Am I really a BAME ally?

This blog is our way of raising awareness. As White people, we are not claiming to be experts on this, but we have learned a lot through our work with Athena Swan and EDI at this University and we want to encourage discussion and keep learning. We would love to hear your suggestions in the comments section below.


What does it mean to be an ally? Can one declare oneself an ally, in the same way you might say “I’m a feminist”, but without really doing anything to assert this nominal title?

We might be firmly and passionately supportive of BAME colleagues, attend the #BLM marches and clearly assert our allegiance. We might be shocked by the news of racism across the world, and feel saddened by the injustices we see around us. At the end of a working day we may even go home and talk to our friends and family about the uncomfortable remark someone made in a meeting that day. But is that really enough?

In Higher Education and in many other workplaces, racism happens every day. It is mostly not the kind of racism that you can easily see or challenge. It is microagressions, structural inequalities, repressed feelings, silenced voices, lack of visibility and lack of support. It is hidden. And precisely because it is hidden, it is very dangerous. We get lulled into complacency: imagining that racism happens in other places, but at the University we are intelligent academics who work in a post-racist space. We have BAME colleagues whom we love and value (with a recognition that we wish there were more of them among us), who don’t often tell us if/when they experience any issues, and for this reason we may think that racism does not exist in Higher Education. We get the impression it is all fine, when it is not.

A member of staff at Kent explained that:

‘A core issue that is not addressed enough is the experience of microaggressions and just as important the absence of micro-affirmations. BAME staff are accustomed to experiencing “the odd slight”, disregard or disrespectful treatment by other staff, and sometimes more explicit “toxic hostility”. Equally important and perhaps even more common is not being afforded the positive recognition, the respect, the affirmations and opportunities to belong and to connect that white people give each other – That absence of affirmation is not spoken of so much but is pervasive, it is wearing and is hard to respond to effectively. That differential experience of affirmation is a key aspect of white privilege and conversely of racial exclusion and inequality’.


Just because we cannot always see racism in Higher Education, does not mean that we can sit back and not do anything.

At the University of Kent, 28.6% of our students are BME.[1] Only 11% of our staff are, and even less in senior positions (10.5% in managerial and professorial positions).

How does this affect students? We know that there is an attainment gap for BAME students, something that the Student Success Project works hard to minimise. BAME students have fewer role models, and post-graduate students are likely to have less senior academics from a BAME background to support them.

How does it affect BAME staff? We know that staff from BAME backgrounds are less likely to apply for promotion, and also less likely to achieve promotion after they have applied. From the institutional Athena Swan team’s research, we know that many BAME staff members feel that white staff members (in particular males) get more informal support, praise and encouragement to step up the career ladder.


So if we want to be more than a bystander, more than an active supporter, and help beat the current system; what should we do?

Speak Up

Talking about race and inequalities can be uncomfortable. We shy away from the topic for fear of saying the wrong thing, upsetting someone, coming across as racist or stepping on someone’s toes. But NOT talking about race has worse consequences. If someone says something inappropriate in a meeting (like making fun of a foreign-sounding name of a colleague for example), make sure to challenge it in a calm and reasonable way.

Challenge yourself and Learn More

Where to begin?

“There’s not time in the day to educate myself on all of this, there’s too much and I have no hours left in the day”… Yes, there is time. If you can’t fit in reading, then listen to a podcast while cooking, driving or hanging up the laundry. For example or

Change your usual Netflix series to something that will widen your understanding about race. Netflix in fact has a whole genre for Black Lives Matter that you can browse. Consider what the world would look like if racial privilege was reversed by watching (or reading) Noughts and Crosses on BBC iPlayer. Also consider watching this lecture on White Privilege in Universities.

Mentor Junior Staff

Take the time to support and encourage junior staff members, share advice and give nudges towards positive career choices; regardless of the person’s race or gender. PhD candidate Orielia Egambaram wrote about her experiences of race in our last blog. Keep in mind in your interactions with staff and students that what Orielia described are the kinds of experiences that are commonplace and persistent for BAME colleagues.

Challenge Your Unconscious Bias

Higher Education is a space of White privilege. Many recognise this, but often those who benefit the most from this privilege do not. Throughout our research, we have found that often those who are already aware of and recognise their own unconscious bias are the ones that take training and resources seriously around this. Those who actively believe that they do not have any unconscious bias appear to pay less attention to training and information. If you believe that you don’t have an unconscious bias: think again. Learn more about your White privilege, for example through this TED Talk by Peggy McIntosh and do the available training that the University provides, including unconscious bias training.

Get Actively Involved

Familiarise yourself with local action, such as the Decolonising the Curriculum Manifesto.

