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As white sports lecturers, we’re learning how to make our classroom less racist | Michael Hobson and Stuart Whigham | Education

We write this piece as two white academics, privileged to gain our posts as lecturers. We both predominantly teach sports sociology and regularly discuss the topic of racial discrimination in sport, drawing on the experiences of star athletes such as Serena Williams, Colin Kaepernick and Raheem Sterling. We welcome the fact that these discussions are happening, but question whether this has made universities more inclusive spaces for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students.

We’ve realised that when discussions of race are framed purely as lecture content, they become disassociated from individuals’ lived experiences. Too often, as “liberal” white academics, we can be guilty of discussing racist incidents in sport without considering how our day-to-day behaviours contribute to a culture which can disadvantage others who do not share our privilege.

Indeed, the fact that BAME students in sport are overwhelmingly taught about race by white lecturers, who lack true empathy and experience of the structural inequalities present in sport, higher education and society, is in itself an illustration of the self-perpetuating inequality in modern universities. This is in turn furthered by media analysis by journalists who share their own white privilege. The irony that we (as white junior academics) are in a position to write an article on this topic is not lost on us.

Racism in sport is a topic neither of us set out to research in our academic careers, and we initially struggled to find a sensitive way of approaching it. But research shows that white academics need to do more to develop empathy with BAME students by recognising our own privilege, changing the way we frame race in the classroom and emboldening us to challenge inequalities. As such, we have tried to move beyond discussions of theory surrounding racism and sport in lectures to influence our actions and behaviours.

The starting point has been listening to the lived experiences of BAME students and people outside university. Some have underscored a sense of not belonging in a system in which most lecturers and students are white. Research reveals that this feeling out of place can impact how well students do and their likelihood of dropping out.

We found the Surviving Society podcast series helpful in developing empathy. One episode looked at the feeling of otherness: for a black person at a rave full of white people, or a white person at a “black club”. In another episode, UCL’s head of student success, Paulette Williams, explained how this concept relates to universities, where black and Asian students often find themselves in the minority.

We’ve also learned not to avoid uncomfortable conversations about racial privilege and discrimination for fear of causing offence, for instance by avoiding asking our BAME personal tutees about their university experience, as this can compound a sense of being “out of place”. Building trustful, mutually respectful, and open, frank relationships with BAME students and colleagues is a fundamental starting point.

But while this is a good step forward for individuals, it’s not enough to foster genuine institutional change. Instead, we’re using our networking skills as academics to identify colleagues from any ethnic background across the university who are passionate to change the situation. We consider how to pay privilege forward: those who are in a position to provide advice, time and opportunities should consider who they offer them to. Perhaps the most important thing is to realise that some well-intentioned actions may appear tokenistic and non-sincere – but that’s not a reason not to try. Instead, it can be a learning opportunity.

Crucially, we’ve adapted our teaching practice. We’ve added papers by black and Asian scholars to our usual recommended reading, and if there are no papers on the topic we supplement readings with papers, blogs, podcasts and guest lectures.

We make time in lectures to discuss students’ experiences, too. In a recent lecture, one of us encouraged students to consider the ethnic make up of the room (roughly 40 out of 120 were BAME) and to compare this with the university’s sports’ teams’ social media, which mostly featured white players. Students were encouraged to discuss what they thought had shaped this underrepresentation – were students not playing, and why? Or were they not being photographed? We then discussed how to improve representation both in university teams and professional sports.

We still have far to go, but we believe that an open mind and an open ear are crucial to the ongoing evolution of anti-racist practice in universities. As the current political climate in western democracies illustrates, the importance of such actions from academics teaching the industry leaders and educators – in our domain of sport and beyond – remains important.

  • Michael Hobson is a lecturer at St Mary’s University and Stuart Whigham is a lecturer at Oxford Brookes University. This article is based on their chapter in Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy by Jason Arday and Heidi Mirza.

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