Black History Month, Black Women White Uni?, Interview, Projects and Campaigns

Black Women, White Uni? interviews Dr. Stephani Hatch

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[This interview was conducted by Shruti Iyer (SI), Surya Elango (SE), with Stephani Hatch (SH).]

SI: Hi, I’m Shruti, I’m President of the KCL Intersectional Feminist Society, and I’m with Surya, President of KCL Radio and we are speaking with Dr Stephani Hatch, who is a Senior Lecturer at the IOP….and yeah, hi!

[laughs]

SH: Hi!

SE: So Stephani, we’ve come all the way to Denmark Hill to visit you, and yeah, I was just wondering if you could tell us a little bit about you.

SH: So my background is medical sociology and psychiatric epidemiology, and so I combine those two things working on health inequalities, primarily in common mental health disorders, so depression and anxiety, here in my Department. The Department also focuses a lot on the interface between mental and physical health, so it’s always something that we have in mind, how those two things, the interrelationship between the two. So I look at the social determinants and social consequences of poor mental health right over the life course but my work primarily, right now, is focused on the South-East London Community Health Study (SELCoH), which I’m one of the P.I.’s on the study and we have now followed up a group of randomly selected residents of Southwark and Lambeth for the third time. So we’ve got quite a rich dataset, it has been called the largest urban health community study in the country ––

SI: Wow.

SH:  – it is an incredible resource, in which we try to understand the needs of the population and to inform services. So we’re very focused not only on that, but also understanding social inequalities. So I started the Health Inequalities Research Network (HERON) back in 2010, with a group of colleagues, and we’ve been using that to engage with the community. So the work that we do, the research that we do, we’re very focused on reciprocity. So we don’t like to just take information from people, we sort of actually have a dialogue with them and include service-users, service-providers, activists, advocates in the community to be a part of a larger dialogue on social inequalities and health inequalities, focusing on the things we can do. We work with community organisations and local schools, and we also take our research findings back out into the community. So we had something after our first wave of SELCoH, which we are now in the third wave of,  we had a library roadshow. So we just went around to libraries and public book spaces in Southwark and Lambeth and presented our research findings in a way that is accessible to the public. So that’s, you know, little things like that – not just sending newsletters but actually going back out and telling people what we’ve found and talking to them about their experiences with health and with their social circumstances.

SI: That’s quite relevant to feminist concerns as well – bridging academia and activism, making research accessible to the public. That’s great.

SH: Yeah, that’s something really important to me, because my work, my life and research began when I was a student, and I’ve always been focused on social issues so the very first research project I worked on as an undergraduate was on domestic violence. But it wasn’t women as victims of domestic violence, but men, and so it really looked at that. For some background, my first degree was in psychology, and then I moved into sociology because I like the marriage of those two things.

SI: Yeah! I was actually in a lecture about that this morning, about Durkheim –

SH: Yes! Yes!

SI: – and the oppositionality between philosophy and psychology, and sociology was meant to bridge those things.

**

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SI: So how did you get interested in issues around race and gender? And how do they inform the work that you do at King’s right now?

SH: I think, for me, it was really started out as my lived experience. Yeah, I grew up in a very ethnically and racially diverse area of Atlanta, Georgia, and there’s a lot of segregation, still, residential, and in education in the US. But I went to a performing arts school, so it drew in people from all different areas. And so I left there and went to study psychology at Indiana University, in Bloomington, Indiana. And it was as big of a culture shock as you can imagine. It really – I think being a student in that situation and a minority to an extreme that I had not experienced. Even growing up in the South, I had certainly experienced being the only black student in certain situations, but I think it was at a university that had somewhere between 35-40,000 students and I was still sitting in lectures of 500 students and there were four of us who were not white. So the experiences I had sort of brought me to really think about how this had an impact on my educational attainment early on because of the interactions I would have with the instructors on the courses and the lecturers, and students. And then dorm life was challenging. To give you some context, Bloomington sits about an hour south of Indianapolis which is the largest city. And once you leave the campus area and the town, it’s pretty much cornfields for as far as you can see. [laughs]  So this is very rural, but it’s still a very large university. So there were many many challenges. But the one thing that I did have access to was a lot of support. So to give you an example: I remember my first day in the dorm, and I was approached by four white female students who wanted to interact with me because they say they’d never seen a black person in real life.

