn in by a spectacle of a “Black show”, viewed through a white gaze that is unused to talking about white supremacy as a political structure.
The white audience for these misogynoir tropes specifically – largely one of laughter – reminded me of the white gaze, with white laughter as eased white supremacy. Whiteness continues to pervade through ‘acceptable racism’ where serious digs made at Black people in-text laughed at by white people may show how white people may think about Black people in designated white spaces. A Black man seriously calling a Black woman ugly and a white audience laughing at that is incredibly revealing – a comfortableness in spaces coded as white … and how white people may act when thinking and talking about Black people in private (i.e in spaces coded as culturally white and desgined to their comfort).
“I grew up in a culture of bantering and, ngl, I love a caustic riposte. And while in certain ways I resent the current policing of language, there is a distinction. I hate to break it to you, but a “joke” in which the gag is that the person is black isn’t a joke, it’s just racism disguised as humor. A joke told to a white audience where the punch line is a racist stereotype isn’t a joke, again it’s just racism; if there is only one black person present, it’s also cowardly and it’s bullying. Jokes of this nature probably aren’t funny for black people.”Emma Dabiri (2021: 98)
Art imitating life is one thing, but when life imitates art is another. White laughter at Black people in cultural media texts goes back to the days when blackface was on the BBC (until 1978). To see this platformed by a local arts institution then profiting from it, is revealing of how whiteness is performed and profited from, when white people think they’re not being watched. Creatives have a responsibility and so do those institutions that platform them.
Myself and fellow blogger @haleysread discuss this further in our prior entries about the scandal surrounding Jimmy Carr and Netflix. On that October evening, being one of the few Black people in the audience, it was incredibly uncomfortable. To consider art uncritically is to be entertained from a vantage point of privilege (or ignorance). Attending with my friend, to see unanimous positive feedback from the public made us feel a way, no less than from many Black people. We must always be critical; being critical is not the same as criticising, and those who are critical only take the time to be so because we care.
It is not about individual actors but about the lack of critique of institutional platforming in producing “art” that goes on to cause harm. Another fellow blogger Stephanie @svr2727 talked about misogynoir and the media in her recent webinar with the Criminology Team and Black Criminology Network. Violent mistakes in arts productions show a need not for more historical consultants, but sensitivity readers and empathy viewers. One cannot teach empathy, you either have it or you do not. Extending this gaze to screen media texts as well like Bridgerton and others, it is a further reminder that social scientists are needed at the very top of media … especially those of us that research about race, racism, and other forms of violence.
These cultural texts are rehearsed, edited, and considered by multiple hands before any public audience sees them. So, why are we still having to challenge? Simple: misogynoir, ableism, and whiteness are institutionalised and normalised socially and culturally into our day-to-day practice. No less than in “liberal” arts institutions.
“Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all.” – Malcolm X
At the heart of the “National Memorial for Peace and Justice” (Lynching memorial) is a vast collection of giant, rusty metal, rectangular pillars, hanging tightly together like a neatly planned and well-looked-after orchard.
Etched in each are the names of (known) lynching victims by date.
The pillars are hung so cleverly that one has to experience this artistic installation in person.
Nonetheless, the subject of white terrorism in the deep south is heavy,
Which is perhaps why Guests are invited to visit the nearby museum before the Memorial.
One needs time to prepare.
Naturally, sandwiched between enslavement and mass incarceration exhibits,
The museum also has an array of material on lynching.
This included a giant mural of jars surrounded by videos, infographic murals, maps and
An interactive register of every known lynching by county, date, state, and name.
I’m still stuck on the mural of snapshots of actual lynching advertisements, and
Pictures of actual news reports of victims’ final words.
These were the actual final words of folks etched forever in these hanging, rusty pillars.
Ostensibly, written by war correspondents.
Standing in awe of the museum’s wall of jars, I chatted with a tall Black man about my age.
He’d traveled here from a neighboring state with his teen son to, as he said,
“See how this stuff we go through today ain’t new.”
I recounted to him what a young man at the EJI memorial had showed me a few years ago:
A man’s name who’d been lynched early last century for selling loose cigarettes –
Just like Eric Garner!
Yet, even since then,
Amadou Diallo was shot 19 times in 1999, standing on his own stoop
And while Jayland Walker got 46 bullets this year while fleeing on foot.
Tamir Rice was a little boy.
