Race Equality Work in the Philosophy Department and Why it’s Important?
In 2021-2022, I worked alongside Charlotte Flores as a race equality intern in the philosophy department. We saw this internship as foundational to help further race equality and decolonisation in the philosophy department, but also the wider discipline, the faculty and the uni.
Written by Tareeq O Jalloh
Postgraduate Research Student, Department of Philosophy
How white is philosophy? The late great Charles Mills joked that “philosophy is so white that if you go to an APA [American Philosophical Association] meeting, you need to put on dark glasses; otherwise, you’ll get snow-blindness” (Mills, 2018). Although you probably won’t become snow-blind after attending an APA meeting, Mills’ joke highlights the astounding lack of demographic diversity in philosophy, especially academic philosophy. BAME–Black, Asian and minority ethnic–students make up 8.6% of philosophy postgraduate students in the UK (Pozniak, 2020). In the US, 2.5% of philosophy PhD recipients and 4% of philosophy faculty are black (Schwitzgebel, 2021).
When we remark that disciplines like philosophy are white, we’re not only referring to the demographic whiteness of these disciplines but also the conceptual whiteness. These disciplines centre white discourses which do not reflect global perspectives, epistemologies and experiences, and in doing so, these discourses other BAME students. BAME students engage with curricula that don’t reflect their socialisation, history or lived experience.
There are multiple benefits to improving the demographic and conceptual diversity of disciplines. For instance, improving demographic diversity will lead to students interacting with a variety of different people, and interacting with diverse peers leads to gains in cognitive abilities such as critical thinking (Pascarella & Loes, 2012). We might think improving critical thinking skills would be good for all university students, but this especially rings true for students in disciplines like philosophy, where critical thinking is an integral part of philosophising well.
An improvement in conceptual diversity is important because the lack of an inclusive curriculum that reflects an ever-increasing diverse and multicultural society contradicts the egalitarian ideals embraced by universities. So, improving conceptual diversity might go some way to aligning the values espoused by universities and curricula.
It's necessary to think about improving conceptual and demographic diversity together. For instance, the emergence of good philosophy on new subjects is likely to be provided by increasing the demographic diversity of philosophy. As philosophy becomes open to the experiences and worldviews of non-white philosophers, philosophy becomes a better space for developing new questions, methods and research (Weinberg, 2018). Moreover, attention to demographic and conceptual diversity together will improve marginalised groups' sense of belonging. An increased sense of belonging might go some way to tackling the disparities in grades awarded to BAME students against that of white students. For instance, in 2018 the University of Sheffield had an awarding gap of 8.5%, with white students more likely to achieve a 1st or 2:1 in their final degree than BAME students (Taylor-Scott, 2020). Diversity in the demographic and canons of disciplines will likely lead to higher levels of belonging and engagement among BAME students, which tackles the awarding gap (Arday, Brachu, & Boliver, 2022).
Some of the Ongoing Race-Equality Work in the Philosophy Department
With this important context in mind, I want to write about some of the work the philosophy department at Sheffield has been doing to improve race equality in the faculty of arts and humanities. In 2021-2022, I worked alongside Charlotte Flores as a race equality intern in the Department of Philosophy at Sheffield University. We saw this internship as foundational to help further race equality and decolonisation in the department, but also the wider discipline, the faculty and the university more broadly. We had at least three aims for the internship. The first aim was community building: We hoped to contribute to a community and culture in which BAME students feel supported, comfortable, celebrated and able to flourish. The second aim was to take fruitful steps towards decolonisation. We hoped to work closely with staff and students to improve race equality within the department and take fruitful steps towards conceptual and demographic decolonisation. The third aim was to do sustainable work. We not only thought of our contributions as being foundational, but we also did not want the department/ faculty’s efforts towards race equality and decolonisation to end with the internship. We devised our strategy and activities in consultation with the departmental EDI lead and departmental manager and updated it in light of discussions with students throughout the year. We conducted four activities. First, a community building activities night. Second, an information and experience gathering focus group, in conjunction with a community building karaoke night. Third, the first event in a series of lectures on decolonising. Finally, the development of two applications for future activities: decolonisation talks and a BAME peer mentoring network, which are taking place this academic year.