SI: Oh my god.

SH: Yeaaah. [laughs] So that was 1989. [laughs again] So I was a bit shocked; and those types of interactions continued through the course of my first year, there were many times that I wanted to go home but I luckily made the decision to go and seek the support that was available. There were black student union groups to support BME students and to help us get through and to provide a place to have open discussions. And so they also, you know, being at the intersection of race and gender, we also focused a lot on those issues and as well as other, what I now call, occupying all these different statuses that in some way can be considered disadvantaged. In terms of inequality. So occupying multiple statuses, and that intersection, that’s what drew me into this area and in many ways, moved me from psychology to sociology. Sociology was my minor at the time and I just thought that sociology would be a great route to be able to look at mental health. Because there’s a strong tradition in the US around the sociology of mental health, in particular. And so I thought it was a great way to explore these issues. And I was lucky throughout my time at university and later on, in graduate school, when I was getting my Masters degree and my PhD, to be exposed to black feminist theorists. One in particular, Patricia Hill Collins had a tremendous influence on my thinking and focus on the end-point for me which was to pursue education as far as I thought I needed to end up in the kind of occupation that is fulfilling to me. And as I was saying [off air], I enjoy coming to work everyday. I get to look at, study, examine things that are really close to my heart; but also I feel that I have the potential to make an impact and make things a little bit better for my community. Or at least open a dialogue about how to make things better for my community. Because I live here in Peckham, so, it’s something very personal to me in some ways.

SE: You mentioned about your first day at university, with these four girls approaching you, and throughout the year. I just wanted to know about your experiences of racism, in the US and the UK. When you arrived in the UK, was it different? Do you think that it was about the place that you’re from or more the time?

SH: I think – I’ve been thinking about this, and writing about this, and reflecting on this experience recently. Because I think I’ve now been in the UK for a little over nine years; and having grown up in the South of the United States, I think my tolerance level is higher than most.

[All laugh]

SH: So it’s difficult to say. You know, everyone carries their social and historical context with them across their lifecourse. So I think that the way I experience the South in the US, even now, going back, I have a level of hyper-vigilance that I don’t have here in the UK. So when I land in Atlanta to visit my family, I can feel my blood pressure go up. And my expectation, or anticipation, of discrimination in a way I do not experience here. I moved here from New York City, I was doing a post-doc at Columbia University, and even there, the difference between New York and being in the South is very different. But again, the issue for me when I moved here was that it was different. It was not as overt on a day-to-day basis. So that’s where it became problematic for me, when I realised that my expectations for experiencing that had gotten so low that when it does happen, it feels more upsetting in a way. Because I’m not prepared for it. I don’t have that level of hyper-vigilance that I do when I’m in the US. Because it is, when I’m in the US, it is a day-to-day, it’s something about the day-to-day interactions and in a more overt way. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen to me here. But, though, I think it’s something qualitatively different. So in this setting, I noticed immediately, even around discussing race and ethnicity, there was this preference to not use the word race. And I’m seeing that change over time. And for me, it’s been important that everytime I engage with someone about it, that I point out that race is actually different from ethnicity. That, with race we are talking about a phenotype, a skin colour. These things are interrelated, but there’s something that can be said differently about the two concepts. I’ve come across a lot of things. To give you an example, in my work I discuss discrimination and it’s impact on mental health. When I’m in the US, and I’m talking about discrimination, it doesn’t always get pigeonholed into just being about race. Here, I find, when I bring it up, there’s this expectation that it is just going to be about just race and ethnicity. But I like to remind people in both contexts that there’s gender discrimination, age discrimination, based on social class, all sorts of different statuses, and it’s important to open that up and allow people to talk about what they’re experiencing. It has such a strong deleterious effect on mental health in particular.

