UAL so White?

#ualsowhite #race #racism #poc #inclusivity #blackarts #bame #dunasabri #attainmentgap #closingtheattainmentgap #shadesofnoir #tatebritain #decolonise #postcolonialism

Shades of Noir ‘Safe Space Crits’ is a go to place where students talk about race and identity, gain tuition for their work and discuss any racism that they might be experiencing at UAL. It’s important that a space like this exists on campus as students of colour have a safe place that they can use, and people that they can talk to and confide in; A space like this is invaluable, however the is question the purpose of this space and why its function is not being provided in the studios and by staff, and more importantly, the need for it in 2020. The reason for this is because students and staff of colour do not feel at ease, or comfortable in openly discussing race and racism in the studios, which is extremely saddening and worrying.  

Whilst discussions about race can be uncomfortable, I strongly believe that a young person at an establishment of learning should be able to talk about race, racism and inequality openly without any fear of being reprimanded, undermined, ridiculed or challenged. I recall an outspoken student of mine (POC) at a tutorial, suddenly start to whisper about the painting that she was making on the theme of skin colour. When I deliberately ignored the whisper, which I assumed came from a self-conscious place and continued to talk in a normal voice, I noticed that it drew the attention of other students in the room who appeared to be eaves dropping with interest. Over the weeks, and months our discussions of race have been common place, and I have had a number of very interesting conversations about race and post-colonialism with students in the studios. 

I acknowledge that my brown skin is a privilege in the classroom/studio where conversations on race are welcomed, especially when students of colour are present as there is an unspoken sense of solidarity. In these circumstances I am able to talk openly and confidently about race, identity and racism without the fear of ‘saying the wrong thing’ or offending anybody. This comes from years of training myself in developing skills to continuously consider my position as a teacher/tutor who is non-white and how my position changes from student to student, with peers, contexts and within different learning environments. 

In Hahn Tapper ‘A pedagogy of social justice education: social identity, theory and intersectionality’, the writer discusses social justice education and the importance of empowering students. He describes how teachers take into account their position, the student’s position, both of yours race, identity, class and cultural background. This is described further in Paulo Friere’s book ‘The Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ where he discusses his childhood socioeconomic background and how the inequality felt from these early experiences has impacted on his teaching methods. He talks about the position of the teacher and likens that to a coloniser, somebody that has power, seeing his/her subjects as lower than themselves and uneducated, groups of young people to which he/she imparts knowledge to, rather than receive from. He talks about the student being empty vessels that are to be filled with the knowledge, rather than the teacher seeing themselves as beings that are also there to learn and that learning can be two-wayed if you allow yourself to be humble and open to students. 

It’s difficult and tiring to constantly challenge the ingrained stereotype of the subservient Asian Woman in the West and to be seen as an equal. As I have been stereotyped so much, and every cloud has a silver lining I constantly check myself and ensure that I don’t stereotype my students or treat them in a manner that is patronising and judgemental. I always welcome what my students bring to classes/the studio and enjoy learning from them, especially in the subject area of digital / social media, and the current terminology around sexuality, feminism and politics. I believe it’s important to remember that sharing knowledge is more than the information that we have read in books, it is also the life knowledge and the experiences that we have had as human beings. I question how we can as educators embrace a more open holistic and an equal approach to teaching, when we have been raised in a system that reveres the privileged white male? How do we even begin to pull down hierarchical structures that are so embedded in British culture, when change is resisted? How can we as a community encourage teachers to discuss race, especially when certain eyes and ears and refuse to see and listen as it challenges privileged positions? 

I believe that one way to challenge the status quo is to diversify staffing in art colleges and galleries, diversify gallery and museum collections, have people of colour in senior positions, but until that happens I can continue to refer my students to the wealth of Black and Asian artists found in our communities, and to the resource pages on SoN where POC artists and designers are showcased with a range of creative practices that have been inspired by a variety of cultural heritages and experiences. I believe that if a diverse range of artist’s stories and artwork is shared with students, then they can see themselves in the diversity that exists in the art-world, which sadly is not apparently visible in mainstream galleries and museums. 

