Inside The Ivory Tower
Narratives of women colour surviving and thriving in British academia #ITIT
Book Launch Review
At Central Saint Martin on Friday 10th November 2017 history was made. At one of the world’s most prestigious schools for art and creative development, 10 brave women came together to officially showcase to the world something that has never been seen in British academia. ‘Inside The Ivory Tower: Narratives of women of colour surviving and thriving in British academia’ A book described by one half of its editors, Dr Deborah Gabriel, as “part of a movement to give voice to women of colour, those of whom aren’t recognised but invaluable to academia”. She also describes the book as a “political mission” with a key message for Higher Education, in the UK and on a global scale: a message that states that “the current inadequate approaches to tackling race and gender inequality must change”. Friday’s book launch marked the formal beginning of this movement, this rallying cry; and the energy in the room and the reception received was magnificent.
The night, hosted by Shades of Noir, officially started at 6pm, with the guests arriving from around 5:30. They were welcomed by a bevy of refreshments and given time to mingle before heading inside the lecture theatre for the talks to begin. With around 200 people in attendance, the lecture theatre was packed, many faces of colour; consisting of family members, past and present Shades of Noir teams, black British academics members, students, University of the Arts London (UAL) staff network GEMS (Group for the Equality of Minority Staff), Academics from all over the country and various other associated sectors representatives were there to show support. Once we were all seated and UAL’s Deputy Vice Chancellor Stephen Reid gave his welcome speech, which started to set the scene of the historical significance of this book, the contributors in it, followed by acknowledging the significance of the work and impact of Shades of Noir within his institution and across the sector around social justice. Then we were finally able to get a look at all 10 women as they took centre stage. All 10 black women from across the country. All 10 black female leaders within academia. #BlackWomenMagic
We were told that there were only 30 black female professors out of nearly 15000 in the whole of the UK. To have some of them there all at one time, let alone contribute to the book, was a feature in its own right. They were welcomed by applause and adoration from the guests. In order of their seating arrangement on the panel, in attendance were: Aisha Richards, Dr Ima Jackson, Dr Marcia Wilson, Dr Josephine Kwhali, Professor Shirley Anne Tate, Professor Claudia Bernard, Dr Jenny Douglas, Dr Elizabeth Opara, Professor Heidi Safia Mirza and lastly the visionary behind the book Dr Deborah Gabriel. Before the panel began, Dr Gabriel, founder of The Black British Academics (BBA), and the individual who gathered all these women together on this project as part of BBAs Black Sister Network, gave her keynote speech. She thanked Shades of Noir (SoN) for making the night possible, acknowledged SoNs founder Aisha Richards contribution to UAL and the sector at large, then went on to explain what ‘Inside The Ivory Tower’ is and what it stands for. Breaking down the 4 steps needed for academia to change, they were as follows:
- The critical examination of white privilege
- The need to embed intersectionality (the real intersectionality, not the whitewashed version) and cultural democracy into academia
- To recognise value of lived experience
- Use knowledge to inform policy/practice
Once the speeches from Stephan Reid and Dr Gabriel were completed, it was time for the panel talks to begin. Chaired by Shades of Noirs own Melodie Holliday (Editor & Curriculum Developer), the panellists were asked one question before the floor was opened up to the audience.
What did you learn from this experience?
Many of the women responded to the question by telling us how it helped them find their voices; helped them discover that they weren’t alone, the strength of coming together as well as the empowerment of community. Being a young black man, we often look towards older black women, especially the ones we look up to in such powerful positions as strong and unyielding. Yet their answers offered a look at their vulnerability; giving an insight into the painful memories and experiences they had encountered in their careers. They showed a pain that I was completely taken back by, it really surprised me, to be honest. To hear Aisha, whom I know personally from working with Shades, admit just how hard it has been was intense. This was an eye-opening experience for me. I knew it was hard for Black Women, but I guess the magnitude of the difficulty and challenges that black women in academia face never hit me until I sat in that lecture theatre. It made me realise how essential this book is, an event like this, is. For there to be any kind of change in the sector, this moment had to occur. Black women, whether it be in academia or another sector, relationships, and general life are for some reason expected to be pain-free at all times and learn to get over injustices, even when they’re the ones who have pretty much been taking the bulk of it for centuries. So, seeing these leaders there voice their truths and open up was a powerful thing to witness and so meaningful.
Once all 10 panellists were given a chance to answer, the floor was then open to the audience. Due to time constraints questions had to be directed towards a specific panellist, so everyone could get an opportunity to talk. A variety of questions were asked; from why data alone can’t be the focus when the narratives are so powerful; ways to correctly help young black students transition from school to higher education; advice to help one keep on going mentally and emotionally, the impacts on overseas students of the lack of South-East Asian academics, how the contributors decided what experience(s) to share in the book, how the book title came about and how to encourage the next generation to become a part of academia. Each panellist gave detailed advice and really showcased their experience and knowledge within their answers. The answer that stood out most to me was in response to a question where an individual stated that schools currently look like an apartheid; the teachers are all white, yet the teaching assistants, the students and the parents are all of colour. What could be done to address this spread? Aisha responded by saying a “political shift needs to happen”, highlighting that if we, people of colour, voted as a collective something would definitely have to shift. As stated in the question, we are a growing community, if we come together and make demands of our schools there would have to be a change if there’s no change’ then we’re simply not coming together enough. This stood out to me because I believe this relates to literally every situation and injustice marginalised people face in life. We hold so much power as a collective, but we’ve been conditioned against using it. For example, the NFL, we make up most of the players, we draw in all the fans, if we came together and said we’re not playing anymore or giving them our money, they would get our messages and make changes, yet for many reasons we don’t. Hopefully, this book will help us get into ‘formation’ and realise that there is strength in numbers, we’re more powerful than we think.
Once all 10 questions from the audience were answered, there was an emotional and well crafted spoken word ensemble by Bridget Minamore (www.bridgetminamore.com). I looked around the room and saw tears in some people’s eyes. The talk and presentations were then wrapped up by Aisha saying thank you, where she was then surprised with the gift of flowers by her Teaching Within Academics for her efforts in supporting, inspiring and changing their lives through the creation and delivery of this programme (http://education.shadesofnoir.org.uk/consultancy/teaching-within/).
There was a powerful aura in the air, and it continued to be an emotional celebratory affair as the night was slowly coming to an end. Smiles were present at all corners of the room, everyone was exclaiming their love for these 10 brave women. Being there made you really feel like you were part of a moment in history. It is events like these that will birth the next generation of black female leaders in academia. Hopefully multiplying that small number of 30 black female professors by 10 or 100-fold. As we left the lecture theatre, it was time for the book signings and a chance for everyone to talk to the women and network with the hundreds of people over some wine. The mood was high, and the room was full of sounds of chatter and excitement; from the moment the talk ended right until the security guard kicked us all out!
It was a truly magnificent event, and hopefully the first of many. These 10 women are extraordinary and hopefully, through their voices of pain and honesty, Higher Education may change and be able to feel like home for black women in time. A space where rather than feeling silenced and taken for granted, they can be appreciated and encouraged to bloom.
Get yourself a copy of the book following this link. Share it with your friends, family, colleagues. Share it with everyone of all genders, ethnicity, faiths, ages… Spread the message that we all have a voice and collective change is here. Salute.