Trying to Escape? The Paradox of Exclusion
Contemporary academia is often positioned as progressive and inclusive with government and institutional policy espousing the benefits of a ‘diverse’ academic labour force. As young women, most of us the first in our families to attend a higher education institution let alone work in it, we may be seen as ‘Top Girls’ (McRobbie 2008): symbols of meritocracy and gender equality. Yet, as evidenced at the beginning of this chapter, there are endemic patterns of inequality across the sector. Whilst these injustices clearly exist, they are all too often silenced. Rather, a focus is placed on the fact that, whilst we may be in the minority, we are still here: we have ‘arrived’. Even as institutions flaunt their commitments to equality, we are told to pipe down. Consequently, and as discussed above, there is little space for our experiences of marginalisation to be spoken beyond personal emails or hushed conversations at conferences. Even writing this chapter can feel like an indulgent act.
Talking about feelings of exclusion and injustice makes those in power feel uncomfortable. Yet paradoxically, through our classed, gendered and raced bodies, some of us find our ‘difference’ being used by our institutions as a token, symbolic of ‘progress’. We may have ‘made it’ in the academy, but we often feel that we must change, or at least be grateful for the opportunity we have been given. Indeed, the appearance of ‘nontraditional’ subjects in higher education—as students and academics—is often celebrated as a symbol of meritocracy and ticket to upward social mobility. Such discourses painfully inscribe higher education as being a process of escaping one’s working-class roots and become ‘middle class’ in a pursuit of self-betterment (Loveday 2014; Reay et al. 2009). We are not allowed to remain too working-class or too black. Rather we must adapt to ‘fit in’. Many of us have felt such pressures in subtle and everyday practices of hostility—where our accents or style of dress raise eyebrows among colleagues. These painful processes generate feelings of anger, self-doubt and insecurity (Addison and Mountford 2015; Reay 2000; Skeggs 1997).
We are part of the game but we do not want to play by its rules. We suffer from a ‘divided habitus’ (Reay et al. 2009): internally we are conflicted. At times there is an overwhelming feeling that we just want to get out—to exclude ourselves from that which we are already excluded (Bourdieu
1984). Despite these feelings of frustration and discomfort, we feel a responsibility to ‘stay put’: to represent those who are not as privileged as us and enforce change from the inside.