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SI: I was going to ask – but I think you’ve half-answered my question already about how is it that race and gender affect the quality of mental health provision? I know this is an issue for Black students at university; going to counsellors and therapists and dismissing your experiences of racism and sexism as hypersensitivity. Do you see this as an issue that affects mental health services and care provision?

SH: I’m disappointed to hear that, because I think there’s enough evidence out there looking at things cross-sectionally and longitudinally. So we know that there’s a long-term impact, and we can also see that relationship in a snapshot picture. The evidence is clear. There is a very strong relationship between discrimination and mental health; and there is some evidence that it also will affect people’s help-seeking. So to hear that, we’ve now in SELCoH, we have asked for experiences of discrimination in health services as well as anticipated discrimination. Because it’s important to think about these domains. What you’re describing to me, I would describe as unfair treatment. Or the denial that these things happen, or that we’re hypersensitive, is unhelpful. Because at the end of the day, we have a stress response to being in that situation. It is not beneficial for our health.

SE: So you mentioned earlier that you’ve done a lot of on-the-ground work with people in Lambeth and Southwark, and obviously, you’ve talked about feeling strongly about these issues. Have you done work in the KCL sphere when it comes to race and gender inequalities?

SH: That’s a very good question, and a timely one. As of last year, I took on the role of Co-Chair of the BME Network, and it was perfect timing because the Equalities Challenge Unit put out a call for a pilot to be done around the Race Equality Chartermark. So King’s is one of the 30 institutions that is going for a Bronze Award. We’re working very hard this year to put that together. And what it’s done is that it’s raised awareness around these issues. This is something that’s been at the forefront of my mind the entire time I’ve been here; but now I feel that we have a structure and support, from students as well as senior staff, to move forward on this. So we can hopefully change the culture in higher education. We’re focusing on students, professional services, and academic staff. So we’re really trying to think institution-wide, and what needs to be done. So I’m a member of the Self-Assessment Team that’s been chaired by Chris Mottershead, and I think we have a real opportunity here. So I’m very charged up. Like, I’m ready to go. This is for me – I know that sounded very American ––

[All laugh]

SE: No! That was great, I loved it so much –

SH: I really feel like this is an opportunity. And I’ve been very vocal in the past about how I’ve watched Athena SWAN develop, I think it’s a very important initiative, but I can say that at least here amongst my colleagues at the IOPPN, when we have sat in meetings around Athena SWAN, many times it has been raised, “well, what are you doing about ethnicity?” As well as the intersection. Because we have a situation where we could see this ––

SE: Just very quickly, for myself and for people who will be listening, what is Athena SWAN?

SI: So I understood it as an initiative for gender equality in STEM, right?

SH: Yes.

SI: So STEM being science, technology –

SE: Engineering.

SI: Engineering and maths.

SH: So that’s basically its focus. Whereas the Race Equality Chartermark is not just focused on STEM. It’s across the board. So we will be looking King’s wide and putting in a joint application from King’s. Whereas Athena SWAN is very focused on the STEM departments.

SI: Yeah, although I do think they are expanding it to the Social Sciences.

SH: Yes.

SI: Because we interviewed somebody yesterday that talked about that.

SH: I’ve been working more on the Race Equality Chartermark side, and in that work, just trying to bring in some of the issues that have been raised in Athena SWAN. Because we can’t be talking cross-purposes. These are shared issues.

SE: And often do you guys meet, how does that work?

SH: We have several different levels of meetings. The one that is focused more on putting together our application for the Race Equality Chartermark, that meets quarterly, and we’ve broken up into separate teams. So we have self-assessment teams that meet, but in the meantime, we also have the BME Staff Network that meets regularly.