The Impact of Our Work
As I hoped to show earlier, disciplines within the arts and humanities faculty often don’t do well by way of making their BAME students feel like they belong. Our community-building activities were organised and conducted with this in mind. The community-building activities were very well received. Attendees often told us they were really enjoyable and fruitful during the events. We sent out feedback forms after both community-building events, and every response rated the events’ enjoyability and the likelihood that they would attend future events as 100%.
Attendees of the activities night and karaoke night reported that meeting BAME students within the faculty was great and that they probably would not have known of other BAME students' existence if it was not for the events. For instance, a response we got to the anonymous feedback form we sent out after the activities night claimed, “the main reason for interest/attendance is the social aspect of getting to know more POC in a very white dominated university! I otherwise don’t normally see many of us and it’s a great opportunity to get to know more people.” In response to the question, “what did you find positive about the event [quiz night]” the same respondent asserted “Quiz was amazing! Loved the diversity of the questions. Was a brilliant opportunity to meet other BME students that I normally don’t cross paths with.”
Attendees of the community-building events also mentioned how interacting with other BAME students made them feel less isolated. For instance, an attendee replied, “I think many POC experience isolation and loneliness which is detrimental to wellbeing and mental health. Just having a community and solidarity between POC groups is extremely empowering.” This shows that BAME exclusive community-building activities helps tackle feelings of isolation from being a BAME student at university.
Our work on decolonisation was organised and conducted with the aim of gathering ideas on how decolonisation and race equality is best achieved within the faculty. Here are two ideas we received from our focus group:
- BAME tutors and mentors: Attendees wanted tutors/mentors who were approachable and well versed in minority issues with lived experience, someone whom they can talk to about being a BAME student and who can offer advice and guidance.
- Module reviews: Attendees thought it was important to review modules to ensure sufficient demographic diversity of the authors we are assigned to read and that modules included non-western epistemologies and frameworks.
With the suggestions from the focus group in mind and as part of the sustainability and continuation of our work during the internship, we completed three proposals to fund work during the 2022-2023 academic year (and future years if successful) – a philosophy curriculum review, a series of lectures on decolonisation and a BAME peer mentoring network. We are pleased that the series of lectures on decolonisation and BAME peer mentoring network were approved. The BAME peer mentoring network was highly requested by attendees of the focus group; they thought this would go some way to improve feelings of belonging and levels of engagement among BAME students. The series of decolonisation talks should provide useful insights into how decolonisation is best achieved in the university. We were disappointed that the module review didn’t receive funding*, especially because attendees of the focus group sought after it and the philosophy department has already conducted a module review regarding the diversity of authors, so it seemed like there was already a model in place for conducting another review.
Our work has merely scratched the surface with addressing race equality in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. However, with the community-building activities, we hoped to contribute to a Faculty in which BAME students feel like they belong. Further, with work on this year’s BAME mentoring network starting up, we hope that we can form fruitful and encouraging relationships between BAME students in the Faculty. We hope that the events that took place last academic year as part for the race equality internship provide a good reference for ongoing race equality work, and that the series of decolonisation talks goes some way to bringing about conversations that will lead to demographic and conceptual decolonisation. It’s great that we will have speakers talking to us about decolonisation and how it is best achieved, but unless the university, faculties and departments are taking these ideas on board, and sufficiently supported and resourced, there is a sense in which having a series of talks is merely performative.
*A wider university project is taking place to decolonise the curriculum and this is a key area of discussion in each department's annual reflection on learning and teaching.
Arday, J., Brachu, C., & Boliver, V. (2022). State of the Art: What Do We Know About Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Participation in UK Higher Education. Social Policy & Society, 12-25.
Centre, S. (Director). (2018). Charles W. Mills: Liberalism and Racial Justice [Motion Picture].
Pascarella, E., & Loes, C. N. (2012). Effects of Diversity Experiences on Critical Thinking Skills: Who Benefits? The Journal of Higher Education, 1-25.
Pozniak, H. (2020, January 27). I'm used to being the only brown person in the room': why the humanities have a diversity problem. Retrieved from The Guardian
Schwitzgebel, E., Kofi Bright, L., Dicey Jennings, C., Thompson, M., & Winsberg, E. (2021, May 30). The Diversity of Philosophy Students and Faculty in the United States . Retrieved from Philosophersmag
Taylor-Scott, A. (2020, November 5). Why we are demanding our university decolonise the curriculum. Retrieved from Labourlist
Weinberg, J. (2018, October 26). Demographic Diversity is Good for Philosophy . Retrieved from DailyNous