A little boy playing in the park. But his mere presence terrified a white man.
So he called 9-1-1 and the police showed up and shot Tamir within seconds!
We can watch the tape.
After their own legal work in representing the wrongfully imprisoned for damn near life,
EJI began collecting jars of dirt near every known lynching, and
If invited by local officials, EJI would offer a memorial plaque and ceremony commemorating that community’s recognition of historic injustice(s).
An open field sits next to the suspended pillars, filled with a duplicate of each pillar.
These duplicates sit, having yet to be collected and properly dedicated by each county.
These communities are denied healing, and we know wounds fester.
The field of lame duplicates effectively memorializes the festering denial in our body politic.
There are far too many unrecorded victims and versions of white mob violence, and intimidation, not just barbarous torture and heinous murder.
We do have to wonder how else this rich history has stayed in our collective memories.
Too many Black families were too traumatized to talk and didn’t want to pass it to their kids.
We know many fled after any minor incursion,
Just as someone had advised Emmet Till to do,
And there’s no accounting for them and the victims’ families who fled and
Even hid or discarded any news clippings they’d seen of the events.
Yet, whites must have kept record.
Did whites collect the newspaper ads or reports of a lynching they’d attended or hoped to?
They made and sold lynching postcards, curios, and other odd lynching souvenirs.
Where are the avid collectors?
Plus, apparently, terrorists don’t just kidnap and hang someone to death,
So what did they do with all the ears, noses, fingers, and genitals they cut off?
Or eyes they plucked out?
Or scalps they shaved?
Many victims pass out from the immense pain of being tortured and burned alive, but still
I doubt all those pieces and parts got thrown in the fire, because, of course,
Plenty of pictures show entire white families there to celebrate the lynching like (a) V-day.
And in many ways, it was, and
The whites looked as if they would’ve wanted to remember.
Looks can be deceiving, but the ways whites were also bullied into compliance is real.
Still, my mother swears that some white families’ heirlooms must include
Prized, preserved pieces of Nat Turner.
Ooh, wouldn’t that be a treasure that would be.
Plus, given the spate and state of anti-Black policing and violence,
Our democracy, nay, our Constitution itself, is as rusty as these pillars.
The pillars resting in the field remind us not only the work left to do, but also, it’s urgency.
How many more pillars may we still need?
How many amendments
did will freedom take?
It goes to show how great thou art now!
In June 1977, 45 years ago, I saw the Queen, albeit fleetingly, being driven past Piccadilly Circus en-route to Buckingham Palace for the culmination of the Silver Jubilee celebrations. I wasn’t there for the party. I was making my way to Camden Town and the rehearsal studios used by the Punk-inspired band Subway Sect, who my friend from school had joined as their drummer. The studio, part of a crumbling yard of railway buildings, some still bombed out from the War, would soon begin its transformation into trendy Camden Market.
Punk shared an interesting crossover with Black music culture, in particular reggae. As teenagers, most of us growing up in the 70s were familiar with Blues and Tamala Motown, but reggae was new to me, especially the Heavy Dub style popular in the Jamaican community. The man largely responsible for my education was Don Letts, the House DJ at The Roxy in Neil St, Covent Garden. Originally a fruit and veg warehouse, between 1976 and 1978 the Club shot to fame/notoriety as the top Punk venue in London. The problem for the promoters was that in 1977 the scene was so embryonic there were as yet no home-grown punk records to play. So, in the gaps between live bands, Don played what he wanted, namely reggae, which went down well with the mostly white crowd. To quote from his website: “he came to notoriety in the late 70s as the DJ that single handedly turned a whole generation of punks onto reggae”. In fact, the combination became so popular that Bob Marley’s Punky-Reggae Party released in 1977 as a 12 inch (Jamaica only) and as the B-side to Jamming, reached number 9 in the UK singles charts. Don’s choice of tracks from his Roxy days are captured in the critically acclaimed compilation Dread Meets The Punk Rockers Uptown (Heavenly Records).
Scroll forward a couple of years and I’m working as assistant van driver to my boss Morris, a Jamaican-born reggae fan. He was involved in the local music scene and sometimes I would help him set up a Sound System for private house parties, in and around Brixton. We would use the work van, a sackable offence given the prestige brand name of our West End employer, but worth the risk. Think Small Axe: Lovers Rock, but with more sound gear and ganja-smoking Rastas, and you’ve got the picture. While sometimes out of my comfort zone, it was uplifting to witness first-hand a community at one with its own identity while lobbying for change in wider society that remained indifferent at best.
