The Manifestation of Racial Inequality in Institutions

Nisha Waller is a Criminology PhD ESRC and Balliol Dervorguilla Scholar at the University of Oxford. Nisha has a passion for Criminal Justice, particularly that associated with racial justice. This passion stems from both personal experiences and her studies in Sociology and Criminology. Nisha’s current research focuses on the application of complicity law (also known as ‘joint enterprise) in England and Wales, and its relationship to the criminalisation of young black men.

Nisha also holds a BA in Sociology and Criminology from the University of Westminster (2018), and an MSc in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Oxford (2020)

In the Summer of 2020, we witnessed mass anti-racism protests across the globe – a response to the tragic death of George Floyd. Schools, universities, employers, politicians, celebrities’ parents, grandparents, and colleagues, engaged in serious discussions about racism – some for the first time.


It felt as though those around us finally began to understand – finally began to see that Britain does not exist independently of its colonial history. People started to see that racism is not only inclusive of overt racial language and microaggressions, but also subtle remarks, the office ‘jokes’ that have been ‘normalised’, the cultural assumptions, and most importantly, the ways in which race has manifested in institutional settings, influencing policy and practice in workplaces, education, healthcare and criminal justice.


For me, these moments felt like a breakthrough I had never witnessed. Our universities and employers suddenly wanted to know how we feel in the working environment that they provide, and researchers and policy makers sought to understand the continued racial inequality that exists in Britain. Media platforms, businesses and charities opened platforms for us to speak about our experiences and began to seek ways in which they could improve the dynamics of the institutional settings that they produce.


But I ask, why did it take an immoral and senseless act to provoke this response? Why did we have to witness a traumatic incident? Why did George Floyd have to die for change to ensue? My answer is that we take things for granted. By this I do not mean we should make the most of something before it is gone. Rather, we accept things for what they are, without asking questions. Far too often we accept the rules that govern institutions, without looking at how these rules and practices work in reality? We should be asking: Why are we doing things this way? Who do these rules impact? Do they cause harm? How can we mitigate this?


Take the criminal justice system as an example. We are often told that prisons protect the public from ‘dangerous people’ and ‘rehabilitate’ those who have offended. In some cases, this might be true. But it is also true that at any given time, between 2,000 and 3,000 children are imprisoned in England and Wales. It is also true that trauma is common amongst children in custody, including experiencing or witnessing sexual abuse, domestic abuse, neglect, and abandonment. 52% of children in custody have been in care. Around a third have a learning disability or Special Educational Needs, report a known mental health disorder, and show concerns relating to suicide or self-harm. Ten days before release from custody, almost 14% of children do not know where they will be living, children have been found confined to their cell for up to 23 hours a day and inspection reports consistently find that they do not have access to the education they are entitled to.


My point here is that we will not see a need for change unless we critically engage with our social world and dig beyond surface appearances. To stimulate change, we must do this continuously. We can’t wait for another ‘moment of truth’ – another moment of trauma. We need to become active participants who look beyond the ‘traditional’ way of doing things. We must ask the ‘difficult’ questions. We need to transfer the energy that has emerged from this ‘moment of truth’ and transfer it into something long-term.


It is imperative to foreground that this isn’t a fight of any one group. I often feel that I have a duty to contribute to discussions about racial inequality. I have spent hours writing lengthy messages to people on social media who want to understand. I have given assemblies and lectures on the matter. But, carrying this burden whilst witnessing the continued infliction of harm upon those whom I closely identify with can be difficult; it can be tiring, anxiety provoking and traumatic. Everyone therefore needs to assist in carrying this burden. No matter our background, we should all embark upon this struggle.


So, to employers, universities, and other institutions:


  1. Yes, change needs to be informed by those who experience an issue first-hand, but everyone needs to assist in carrying this burden.
  2. If you ask those who have experiences of discrimination and inequality to inform your work, you also ought to treat them as experts and reimburse them for their time and knowledge, just as you would a consultant.
  3. Recognise that no social group exists as a homogenous entity. One person cannot speak for everyone’s experiences.
  4. Actions speak lounder than words. Saying someone is welcome and equal is not the same as making sure that they are. Work towards fostering a truly inclusive environment that takes account for all Produce environments in which anyone can bring their identity with them, and in which they do not have to assimilate into pre-existing or ‘normalised’ expectations.
  5. Don’t wait for a ‘moment of truth’ – make progression a continual commitment!


To everyone: be brave. Don’t be afraid to question things that you see. Don’t be afraid to start something new – something that has never been done. Embark on something that is a force for good and don’t give up at it!

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