Skip to main content

Normalising discourse about race and racism at the University of Cambridge

20 Feb 2020 | Dr Joanna Jasiewicz and Dr Miriam Lynn Following the Bronze awarded to the University of Cambridge in the latest round of the Race Equality Charter, Equality and Diversity Consultant Dr Joanna Jasiewicz and Senior Equality and Diversity Consultant Dr Miriam Lynn, share their reflections on the University’s journey towards normalising the discourse about race and racism.

In September 2016, the University of Cambridge became a member of the Race Equality Charter (REC). The REC self-assessment process invited us to embark on a journey of unearthing uncomfortable findings and starting difficult conversations within the institution.

The University received the Bronze award three years later in November 2019. We are aware that the award is a recognition of our action plan and that we still have lots to do. We are taking actions to embed institutional change, addressing racism and normalising the discourse about race. Through this programme of change, we are determined to improve the support for, sense of belonging and experience of BAME students and staff, increase BAME representation particularly at higher levels, and drive diverse recruitment and student admission. This work has been driven by exceptional BAME staff and students including but not exclusively Mónica Moreno Figueroa, Kamal Munir, Kusam Leal, Arathi Sriprakash, Sharon Walker, and Janet Ramdeo, and continues to be supported by their expertise and commitment. 

This blog post describes the approach that helped us in the REC submission journey and beyond. The strategy involves encouraging open recognition that the University is not free from structural racism that still permeates cultures of organisations around the world. This approach also includes creating opportunities for conversations about race, and shifting the institutional focus from initiatives to ‘help’ BAME staff and students adjust to the institution and its (at times) traditional norms and culture, to actions that educate white people about race, and encourage them to take leadership in challenging racism.


Internal research in preparation towards the REC submission brought some results that were uncomfortable and perhaps surprising to many. We saw that some of the University’s departments and faculties have very low proportions of BAME staff and students, and our qualitative analysis revealed that feelings of isolation, limited sense of belonging, and hyper-visibility were common for BAME staff and student respondents. We realised that the University has a high ethnicity non-disclosure rate, and our consultations indicated that while some BAME staff do not feel confident to reveal their racial identity, white people often think that ‘race’ is something that only BAME people have, and hence they do not feel it necessary to disclose.

It has become clear that the University needs to be open about these pressing issues to be able to address them in a meaningful way. This involves being honest about race and racism in the University’s communications, at internal events and in public statements. Our Vice-Chancellor speaks openly about this in the public statement on the Race Equality at Cambridge website: “Racism is unacceptable. It undermines societies, it divides communities, and it prevents people from coming together with a shared purpose. It affects our staff and students by engendering feelings of isolation and dejection.”

Open conversations

Conversations about race and racism are not easy. On the contrary, they are often ‘messy’, difficult and uncomfortable, particularly for white people. But if we do not speak about race and racism, how can we address racial inequalities? Encouraging conversations about race through numerous events, such as the Race Equality Lecture where Baroness Amos questioned the validity of the concept of ‘merit’, or where David Lammy MP in conversation with Gillian Joseph on Sky News explored the institutional racism in Great Britain, became a regular feature of our engagement programme.

Shifting the focus

Our consultations and surveys gave us an indication that white people often think they can be indifferent to race and that whiteness is not a ‘race’ with all its advantages and ‘invisible knapsacks’ to quote Peggy McIntosh. We saw this as a barrier in tackling racial inequalities as this may lead to indifference to racism and unwillingness to recognise the impact of actions. We realised that only by changing the hearts and minds of the majority – in this case, white people – can we address the challenges of our institution, including the high non-disclosure rate and low reporting rates of racism. We started to take actions to educate white people about race, white privilege and whiteness, and two examples of the University’s work in this field include new training in race awareness, and a pilot reverse mentoring scheme.

Race awareness training

It uses a participatory approach to involve people in conversations on the impact of race on their lives. Through examples from literature and recorded lived experiences from University surveys, it introduces the concepts of white privilege and white fragility, inviting participants to reflect on their role in the circulation of racism.

Reverse mentoring pilot

The pilot invited six pairs of BAME mentors and white members of senior leadership to meet and discuss issues surrounding race and racism. Through this scheme, we hope to deepen the understanding of racism at the leadership level, and how it can be acted upon. For BAME mentors, the scheme provided access to senior leadership networks and an opportunity to exert impact on the direction of the institutional change. We are currently evaluating the scheme and aim to improve its benefits, particularly for the mentors. 

Ending racism is a difficult and extremely complex project, and we are sadly unlikely to see it happen in our lifetime. It is systemic, and deeply embedded in people’s minds, social tissue of our societies and higher education institutions. If our work on the REC gave us one clear insight into how racism can be effectively tackled, it is to call for white people to get educated and take leadership in dismantling the system from which they take advantage of.

If you would like to find out more about the work on race at the University of Cambridge, please join us in a session at Advance HE’s EDI Conference on 17 April at 15:45.


EDI Conference 2020 Courageous conversations and adventurous approaches: Creative thinking in tackling inequality takes place in Edinburgh from 17-19 March. Find out more and book your place here.

Advance HE's Diversifying Leadership programme is designed to support early-career academics and professional services staff from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds who are about to take their first steps into a leadership role. The deadline for bookings is 19 March, click here for more information and to book your place.

Keep up to date - Sign up to Advance HE communications

Our monthly newsletter contains the latest news from Advance HE, updates from around the sector, links to articles sharing knowledge and best practice and information on our services and upcoming events. Don't miss out, sign up to our newsletter now.

Sign up to our enewsletter