Migrant ethnic minority women in academia during the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racism [Sociology Lecturer Saba Hussain with Nazia Hussein]

Migrant ethnic minority women in academia during the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racism [Sociology Lecturer Saba Hussain with Nazia Hussein]

Originally published in Transforming Society, July 31 2020 http://www.transformingsociety.co.uk/2020/07/31/migrant-ethnic-minority-women-in-academia-during-the-twin-pandemics-of-covid-19-and-racism/

In the last few months of the global pandemic and associated lockdown, we have had several conversations with ethnic minority women academics about how we were managing work and family both within and beyond local and national borders.

Following the murder of George Floyd and of the countless others whose names have been forgotten, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement made us recognise the trauma experienced by ethnic minority people in our personal and professional spaces. It made us reflect on how we as ethnic minority women may have internalised the consequences of gendered racism in higher education (HE).

While we use the term ‘ethnic minority women’ expansively, we are writing from our specific location as diasporic South Asian women, immigrants and mothers with ‘stable’ jobs in academia. With a mission to change structural inequalities within HE, we take many seats in Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), decolonisation, Athena SWAN and widening participation committees where the conversations have turned sombre. All this while also striving to meet the demands of excellence in teaching and research, particularly as migrant ethnic minority academics trying constantly to prove that we belong here. We transitioned to online teaching almost overnight while managing the gendered burden of childcare and home-schooling. As migrants, however, we found ourselves drawn simultaneously into transnational care chains. Organising groceries and medication for elderly parents in different parts of the world became part of our everyday ‘chores’ while being ‘locked’ out from our already depleted social support networks here in the UK.

In our conversations, ‘I’m exhausted’ became a marker of our shared gendered and racialised struggles across life and work. As Emejulu and Bassel suggest, this exhaustion operates quite literally as a structure of mutual recognition of the disproportionate degree of emotional labour ethnic minority women must endure. Looking at transnational and institutional emotional labour through the lens of ‘the politics of exhaustion’ disrupts the idea that upwardly mobile women of colour experience a semblance of equality. On the contrary, as this article highlights, our transnational, gendered and racialised lives are structured in ways that require us to constantly carry out a multitude of emotional labours. Viewed in this way, the equality agenda in HE is powered by ethnic minority women’s unpaid work and hence is compromised or even detrimental to our collective interests. As HE institutions take stock of questions of diversity, equality and wellbeing in the current moment, we argue for the gendered and racialised politics of exhaustion to be recognised. Provisions of affordable/ subsidised childcare on campus during emergencies like the current pandemic, or financial support towards childcare and taking stock of care responsibilities in scheduling teaching will be a welcome first step for all HE institutions. Responsibilities of ‘diversity’ work should be suitably compensated or included in workload models to reflect the true extent of workload. The unfair Home Office regulations around overseas fieldwork or extended time spend outside UK create further layers of precarity for transnational workers, which must be challenged by HEIs through financial and institutional support and via demands for fairer and more consistent treatment of migrant academics from the Home Office.

Ethnic minority women as transnational carers

Women’s time is fragmented into housework, childcare, kin work, keeping family and community ties and more recently paid work. We do not have the luxury of having control over our time, at least not without being shamed and condemned for being selfish. As Thompson points out, in times of crisis, such ‘undervalued’ feminine emotional and care work intensifies without any support for women to sustain their health and wellbeing. Particularly for migrant ethnic minority women, the burden of transnational care, in addition to household and community care, can escalate stress and add additional hours of unpaid emotional labour. For us there is a sense of moral responsibility for ageing parents left in our countries of origin along with the anxiety of not being with elderly parents who are at higher risk of getting infected, and a desire not to be cast away as a ‘bad daughter’. Such caring responsibilities call for hours spent gathering information (or being frustrated by the lack of it) about parents’ health, overseas lockdown measures etc. These persistent informational lacunae in a time of informational overload and constant connectivity can trigger emotional and psychological exhaustion which is only recognised by other migrant ethnic minority women. Within the UK, the government’s lack of explanation for the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BAME communities creates a sense that the lives of ethnic minority people are seen as ‘disposable’. Many women, including us South Asians, take on the burden of community care through helping local families with ethnicity-specific funeral rituals, housing at-risk relatives of NHS workers, cooking food to distribute in the community etc. The mobilisation of mutual and emotional support in the community by women is not just an act of solidarity and community building for us in the UK, but it is a way of reinforcing the message that black lives matter.

Ethnic minority women as emotional labourers in white institutional spaces

Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) in 2018/2019 reveals that out of  21,520 people (10% of HE) employed as professors only 140 identified as Black, equating to 0.7%. Nearly 18,000 or 85% identified as white, 1,360 as Asian. Notably, among academic staff with known nationality, 18%, or 38,080, had an EU (excluding the UK) nationality, and 14% had a non-EU nationality (HESA 2020, Guardian, 27th Feb 2020). This study has also shown that male professors continue to outnumber females by three to one, or 15,700 to 5,700 in 2018-19. In sociological terms, gender, race and immigration status form an important intersection of marginality in UK academia.

Recent news of redundancies at Goldsmiths, University of London reveals that the vast majority of the fixed-term and precariously employed academics made redundant were non-white. Knowing these statistics, ethnic minority women often enter their jobs with a sense of gratitude for the privilege. Once in the academy, they often find themselves becoming representatives of the university’s commitment to diversity, even equality. What follows is the added emotional labour of constantly explaining institutional racism through the painful process of reliving past experiences, and to appear ‘colour’ neutral and objective in the face of experiences of gender and race discrimination and microaggressions. The ideological and discursive construction of people of colour as overly emotional, overly focused on race, too sensitive, etc., means that within the institution our resistance to racist organisational structures or the flagging of racist incidents is countered before it occurs. This becomes a paradox for us: if we respond to our marginalisation in the institutional setting with normal human emotions – anger, frustration, sadness, despair – we reify the white racial framing of ourselves as overly emotional or emotionally ‘deviant’ (Evans and Moore, 2015). Other invisible forms of emotional labour, particularly acute in social sciences, include teaching and researching often painful histories of colonisation, disposition, dislocation and surveillance in our native countries which metamorphose into contemporary forms of gendered and racialised emotional exhaustion.

In our 10 years in UK academia, both in precarious roles and now in ‘permanent’ roles, we have heard ethnic minority women share their stories of institutional racism, gaslighting, disproportionate expectations of excellence, microaggressions, race and gender responses from students in teaching reviews, and so on. For migrant workers there is the added invisible emotional and financial cost of renewing our visas and work permits every few years. We find that while working in universities represents a formidable path to upward social mobility, participation in white institutional spaces requires particular forms of emotional labour from us. This stems from the stark contradiction between our racialised experiences in these institutions, on the one hand, and the dominant discourse that minimises and delegitimises our experiences on the other (Evans and Moore, 2015).

Moving forward

In recent weeks, higher education institutions which had until now ignored their ethnic minority staff and students’ demands for equal access to opportunities are all of a sudden pledging support to the BLM movement and reviewing racial policies, processes and branding which their ethnic minority members have been flagging for years. At the same time, many are discontinuing fixed-term contracts which are mostly held by ethnic minority men and women. This article is a declaration of our fear, anxiety, exclusion, isolation, fatigue, despair, and disbelief during this time of dual crisis. We want to flag the dynamics of individual and structural exhaustion and the perils we face in our attempts to enact public and private caring roles. We feel that it is important to identify the costs of our transnational and professional emotional labour and the price ethnic minority women are paying for a ‘compromised diversity’.

Nazia Hussein is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Bristol. Saba Hussain is Lecturer in Sociology at Coventry University.

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