SI: So does that include all BME staff at King’s, or only the ones that sign up?

SH: Well, anyone who wants to come along is welcome. We try very hard to make sure we get together and talk about it, and allow people to come along. But I do have to say, some people are hesitant to do so.

SE: Why do you think that is?

SH: I think that for some of them, what I’ve heard, is that they don’t feel comfortable letting their colleagues know that they’re going to a meeting specifically about being a BME staff member and those challenges. In some cases, there’s not a lot of open dialogue between line-managers and staff about these issues.

SI: Also, drawing attention to your race.

SH: Yes, yes. So some people feel, yes, that that is unnecessary and they don’t want to do that. Because they can’t see that that has had an impact on their experience.

SI: Can you tell us a little more about your work with the Race Equality Chartermark? What kind of tangible things are you looking at? Both for students and staff? And what do you think about the levels of representation right now – are they sufficient?

SH: Ah, I see, you’re pinning me down on this.

[All laugh]

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SH: So I can tell you two of the things that I think are really important. One, for students, around BME student attainment. So that is a huge issue, and also within that, is around curriculum. With a representation of different perspectives in curriculum. Those are two things that need to be looked at. So when I was talking before, about my experience of having support as a minority student in a predominantly white academic institution in the US, that to me plays a big part in making sure that people not only finish university, but finish with a result that matches their ability. That level of support is extremely important. I didn’t just have that support through my undergraduate, but all the way through, through mentorship, and student unions.

SI: Is this an initiative you want to bring to King’s?

SH: I think it would be a good one. I think right now they’re looking at multiple ways. It’s a question of scoping what’s going on, and talking to the students. They’re running several focus groups to get a better sense of the students’ experiences and what they would want. And I think that dialogue is incredibly important. In terms of staff, we’re looking at a number of things. But the headlines are around promotion and the unpacking the reason why we’re not seeing senior BME staff both in professional services and in academics.

SI: About levels of representation? Do you think it’s adequate?

SH: I attended an event at UCL, entitled “Why Isn’t My Professor Black?” There’s a podcast of it worth looking at. They did a really nice short film with students where they asked the students, who potentially had shown in academics, why they would or would not want to continue down that road ––

SE: What kind of reasons did they have?

SH: They saw a lack of representation of people who look like them. So I shared this quite openly: there are two things in my experience that have happened to me here. One, I’ve lost count of the number of times a BME student has come up to me after a lecture, just one-on-one and said, “I’ve never had a black lecturer before, and this is really important to me.”

SE: I wanted to take a Comparative Literature module just because the guy who teaches it is brown.

SI: You might know Ben Bowling, my Criminology professor?

SH: Yes!

SI: First black professor I’ve ever had teach me. One Indian lecturer taught me last year, and she was fantastic too. But just the sense that I had when I was in that class, such a deeper connection to what I was learning. Because even though you’re still being peddled a Eurocentric syllabus, there’s much more the sense that “they get it.”

SE: What does that mean?

SI: If I were to put my hand up and say something, like, “I think race is relevant here,” I wouldn’t be dismissed. Just knowing that is really powerful.

SH: Right.

SE: Do you feel like that you would be dismissed by a white professor?

SI: No. But I don’t think – well. They’d get uncomfortable.

[murmurs of assent]

SI: They’d try deal with bringing up race or colonisation intellectually, rather than emotionally. Like, they’d address it and move on. But usually with a BME professor, they would probably say, “yes, that’s true,” and give you a moment. That’s really powerful.

SE: Stephani, would you agree with that?

SH: Yes. Well, I don’t know if I can speak to all non-BME lecturers on how they treat the topic in their classroom. But I can say that for me, I do give time to it. It is so often absent in discussion; and in the classroom setting people should bring in all different sorts of experiences, and we should have open and honest conversations about it. And recognising the emotion around it. I think it’s important. An important part of the dialogue. As important as bringing in gender issues that we’re very attuned to now.