It was also a time in London when the Metropolitan Police stop and search “SUS” law reigned high. I witnessed several occasions where Morris was subject to blatant racial harassment. Once I was on a delivery to an exclusive residential part of Town. On these visits we played a game, coined by Morris, as Dropsy or Tipsy – would we be offered a Dropsy (cup of tea/coffee) or a cash tip for the delivery, typically a sofa or expensive Persian rug? The winner was the one who made the right call in advance. We parked in the street and as we got out several police officers on foot suddenly approached Morris and demanded to know what he was doing, despite the rather obvious fact he was at work. When they saw me, the situation cooled off, but the aggressive tone of the questioning was clear and present intimidation of a black man, whose only ‘offence’, while going about his legitimate business, was to be in a white, rich area. I wish I could say this was a one-off. Unfortunately, we all know that’s not the case. Another time relates to the shocking mistreatment he got crossing a picket line. The work van was kept in a British Road Services Depot at Elephant and Castle. We both turned up on the day a lightning strike had been called by the Transport and General Workers Union. I understand emotions can run high in these situations, but there was no excuse for the barrage of racial abuse he took from sections of the crowd. He brushed it off with characteristic good humour, but the episode tainted my view of trade unions ever since.
As this is a criminology blog I should probably throw in an example of real-life criminality. It happened mid-morning one Friday following a drop-off in busy Bishopsgate. Returning to the van I noticed a castor wheel on the pavement. “Looks like it’s come from one of our sofas” I remarked. It had. When we pulled back the shutter, the van was empty. Everything we’d loaded up an hour ago was gone. Sofas, walnut dressers, rugs, porcelain table lamps, all cleaned out. The castor was all that was left! Robbed in broad daylight, next to a bus stop. In panicked disbelief we asked those in the queue if they’d seen anything but we were wasting our breath. It was left to Mr Farooqui, the long-suffering Despatch floor manager, to take the heat from angry customers as he rang round to tell them the good news. Needless to say, management weren’t impressed and dished out first and final written warnings. Soon after we went our separate ways.
Meanwhile, the overlap between black and white youth culture in London was being fostered in creative ways. Rock Against Racism (RAR), founded in 1976 along with the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), a year later, were both set up to combat a surge in far-right extremism. Music, especially the cross-over between various genres including punk and reggae, was an important enabler in that it found common ground from which more overtly political discussions could take place. I was one of the many thousands who, in April 1978, joined The Clash, Steele Pulse and others at Victoria Park, Hackney, in what was RAR’s finest hour. Also in the audience that day was Gerry Gable, the veteran anti-fascist campaigner and founder of Searchlight magazine, whose archive is hosted here at the University. I spoke to Gerry about this and he has very fond memories of the day and his role in helping it come about through his associations with both RAR and the ANL.
So, in the year of the Platinum Jubilee, has popular music culture continued as a positive force for race integration since the punky-reggae days of 77? It’s probably a PhD project or two (dozen), but Bob Marley sums it up for me nicely:
What did you say?
Rejected by society
Treated with impunity
Protected by my dignity
I search for reality
If by the search for reality we mean certainty, then how certain are we things have changed for the better? My experience is that, on average, they have, and that music has played its precious role in bring people closer together. The key here is “on average”. If by reality we mean a search for legitimacy, there is evidence to the contrary. Differences of course remain, and there is no room for complacency. The one pledge we must agree on though is to never stop searching – for melody, for rhythm, for harmony.
Rightly so, there has been a lot of discussion in recent months about the struggles of full-time academic staff in higher education institutions in our previous posts: Higher education, students, the strikes and me*, The strikes and me: never going back! and Industrial action, knowledge, and blurred lines. For the sake of clarity, this post is not designed to distract from some of the very real problems they face. Instead, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the silent voices in lecturing teams: PhD Students who are also Visiting Lecturers (VL’s) or Associate Lecturers (AL’s). Having been both an AL and VL in the past for various higher education institutions, and simultaneously a self-funded PhD student, the experience of those who have very kindly offered to share with me their stories, struggles and often deteriorating coping mechanisms resonate with my own. I am grateful for the unexpected avalanche of responses I received from VL/AL’s from various universities on this very issue, including current and former colleagues. I should stress that this is neither targeted at any one individual university, nor do I claim that these are universal experiences for those in similar positions.
