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The emotional labour of equalities work

Countdown to #ECU2017

ECU is now counting down to our 2017 annual conference, which is taking place in Birmingham on Tuesday 7 and Wednesday 8 November 2017.

As part of our countdown we will be publishing blog posts written by speakers, at our conference, between now and the conference itself.

The fourth post in this series is from Dr Duna Sabri (King’s College London) who will be presenting on ‘Emotional labour: building contexts for open and rigorous discussion of (in)equality in higher education on day one. For more information about this workshop visit our online conference programme.

The emotional labour of equalities work

My current research is about the causal mechanisms that underlie differences in the attainment of black and minority ethnic students and white students in higher education.  On one occasion, after presenting emerging findings to a group of academics at the higher education institution where the research is taking place, the discussion became somewhat heated.

‘It is unthinkable that I would treat my black students differently.’

So contended a white, cultural studies lecturer whose familiarity with the idea of ‘positionality’ I should have been able to take for granted.  Taken literally, this academic’s assertion – let’s call her Elsa – is that it is beyond the realms of thought that her treatment of black students might be influenced by her own class, race or gender.  We might ask Elsa to elaborate on ‘differently’: different from what?  What is this norm that she will apply indiscriminately to all her students?  Why is the possibility ‘unthinkable’?  Is it so improbable as to not be worth thinking?  Or is it so disturbing to contemplate that the thought cannot be entertained?  It is Elsa’s answer to this last question that might be most illuminating.  If she gives the former response, then does she truly believe herself to be in some way ‘neutral’ and above the fray of cultural subjectivities?

Somehow, I doubt it.  My guess is that Elsa is far more immersed in academic debates about class, gender and race than many of us.  Indeed it is because she is aware of her own positionality that she finds the notion ‘unthinkable’.  It is her sense of herself, as an academic, as a teacher who cares about her students, and as a morally good person, that is under threat.   She defends herself from this existential attack (my findings) with what is ostensibly an argument that makes no sense within the frame of reference of her own discipline.  I am puzzled by this thought, but also silenced by the vehemence in her utterance.

Responding to this intensity of emotion is the challenge for me in this interaction.  It does not help that I have identified an erroneous underlying assumption (that Elsa is somehow above her classed, gendered, raced position).  Pointing this out, I fear, may only exacerbate the tension.  Furthermore, it does not help that I take causation to be not only contained in individuals but also in the social relations and structures that they form (Sayer, 1992).  I never meant to suggest that Elsa was personally responsible for the disparity in degree outcomes between white and black students, only that she may be complicit, along with many others from a range of backgrounds, in reproducing curricula and social environments within the academy that perpetuate white middle class privilege.  Not an original argument.

Many of us who research or undertake developmental work in equality within higher education find ourselves caught in often sensitive and emotionally charged exchanges with colleagues on a regular basis.  The veracity of our statistical findings, and the depth of our knowledge of the under-lying causal mechanisms are necessary but insufficient in these situations.  The emotional and moral dimensions of this work are well-known but not debated widely or in any depth.   Colleagues such as Elsa, not specialists in equality and diversity, are expected to discuss these issues in the presence of her peers and sometimes students.  Such occasions are not easy and often entail adherence to certain feeling rules for Elsa and her colleagues, namely that they must perform ‘outrage’ and ‘reflect upon their practice’.  Elsa rejected that feeling rule and deviated from the group’s expectation of her. The significance of her response is that it corresponded to her current thinking about her professional practice. How do we create an environment in which there is less presumed guilt and more profound engagement with the evidence – statistical and qualitative – of inequality in the extent to which different ethnic groups of students are able to fulfil their potential in our universities?  How might I provoke Elsa’s curiosity about the causes of this inequality rather than her ire?  And do it without the imposition of a managerial feeling rule…

Dr Duna Sabri,
King’s College London

The views and opinions in this blog post reflect those of the authors and not Equality Challenge Unit.

Upcoming ECU resources

  • ECU’s fourth research and data briefing authored by Dr Kevin Guyan (Researcher, ECU) will be about reflecting on your positionality in equality and diversity research. It will be published in November 2017 so stay tuned.