Is Being “White” Bad? Understanding Race During Covid-19

Reham ElMorally, PhD Candidate, Dep. of International Development, SAPD
Dr Billy Wong, Associate Professor, Institute of Education
Meggie Copsey-Blake, MA Education student (2019/2020), Institute of Education


Can 2020 get any worse?” A trending question in the global community. 2020 has confronted us with life-altering realities, which in turn has changed the discourse around what is perceived to be ‘normal’. The shift in paradigm throughout the world, as influenced by the global pandemic, COVID-19, and the death of George Floyd fuelling the #BlackLivesMatter movement, has encouraged the reassessment of institutionalized racism in Higher Education (HE) settings in the UK.

In our three-year longitudinal study we have so far conducted 69 interviews from undergraduate students in STEM disciplines, asking about their experiences in HE. The parameters of our analysis varied. On one occasion we set the parameters to racial understanding and comparing. The theoretical approach included institutionalization of racial biases through unconscious means of transmission.

Institutions, such as universities, have been established to cater to a specific socio-economic and cultural fragment of society. During the establishment of many universities the objective was to perpetuate social hierarchies and discern the social hegemonic bloc from other sects of the society. In the UK, the social hegemonic block is the White population. However, the changing global climate, and the efforts by governments to eradicate racialized understandings and mannerisms (for example the Race and Equality Act 1965), have contributed to levelling of the playing field. Recreating racial understandings, nonetheless, does not connote an eradication of it. Unconscious biases are one of the facets racial understandings are manifested.

Unconscious Bias describes the underlying prejudicial attitudes and understandings one has towards a person or a group. Sequentially, it informs and is affected by how one views themselves and others. Self-perception, however, can be deceiving. As scholars pointed out, Unconscious Biases could lead to a cognitive error called Affinity Bias; the tendency to identify, relate, and behave more favourably towards people similar to or within your affinity group. For instance, a White, heterosexual, abled, women, can relate better to another White women, with similar dispositions, than to a Black, homosexual, disabled, man.

Affinity bias can oftentimes lead to a skewed sense of self. In extreme cases, one could argue, it leads to aggressive racial interactions, where a sense of self-worth is heightened and deviators from the affinity group are regarded as lesser in worth. Consequentially, an aggravated sense of superiority and inferiority can arise. Where members of the social hegemonic bloc are reassured by their affinity group, other social blocs are discarded as hindrances, and in extreme cases, enemies of the social order. In the UK, the hegemonic bloc is the White population for whom the institutions were erected to serve, such as universities.

How does this relate to Higher Education? Well, HE institutions such as universities, much like government institutions, are meant to serve the interests of the majority population, particularly the hegemonic bloc; Karl Marx referred to those as ‘owners of means of production’ or the bourgeois. In any given society, as Rousseau argued, a social contract of sorts needs to be established to govern and police behaviour and attitudes. The social contract provides guidelines to who is entitled to what, and when. Once a social hierarchy is agreed upon, institutions are erected to solidify and organize the social fabric. While constructing these institutions, rarely did anyone question who is it intended for and for what purpose. With the scholastic community giving more attention to qualitative studies, since the 1970s, they have uncovered that structures, much like human beings, are reactive to the environment in which they were constructed. Less similar to humans, structures like those of institutions are more difficult to dismantle, as bureaucracy slows down any process of change.

As changing institutions has proved to be a difficult task, we analysed how students have reacted to said institutions. The parameters of the study juxtaposed White Privilege with internalized inferiority. Utilizing critical discourse analysis, we revisited students’ statements with regards to the influence of their own ethnicity on their academic performance and achievements respectively. Accounting for the university’s effort to establish a diverse and tolerant environment, we have identified failures of the institutions to account for psychological stressors associated with HE. One of said stressors is the institutional inability and lack of capacity to restructure understandings. The UK, as a one of the major former colonial and imperial forces, anachronistically attempted to rebuild a society on the basis of tolerance and diversity, particularly after the United Nation’s Resolution 1514 to decolonize imperial territories in 1960. While facades are easy to alter, the spirit, in the philosophical-legal understanding, is complex in its structure and composition, making it harder to change.

Even though racism and discrimination on the basis of race have been legally deemed unacceptable and in some cases punishable by law, carriers of the racist beliefs have remained vigilant in the way they disseminate within society. This is evidenced by the noticeable negligence of some White students we spoke to towards racial issues. Contrastingly, students of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) affiants have stressed the centricity of ethnic background to their experiences. Not only did we find that students of minority ethnic backgrounds feel ‘out of place’, which was expected after establishing that the hegemonic bloc sets the boundaries for normalcy and by extension defines the social contract to govern and police disenfranchised social blocs, but we also found that students have internalized their respective position within the society. For instance, students of White ethnic backgrounds are less likely to notice or comment on ethnic diversity within classrooms, while BAME students report an increasing awareness it (Wong, ElMorally, Copsey-Blake, Highwood, and Singearyer, 2020).

Upon further investigation and analysis, we argue that the intersection of race with the affinity bias can be a cause of the discrepancies observed. Some of our White students were disinterested and aloof, indicative of lack of awareness towards privilege as a result of their race. Some of the students who emphasized such characteristics were more defiant and reacted less favourably when presented with buzzwords such as Affirmative Action. This in turn changed the tone of conversation from investigative to defensive. Students who reacted in said manner exhibited a basic understanding of ‘White Guilt’ and ‘White Shame’ to defend their position. Unaware of the inherent contradictions of White Guilt and Shame, said students exposed the side-effects of affinity bias; the familiarity of their skin colour blinded them from realizing the bias is indeed an evolutionary cognitive method to foresee threats. However, when left unchallenged, the bias self-actualizes, and any action to prove its validity is used as confirmation, i.e. Confirmation Bias. For instance, an effort by the university to spread the holiday spirit around December/Christmas, but the lack of effort exerted to celebrate other cultures and holidays such as Ramadan, can confirm the affinity bias. To the prejudiced mind, this signals the superiority and importance of one holiday over another, and by extension the superiority/inferiority of one observer of a holiday over another.

On the other hand, minority ethnic students and allies alike, are often aware of the dichotomous environment. However, when one is unconscious of social hierarchies, it is easier to submit to it and, in some cases, reproduce and perpetuate it. This model is called the Stereotype Threat, in which a person feels at risk of confirming an existing negative stereotype about their affinity group. When the ‘vulnerability’, e.g. assumed to be weak because one is a woman, is reiterated to the subject, their performance is undermined and their focus shifts to negating the negative stereotype as opposed to completing the task, compromising the integrity of the results. This means that in situations where the salience of one’s stereotyped group-identity are increased so is one’s vulnerability to the Stereotype Threat.

The intersection between the aforementioned variables and academic performance coincide with the national data on degree awarding and achieving gaps. This makes us believe that in order to enhance the academic performance of minority ethnic students, we must restructure our training and development schemes in place to accommodate for unconscious bias and its effects on the psychology of students.


This paper draws on a research paper that is currently under review:

ElMorally, Reham., Wong, Billy., & Copsey-Blake, Meggie. Is being ‘White’ Bad? Understanding Unconscious Racialized Behavior of University Students.

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