Be aware of important cultural events. If it is Ramadan, consider how fasting might impact on your students and colleagues, and be mindful that for example Christmas is not an event everyone celebrates. When it’s Black History Month, find out what events are taking place and attend and promote them. To help you with inclusiveness throughout the year, print an ‘inclusion calendar’ and keep on your desk.

The University of Kent has recently committed to signing up to the Race Equality Charter, which will mean a serious reconsideration of how we challenge our current norms and build a MUCH more inclusive workplace. Take interest in this process, make your school, your group, your division and your colleagues aware and accountable. Signing up to a charter is not the solution – it is a way of making sure that changes that need to happen, are implemented at every level.

REMEMBER if you are a White colleague and feel a bit uncomfortable thinking or doing anything about this your moment of discomfort is nothing compared to the impact of the daily drip of hostility and microaggressions that your BAME students and colleagues experience.


Blog written by Carin Tunaker and Sarah Vickerstaff.

[1] At the University of Kent, data is collected for BME staff and students, rather than BAME. This data is from the most recent University EDI Report.

“Wow you speak really good English for someone from Africa!”

Frustrated. Annoyed! Shocked! Rejected?! I can’t quite begin to explain the flurry of emotions that this simple sentence evoke every time I hear these words. How could such a simple sentence carry so much weight?

Okay, let me back track a bit and try to paint a bigger picture here. I identify as a person of colour (PoC) and back home, in South Africa, I belong to an ethnic group which was previously disadvantaged. As a South African citizen, I am gravely aware of this country’s racially segregated and tainted past. I was lucky enough to have grown up in the tiny landlocked Kingdom of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) and my upbringing shielded me from racial confrontation. Having grown up in this safe and tranquil place, I often took for granted the diverse community I was raised in. I was used to being the only person that looked like me in the whole school. This meant that I was often used on the cover of school magazines, newsletters and newspaper advertisements. You know, diversity and all that jazz!

I had the privilege of travelling with my family, and this really opened my eyes to the reality of the world out there and just how little people actually knew about Africa. There have been quite a few times were people have mistaken Swaziland for Switzerland (No! They are two completely different places!), and someone has even asked me if we have lions as pets (No, we really don’t! This is not an episode of Tiger King).

It wasn’t until I moved to Shanghai, China, that I was blatantly aware of the colour of my skin and the fact that I was a foreigner. In a city of 25 million people, I was often the only person of colour on the street or in the metro and this attracted many stares, pointed fingers and quite often (unwanted) photographs. Given China’s sheltered past and highly restricted media access, I somewhat understood their fascination with people who didn’t look like them. It was still bizarre and annoying, and I often felt like a zoo animal.

One of the most important things for a person of colour is representation. Simply seeing someone who looks like you in a position of affluence and influence sends the strongest of messages.



So imagine my surprise and shock when I arrived in the U.K., a first world, developed country with unrestricted media access, and had people comment on my ability to speak my mother tongue! So many things crossed my mind. I feel like people should  know better, after all, South Africa isn’t just some small spec in Africa. We are a former British colony, the hosts of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, the home of the late Nelson Mandela, home of the current Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi and most recently the 2019 Ruby world Champions! How then, are people still unaware that we speak English in South Africa?

One of the most important things for a person of colour is representation. Simply seeing someone who looks like you in a position of affluence and influence sends the strongest of messages. It reminds you that you are enough. Most importantly, it reminds you that it is possible. Just having a tangible role model makes a world of difference. As a PoC there have been moments where I have felt that my actions and words would be judged harshly simply because I was surrounded by others who didn’t look like me and just didn’t understand my perspective on the matter. I have felt as though my voice would be taken as a generalized, collective voice for other PoC, and that responsibility is immense.

In order for this to be a reality in our workplaces and institutions there needs to be real transformation. The kind that allows PoC and marginalized groups to feel as though they are welcome and that they too can belong in prestigious places, holding important titles and simply being a beacon of hope to those at the bottom of the ladder.

Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, we have seen corporations and large companies begin the journey towards transformation. This is only the beginning and I believe that in the days and months to come we will see further transformation. However, the onus is on each of us to evaluate the way that we treat each other and pay specific attention to any microaggressions that may arise. It is our duty to educate ourselves on the world around us and step out of our bubbles of comfort every once in a while.

So. In response to that statement: “Yes, isn’t it wonderful that I am able to speak my mother tongue this well. Shocking what a few hundred years of colonialism can do.“ 


Orielia Egambaram is a PhD candidate in Chemistry at UoK, focusing on the development of energy storage systems. She grew up in eSwatini, a small landlocked country bordered by South Africa and Mozambique in Southern Africa. She is the media and communications manager for newly formed Women’s Researcher Network (WReN) at Kent.

Is the University of Kent a Meritocracy?


Is the University of Kent a meritocracy?

