‘It’s complex’ – race-related inequalities and ignorance in UKHE

Audrey Verma


One of the more insidious and less tangible – but nonetheless known – ways in which structural racism operates is through the construction and maintenance of gaps, erasures, silences, forgetting and unknowing. These epistemic smokescreens of supremacy have the maddening capacity to obfuscate the boundaries between knowledge and ignorance. Bailey (in Sullivan and Tuana’s vital volume on racial ignorance) articulates powerfully what many people of colour are aware of: “…ignorance is often an active social production… From positions of dominance, ignorance can take the form of those in the centre either refusing to allow those at the margins to know, or of actively erasing indigenous knowledges. More subtle examples of socially constructed ignorance include epistemic blank spots that make privileged knowers oblivious to systemic injustices.”

The making and design of these systemic blank spots i.e. the substantive knowledge-based practices of racial ignorance in academia has disturbed me since 2017, following the instructive mistake I made of starting a race-based network. Where Mills observed that “Often for their very survival, blacks have been forced to become lay anthropologists, studying… the ‘white tribe’ that has such frightening power over them”, I found myself as much as in the position of an early career brown woman as an ethnographer trying to decipher the value-system and language of almost exclusively white managers. This is how I started hearing the word ‘complex’ and variants thereof repeatedly in meetings with senior management, faculty and various equality and diversity committees. I have heard this refrain ever since, most recently in the many emails articulating the institution’s pandemic plans.


Meeting notes extract, mid-June 2018: “By their own findings, this institution reported a ~14% ethnicity pay gap in 2018. I had discovered an unexplained gap with my own salary a few months before. I knew of excellent colleagues of colour who had found far worse wage discrepancies and felt compelled to leave. The senior manager starts: ‘It’s a complex issue’. A committee has been formed in response to the gender wage gap findings, to figure out exactly why there is an ~18% gap. In working toward the Race Equality Charter, the race wage gap would be something the institution would similarly seek to address, starting with a survey. I find myself distracted by the word ‘complex’. It strikes me that I have heard this word too many times before, particularly when race issues were being discussed. A faculty member added the word ‘multi-factorial’ to complex, another senior academic referred to it as ‘complicated’ and ‘difficult’.

I wanted to know what ‘complex’ means in conversations about racial inequalities in the institution. While the race wage gap is my entry-point here to the vocabulary and heavy conceptual lifting that comes with ‘complexity’ and associated concepts, it is not as immediately critical as redundancies, precariousness and direct discrimination in UK universities, all of which also disproportionately affect women of colour and have similarly been couched as complex. My broader concern is with why ‘complexity’ emerges when whiteness is asked to reflect on its practices and effects.

How is it that – some 50 years after the Race Relations Act and almost 20 since amendments; hundreds of powerful narratives, research papers, survey after document after survey, tomes of critical theory, and hundreds of racial justice initiatives and sensible roadmaps to narrowing inequalities – these apparently very smart white men and women were still telling me that race inequalities persisting under their watch is a ‘complex’ matter? If things are indeed ‘complicated’ and ‘difficult’, is it not possible to still act on the knowns? How does one go about understanding – to move forward from or past – this apparent racial ignorance from above?

Three possible, mutually dependent explanations:

  1. Academic hazard: ‘Complexity’ is over-used in academia, and sociologists are particularly guilty. To paraphrase Bain, when sociologists are criticised for failure to capture social phenomenon, one of their commonest excuses is that their subjects are the most unpredictable and data most complex. We are thus at least somewhat responsible for constructing an epistemic template for understanding social phenomenon that is filtered through a lens of iterative, intellectualised and interminable complexity. When little attempt is made to simplify and apply without negating nuance or closing off possibilities for further study, ‘complexity’ becomes a cover for unknowing, and indefinite questioning replaces doing e.g. ‘black student attainment gaps are a complex issue, let’s conduct another study to find out why’.

  2. Situated (un)knowing: Drawing on Alcoff, when a member of a group claims something is complex, this may be due to limitations emerging from their social location, related to that group identity. Ignorance here is situated unknowing, e.g. ‘how can I as a white person understand or empathise with the non-white experience when very little in the sum of my lived experience allows for or indeed requires this knowledge? As many feminist and black scholars have observed, for members of dominant groups, imagining the world from the perspective of the Other is often taken as cognitive burden and epistemic excess. Whiteness in this case recognises or displays a lack in itself that renders it unable or unwilling to engage with the effects of racial injustice.

