We risk losing slices of our past if we don’t root out racism in our universities

What happens when a highly respected professional body undertakes serious and rigorous research into race and racism in its industry? Then, in the light of depressing findings, the researchers call upon their profession, institutions and colleagues to confront “persistent inequalities in our habits and practices”?

The dismal answer is that both the researchers and their findings are served up, by parts of the press, as disapproval fodder for the “world’s gone mad”, “had enough of experts” demographic; the hard core of the unreality-based community.

The report, Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History, is the work of the Royal Historical Society (RHS). Based on surveys and interviews with more than 700 UK historians, it examines what is taught in the history departments of our universities and who does the teaching. It paints a bleak but hardly unexpected picture, one that some newspapers elected to ignore in favour of a handful of cherries picked, out-of-context quotes that pushed their culture-wars agenda.

Most people involved in the delivery of history, in universities, publishing, museums and the heritage industry, are aware that we have a problem with diversity and inclusivity. The RHS’s findings show us just how deep that problem is. By multiple measures, the report reveals, history as an academic subject is less inclusive and less open than others. While the overall UK academic workforce is 15% black and minority ethnic (BME), in history departments, that figure collapses to just 6.3%. So while 85% of all academics are white, for historians the figure in 93.7%. A mere 0.5% of academic staff in history departments are black. Black people make up 3% of the UK population, nearly 2 million people.

The statistics for diversity are accompanied by surveys about experiences. They reveal that almost one in three of the BME history staff surveyed by the RHS had had direct experiences of discrimination or abuse because of their race – from academic colleagues, members of the public and students. The respondents also reported that colleagues presumed that, as BME historians, they were only interested in the histories of their “own” communities and that their language skills would be in some way deficient. Critically, the report reveals that black historians face particular problems when they try to discuss race and structural racism, what is sometimes called institutional racism. One respondent to the RHS’s survey wrote: “Whenever I tried to discuss it with my colleagues (all of whom were non-BME), I was told unequivocally that I was imagining it.”

It is such experiences, Kafkaesque and psychologically damaging, that go some way to explain why Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book, Why I am No Longer Talking to White People About Race, (that the report rightly cites) has been such a success. Eddo-Lodge’s work has become a retreat, a place of greater safety, where black people go for confirmation that their lived experiences are not a fantasy, a place they go in an effort to remain sane.

The other findings of the report dealt not with who does the teaching but what is taught. It is not that long ago that history departments would describe courses as “extra-European”, in other words, about the histories of the mere 98% of the world’s surface that is not part of Europe and the 90% of the world’s population who are not Europeans.

With so few BME staff in our history departments and with curriculums that, although changing, have been slow to do so, many black students reject history as a subject that is just not for them. While almost one in four of UK university students are from BME backgrounds, with history, that figure plummets to a little over one in 10. As one of the very few black historians who, from time to time, appears on TV, my daily life is a constant, open-air focus group. Several times a day, I am stopped on the street by young black Britons who want to talk about the programmes they have seen me in and who are desperate to discuss what those programmes – and history – mean to them. What this unscientific, accidental survey tells me is that BME Britons are fascinated and passionate about the past, but profoundly dissatisfied with the curriculum they encounter at school. They are well aware that there other stories that are not being taught and that among them are the slices of the past that make sense of their lives and experiences.

If the RHS, a respected charity, was looking for an easy life, this report wasn’t the way to achieve it. Feathers have been ruffled, dirty linen aired in public and hard truths laid bare. Pretending that there is no problem or that black people are somehow not interested in history is no longer an option.

Demographics is destiny. As almost one in three school-age children in England are from a BME background, time is running out. Our national history cannot be national if, in the near future, one in three young adults feels their stories remain untold, if this country’s long global history of empire and interconnections is marginalised and if the historical reality of race is rendered almost invisible.

If historians are anywhere near as clever as we like to think we are, we will recognise this moment as a watershed. Curriculums can and are being broadened and reading lists lengthened, often after demands from students. But for real change to come, the true nature of racism – as a structural phenomenon at work within institutions – needs to be acknowledged.

Historians are a combative lot, unafraid of difficult debates, fond of stirring the pot, quick to slaughter sacred cows and cast aside discredited ideas – now is the time to turn all that rigour on ourselves.