On 22 October,​ Olivette Otele – a scholar of British and French colonialism who teaches at Bath Spa University – became the first black woman to be appointed to a chair in history at a UK university, and only the second black academic (the first was Hakim Adi, who teaches the history of Africa and the African diaspora at the University of Chichester). With her promotion, the number of professors in the UK who are black increases to 116, out of a total of nearly 19,000. Inevitably, Otele was asked if her promotion had been inspired by political correctness. For some academics, mainly white men, a black woman making history during Black History Month – October – was not a happy coincidence but a conspiracy. (At Bath Spa, all applications for professorships are submitted in the spring, and all results announced in October.)

The Royal Historical Society is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary. Like so many organisations of a certain age, it originally had only male members. Its library is crowded with portraits of past presidents: all are white and only two, past and present, have been women – one of them is the current incumbent, Margot Finn. Last month, the RHS published Race, Ethnicity and Equality in UK History, the first report of its kind. It found not only that history is an overwhelmingly white discipline but that it is significantly whiter than other university subjects: 93.7 per cent of history staff are white, compared to 85 per cent in the sector generally; 2.2 per cent are Asian, 1.6 per cent are of mixed heritage and only 0.5 per cent are black. Nearly 90 per cent of undergraduates studying history or philosophy – the official statistics group the subjects together – are white, 4 per cent are Asian, 2.4 per cent are black and 3.9 per cent are mixed. Most undergraduates have around the same likelihood of achieving a 2:1, but white students are 9 per cent more likely to get a first.

I was one of the people who worked on the report, and at its launch I met many historians of colour who had more to say about the marginalisation they had experienced, often as the only person of colour in their department. Conference organisers frequently fail to invite any people of colour to speak or invite them only to talk about diversity. Drawing on more than seven hundred responses, the report reveals that nearly a third of non-white university staff and students have experienced discrimination or abuse based on their race or ethnicity, the majority of it coming from other staff, but a significant proportion from students and the public. Many reported that complaints were not taken seriously. ‘Whenever I tried to discuss it with my colleagues I was told unequivocally that I was imagining it,’ one respondent noted. Others have faced retaliation: one lecturer and union activist recorded episodes of bullying, harassment and victimisation of staff of colour.

Critics made their disapproval clear even before the report was written. A number of respondents to the survey made racist remarks. After it was published, Zareer Masani in the Telegraph lamented the left’s attempts to degrade ‘the subject of history with its anti-Western political correctness’. The most telling criticisms appeared in two letters to the Times. Nigel Biggar, a regius professor of theology at Oxford, maintained that there was ‘reason to be sceptical of the … campaign to promote “Black History” … it is more important that [students] know the history of that part of the globe for which they will have direct responsibility as citizens – namely the United Kingdom. They need to appreciate how we British have come to be as we are and what is valuable about our inheritance.’ Here, the conflation between British history and white history is so naturalised that Biggar assumes any attempt to include black history must result in students not learning about Britain. This is of course to ignore the centuries-long black presence in Britain, never mind the imperial legacy. The Times also published a letter from Gillian Evans, an emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at Cambridge. She noted that the racially marginalised were joining ‘feminists’ in making demands for recognition (Evans’s own demands for recognition stretched to taking Cambridge to court for failing to promote her) and admitted to being ‘irritated’ by the ‘attempt to criticise the history syllabus for “lack of ethnic diversity”’. Trained to detect ‘repeating patterns across the centuries’, she couldn’t ‘see how replacing one alleged set of distortions with another currently fashionable one’ would bring any historian ‘closer to the open-minded pursuit of truth’.

The claim to be an objective observer reliant on inductive reasoning is superficially plausible, but as historians and philosophers of science have long been aware, all data collection is subjective because our assumptions determine the questions we ask, where we seek answers, whose knowledge we deem reliable and the frameworks we use to make sense of our findings. How else can we explain the failure of so many historical truth-seekers to notice, or care about, the entrenched whiteness of their discipline?

Following the publication of the report, many university departments have scheduled discussions of the findings. In some places, efforts were already being made to revise curricula. The most positive finding in the report is that 86 per cent of respondents’ departments have recently extended the scope of their research and teaching beyond Britain and Europe. This greater geographical range is welcome, but it’s still the case that global history is usually taught in optional courses, while introductory surveys and textbooks remain stubbornly Eurocentric. If more people of colour are to teach and study history, reforms are needed. Over the years, I’ve seen students and parents become increasingly concerned about the whiteness of the curriculum and the relentless and alienating focus – when broader histories are brought into play – on trauma and violence.

But really to eliminate Eurocentrism would require the rethinking of conceptual and methodological approaches. What if British historians learned Gaelic, Yoruba and Urdu, instead of, say, German and French? Academics ask students to read Tacitus, Herodotus, Max Weber, Karl Marx, Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Jacques Derrida and, more rarely, Judith Butler. But how many are also required to read Audre Lorde, Stuart Hall, Frantz Fanon, Jasbir Puar, Sara Ahmed, Kim TallBear or Kimberlé Crenshaw? What if these writers were required reading for everyone? Present curricula assume that white men write about universal truths, while people of colour are only expert in a narrow field – usually to do with questions of their identity and heritage. This distinction ought to end. Fed up with the limitations of their courses, students are creating their own resources and networks: undergraduates studying for the human, social and political sciences degree at Cambridge recently put together an openly accessible decolonial reading list.

Addressing structural racism in the discipline will make for better history and better historians. It might also create better working environments. Some years ago, a senior white male professor asked if I was attending an evening event he was involved with. I said I couldn’t. In a perfectly jovial tone, but obviously frustrated, he said: ‘You fucker!’ I pointed out it was Ramadan. ‘Why can’t Ramadan happen at the same time every year?’ he asked. I mumbled something about Islam’s lunar calendar. He knew it was unreasonable to expect me to go, but he didn’t apologise. This encounter is far from the worst I have endured, but it sticks in my mind because the professor was so explicit about his dissatisfaction. He’s probably forgotten all about it.

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