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Racism in higher education: Staff and students report incidents

Labelled as different. Not invited to join important networks. Drawn attention to in the classroom. Racism and discrimination based on ethnicity often occurs in subtle ways within higher education.

Jennie Aquilonius
Illustration: Robert Hilmersson

During the spring, KTH conducted a pilot study of pulse surveys, snapshot employee questionnaires, among 500 members of staff. The staff answered questions via their mobile phones at various times, one of which was about gender equality, diversity and equal treatment.

Roh Petas

“Ethnicity was one of the main grounds for discrimination that came up when we asked whether staff had witnessed discrimination or victimisation or had experienced it themselves,” says Roh Petas, a strategist at the Equality Office at KTH. “Age, gender and ethnicity are the causes that come up most frequently when we do this type of research.”

Ethnicity was also one of the primary causes of discrimination and abuse in the most recent follow-up study of doctoral candidates. Student organizations have also said that they need more knowledge about the issue. Last autumn, therefore, the Equality Office held a seminar on racism and anti-racism.

“We now know that there are incidents linked to ethnicity among both employees and students. But we do not know exactly what kind of incidents and where to put in specific measures to create awareness and inclusive cultures.”

Roh Petas says that the Equality Office educates both students and employees in equality issues and that all seven grounds for discrimination are included, with anti-racism highlighted specifically.

Exclusionary statements
This autumn, the doctoral candidate association at the Gothenburg University Faculty of Social Sciences is also planning to conduct a study on doctoral candidates’ and students’ experiences of racism.

Sarah Philipson Isaac

“Students have reported that they are not addressed as objects of knowledge, are not allowed to speak and are forced to illustrate the position of the immigrant,” says Sarah Philipson Isaac, a doctoral candidate in sociology.

“Non-white students feel that they become very much a body in the classroom, that teachers or other students touch their hair and bodies.”

Doctoral candidates talk about racism in the work environment, she continues. It may be colleagues who declare that the police should of course stop Swedish-Somalis to a greater extent than white Swedes at airports or that they find it uncomfortable to feel white in a certain neighbourhood and therefore want advice about other places to live. Such statements exclude and reinforce norms about who belongs at the university and who does not.

“One problem is that the university only looks at incidents of discrimination and victimisation from the legal perspective”, she says, “but it’s frequently a question of subtle forms of racism that are difficult to measure, such as exclusion, invisibility and exotification.”

Differences in positions and income levels
Alireza Behtoui is a professor of sociology at Södertörn University and Stockholm University. In 2018, he and his colleague Hege Høyer Leivestad conducted a study on academics with foreign backgrounds at Swedish universities. According to Statistics Sweden, a foreign background is defined as being born outside Sweden or having two foreign-born parents. A reference group consisted of people born in Sweden with at least one Swedish-born parent. All of the 15,953 people included in the study had completed their doctorates in 2012 or earlier.

Alireza Behtoui

In the reference group, 97 per cent were currently working in the higher education sector. The same figure for people with roots in Asia, Africa and South America, after checking for qualifications, was between 67 and 83 per cent. This group also earned 20–30 per cent less than the reference group.

“Income levels reflect the fact that they have lower positions in the academic hierarchy,” says Behtoui.

Contacts essential
In the study, 20 academics with foreign backgrounds were interviewed. One of the things that the interviewees talked about was the importance of having contacts already while at master’s level in order to have a chance to get into the doctoral programme. According to Behtoui, this might be in the form of support in the writing of a good master’s thesis, opportunities to write articles together or that a researcher or teacher invites the student to conferences. Family and friends can also show how to write a good application and CV. “But those who are a little different within higher education often do not have such contacts and do not know the rules of the game,” he says.

There is also a hidden curriculum in the doctoral programme, Behtoui continues. Here, the doctoral candidate learns which norms, values ​​and principles need to be followed in order to be regarded as ”good”. This includes how to behave, who to associate with, what the hierarchy of power looks like among the supervisors and which seminars to choose. Through the socialisation process, doctoral candidates acquire contacts that involve them in research projects and help them to write applications.

“Do not know the rules of the game very well”
A docent of social sciences interviewed in the study talks about the doctoral programme. “During a method course on quantitative methods, I asked a very influential professor in the department who was a teacher in the course, ’is the world really so logically arranged that we can understand it with the logic of numbers?’ The professor was very upset by what I said, and after that he obstructed me as best he could in every situation. The lesson for me was that I should consider codes very carefully.”

“This is an example of not knowing the rules of the game very well,” says Behtoui. “She did not know that you do not question a great professor when he is teaching or how to build a relationship with a professor so that he or she involves you in his or her future applications.”

After completing their doctorates, the interviewees found it difficult to get the prestigious assignments required to advance in their careers. Someone needs to recommend you, but, as one researcher puts it, “many times it is not us immigrants who are recommended.”

Shoe size adverts create barriers
The participants also tell of how they are disadvantaged by “shoe size advertisements”. This term, directly translated from Swedish, refers to a job ad which includes highly specific requirements which, like someone’s shoe size, have no bearing on the ability of applicants to do the job. Even if the ad is neutral, Alireza Behtoui continues, those who hire can choose experts who guarantee the ”right” candidate to sit on selection panels. If they still get the wrong person, they might introduce interviews and test lectures. “In the worst cases, they terminate the position and recommence the process from the beginning.”

One researcher in medicine in the study says “I don’t want to generalise, but what I see around me and also about myself is that there is a barrier placed in front of you at a certain level. Then you have to be satisfied and be grateful that you are an immigrant. You have to be happy that you have your job, what you have today.”

Publication in non-Western journals questioned
Paula Mählck is a senior lecturer at the Department of Migration, Ethnicity and Society at Linköping University. Together with two colleagues, she has researched the assessment of professorship applications at a Swedish university. Among other things, assessors questioned the scientific quality of the applicants’ articles if they were not published in a Western publication.

Paula Mählck

“It was outside their understanding of where good research can be found,”, she says. “In one interview, an assessor says that an understanding of the applicant’s context is important for the assessment. For example, a person who was educated and published in Canada or the United States was easier to understand and assess than someone who had studied and worked in a non-Western context.”

She believes that this shows the importance of assessment committees including researchers who come from, or have knowledge of, non-Western contexts. The assessors were aware of their own subjective role, but they contented themselves with stating that assessment is always subjective.

“They did not begin to think that if we are all very alike on this assessment committee, perhaps our subjectivity is very similar in a certain direction and contributes to a structural exclusion of certain perspectives, regions, areas of knowledge and, in the long run, researchers. It was more than three times more common to be proposed for a professorship if you applied from a Swedish university.”

In 2016, together with Måns Fellesson, Paula Mählck researched experiences of discrimination due to skin colour within Swedish higher education. The informants were doctoral candidates from Mozambique who were participating in the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency’s sandwich programme. Of the 82 participants, 17 had experienced discrimination due to skin colour.

“Their experience was that others did not want to look at, greet or talk to them. They were asked strange questions about how research is expected to take place in an African context and did not feel included in various research contexts.”

Jennie Aquilonius

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