I see the value of SoN ‘Safe Crit Space’ I’m glad that it’s there, however I also believe that all spaces across colleges should be safe and staff should have the ability and the skills to discuss race, racism, post-colonialism openly with students. All staff ought to be able to do this in 2020, if they squirm and pass the task of exploring race over to the few tutors of colour, then this is problematic; it’s shouldn’t be the job of POC’s only to deal with this subject area of race, it is for us all as a community of tutors to have the skills to talk about all topics and be knowledgeable about them, it is a shared responsibility. Just as we are skilled to discuss feminism, post-modernism, abstraction, materiality, etc, race should be included as a valid and important subject area. It shouldn’t be a private matter, hushed up and whispered like dirty words behind closed doors, it should be explored by all, openly talked about, drawn, painted and sculpted.  

The students interviewed in the film ‘The Room of Silence’ describe the silence or the lack of feedback/dismissive attitude given by tutors and fellow students in crits and tutorials. They talk about the uncomfortable silence and the lack of acknowledgement of the themes that their work has, this is on artworks made about race, racism and skin colour. Their frustration, sadness and in some cases the lowering of self esteem echo some of my own student experiences. It is worrying and deeply concerning that these experiences are similar to the ones that POC students had in the early 90’s, which in turn were similar to the stories that I heard of Black artists in the generation above me in the 1980’s. How is it possible for art colleges not to have progressed in terms of being able to support POC students and to discuss race with them over the past 35 years? Clearly there are issues that urgently need to be tackled nationwide as this is something to be truly ashamed of. How can fairness and equality be fostered in the art-world, when race, cannot be encouraged or spoken about at college? The inability to be equal, to speak up about race, challenge racist opinions and actions, feeds into the capitalist cogs that once fuelled colonialism. 

A painting I made as a student at CSM. It explores British-Asian identities, femininity and the politics of power. Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 51 x 51cm, 1996. (private collection).
Destruction of the National Front, Eddie Chambers 1980. Tate Gallery Collection

I talk loudly about race and racism in my museum and gallery workshops, and to ensure that everyone else in the space listens in, I notch up my volume. An ideal work to talk about racial violence is the seemingly benign looking painting ‘No, Woman, No Cry’ named after the Bob Marley song and painted by Chris Ofili. This is a painting of a woman crying at the loss of Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager who was murdered in 1993 by a group white racist lads in the South London suburb of Eltham. These youths were not caught initially, and after over a decade of the police bumbling and supposedly ‘losing’ files, some of these racist perpetrators were finally caught. I have spoken this painting at it at least a hundred times to variety of audiences, young and old. Some of them squirm, some say they do not want to discuss race with young children/people (mainly white), some look uncomfortable, but most people engage fully with the discussion and are saddened by the reality of the Macpherson Report, they see the importance of having a painting like this on public display. On an another note everyone enjoys seeing the spectacle of the elephant dung that the painting sits on, Ofili has certainly been skilled at drawing audiences to his work despite his subject matter.

No Woman, No Cry, Chris Ofili, 1998. Tate Gallery Collection

We should be encouraging the Chris Ofilis of the future. Where are they? Are they at UAL? Are they being nurtured and encouraged? I sincerely hope so. I was disgusted to read Duna Sabri’s report of the inequality of attainment grades. Once I had processed the horror that BAME home students are attaining 20% lower grades for their degrees than white home students I spoke about it to my friends that work in galleries and museums across the UK, who like me had not heard of this report before and felt very disturbed. We were saddened by it because in our work as gallery and museum educators we work extremely hard at bringing in young people from diverse backgrounds into galleries and museums, nurture them, support them in getting excellent A-level and B-Tec grades and help develop their portfolios so that they can enter art colleges confident and optimistic. On first day I started my current role as an Associate Lecturer there was a welcome talk to students. I was surprised to see the that out of around 400 students only a tiny handful were POC, the hashtag #UALsowhite came to mind. Several weeks later a new student mentioned the fact that she too noticed how white the 2019 cohort was, not exactly inviting to a new POC student starting college in the locality of Peckham where the community outside of the hallowed university doors is diverse. 