SE: That’s very interesting. I’m just reflecting on a class I took last year, a module on the British Empire. Seen from a very British perspective.

SI: I think it’s interesting that you’re trying to expand the curriculum. Honestly, I’m taking a module this year because Frantz Fanon is on the reading list. Any engagement that I had with black feminist or African-Caribbean theory has been outside the classroom.

SH: The numbers do speak for themselves. They were quoting numbers of all the professors in this country – somewhere around 80 black professors in all the UK and only 15 are black women. I’m not sure what the base rate is, but it’s quite small. It was just astonishing to me when I arrived here. I got my PhD at a large state university in the US, similar size to what I was describing at my undergraduate. Just in two departments within a whole behavioural and social science school, I had about ten black female professors to choose from for mentorship. The year I graduated with my PhD, there were four black women who graduated with PhDs in mathematics. So there are some issues that need to be addressed.

SE: Do you sometimes feel like – you know, Guy’s Campus, people say it’s a predominantly coloured campus ––

SI: Yeah, but it’s mostly just Indians, isn’t it ––

SE: Yeah, but do you feel like – I feel like if I had brought that up and said, “oh, there’s not many coloured people on my history course”, I’d be challenged by medics and scientists telling me that “actually, no, our campus is packed with not just Indians, but actually quite a few black people.” That’s what they feel like.

SI: I think the issue is attainment though?

SH: Yes, that’s exactly it.

SI: People are going to university because the government’s tried to make that accessible, but it’s the attainment after they go. And that so many don’t pursue academia as it’s such a hostile environment.

SH: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s about attainment, and then we see the numbers drop as you go into postgraduate studies, at the Master’s and PhD level. Those are the issues. That’s just the starting point. So we see the numbers drop in postgrad, and then we’ve got a number going into academia – a smaller number, because I think a lot of people feel discouraged by what they see as they’re coming through – and then, we’ve got a problem. Because when you talk about the social construction of knowledge, and who is represented in that, you have to think about who’s contributing to that. It becomes a problem when you don’t have that representation. I feel like my work experience and the learning experience both of myself, my colleagues, and the students around us would be enriched by having a more diverse academic and staff population. Well, I think it’s important to remember, you know, the one thing I keep coming back to is the social construction of knowledge. Whose voice is being heard in that, whose voice is being represented. So the things that you’re learning, or even take that away, the things that you’re thinking, and the things that you want to put out there, and you want your voice heard, and we do it through publications of several types, it’s a problem if we’re not getting that full representation.

SE: Do you think maybe, let’s say in academia, the very few BME people who do go into further education after university, do you feel that they want to disassociate themselves from being labelled as BME? Let’s say even BME women, do you feel that they’d rather not – you know what I mean, even in a corporate world, people don’t want to associate with that because if anything, they think it might hold them back.

SI: Yes, like a type of colourblindness.

SH: Yes, and I think that’s a dangerous way to think. I think that they do. I’ve had several colleagues say that they don’t want to be identified in that way, they don’t want people to think that they’ve gotten where they’ve gotten to because of their skin colour.

SE: Why do you think it’s important that we should identify as that?

SH: I think it’s important because – again, because I feel that it’s disingenuous to say that it doesn’t matter and has not had any impact on how I think, how I behave, how I go about my job and you know, interact with other people. I think that’s disingenuous. I think we can get beyond it –but pretending as though it doesn’t exist is not the same as moving beyond it.

SE: I know we talked about this earlier, but we were off-air then, so I’ll ask again – what do you think of the photos outside of King’s College London at the moment? I know you don’t have them here at Denmark Hill, and they’re different here – but what do you think of the pictures of all the old alumni, and has it ever come across your mind that there aren’t any well, BME women on there?