These students are hybrid beings, often stuck in a limbo of loyalty to their respective graduate schools, their fellow lecturing colleagues and the students they teach. Despite this, or perhaps more appropriately because of this, many VL/AL’s are not fully trained or integrated into the roles they are expected to play within the university sector. Firstly, adequate training is almost non-existent in most universities for new starters, who are often expected to simply jump into the deep end without adequate experience. What is available to VL/AL’s in helping with building knowledge and experience in higher education teaching is the offer for them to take ‘independent initiative’ in signing up to undertaking a Postgraduate Certificate of Higher Education (PGCert/PGCHE) which leads to a subsequent Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). The experience of taking this course and securing the Fellowship was highly positive amongst those who contacted me prior to the writing of this post, though of course this may vary depending on the institution. The problem is, the course is rarely, if ever, offered before VL/AL’s begin teaching and is often treated as a simple tick box exercise to boost departmental or institutional reputation through an increased number of Associate or full Fellowships within their ranks. Secondly, integration into their roles is often stifled by various reasons, including somewhat critical outlooks within their teams on emerging pedagogical research focused on student experience, misguided assumptions that they are ‘more students than lecturers’ and/or the belief by others that they are not likely to remain as permanent members of the teaching team. These issues relating to hybridity lead to VL/AL’s often feeling as though they do not carry the same “worthy status” by colleagues or the department of being co-creators of the curriculum, being included in important communication relating to decision-making which will affect their ability to carry out their teaching and learning sessions, or in generally expressing discontent for various issues which they are facing in their roles.
One of these issues related to low wages, which is a rather common issue affecting employees across most sectors, especially in the current cost of living crisis. It may seem rather trivial to those in higher education institutions tasked solely with ensuring maximum profit by quantifying the experience of teaching, but the struggles faced by those VL/AL’s on 0-hour contracts are widespread and damaging. Though there are distinct differences across institutions in how these contracts are managed, or how their staff are paid, many practices seem to be commonplace, such as for instance paying solely for hours spent actually teaching. In circumstances where academic staff may spend hours on end preparing for teaching and learning sessions, engaging in a subsequent wind-down of emotions potentially triggered from the sessions, and then engage in copious amounts of marking (sometimes as many as 100 scripts at the same time due to the bunching of deadlines), being paid only on the basis of having taught a 1 or 2 hour session, even at what may seem a reasonable hourly wage in other sectors equates to less than minimum-wage if the maths is done correctly. There are nuanced differences of course between those VL/AL staff who are self-funded and those on studentships or scholarships, the latter receiving a flat-rate annual “salary” alongside a tuition fee waiver. Having said that, those on scholarships or studentships tended to face other challenges throughout the payment process, including lack of automatic payments, breakdown of communication with those organising these manually, and the general slowness in being ‘set up’ for all the admin-related tasks expected of them (including email accounts, e-learning, lack of training etc.).
The challenges of 0-hour contracts, although they are not described as such within the contracts themselves, also include a looming sense of dread for VL/AL academics approaching the summer months, when they know that they will be left penniless by their universities. If on a full-time status, those who are self-funded and undertaking a PhD are also barred from claiming any kind of benefit entitlements due to the receipt of a postgraduate student loan from Student Finance England. It is important to note that the maximum entitlement for this loan is £25,000 over the course of what is, on average, a 3-5 year research project. The average tuition fee for research degrees is over £5,000 per year. At the most ambitious end of the PhD completion scale, undertaking a 3-year research project with a £25,000 loan, leaves a £10,000 remainint total which is expected to help the student survive for 3 years. Of course, most PhDs exceed the 3-year mark and, combined with the challenges of not being paid by their universities over the summer months, this takes a serious toll on mental health which paradoxically affects their ability to dedicate full focus on their research projects. It inevitably leads to VL/AL staff scrambling to “take on” additional modules of teaching in an attempt to save enough to make ends meet throughout the summer, which again leaves them with little time or mental strength to focus on their PhD research.
