Opportunity Grant report: Navigating the White research space: Experiences of BME Researchers

by Shivonne Gates and Bethany Thompson

Image of workshop speakers seated

As BME researchers early in our careers, we regularly discussed challenges we faced in predominantly White workplaces. However, with limited experience in the workplace, we wondered if the challenges we faced were unique or shared more widely. The evidence suggested that this might be the case, but also illuminated a gap in our understanding of the climate surrounding race in social research. We therefore decided to run a workshop, to provide a safe space for early career social researchers to share and interrogate their experiences.

The workshop took place in February 2020 at the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), funded by an Opportunity Award from the Social Policy Association. The workshop consisted of three sessions: a panel discussion, focus groups, and an interactive group discussion. The aims were to:

  • discuss the specific challenges and barriers that arise for BME researchers;
  • explore the ways in which current notions of ‘whiteness’ and ‘Britishness’ are related to barriers faced by BME researchers in being equal social actors in White research spaces; and
  • consider how these barriers are related to the effectiveness of wider social policies at combatting inequalities that are embedded into society.

We welcomed 42 early career researchers (ECRs) to the workshop from research agencies, the charity and voluntary sector, and academic institutions.

The panel discussion

The panel discussion included five panellists:

  • Dr Fatima Husain, Research Director at NatCen with over 20 years’ experience working in social research in academia, charities, and non-profits
  • Dr Aminul Hoque, Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths University of London who researches multicultural Britain, identity, social justice, youth policy, religion, race relations and Islamic feminism
  • Isabella Pereira, Research Director at Ipsos MORI who founded the qualitative social research unit at Ipsos MORI
  • Nigel Lloyd, Director of NLH Partnership with over 20 years’ experience in social research that is community-focused and supports disadvantaged communities
  • Bethany Thompson, a Research Assistant at King’s College London who is developing a research profile in racial inequality and health outcomes

Panellists answered questions about challenges in the research sector, being a researcher and combatting the problems. There was strong consensus among panellists about the problems they faced and the lack of change, such as limited or no support from senior management.

Challenges and barriers for BME social researchers

The panel discussion set the scene for the sessions that followed. Throughout the workshop, attendees’ experiences and views overlapped and there was strong consensus on what the problems and barriers were. Four key themes emerged.

Access to job opportunities: Attendees perceived careers in social research as more difficult to access for BME researchers, particularly at the early career stages. Attendees felt it was challenging to secure a job in social research without a degree from a Russell Group university. It was felt this prevents BME researchers from starting a career in social research, as they are more likely to attend a Post-92 university. Attendees also noted the gatekeeping around career opportunities, often only shared with a specific audience through channels like jobs.ac.uk.

Conducting fieldwork as a person of colour: Participants described a range of safeguarding challenges when conducting fieldwork as a BME researcher. For example, conducting face-to-face fieldwork in predominantly White communities or carrying out research on sensitive topics such as Islamophobia or race left BME researchers feeling vulnerable and unsafe. When they raised the issue with project leads or managers, they were made to feel they were overreacting.

Expectation of equality and diversity work: ECRs also felt there was an assumption they want to work on research projects that have a strong focus on race or that they would want to lead diversity initiatives. During focus groups, attendees described how this could motivate them to affect change but often made them feel disorientated and overwhelmed.

Aspiring to Whiteness: Participants felt that the most challenging aspect of working in White spaces was constant work that is needed to “fit in”. Norms in predominantly White research spaces align more closely to White cultural norms than those familiar to BME researchers. Consequently, BME researchers face the additional burden of assimilating to Whiteness, such as by toning down their Blackness, in order to be accepted by White colleagues. One ECR described how they often felt they had to talk and act a certain way at work, like “putting on a work coat” that you can only take off when you are back at home.

What are the solutions?

Having directly experienced barriers and challenges, workshop participants were uniquely placed to discuss possible solutions. However, ECRs felt strongly that a workshop alone was insufficient: there is a need for long-term solutions. Suggestions included:

Making a career in research more attractive to young people: Engaging young people in a way that is relatable could help to promote a career in research. Attendees suggested that by actively targeting particular groups, especially those from disadvantage backgrounds, we could create new profiles of what researchers should look like.

Negative perceptions of ethnic minorities: Attendees felt that research on BME communities consistently focuses on negative discourses, such as knife crime and poverty. Conducting research that contributes to a positive narrative and better representation of communities of colour would help to challenge negative discourses.

Workplace support: Attendees also felt that workplaces need to be more supportive of BME researchers, whether that was through mentoring for career progression or better safeguarding measures when conducting fieldwork.

It was incredibly powerful to have BME researchers come together and share their thoughts and experiences, as we are so often in the minority in our workplaces; it is not often that we are in a room with other researchers who look like us. It was also poignant that the experiences described by the panel members chimed so strongly with the ECRs. Not much has changed over the last 20 years, so there is still work to do to improve the inclusivity of research spaces.