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Glaring similarities and parallels in the everyday lived experiences of black female academics in universities in the United Kingdom and South Africa were laid bare in a thought-provoking public lecture held at Nelson Mandela University yesterday.

Leeds Beckett University’s Professor Shirley-Anne Tate shared relatable examples of institutional racism experienced by black women academics in UK universities as she delivered her paper at the South Campus Council Chambers.

Prof Tate is Leeds Beckett University’s Professor of Race and Education at the Carnegie School of Education and one of only 26 black women who are full professors in the UK – the latter being a challenge she feels needs to be addressed.

She has enjoyed a long relationship with Nelson Mandela University as Research Associate at the new centre for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation and is also a research fellow at the University of the Free State.

Spurred onto the topic by annual questionnaires on employee well-being at the universities she has worked at in her 30-year academic career, Prof Tate argues that institutional racism has extreme adverse effects on its victims that higher education institutions are essentially not prepared to deal with.

“I first thought about the question of feeling when I noticed that every year, we had to do this employee well-being questionnaire. [However], you can only say certain things and tick certain boxes, but you could never really write qualitative paragraphs about how you felt as a university employee,” she said.

“What would well-being strategies do if in answer to the question of ‘feeling’ Black women answered, ‘angry’, ‘upset’, ‘marginalised’, ‘racially discriminated against’, ‘deep distrust’, ‘disgust’, ‘contempt’, ‘ashamed’? What could these strategies possibly do with these negative effects produced from experiencing racism?

“Questions about and answers which speak the daily racism and racist micro-aggressions experienced by Black women academics will not be asked or recognised.

“What is interesting about ‘well-being’ as a management strategy is its deracination [denial that racism exists], its lack of attention to the fact of racism and its negative impacts on the psyches and bodies of Black women academics as lack of ‘well-being’ is somatised.”

Prof Tate’s talk is based on the fourth paper she has written over the years on the effects of racism, which she had delivered as her inaugural lecture in June. In it she argues that black women academics are essentially victims of the systemic denial of the existence of racism, resulting in their being shamed as being hypersensitive for voicing its damaging effects.

In the ensuing discussion, it emerged that the experiences and examples Prof Tate alluded to were very similar to those of black female academics in South Africa.

The issue of white supremacy that very often manifests itself as deeply entrenched institutional racism is one which the South African higher education sector, particularly in historically white institutions, has been grappling with in recent years.

Nelson Mandela University has been hosting numerous conversations and colloquia to this effect, under the broad umbrella of the decolonisation and transformation project, in a bid to effectively tackle, among other things, race and gender relations in the sector and institution.

Welcoming Prof Tate at the public lecture coordinated by the University’s Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD), Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Institutional Support, Dr Sibongile Muthwa, lauded her for her “courageous scholarship”.

“Prof Tate is one of those rare scholars who pursues work that disrupts in research orientation and its theorisation; scholarship that challenges the status quo, disrupts and upsets the accepted order,” she said.

“Courageous scholarship, observation and contemplation should be able to do this and she does this exceptionally well. I also dare say that an exceptional scholar is not concerned about fitting in. A great intellectual lets her work speak for itself. Your work is powerful because of its capacity to discern meaning in actions and practices which we usual have no words for them.”

·The Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Teaching and Learning, Prof Denise Zinn, in collaboration with CANRAD will today host a special lecture by Prof Michalinos Zembylas, titled Decolonising Higher Education Pedagogies. Prof Zembylas is a Professor of Educational Theory and Curriculum Studies at the Open University of Cyprus and has written extensively on emotion and affect in relation to social justice pedagogies, intercultural and peace education and human rights and citizenship education. The talk takes place at the South Campus Council Chambers at 13:00 – 14:00.

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