Mental health is an issue which spans across a variety of challenges faced by VL/AL’s undertaking a PhD. There are intersectional elements which are not taken into consideration by higher education institutions that take a serious toll on their ability to juggle between their roles as facilitators of teaching and learning, students undertaking a PhD, but also human beings with a variety of other important identities in need of comfort, reassurance and support. Many universities fail to recognise nuanced issues arising from increasingly consumer-focused, neoliberal and bureaucratic practices adopted, which leave those who already struggle due to their class status, race, gender, or parenthood, with even less support than one individual characteristic that higher education assumes can be tick boxed away through a single counselling session. Some of the responses I received drew attention to the intersectional nature of class and race, others class and gender, and some even a combination of all three with an inclusion of motherhood or parenthood in general. It seems that experiences have been similar in that many higher education institutions still fail to take into consideration how the challenges associated with each individual identity are exacerbated when combined. These include a lack of acknowledgement that (1) money is a real issue, (2) there are racial, cultural and religious barriers which often mean an increased requirement of attention on family and social life beyond work, (3) certain departments and faculties are still male-centric, (4) motherhood and parenting requires serious review of pay and workload, and (5) many subject or course leaders are failing to recognise their curriculum content and teaching/learning practices are essentially colonising their own colleagues. A former colleague even encompassed all of these identities: an ethnically minoritised working-class mother of two children. One cannot begin to imagine the mental health struggles someone in this position faces during summer months in an ever-failing welfare system.
Academics who have not been through similar intersectional struggles seem to be unable or unwilling to acknowledge even the existence of them and the genuine impact that they have for their colleagues who spend a large proportion of their day-to-day work life trying (on top of everything else) to resist barriers to gender identities, dispel unconscious racial biases within their teams, or simply to provide their children with the level of care, love and support that they deserve. It can lead to a continuous interplay of unconscious gaslighting by one’s own full-time colleagues – some quotes provided to me by respondents were: “I teach more modules than you do, so you’ll be okay”, “yes but we all had the same amount of marking”, “can’t you do it over the weekend?” and “you need to work on your time management skills”. Despite many of us spending years drawing attention to stigma, oppression, marginalisation and social inequality, deconstructing and reconstructing by-gone theories that reproduce hegemony, we seem to allow it to flourish so easily under our noses and within our own institutions. This can perhaps serve as a reminder for all academics within higher education institutions, but also those focused on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, to step up their game by adopting principles of co-creation and genuine participatory change. After all, while the ultimate goal may be the same, the journey must be mapped out by those who have already experienced, and continue to experience, the inclines.
The recent French election once again saw centrist Macron head to head with far right nationalist Le Pen. Macron won the election by a much narrower margin that the 2017 elections. I have an interest in the French elections as my parents live there and are not far away from applying for citizenship. For them, the prospect of a far right president was worrying.
The politics of much of the world has shifted to the right of late, often to the far right. Perhaps this hasn’t been a recent thing. Indeed, before this wave of Trump, Modi, and Le Pen, we had UKIP and for a while the BNP was making a lot of noise. The writing was on the wall with New Labour and their many new immigration offences, Blair’s tough on crime and it’s causes approach, and not forgetting war on Iraq and Afghanistan. This was swiftly followed with then Home Secretary Theresa May’s hostile environment agenda which has been advanced again and again by consecutive Home Secretaries until we passed the point of no return with Priti Patel and her Nationality and Borders Act 2022 (it pains me to type ‘Act’ instead of ‘Bill’ – it’s black and white now) from which not the Lords nor God nor the best lawyers in the land seem have yet been able to save us from. What we see now is a Conservative government embedded with far right ideology, and this is not an isolated island in that respect.
This current uprising of the far right, racist, and xenophobic politicians is a global phenomenon. Modi, the far right Hindu nationalist is knee deep in his campaign against Muslims, revoking autonomy in Jammu and Kashmir (ironically – or deliberately – this took place on 31st October 2019, the day Britain was supposed to leave the EU), invoking the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 which disproportionately affects the citizenship of Muslims who now face the possibility of expulsion, and even outright attacks on Muslims.
Then there was Trump and the less said about him, the better. But let us return to France. This is the second consecutive election in which Macron has faced Le Pen and won. In France, elections are held in two stages. All parties and candidates go head to head in stage one and if no candidate holds a majority, a second round between the top two candidates takes place. In 2017, Macron won the second stage with 66.1% of the vote. This time around, the vote was much narrower 58.6%. Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party has ‘transformed’ since the 2017 election, with the party’s councillor for Gironde arguing that they are not the far right, and instead are localists and nationalists. Are they not one and the same?