From reading Retainment and Attainment in Art and Design. A.Richards and T.Finnigan it is evident that BAME staff are essential to staff teams at UAL. Students need to see themselves in their tutors and have someone that they can identify with and relate to, especially in the current political climate with many divisions in society. The attainment gap on BA Painting, where I teach is not equal and neither are the student numbers in terms of diversity (out of 120 students only 5 are POC), which is not reflective of the diversity of the country and certainly not the locality of Peckham. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview prospective students for the forthcoming academic year 2020/21, it was an insight in seeing how the different interviewees behaved. I noticed similarities with working class and POC prospective students (with the majority of POC people coming from working class backgrounds). What I noticed was that most of them hadn’t developed the skills to ‘sell themselves’ to discuss their work confidently, drawing upon their best assets. In several interviews I had to tease out the information, discover their talent (that was buried in sketchbooks, notes and photos). On the whole they seemed different in their approach compared to the middle classed White prospective students who were outwardly confident, outspoken and could “sell their wares”. 

In my short time working at the college I’ve heard that the evidence behind the statistics of BAME low attainment might be in-correct. I’ve heard remarks on the need for BAME staff when the students at the college are pre-dominantly white, and the disregard for the lack of diversity in the staffing. Are these racist comments? In my opinion, yes, but they often passed off as “white fragility”.

I watched Robin Di Angleo’s film ‘Deconstructing White Privilege’. It was interesting hearing a white woman talk about her sheltered middle-class childhood experiences and the uncomfortableness that white people might experience when talking about race. I noticed a sense of privilege in the way that she spoke, and who her audience might be (white, educated, middle classed?) Di’Angleo consisitently used the word “we” throughout her talk with disregard that “we” did not include “me” a brown skinned person who does not feel fragile in talking about race. Di’Angleo goes on to discuss the pre-dominantly white neighbourhood that she grew up in, my first reaction to that is that she has not grown up in a neighbourhood where the majority of the community are on low paid incomes and in turn diverse. She doesn’t seem to acknowledge class privilege and the inequalities that those on a lower income face, for these reasons amongst others I found her talk patronising. It’s a small step in the right direction that a white person is acknowledging their racism, however but I wouldn’t give her a medal for her efforts as they are miniscule to burden of present day and historical racism and abuse that POC’s carry and continue endure, it’s something  that Di’Angelo has the privilege of never experiencing. 

In my discussions on race, or any topic for that matter as race is a part of every ‘ism’ in the history of art. These are a few prominent artists/movements who explore identity and race that I share and raise an awareness of with my students; Eddie Chambers, Sonia Boyce, Zarina Bhimji, Sutapa Biswas, Rasheed Araeen, Adrian Piper, Coco Fusco, Ana Mendieta, Ingrid Pollard, Claudette Johnson, John Akromfrah, Frank Bowling, Lesley Sanderson, Mayling To, Erika Tan, Said Aldrus, Bhajan Hunjan, Lubiana Himid, Maud Saulter, Li Yuan-Chia, Shirin Neshat, Mona Hatoum, Amrita Sher Gill, Denzil Forrestor, Hurvin Anderson, Harold Offeh, Anish Kapoor, Sheela Gowda, Keith Piper, Kadar Attia, the RAQS Collective, the Harlem Renaissance, the 80’s Black Arts Movement, the Black Audio Collective, myself…  UAL has no reason to be SO white, there are many successful fine art practitioners that should be sharing their experiences of being an artist with students.