  3. Strategic ignorance: A more structural explanation comes from Mills’ widely-cited observations on the ‘inverted epistemology of racial ignorance’. Whiteness, as Alcoff writes, has a vested interest in “seeing the world wrongly”, to choose which parts of the world it wants to see and which to be oblivious to. McGoey posits that such ‘strategic ignorance’ maintains institutional power by avoiding liability and by pre-determining future responses. The language of complexity I encountered focussed on the unknowns e.g. ‘the reasons are multi-factorial and complex therefore finding solutions is a complicated process’. Frequently, little comment is made on the many knowns, particularly on actions long articulated, advocated for and already undertaken (with little support) by academics of colour. Part of this tendency toward blank spots may also be characterised as ‘sea-lioning’. Responsibility for knowing is devolved either to diversity offices and committees with little power to effect change or to already overburdened staff. Ineffective measures that do not require expense or systemic overhaul (e.g. unconscious bias training; mentoring and leadership schemes) persist and are illustrative of deliberate intransigence (e.g. ‘everyone has biases’, rather than ‘there is an issue with systemic racism). These add up to offer plausible deniability to those in power, delay known corrective action indefinitely, and to protect institutions from costs needed to actually achieve social justice.

Early April 2020, a long email from the university’s executive board, summarised and paraphrased: ‘These are challenging, unprecedented, difficult times, and we are all anxious and affected. We are postponing fixed term staff redundancies. Redundancy notices were sent out as due process. We must maximise student income next year to avoid more painful future action. The past few weeks have shown how much we can achieve when we work together’. Mid-May 2020, the third email in as many days: ‘Our finances are strong. But students, especially international students, may not come. This situation was unforeseen, the future is uncertain. We are promoting in-status only for academic staff and cancelling professional staff promotions. To protect everyone’s future, we have had to make difficult decisions. If you have questions, refer to the FAQ.’ Five weeks ago, a collective we, now we the board. The messages crafted around goodwill and togetherness are now replaced by the bare truth: ‘we may all be in the same storm, but we are all definitely not in the same boat’.

Few of my questions were answered by the FAQ, but in early June, an email on Black Lives Matter, paraphrased: ‘Apologies if some might feel this is belated. We take pride that social justice is central to our mission, vision and strategy. These and the honorary degrees we give out are not tokenistic. A Race Equality Charter update was presented earlier this week. We now have an action plan based on surveys, projects and workshops we have done in the past two years. We have decided to diversify student recruitment, address the attainment gap, decolonise, and look at recruitment and progression support. Email with thoughts, we will listen and do better’.

I send an email saying what I think of the board’s decision to freeze progression processes. The decision was 1. unsupported by concrete financial evidence, 2. autocratic given staff were not consulted and few fairer alternatives considered, 3. contradictory to BLM messaging since cuts would most affect women, academics of colour and fixed-term contract staff. My response comes from senior management: The decisions they are making are ‘difficult’ given ‘unforeseen’ and ‘unprecedented’ circumstances. They do not dispute the negative impact on gender and race parity, but ‘hope to continue their work on this front when possible’. They underline that no one else has complained about their decisions and take pains to point out that my tone is ‘unkind’.

The race inequalities that existed and persisted pre-pandemic are now being exacerbated by pre-emptive and under-evidenced cost-cutting policies affecting the most precarious of university labour. When called to consider and account for detrimental equality impacts of specific policies – plainly incompatible with the spirit and substance of florid BLM statements – senior management’s recourse is to ‘complexity’ (once again), (now the) ‘uncertainty’ of the situation, and general silence as consent. Complexity, now compounded by people in power ‘exploiting unknowns in the wider environment’, is being used to legitimise autocratic austerity measures, to defend indefinite delays to justice, and to deflect from commitment to systemic changes beyond BLM statements.

The main problem is and has always been known: structural racism. Many of the primary solutions have been apparent for decades to anyone who has been reading and listening: hire more black and ethnic minority staff on secure contracts; recruit, support and provide funding for black students; take a zero-tolerance approach to racism, micro-aggression and the hostile environment on campus; close the wage gap; and for the love of all that is good, no more surveys, committees and performative allyship.

It’s really not that complex.


Photo by Jaroslav Devia on Unsplash

Audrey Verma is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow studying environmental participation and citizenship in the digital anthropocene. Her previous postdoc was an ethnography of university-business collaborations. She learned a great deal from starting a race-based network in an academic institution. It was an experience she would rather not repeat.

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