In recent years, the rise of the far right in Europe has been fuelled by fears of refugees, terrorism, and open borders within the European Union. In addition to this, concerns over employment and poverty have contributed to this. It is not all about them, it is preservation of us.
In a globalised era, we have seen decades of erosion of the working class jobs of old combined with distorted perceptions of immigration and population changes. People living in poverty, unemployed or in insecure employment look for someone to blame and the someone tends to be them. So, parties who say they stand for the working man and oppose immigration become popular, not because voters are necessarily racist but because they are fearful and suffering. Bearing that in mind, where does that leave us now? The whole of Europe is facing a cost of living crisis, war on our doorstep. Here in the UK, inflation and interest rates are rising but wages are not. We cannot blame this on them, on people fleeing persecution, on people who come to the UK to fill the jobs nobody wants or are not qualified to do. This us and them narrative causes nothing but division and hatred, fuelling hateful politicians who – let’s face it – serve nobody’s interests but their own.
My Monday message: Choose love
Getting closer to 30 has been really difficult. I had set goals for myself and I have not accomplished most of them.
I thought I had everything all planned out and I knew what I wanted. However, life comes at you fast. I honestly wonder how our parents made this look so easy.
The pandemic has also knocked us back a couple of years. Instead of focussing on goals and thinking about the future; we are simply trying our hardest to stay sane and survive each day. Remembering to breathe became the new main task. Making our mental health a priority has become the most important thing.
Trying to balance ‘living in the moment’ and thinking about the future is hard. My plans have changed so much over the last couple of years. I have more questions than answers. But I’m slowly learning not every question has to be answered straightaway.
The pressure I feel being a first generation immigrant is enormous. I believe that every generation has to show a level of socioeconomic improvement. Finding a way to achieve this, whilst in a foreign land is extremely overwhelming. You are constantly reminded close to each day that you are an outsider and you do not belong here.
Nonetheless, my mother did not work two jobs and not have any days off for me not to make it. This has always been my driving force. My mom always tells me I am being too hard on myself. She had the support from her relatives when she was home in our home country (Zimbabwe) and I don’t have the same luxury, as such I shouldn’t penalise myself for not achieving everything I want to achieve… yet. (The key word is ‘yet’). Just because it has not happened yet doesn’t mean it will not happen in the future. Delay does not mean denial.
Facing career challenges based on your race is a hard pill to swallow. Not knowing who to turn to for advice is even more frustrating. I used to think all women regardless of race would empathise and they would want to help. As we all have one struggle in common; being a woman. At least that should unify us… (so you would think). However, I have realised at times your level of ambition can be deemed as a threat. The same people might have experienced a glass ceiling can be the very same ones who add to your oppression because you are seen as ‘competition’. One of my mentors recently told me to relax in relation to my job searching as all institutions are not used to “aggressive job searches”. I find it pretty funny that the term “aggressive” will always be the main word used to describe Black people. How can a job search ever be aggressive?! Unless I’m standing outside your office threatening you to give me a job then yes, that’s aggressive. However, sending an email reminding a company to send me the new job specification they stated over the phone is not aggressive. In that moment, I knew she is an enemy of my progress.
I used to calculate my career progression based on if I have moved up to a certain level or my pay grade has increased. But I am starting to learn the skills I have acquired over the years are far more valuable. My confidence has grown incredibly. I have found my voice. That is something that cannot be taken from me. I am proud of my level of courage and perseverance. These are qualities not a lot of people have.
I am excited to see what 30 has in store for me. I have learnt so much. But there are a lot of skills I look forward to gaining in the upcoming years. I am slowly learning not to be so hard on myself.
Note to self – do not forget who you are… You are destined for greatness. Everything you want is coming. Do not compare your journey to others. Even if others are not willing to help you; there is always a way forward. Go back to the drawing board and restrategise. No one owes you anything. So do not expect anything from anyone.
“Remember diamonds are created under pressure so hold on, it will be your time to shine soon.” – Sope Agbelisi
As an associate lecturer on a casual contract, I was glad to stand in solidarity with my friends and colleagues also striking as part of UCU Industrial Action. Concurrently, I was also glad to stand in solidarity with students (as a recent former undergrad and masters student … I get it), students who simply want a better education, including having a curriculum that represents them (not a privileged minority). I wrote this poem for the students and staff taking part in strike action, and it comes inspired from the lip service universities give to doing equality while undermining those that actually do it (meanwhile universities refuse to put in the investment required). This piece also comes inspired by ‘This is Not a Humanising Poem’ by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, a British author-educator from Bradford in Yorkshire.
