It has been a year since the publication of the RHS’s Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History: A Report and Resource for Change (2018). In this post, Shahmima Akhtar, our Past and Present Fellow, reflects on the work that has been done in this area, and our hopes for the future.
The RHS Race, Ethnicity and Equality in UK History report built on existing work that has extensively documented the sustained racial and ethnic inequalities in-built within UK universities. This includes the Black and Asian Studies network, History Matters group, the efforts of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, the teaching resources of the AHRC-funded Runnymede Trust project Our Migration Story: The Making of Modern Britain, as well as the Museum Detox network. These framed the RHS’s work and that of its Race Working Group.
The Report focused specifically on History–from secondary school through postgraduate study– and flagged endemic racial and ethnic biases that persistently harm BME staff and students within the majority-white historical discipline in UK universities.
The RHS has been pleased to see that the Report is being cited and actively used in many new initiatives undertaken by history departments throughout the UK, primarily in England and Scotland. This conversation spans from the Historical Association’s discussion on the curriculum (see ‘Teaching History: Widening Vistas’, The secondary education journal of The Historical Association, October 2019) to undergraduate activism, such as the forthcoming student-led ‘From Margins to Centre? Undergraduate Conference on Marginalised Histories’ at the University of York in February 2020. Many departments held meetings to discuss the report within weeks of its publication, notably Cambridge, St Andrews and UCL.
There has been dynamic, engaged action regarding the UG history curriculum in institutions that include Manchester University and the University of Lincoln, where staff and students devised innovative ways to discuss the report in the form of a ‘Respect Charter’ developed during Welcome Week this autumn. RHS working group members have workshopped the report with departments, schools, and faculties at Sheffield and Oxford to Kent and Durham. The report is now a standing item on RHS Council agendas and featured at the first RHS History Heads of Departments’ meeting earlier in the year at KCL, as well as the September 2019 RHS Symposium at Nottingham Trent University.
Future history-specific initiatives engaging with the report will include workshops on best practice at Liverpool, and Bristol’s ongoing commitment to curriculum change. The Institute of Historical Research is investing significantly in equality, diversity and inclusion in history, with particular attention to early career issues.
Additionally, the RHS is increasingly working on this agenda in dialogue with other societies, including the British Sociological Association and Royal Geographic Society. We hope to co-organise a joint interdisciplinary meeting in the New Year.
Whilst there is still very substantial work to do to displace history from its current, ignominious place in UK universities–where we are the 5th least diverse discipline in terms of BME inclusion– it is heartening to see that there is real commitment to change by specific universities, led by BME staff, students and white allies alike.
Keep an eye out for our November Report which will offer a comprehensive update on best practice from both the RHS perspective and a wider UK discipline perspective, as promised last year in the report’s ‘Roadmap for Change’. It is with a holistic campaign that the fundamental work of anti-racism activism in UK history will effect desperately needed change.
Shahmima Akhtar is Past & Present Fellow: Race, Ethnicity & Equality in History working with the Royal Historical Society and the Institute for Historical Research to advance the RHS Race, Ethnicity & Equality Working Group (REEWG).