Professor Olivette Otele is exhausted. Just a few weeks ago, the Bath Spa University academic became Britain’s first female black professor of history. But it was a long fight to get there.
The moment she announced the news, on Twitter, was a bittersweet one, she says. “I say ‘strange’ because I am the first and, well, it’s 2018,” she told HuffPost UK. “In academia it’s very hard for everybody. But for people of colour and black women, in particular, it’s even harder.”
Otele, who has two children, acknowledges that her ascent took so long partly because the university system “discriminates not only against mothers, but also women of colour.”
In the UK, black historians make up less than 1% of university history staff, with white historians accounting for 96.1%. Last month, the Royal Historical Society – of which Otele is a fellow – published a highly anticipated report titled Race, Ethnicity and Equality.
It highlighted racial and ethnic inequalities in the teaching and practice of History in the UK, drawing attention to the underrepresentation of black and minority ethnic students and staff in university history programmes, the substantial levels of race-based bias and discrimination experienced by BME historians in UK universities, and the negative impact of narrow school and university curriculums on diversity and inclusion.
Living in the UK in academia – it’s very tame, polite kind of racism, but it’s micro-aggression Olivette Otele
The report, which surveyed of over 700 historians, found 29.8% of BME respondents directly experienced discrimination or abuse.
Drawing reference to the research findings, Otele said: “The situation is dire – racism is there, live and kicking” – and it has dogged Otele for much of her career, she says. An alumna of the famed Universite La Sorbonne in Paris, where she received her first degree in literature and history two decades ago, Otele went on to do a masters in history two years later, then a PhD in 2005 at Université La Sorbonne in Paris.
It was during her time in France that the Cameroon-born academic became used to a “straightforward kind of racism” – different to what she’s experienced in Britain. “Living in the UK in academia – it’s a very tame, polite kind of racism, but it is also micro-aggressions. It’s about not being given fair treatment in many things – timetabling for example; the opportunity to talk in certain places and young PHD students of colour not being groomed for certain opportunities.”
This lack of diversity is reflected in the content of study too. The Royal Historical Society (RHS) report identified a need to widen history curriculums in schools. In November, HuffPost UK wrote about a Milton Keynes school that issued homework to 16-year-olds asking them to list the “pros and cons” of slavery.
Otele, whose current research is focused on trans-national history and colonialism, condemned the exercise as “lazy”. “Teachers have a lot to do but you don’t need to do the pros and cons – you need to contextualise and explain how it works, rather than having to do that,” she said.
“I find it incredibly disappointing. I have spoken with many other teachers about that homework who have said that ‘it’s easier for children to understand’. That’s wrong. I also taught in primary and secondary school and the children are very receptive if you explain things very simply. For me that homework was not simple, it was laziness. I get really annoyed about these things.”
The RHS report also found that programmes of study are often grounded uncritically in white and Eurocentric histories. “I see no valid reason for black history to be a part of the national curriculum,” Otele says. “All of the excuses I’ve heard over the years are unacceptable simply because we are in societies that are highly multicultural, highly globalised – not doing that is discrimination.”
This ongoing problem of lack of balanced representation in academia was a key motivation behind Otele’s decision to become historian. “I never saw myself doing anything else, and I was prepared to work extremely hard for what I wanted. I knew that, given the society we live in, if I worked hard as a black woman, I would only have half of the reward. So to have equal reward, I would have to work harder than my white counterparts.”
Otele sees her role as combative – taking on a “western, eurocentric” history and introducing a greater number of perspectives. “Ninety-nine per cent of my students are white from normally comfortable backgrounds and yet, they’re open. Teaching is not just a career choice – it’s a calling,” she says.
Like most working mothers, Otele strives to find a balance between career and home on a daily basis. Her sons are aged six and 17. “I want it all, and why should I not have it all? Even with children, I still manage to have my career. It’s exhausting but it shows I can do it,” she says.
With Christmas around the corner, Otele plans to spend as much time with her partner and children as possible, and she has a running joke among her close-knit circle of friends – many of whom are doctors. They’re saving lives, she says, but Otele herself describes her work as “saving souls”.
“The physical aspect of life is so important – biology. But if you’re dead inside, then there’s no life, either. No goal, no passion.
“These are things that knowledge of history helps to ignite.”