Notes on: Rollock, N. (2011) 'Unspoken rules of engagement: navigating racial microaggressions in the academic terrain'. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education.
DOI: 10.1080/09518398.2010.543433

Dave Harris

This draws on the counter narrative tradition and explores a fictional academic setting [it's quite like a D Bell sci-fi 'fable'].

Current policy is based 'on a narrow and unsophisticated version of racism which is seem to exist only in overt forms' (1), such as racist incidents. This does not address institutional racism although this has a key role. In HE there are obvious signs of underachievement such as low proportions of the BME staff and relative underachievement, together with a lot of 'symbolic commitments to antiracism' (2), but a general silence about whiteness.

She means 'a power and privilege that is invisible and goes unseen'. It has a role in maintaining 'the normality of racism and how this benefits white members of society', allowing White people to proceed without being conscious of their own positioning so that they benefit from institutional and social arrangements that seem to have nothing to do with race [and she cites among others Picower]. Even the notion of white privilege is not sufficient, and Gillborn supports Picower in referring to whole ways of being, a whole 'range of ideological, emotional and performative "tools of whiteness"' that white students use, but that exist unconsciously and even despite explicit commitments to race equality.

Whiteness is often disguised and misrecognised as in Bourdieu, and thus becomes acceptable. Racial micro-aggression is one way in which it manifests, 'seemingly slight but persistent daily re-occurrences that serve to remind POC that they are judged to be different' [usually inferior]. She draws on Sue of course, with a slight amendment to add a British version of America as a melting pot to 'when you come here you have to follow our rules' (3).

There can also be more subtle acts — 'interrupting, ignoring or questioning the validity of the contributions of BAME individuals while accepting the same suggestions or ideas from their white counterparts'. Black women face 'constant intrigue' about the hair and its styling. These practices 'wound, constrain and denigrate the validity of the presence of POC', but are not seen as racist not just because they are subtle but 'because of an inherent misconception that "nice" people cannot be racist'. However, like Ladson Billings 1998, she wants to exist that '"denotations are submerged and hidden in ways that are offensive though without identification"' [which she traces to post-modernism and post-colonialism]. Such racial micro-aggressions are maintained persistently and casually in daily life.

Most researcher has occurred in the USA, for example with Soloano and Yosso ( 2000) in three university environments where 'racial battle fatigue' led to doubts about capabilities, frustrations and in some cases leaving the University altogether. Giles and Hughes (2009) reported POC academics also facing fatigue and stress. The UK research so far has been confined to white schools.

CRT is an important theoretical framework stressing counter narrative and she intends to use it here to show her racial differences are denied, simplified and how racial micro-aggressions have consequences. She deploys two primary fictional composite characters, a black professional couple and she makes use 'of notes to complement and extend arguments made in the main body of the text'.

[A conversation ensues]

Jonathan is too tired to go to work because he is fed up with tiny insignificant episodes that wear him down. Soray says that these are called micro-aggressions.

Jonathan complains to the head of HR who says he can appeal, although he is cynical because few black staff are in the Department [supported by official stats], appealing would be seen to cause trouble and would reinforce the stereotype, jeopardise his application for professorship. The reported incident concerned a colleague who did not want to discuss the episode he was complaining about, which arose after a particular dispute about opening windows or relying on air conditioning. The colleague complained, there was a reference to health and safety, further complaints of insensitivity, angry denunciations, complaints about the white partner not being able to exercise choice. The decision was to split them up. He suspected racial tensions but did not dare ask.

[Then we get into science fiction, with the story of particular vials of liquid that are '"racial truth serums". The pretext is to rerun the conversation with the head of HR, this time to give a fairer account, identifying the racism in the partners complaint. The serum makes white folks race aware, and makes them listen to black people instead of deciding for themselves in advance. Other episodes follow, pointing out that there is no race equality training in HE, that the couple get more and more aware of racial micro-aggressions [citing Sue again], that jobs implicitly specify white candidates — '"White world person-specification"' (11).

She think she's demonstrated that racism is complex and nuanced and embedded. She has 'exploited literary and standard academic licence to do this'. She asks us to imagine alternative reality and thus to contribute to social justice projects via the fiction of racial truth serums. What would be the consequences — would white people become determined to restrict them or regulate them? She sees herself as 'explicitly, defiantly and with courage "fighting back"' (12) Interesting.