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From left to right, Antonia Dawes, Ayo Mansaray and Rae-Anne Cohen in discussion ;

Exploring and understanding colourism, Black experiences, anti-racism and social justice

For Black History Month, researchers at the School of Education, Communication & Society reflected on their anti-racist work and how their values motivate their research. Dr Ayo Mansaray, Dr Antonia Dawes, Dr Aisha Phoenix and PhD student Rae-Anne Cohen discussed the methods that they use to conduct research in their field, the new Harold Moody Scholarship for students of Black and Caribbean heritage, and how their work can make an impact in society more broadly.

Rae-Anne Cohen, a Phd student based in the Centre for Public Policy Research, is researching the experience of Black students in elite universities in London, particularly their emotions and how they navigate a higher education system historically built on ‘whiteness’.

Rae-Anne’s research is underpinned by Black feminist thoughts, as she finds that “Black feminist thinkers give you a unique perspective that questions the dominant narrative.” She says it is thanks to this unique lens, that “I can shine a light on something that has been hidden or ignored – in my case, on the emotions that arise in Black students when having to deal with structures that are just starting to recognise their institutional racism.”

Rae-Anne is part of the first intake of the Harold Moody postgraduate research scholarship scheme, which King’s launched in 2021 and provides full funding for a four-year PhD to Black Home PGR students in arts, humanities and social sciences.

Rae-Anne’s principal supervisor, Dr Ayo Mansaray, is planning a new research project to understand the impact of the Harold Moody Scholarship, along with other similar schemes in other UK universities, on addressing the low numbers of Black academics. “These new schemes, by contributing to tackle racial injustices, are trying to address the pipeline issue when it comes to the proportion of ethnic minority lecturers in academia,” Ayo said. “I will be exploring how students on the schemes experience them, and question what we can expect to change from schemes like this.”

Ayo, who is Lecturer in Sociology of Education & Policy, has recently completed a project looking at race and health education, in collaboration with the King’s Medical School. The project identified the factors that often lead to more negative outcomes for Black students, including institutional factors and work culture, but also issues linked to their access to network, to financial resourcing, and the development of their ‘cultural capital’. ‘Cultural capital’ is a notion developed by French sociologist and intellectual Pierre Bourdieu, whose work Ayo has found instrumental to unpack the systematic nature of racialised inequalities – even though Bourdieu himself never studied race.

For Dr Antonia Dawes, Lecturer in Social Justice, “anti-racist work” to make an impact on society and lead to a better world is at the core of all her research. “I see my work as anti-racist work, part of a collective endeavour,” she explains.

While she’s conducted ethnographic studies, both in multi-ethnic street markets in Naples and of the military presence on Salisbury plain, she is “an uncomfortable ethnographer” due to the historic ties of the discipline with the colonial era. “As ethnographers, we have to reflect on our stance and use this methodology instead as a way to speak back to power, by surfacing counter-narratives,” she says.

The methodology of choice for Dr Aisha Phoenix, also Lecturer in Social Justice, is intersectionality, as “it encourages a focus on how people’s characteristics, such as ethnicity, gender and religion, work together to advantage or disadvantage them.”

In May 2022, Aisha was awarded a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship to understand colourism among young people in the UK. Conducting the study in secondary schools, she and her research team will explore how gender affects experiences of colourism, considering how dark and light skin are viewed differently on men and women. They will also examine how experiences of colourism vary between people of different ethnicities, and how characteristics such as skin shade, hair and facial features, racialisation and gender work together to affect the degree of discrimination people of colour face.

Taking an intersectional approach will also allow us to explore how different characteristics affect the ways in which people of colour and white people perpetuate colourism. The insights gained from our intersectional approach will help us consider the crucial question of how to address colourism in the UK.– Dr Aisha Phoenix

Through their research, each is working to address societal issues that, while talked about particularly during Black History Month, affect people of colour throughout the year and need to be explored, understood and challenged, if we are to build a better, stronger, more equal society.

In this story

Rae-Anne Cohen

Rae-Anne Cohen

PhD Candidate

Antonia Dawes

Antonia Dawes

Lecturer in Social Justice

Aisha Phoenix

Aisha Phoenix

Lecturer in Social Justice

Ayo Mansaray

Ayo Mansaray

Lecturer in Sociology of Education & Policy

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