Sabri D. Students’ Experience of Identity and Attainment at UAL, Final year 4 report of a longitudinal study for the University of the Arts London (2017)

The Room of Silence

Hahn Tapper (2013) ‘A pedagogy of social justice education: social identity, theory and 

Join the Conversation


  1. Hello Raksha! I appreciate you highlighting the importance of SoN safe space crits, it really helped me whilst I was studying at UAL and this blog post has encourage me to go back to my own post on race and discuss my own sessions and how I will pass this down to other students. It was interesting that you considered your brown skin as giving you a privileged position when talking about race, I have kind of felt the opposite… that being a black woman means I am almost expected to always talk about race (even when it drains me). However, I agree that we should all be able to have these discussions respectfully in the classroom and not shy away from it. I really enjoyed the art references you have included especially Chris Ofili, his work should definitely be added to the arts curriculum at UAL.

    1. Hello Shannon! Thank you for commenting on my blog. I’m glad that you highlight how draining it can be for a person of colour to be talking about race, and the expectation to continue despite it being detrimental to our wellbeing. In the past four days I have had many discussions on the tragic events that are currently happening because of George Floyd’s death, I feel exhausted (and feel guilty to say that) as hundreds of people are out fighting for equality and justice. However, we must talk about how tiring it is for a person of colour to constantly have to talk about race, how this topic is exhausting because it’s about the skin that we are in and carry that carries the burden of a racist history. We must find ways to look after our well-being as POC tutors, but in addition to that our employers UAL must begin to understand the position that we are inane support us in different ways. I’m glad that you found the SoN safe space useful, its good to hear that from ex-students. When I was a student at CSM in the mid-90’s not only did we have a Black tutor but also a racially diverse range of students in my year, it was fantastic, however on my MA it was white and middle-classed and I would have really benefited from a SoN then as our crits were very biased, difficult and stressful arenas to be in.

      1. I can definitely agree that George Floyd’s death and the Black lives Matter uprising has been emotionally taxing, especially seeing all the death and violence on social media. Thankfully SoN create spaces for us to share and vent! Hopefully, you are well during this time and good luck with your submissions.

  2. Hi Raksha,

    I really enjoyed reading about how you reflect on your own experience of being a person of colour to support your students by encouraging dialogue about race in your classes. I also enjoyed talking to you personally about some of the challenges you face working in a predominately white male environment at UAL. Although you may be tired of having these conversations, as with this unit, dialogues like this are really useful for raising awareness of the issues around race that are still prevalent at UAL and other art colleges. It’s shocking to hear that very little has changed since you were an art student.

    1. Hi Gemma! It’s been great having discussions in person with you too. Its interesting that you also mention tiredness when talking about race. Shannon who wrote the previous comment says this too, and all of us need to look after our wellbeing as women, and as tutors, however we need to have these conversations, we need to keep talking and being open about our views on race. I believe that having open conversations allows change to take place.

  3. Hi Raksha,
    I hope you are keeping safe and well in these challenging times. I really enjoyed reading your post and the interesting visuals that you have added. I’ve been really struggling with parts of this course, with regards to how I can apply race/gender/faith etc into my teaching, so I’m quite envious when I read posts like yours to see how creative and interesting the true “Arts” courses can be! I teach the a very dry topic of business financials and excel, and I’m afraid I don’t naturally find a way to embed topics such as race into my teaching and discussions, but of course I chose this unit to really make me think about how I can. Looking at your visuals I am transported fluidly into different worlds where I can allow my imagination to drift and thoughts to process. I don’t find that happens with Excel!

    I appreciated your honesty and reflection on your feelings that “brown skin is a privilege in the classroom/studio where conversations on race are welcomed, especially when students of colour are present as there is an unspoken sense of solidarity”, and this makes me consider how my “middle class whiteness” will in some cases bring with it a lack of accessibility, friendliness and approachability. I consider how I can negate this, and how consideration and kindness doesn’t seem sufficient. I think about the fact that I have never had a person of colour teach me, ever. Not at Primary, Secondary, University. Not in my extra curricula activities of sport and music. In fact, this unit is the first time I have had a POC tutor. How can this be? This leads me to reflect on how few person of colour peers there are at the Fashion Business School, and therefore, unfortunately for most students, a middle aged white female tutor is all they have. This lack of representation is bound to have an effect on BAME students feeling of belonging, which in turn is bound to have an effect on their attainment. When will this change? How can I help? I reflect again on my learnings on this unit. Like you, I think that openness is the key, and what I have certainly learnt and am striving to action, is to be overtly aware and overtly considerate to each and every individual, whilst being conscious of my privileges.

