Re-imagining Higher Education: What of Joy?

By Natasha Mutch-Vidal, Senior EDI Officer (Race Equality)


For black people and people of colour, teaching and education is a political act rooted in antiracist struggle[1]. Our ancestors risked death finding ways to communicate while our knowledge and history was strategically erased. Our survival has been dependant on our ability to pass down knowledge. Radical Black feminist bell hooks teaches us that to desire and seek knowledge is a form of resistance to White racist colonization[2]. In this vein, universities as institutions based on knowledge exchange should be beacons of hope and liberation. They should be the birthplace of joy, new ways of being and accessible to all. Existing within academia should equal an opportunity to transgress by re-imagining new possibilities because education is freedom. Yet, we are too aware of the awarding gap our students of colour face and the underrepresentation of people of colour in senior spaces within the academy and throughout education institutions from schools to universities – so what’s going wrong?


Our current educational experience and its structures require obedience and reinforce domination. Peter Fleming argues universities have always had hierarchies but ‘today they adopt a specific tone, a barely masked antipathy that shuns discussion and open dialogue.[3] They prevent change, imagination and creativity because we have become metrics obsessed, benchmarking driven and output focused.  ‘Benchmarking only generates unthinking isomorphism or copying other universities for its own sake.[4]


We have forgotten the true essence of the learning experience; excitement. Classrooms should be exciting but for this to be true they must be flexible with little set agenda governing teaching practises, an approach far from our current reality.  bell hooks emphasises this and explains that ‘excitement in higher education is viewed as potentially disruptive of the atmosphere of seriousness assumed to be essential to the learning process.[5]


Marie Kondo, Japanese consultant and author pushes clients to only keep items in their possession that speak to the heart and spark joy[6]. When was the last time we considered changing our ways of working that we have come to normalise but we know block joy? When was the last time we used joy as a driving factor in a decision-making meeting?


What would happen if we were truly joy-driven and our joy was for the collective not the individual?


To work in Equality Diversity and Inclusion you must understand joy because inclusion work strives to achieve collective joy. EDI practitioners should foster joy, create spaces for joy to thrive and remind others of the importance of joy. To work in EDI you must have the mind of a child and question everything. To recruit into EDI you must select the colleagues that you wish to imagine with and most importantly, struggle with.  A true inclusive approach will be at odds with the institution.

Activist and author Adrienne Maree Brown highlights that, ‘ I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s imagination and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.[7]

After all, inclusion work is science fiction; it is the creation of ways of being and possibilities that do not currently exist. Our joy is drawn from a future that we work towards, that we may never see and may never remember our names. That is why our joy is fragile but our hope is strong.


Our Joy – someone else’s threat

For people of colour in EDI working to make higher education inclusive, our existence and joy will always be political and a threat. We are writing ourselves into spaces that were not created for us.

We are excited and eager to learn but this eagerness is a threat to White authority and fragility. As people of colour we find ourselves in a liminal space desperate to remain palatable to our White friends and colleagues only ever a few interactions away from complete alienation.

We are adored by White colleagues until we start excelling in our role and are perceived as a threat, known as the ‘pet to threat[8] model.

White fragility presents itself as the defensive colleague who sees your comments as an attack on their very belief system. ‘To a certain degree, our entire future may depend on learning to listen, listen without assumptions or defences.[9]

Our proximity to whiteness often dictates how palatable we are and colourism allows White and White-passing colleagues to sit more comfortably than our darker-skinned brothers and sisters.


On 25TH July 2018 NUS president Larissa Kennedy tweeted, ‘Black women graduands and graduates, thank you for showing us that it’s possible to survive institutions that were never made for us. Black women who dropped out, thank you for reminding us that we mustn’t place our value in our ability to persist in the face of adversity.[10]


Let us remind ourselves of the above, we mustn’t let our resilience drive our worth, we are so much more than our outputs or impact, instead place our worth in joy and let this drive us. Know that our joy is greater than us, society renders us joy-deprived but we resist, rise and hold our ancestors stolen joy and the joy of those to come in our hearts, minds and mouths.


Melz Owusu, activist and scholar first introduced me to the concept of epistemicide, the killing of a knowledge system. Western ideology has thrived of epistemicide and colonisation has used this as a violent weapon.


The secret to changing our institutions lies in the ability to accept that there are fundamentally other ways of existing beyond our imagined reality. To influence our institutions to radically re-imagine their racist and oppressive structures we must harness joy and with this we are unstoppable. There is nothing more disconcerting than black joy.




[1] Hooks, Bell. Teaching to transgress. Routledge, 2014.

[2] Hooks, Bell. Teaching to transgress. Routledge, 2014.

[3] Fleming, Peter. Dark Academia: How Universities Die. Pluto Press, 2021, pg. 23.

[4] Fleming, Peter. Dark Academia: How Universities Die. Pluto Press, 2021, pg.27.

[5] Hooks, Bell. Teaching to transgress. Routledge, 2014.

[6] Kondo, Marie accessed 7th July 2021

[7] Brown, Adrienne M. Emergent strategy. 2017.

[8] Stallings, Erika, When Black Women Go From Office Pet to Office Threat, accessed 7th July 2021

[9] Brown, Adrienne M. Emergent strategy. 2017.

[10] Kennedy, Larissa, accessed 7th July 2021


  1. Talking about emotions and how people feel may always be a bit radical in institutions. Tichavakunda (2021) has done a really valuable study focused on Black Joy and the need to ask explore “Black students’ positive
    experiences and emotions in otherwise oppressive campuses”.

    Tichavakunda signposts some really valuable questions: “What will appeal to Black students here?” or “What are we
    doing to specifically support Black students?” with a view to identifying initiatives that support joy.

    Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz (2021) expresses the need for Black Joy in education by stating in her Leading Equity podcast:
    “We’re just really looking at the things that show our beauty, and our genius, and not just the pain because we know that that’s there”.

    Tichavakunda, A. (2021) ‘Black Students and Positive Racialized Emotions: Feeling Black Joy at a Historically White Institution’, Humanity & Society. doi: 10.1177/01605976211032929.
    Sealey-Ruiz, Y.(2021) accessed 12.08.21

  2. So glad I subscribed to this blog, this post greeted me on my first day back after a 2 week break, it has given me a boost of energy and a reminder of why I love to work in education and why I need to think about education as a political act.

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