Creative Academic Anxiety

BME staff in leadership positions may find themselves struggling to maintain their job and encounter stress.

A report by HEFCE (2006) shows that about 8 per cent of permanent academic staff are from BME groups (year 2004–05). About half of these (4 per cent) are of Asian heritage (the majority being Indian or Chinese), and only 1 per cent are of black ethnicity (most often black African and, to a less extent, black Caribbean).

A significant negative earnings effect was identified (BME earned, on average, 13 per cent less, a figure in line with other sectors of the economy).

Equality Challenge Unit. “The experience of black and minority ethnic staff working in higher education.” (2009).

Am I good enough? This question has plagued me over the years working in the creative academia whilst being an art & design practitioner. I established, as a student, the confidence that my blackness was interlinked to my work and who individuals decided I was. I found that my blackness, and its many complex outlet, were not always appreciated by everyone. But I worked hard, dug deep and focussed on my own assessment of myself in comparison to my peers to self define if I was good enough.  I am, in fact, I would be as bold to say that within my creative practice I am more than good enough. The industry has helped my affirmation of this through a successful commercial creative career (the relationship with blackness and the creative industries are not always this supportive either – this is my privilege).  However, within academia this is less straightforward.

For creative teachers of colour entering into the complex journey that is  ‘academia’, it can be a vulnerable experience. The sense of belonging is a huge obstacle when there are so few of us, 3.6% according to Equality Challenge Unit data 2009, the second lowest representation within Higher Education subjects. This can cause additional anxiety for an academic of colour in the creative sector.  

Part of having a ‘successful’ academic career is that you are researching, writing for journals and publications, being invited to join committees and disseminating your activities through engaging with the conference circuit, which in the early stages of your academic career means writing abstracts for selection.  This was a huge burden for me and for the many academics that I now advise within the creative higher education sector irrespective of ethnicity, gender or faith.  

Not only do we have to be exceptional art & design practitioners but also writers for academia.  This is one of the reasons that those teaching pedagogy and learning and teaching in creative arts and design are generally linguists and or historians. I don’t think it is because creative practitioners are not good enough, but this is not what we generally practice: writing.  Instead our art & design practice has been our focus.

What all of this can do, is present additional burdens and cause anxieties that can not only affect your health and wellbeing but also open wounds around institutional racism. Here are some ways you can counter these:

  • Sense of belonging – Make sure you get to know the names of the security guards and receptionists, find out if there are any staff groups around social justice both inside your institution and external such as the Group for Equality of Minority Staff (University of the Arts London) or Black British Academics to develop support mechanisms beyond your course, department and or institution.
  • Academic Progression – There are always courses for academic writing for funding and research awards within an institution, attend these.  You will be surprised how many types of people take part and also have anxiety about their academic writing. Additionally it’s an opportunity to build networks.  Also you could seek a mentor, this is an unspoken opportunity in many cases.  A mentor can be both internal or external to your institution.  Most senior management have several, one for academic support and another for career progression (so we have heard).
  • Transparency around academic career progression – If career progression is not transparent, there is a reason why.  At many institutions it is a secret, however they have to have a process even if you can’t see it.  Seek this information, either through teaching and learning departments or HR.  How can you know what to do if you do not ask?


‘Figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency record no black academics in the elite staff category of “managers, directors and senior officials” in 2015-16 – the third year in a row that this has happened.

Among the 535 senior officials who declared their ethnicity, 510 were white, 15 were Asian and 10 were recorded as “other including mixed”. Thirty senior academics either refused or failed to record an ethnicity.

The figures also show universities employ more black staff as cleaners, receptionists or porters than as lecturers or professors.’

Adams (2017)

Whilst we have provided suggestions as to what you could do to alleviate or reduce anxiety and demystify some unspoken practices, it is also important to offer responses and speak about the responsibilities of individuals that are part of the majority community and institutions as a whole to level the playing field:


  • Sense of belonging – Dear white staff smile and tell yourself in the first instance that this person must be a member of staff if a person of colour enters the staff room (especially when staff IDs are required to gain access).  Rather than cluck together at  meetings  and  further  isolate  the  marginalised  or  minority,  go  out  of  your  way  to include and speak with us.  Institutions, support the creation of safe spaces; if there are few academics of colour or any other marginalised community offer openly the information of existing academic groups for these communities to engage with both internally and externally to your institution.
  • Academic Progression – Senior staff, offer to be mentors and or invite staff of colour to lunch and or encourage them to join committees and diverse staff groups.  There are some mentor schemes already in place at institutions, however it’s far more genuine if either someone recommends a program or and themselves as a support. We don’t bite and we know how to conduct ourselves however, we would benefit from encouragement and reassurance that we will not be ostracised.  This makes all the difference. Institutions, acknowledge that current practices must have prejudicial aspects given data and research regarding the experience of staff of colour in academia. Consider drafting clear progression structures and processes that remove line managers from progression opportunities to reduce bias and offer further opportunities for objectivity throughout this process.  Additionally consider, mandatory training of all senior staff, including the chancellor on social justice, bias, microaggressions, power and privilege.  This would present a lead by example approach of which may not have been tried as yet.
  • Transparency around academic career progression – Institutions should providing explicitly what work, contributions and achievements are involved to develop as an academic, gain a pay rises, and become part of academic leadership team.  This should be presented in the staff areas of institutional websites for both current and new staff.  


We hope you find this useful.  Salute.

Additional reading:

Bhattacharyya, G., Ison, L. and Blair, M., (2003). Minority ethnic attainment and participation in education and training: the evidence. Nottingham: DfES Publications.

Fourie, M., (1999). Institutional transformation at South African universities: Implications for academic staff. Higher Education, 38(3), pp.275-290.

Unit, E.C., (2009). The experience of black and minority ethnic staff working in higher education.

Adams, R., (2017). British universities employ no black academics in top roles, figures show