  4. Hi Raksha, I enjoyed reading your blog post and I particularly like the way you highlighted the importance of the Safe Space Crits. It is concerning that in 2020, there is still a need for spaces that allow non-white students to express themselves creatively without fear of repercussions. I also feel the same as you with regards to my skin being a privilege in the sense that I feel very comfortable talking about race in a classroom setting and feel that I’m in a position to give a perspective to students that they wouldn’t ordinarily be privy to in an education system that is institutionally racist.

  5. In the current climate of protests circling racial debates around the world and specifically in UK universities it is so important to hear that teachers (yourself) speak about importance of taking into account their own position (race, gender, socio/economic background) and the importance of learning from theirs students. In the light of recent events it quickly became obvious that we are a society that still has so much to learn especially from the younger generations – as you say especially in the area of digital and social media around politics of race and gender. It is so important to find different ways (specific to the current teaching situation) of articulating the experience of teaching as one that exists between teachers and students rather than being passed onto students. As you say, knowledge is more than knowledge found in books but rather a knowledge that we gain from experiences as human beings. Considering our role as being a guide in this process rather than one that dictates and provides knowledge and how this approach to teaching can be empowering both for students and teachers. I am thinking how this connects to Frerian thought of ‘transforming rather than perpetuating the status quo’ which is essential in the process of realizing ones identity and freedom. And freedom and equality is something that we should all have!

  6. Hi Raksha ,

    Really good to hear your voice and to see your work really impressed by your painting i hope you are still painting . Yes we are waiting and also creating the time and spaces for race to be openly discussed with out some sort of affront . In the main students as the generations come through are really beginning to learn from one another in terms of race, ethnicity and culture ,if afforded the real opportunity. As we both know the bad Tutor and a bad curriculum can isolate and damage students of colour . The struggle is always there yet as we push and keep pushing things are beginning to open up slowly , not fast enough in my opinion but i am confident in all the work that we do that things are and will improve . I hope with the current tide of dialogue around race that this can be part of the driving force of change . Its strange as we see the crowds of 18-25 year olds standing in unity , it seems to be disrupted in the education environment and its the overbearing structures of curriculum and teaching practices that are really damaging .

    Again we are hear to change this . What do you think of the current atmosphere in regards to the response of the people world-wide ?

    1. Hi Andrew, hope all is well. Many thanks for your lovely comment on my painting, I am still painting and feel blessed to be still doing so. Regarding the current atmosphere of the covid, the lockdown and now the mass BLM demonstrations since the murder of George Floyd, I feel that things are slowly shifting, I sense that things might improve even if its small shift towards a lessening of racism and inequality. Its interesting that you asked me that, and I ask the same of you, what kind of a world do you feel we might be living in once all the dust settles?

      I write more about BLM in my Intervention / Artefact blog incase you would like to read it.

      1. Hi Raksha,
        in answer to your question , the type of world we will be living once the dust settles . I think there will be a more willingness to discuss more openly the issues around diversity and as we have already seen more people are willing to understand the complexities of the dialogue and willing to engage and amend themselves accordingly , institutions will have to fall in line and update themselves in relation to diversity , race and contemporary issues that seemed to be ‘difficult ‘ to talk about in the learning environment i imagine will be more open , direct and actions will be taken more efficiently. The hands have been forced and these subjects are on the table now not to be easily ignored and piecemeal responses , a lot more accountability will take place . I can see this coming from the students up…I will read your artefact

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