Some issues force you to protest
the way oppression knocks on your front door
and you can’t block out the noise
“protest peacefully, non-violently”
I have heard people say
show ‘the undecided’, passive respectability
be quiet, leave parts of yourself at home
show them you’re just as capable of being liked
enough for promotion into the canteen,
protest with kindness and humour
make allusions to smiling resisters in literature
they’d rather passive images of Rosa Parks all honestly
but not her politics against racism, patriarchy, and misogyny
but I wanna tell them about British histories of dissent
the good and the bad – 1919 Race Riots
the 1926 general strikes, and the not so quiet
interwar years of Caribbean resistance to military conscription
I wanna talk about how Pride was originally a protest
I wanna talk about the Grunwick Strike and Jayaben Desai
and the Yorkshire miners that came to London in solidarity
with South Asian migrant women in what was 1980s austerity
I want to rant about Thatcherism as the base
for the neoliberal university culture we work in today
I want to talk about the Poll Tax Riots of 1990
and the current whitewashing of the climate emergency
they want protesters to be frugal in activism,
don’t decolonise the curriculum
they say decolonise
they mean monetise, let’s diversify …
but not that sort of diversity
nothing too political, critical, intellectual
transform lives, inspire change?
they will make problems out of people who complain
it’s your fault, for not being able to concentrate
in workplaces that separate the work you do
from the effects of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo
they make you the problem
they make you want to leave
unwilling to acknowledge that universities
discriminate against staff and students systemically
POCs, working-class, international, disabled, LGBT
but let’s show the eligibility of staff networks
while senior leaders disproportionately hire TERFs
staff and students chequered with severe floggings
body maps of indenture and slavery
like hieroglyphics made of flesh
but good degrees, are not the only thing that hold meaning
workers rights, students’ rights to education
so this will not be a ‘people are human’ poem
we are beyond respectability now
however, you know universities will DIE on that hill
treat us well when we’re tired
productive, upset, frustrated
when we’re in back-to-back global crises
COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, femicide,
failing in class, time wasting, without the right visas,
the right accents; Black, white, homeless, in poverty,
women, trans, when we’re not A-Grade students, when we don’t
have the right last name; when we’re suicidal
when people are anxious, depressed, autistic
tick-box statistics within unprotected characteristics
all permeates through workers’ and student rights
When you see staff on strike now,
we’re protesting things related to jobs yes,
but also, the after-effects
as institutions always protect themselves
so sometimes I think about
when senior management vote on policies…
if there’s a difference between the nice ones ticking boxes
and the other ones that scatter white supremacy?
I wonder if it’s about diversity, inclusion, and equality [DIE],
how come they discriminate in the name of transforming lives
how come Black students are questioned (under caution) in disciplinaries
like this is the London Met maintaining law and order …
upholding canteen cultures of policing
Black and Brown bodies. Decolonisation is more
than the curriculum; Tuck and Yang
tell us decolonisation is not a metaphor,
so why is it used in meetings as lip service –
why aren’t staff hired in
in critical race studies, whiteness studies, decolonial studies
why is liberation politics and anti-racism not at the heart of this
why are mediocre white men failing upwards,
they tell me we have misunderstood
but promotion based on merit doesn’t exist
bell hooks called this
you know Free Palestine, Black Lives Matter, and the rest
we must protest how we want to protest
we must never be silenced; is this being me radical, am I radical
Cos I’m tired of being called a “millennial lefty snowflake”, when I’m just trying not to DIE?!
Ahmed, Sara (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. London: Duke.
Ahmed, Sara (2021) Complaint. London: Duke.
Bhanot, Kavita (2015) Decolonise, Not Diversify. Media Diversified [online].
Double Down News (2021) This Is England: Ash Sakar’s Alternative Race Report. YouTube.
Chen, Sophia (2020) The Equity-Diversity-Inclusion Industrial Complex Gets a Makeover. Wired [online].
Puwar, Nirmal (2004) Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. Oxford: Berg.
Read, Bridget (2021) Doing the Work at Work What are companies desperate for diversity consultants actually buying? The Cut [online].
Ventour, Tré (2021) Telling it Like it is: Decolonisation is Not Diversity. Diverse Educators [online].