The figures on Black participation in geography higher education are stark. As identified by Vandana Desai in her 2017 Area paper, Black and BAME colleagues are chronically underrepresented at all levels.
The RACE working group are actively working to address these issues. Founded in 2015, the group is a collective of scholars and other interested people whose research focuses on issues of race, racial inequality, colonialism, decoloniality, whiteness and more. Their work foregrounds the silencing of racial oppression within the discipline of geography, explores its effects and promotes greater racial equality.
RACE forms a vitally important network for geographers of colour, including Black geographers, in the UK and beyond.
Dr Margaret Byron
Dr Margaret Bryon is the founding chair of the RGS-IBG Race, Culture and Equality Working Group (RACE). She has played a leading role in establishing the group and in steering it through its first few years and through an ambitious and much-needed programme of work. While RACE works collaboratively and collectively, Margaret has been key to the success of the group to date.
In 2016, Margaret was recognised by the Society for her contributions to teaching and learning in higher education with the Taylor and Francis Award. The citation for the award makes clear the extent of her impact in these areas, noting that:
"For two decades Margaret Byron has been a central figure in promoting diversity – especially ethnic diversity – within human geography. Today she is recognised by students and colleagues alike, for her role in ensuring issues around race and inequality have become more prevalent in teaching curricula; for showcasing teaching practices that both inspire and challenge students to approach issues of diversity; for her engagement with widening participation initiatives; and for her mentorship and extraordinary support for students and colleagues, especially junior colleagues."
It is that mentorship role and support for the next generation that sums up Margaret’s contributions to geography.
Margaret is Associate Professor in Human Geography at the University of Leicester, where she has been based since 2009. Her research focuses on post war migration from the Caribbean to Britain and Western Europe and the trajectories and experiences of this element of the Caribbbean diaspora.
What does geography mean to you?
To me geography explains where we are and by extension how and why we we got there. As a discipline it has enabled me to engage easily, fluently, with other adjacent and more distant disciplines, in the social and physical sciences.
What do you find the most rewarding about your research and/or teaching?
I have always found it easy to unearth human stories. I love talking with people and I find that the rich, historical geographies of their lives fascinating. I think that through this I can challenge dominant stories and undermine powerful but very partial perspectives in the discipline.
I love the energy that young people bring to the academy. I think that we can learn so much from them and that we also have a huge responsibility to teach them as much as we can. Observing young people graduate as confident, questioning citizens is very rewarding.
What are the challenges you have encountered?
I think that in the academy as in wider society, deeply entrenched prejudices become structures in their own right. Racism is a debilitating structure and its impact is everywhere. Daily micro-aggressions that Black and other minorities encounter reduce our experience of the world.
I think that critical human geographers will increasingly challenge partial histories which have structured all elements of our discipline. I think that there will always be geographers who will continue the struggle for justice.
Dr Margaret Byron
Dr James Esson
Dr James Esson is a member of the RGS-IBG Race, Culture and Equality Working Group (RACE), and has served as head of RACE’s Teaching and Learning sub-committee since 2016. In particular, he has led on the development and awarding of the group’s undergraduate dissertation prize, recognising the emerging work of new scholars.
Individually and with Angela Last, James has also published key interventions in the debates on the whiteness of the higher education geography curriculum, and on how to decolonise the curriculum. These built on events James co-organised on teaching race in geography. In 2020 James was awarded the Society’s Taylor and Francis Award, in recognition of these sustained contributions to teaching and learning in higher education, particularly through RACE.
With other members of RACE, James published a commentary on the 2017 RGS-IBG annual conference theme which has been highly influential in shaping debates around decolonising geography.
James is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Loughborough University. His research focuses on development, migration, and human trafficking.
We recently recorded a podcast with James, where you can hear from him about being this year's Taylor and Francis Award recipient, his work on the irregular migration of West African males to Europe through football-related human trafficking, and issues of race within British geography.
Dr Pat Noxolo
Dr Pat Noxolo is the first Black editor of the Society’s journal, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. She was appointed in 2019, and through her active role as part of the editorial team is helping to shape the future directions of both the journal and the discipline. In particular, Pat recently curated a series of papers around the theme of ‘Towards a Black British Geography’. These papers came from an event on the 'Urban roots of creative Black culture: gender, music, and the body', and showcase an emerging and distinctive Black British Geography.
Pat is a founding member of the Race, Culture and Equality Working Group (RACE), and has played a pivotal role in the development of the group. In collaboration with other members of RACE, she contributed to two highly influential series of papers in Transactions and in Area, in response to the 2017 RGS-IBG Annual Conference theme of ‘Decolonising geographical knowledges'. These challenged and interrogated the conference theme in the context of the whiteness of British geography. The Area special section, which Pat guest-edited, brought together intimate and data-driven perspectives to outline what a decolonial geography might look like.
An African-Caribbean Brummie who was born and brought up in Birmingham, Pat is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Birmingham, where she has been based since 2014. Pat’s research brings together the study of international development, culture and in/security, and uses postcolonial, discursive and literary approaches to explore the spatialities of a range of Caribbean and British cultural practices. In particular, her recent work has included exploring African-Caribbean dance as embodied mapping. Pat is also chair of the Society for Caribbean Studies.