As a university, we have the same gender (in-) equality issues as other UK Higher Education (HE) institutions. The overall UK workforce in HE consists of 54% women, but only 20% of Vice Chancellors are women[1]. At the University of Kent, we have a gender pay gap where women earn averagely 17.5% less than men do[2]. This is not because women are paid less for equivalent positions, but because women are not occupying many of the senior positions at the university. For example, only 13% of Heads of School and Deans at the University of Kent are women[3].

When we hire new staff, or consider promotion opportunities for existing staff, are we fair in the way that we allocate senior positions? I often hear people say, ‘we hire only on merit, we are a meritocracy, which means we choose only the very best people for the job.’ And of course, why should we believe anything different? Our peers, colleagues, mentors and superiors believe in our skills and abilities and want the most suitable person to do the job, regardless of their gender. Yet, somewhere along the line, we are still promoting fewer women into senior roles, and we know that it is not because there are less skilful women available. The problem itself could be a general belief that we are a meritocracy, which corresponds with the assumption that because most of us believe in equality and equal opportunities, there are no further issues to tackle in this area. If there is no problem to fix, then why put efforts into fixing it.

Figure 1: Data from UoK Gender Pay Gap report showing mean and median pay gap and sample size.


The gender pay gap is sometimes confused with equal pay. It is illegal to pay anyone less or more due to their gender (or any other protected characteristic such as for example race, sexuality or disability). The gender pay gap refers to where men earn more because they occupy more senior positions than women do, which is generally the case across most sectors. Many invisible barriers prevent women from progressing in HE, such as for example, the gendered construction of leadership and accumulated disadvantages throughout their careers. Universities are traditionally male-dominated cultures, and when we do recruitment this inherent culture may unconsciously influence decision-making[4].

Sexism and #MeToo happens in academia as much as anywhere else, but arguably in an intellectual environment it is more hidden and there is an expectation that it does not exist, which renders it invisible[5]. As an undergraduate student at Kent, my (male) lecturer commented on my clothes every time I walked through the door. He did not do this to any male students. I did not raise this as an issue, I carried on as usual, because I did not expect sexism at university and I brushed it off. Small acts of everyday sexism build up over time and create a culture where it becomes normalised, mundane, commonplace, and taken-for-granted.

How do we tackle something that is invisible and hidden? How can we ensure that everyone gets an equal opportunity at a career at university? Even those of us who consider ourselves proponents of equal opportunities have an unconscious bias when we recruit or promote staff. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, I don’t have any biases, I only care about people’s qualifications and who the best candidate is!’ you say? As people, we have a tendency to select applicants like ourselves that are familiar to us (referred to as ‘homo-sociability’). We have unconscious ideals about what a stereotypical leader should be and this means that we ‘clone’ and reproduce similar leaders, and often these are male[6]. One way of counteracting this is ‘positive action’, set out in the Equality Act (2010, sect 159) as a way of allowing employers to give preference to candidates from underrepresented groups if two candidates are as qualified as each other. Many argue that positive action is just another way of creating inequalities in favour of women instead of men, making it reverse discrimination.

At a university event organised by the Student Success Project, inspirational speaker and poet Lemn Sissay discussed positive discrimination, and posed the question of why some people are against the use of this in recruitment. He urged the audience to look at the paintings of professors at universities, proudly displayed in the corridors, all of them white men, and he said, “Positive discrimination has worked really well for one group of people”. So why does it appear that this group of people do not believe in positive discrimination, and why do they insist that we are a meritocracy, when they have benefitted the most from it historically? If meritocracy were anything other than a myth, would not our university be a site of diversity and equality? And with this in mind, how does one change institutional culture?

In the UK, we have a set of legislations that protect people from discrimination and generally, most people would proclaim that they believe in equality and fairness for all. Things have changed and progressed, but this does not mean that we can sit back, relax, and consider the problem ‘fixed’, or that Equality and Diversity activities are merely tick box exercises. If the University of Kent was truly a meritocracy, that would mean that women and people of colour would occupy many more of the senior roles at the university. If we recognise that inequalities exist and are a problem and we continue to discuss, problematise and examine them, we are already on our way to real change.

[1] Manfredi, S. (2017) Increasing Gender Diversity in Senior Roles in HE: who is afraid of positive action? Administrative Sciences 7(2)

[2] University of Kent ‘Gender Pay Gap Report’ 2017

[3] Data collected by Athena SWAN team for Q4 of 2018

[4] Manfredi, S. (2017) Increasing Gender Diversity in Senior Roles in HE: who is afraid of positive action? Administrative Sciences 7(2)

[5] Accessed 01/02/2019

[6] Shepherd, S. (2017) “Why are there so few female leaders in higher education: A case of structure or agency?” Management in Education 31 (2): 82-87