SH: Yes, I think, yeah, it has crossed my mind. I think I’m always, especially as a sociologist, as we move around the world, I’m fascinated by the way – the images people display, the way people interact –

SE: So we’re obviously trying to challenge that with our campaign. If, suppose, next year King’s decides, “oh, they’ve got a point,” and they try to put up more photos of BME women –

SI: – would that be tokenising the issue?

SE: And also, as a sociologist and someone’s who’s studied psychology and the impact of these kinds of things, what kind of impact do you think that would have on students? Would it just be an impact on young BME women who are students at King’s or would it just be strong role models for them or play on the minds of everybody else? The average white man, basically.

[All laugh]

SH: Can you repeat the question?

SE: It was a long question, yeah.

SH: I think in many ways you’ve answered yourselves! I think it’s not for me to be concerned about what – I would hope that they are accurately representing the contributions of people from all ethnic backgrounds outside of King’s. I think as a world university, we have a diverse population that we need to think, and we are thinking about the impact that we have in terms of how we, in these images, that we present to the outside world. Yes, we should be proud of the people who have made these contributions, but it’s important to look beyond that and think about how we might –

SE: I think especially in a world that’s dominated now by Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter – images are so important.

SI: I think also, in some sense, it’s not even about having a role model but like you said earlier: whose voices are heard? And it’s not as though illustrious BME women haven’t gone to King’s, but their histories are probably buried. Nobody knows who they are or where they came from. I mean, for this project, we really did try to root up old alumni and it’s been impossible as the Alumni Office just doesn’t have any record of it as they don’t categorise alumni on the basis of ethnicity, and we couldn’t contact them directly for legal reasons, and we didn’t have access to the Archives until recently – lots of bureaucratic red tape. But even if we were to engage in that process constructively – if we were doing this full-time – it would be so difficult to do. Those histories are so hard to find.

SE: When you did do that research, they said they don’t categorise BME alumni? Do they categorise them in other ways?

SI: No, so, they just have the database and if we know a specific person they can contact them on our behalf and mediate for us. But obviously, if you don’t know who they are, how do you begin? It’s kind of circular. You don’t know who they are, so you can’t find them; you can’t find them, so you don’t know who they are.

SH: So it’s difficult looking back, but I think we can look forward and figure out a way.

SI: Yeah, this is why we’re interviewing staff, because I don’t know that many BME women teaching –

SE: And I’m so glad that we are interviewing staff as opposed to alumni. I’ve learned so much, just in the last few days, about what’s happening.

[All laugh]

SH: Good!

SE: I really wasn’t aware this was happening. In fact, I was so kind of naive; I only thought about students at King’s, I just totally forgot that there was a whole other population here, the staff. You do so much work that is amazing.

SI: Also such interesting work!

SE: Kind of off-topic, but last year we read the student newspaper, Roar!, and they did an entire issue on mental health.

SI: They got nominated, actually, for two Mind awards –

SE: And something like 13% of students at university UK-wide had considered suicide.

SI: They also talked about racism in the counselling service.

SE: Yeah, this is so relevant to the work that you do with mental health.

SH: I also think it’s great that your organisation is doing work around and talking about intersectionality – as it’s something we’re very focused on and our students work towards a better understanding of it. It’s nice that you have a space where BME women can come together and have a dialogue about this and do work around this.

SE: And one piece of advice for intersectional feminists, or just anyone listening to this?

SH: I could definitely go for the more – ah, well, keep moving forward. Always hold your head up. And, I’m trying to put this in the context of: there’s something my father always told me, growing up in the South, it was: don’t make it easy for them.

SI: Yeahhhh! Oh my god! That’s amazing! I think I’m going to cry!

SE: I’m feeling quite teary.

SI: Seriously! What a revolutionary spirit!

SE: I’m going to put that in the interview. But no, thank you very much – yeah, we’ve learned so much. It’s very inspiring.

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