The number of coloured senior academics in the UK (Source: Adams, 2020). Out of 21,000 full-professors, only 0,6% identified as Black. A lack of diversity and unfavourable racial dynamics affect universities as much as any other institution. Jonathan Wilson, a full-time Brand Strategy & Culture professor at Regent’s University London, stresses the implicit bias within science and calls it the “pint of Guinness” syndrome. With exquisite humor, the 4 times LinkedIn Top Voices award-winning Afro Samurai makes compelling arguments about inclusion, gender, and life.
Who is Jonathan Wilson?
First of all, a small introduction please. Beyond being a Professor of Brand Strategy & Culture at Regent’s University London: people have seen you play bass guitar on stage at Glastonbury music festival; sometimes you appear as a ‘Ghost Dog’ samurai, and sometimes wearing a Scottish kilt. You’ve received a Top Voices award from LinkedIn for four consecutive years. In short, you’re a confluence of cultures as well as an influence for people. Can you tell us more about who you are and what’s your North Star in 2021?
Jonathan Wilson: Well I’m a 4th Dan in Japanese sword and a 3rd Dan in Kendo: so yes, I’ll take that Ghost Dog/Afro Samurai title. I needed something to keep me busy after quitting rugby, where I was picked for England Schools and my university. Actually, before that I quit rugby to join a rock band, because rugby players can be so uncool – how shallow of me! I am Scottish and that kilt is my family tartan too. Would you believe that I also wrote music, rapped and provided character voices for the first few Grand Theft Auto video games under the name Robert De Negro? I can admit that now because it was back in the late 90’s while I was at university – and I have enough work history and two doctorates so as not to come across as a gangsta.
But basically, all that’s just the crap you pump out on social media to get work, right? Behind all of that, there’s a real shy and quiet side to me. Really, I’m just someone who’s trying to stay like that child I was – thirsty for knowledge, new experiences, fun times, freedom and anything that stimulates the five senses. My mission for 2021 is to stay employed and if I can manage that, then it’s to get more money for doing less work, so that I can go off and do more cool things that could pay one day.
"Academia looks like a pint of Guinness"
This year in the Guardian Newspaper you wrote that in the UK “Academia looks like a pint of Guinness” to you – i.e. diverse below, but not at the top. Could you elaborate on this observation and your underlying rationales?
JW: Well, it’s dark at the bottom and white up top and if you want to rise to the top, then you’ll have to turn ‘white’ – as a person, your identity, mannerisms, appearance, interests, or culture. Too often in marketing for example ‘urban’ audiences or culture are code for low-class, unsophisticated, vulgar, and ethnic. Perhaps the most visible indication of this is how society ranks and rewards black women according to how light they are, or how straight their hair is – and this sadly happens in ethnic communities too.
In academia, I’ve come to realise that people judge and reward knowledge according to the person who is presenting that knowledge and we are not colour blind. Yes, I’m being a little crass likening this phenomenon to a pint of Guinness and I wanted an eye-grabbing headline – but I bet that readers can feel me with this allegory – because people have smiled and nodded when they’ve heard me say it or read the article. And I think it’s making people a little drunk too.
"Learn how to love, show love to people, and how to be loved."
From your point of view, how do such imbalances become implicit bias for a teenager, with regards to diversity? For example for a white teenager?
JW: If you don’t mix or have your views challenged in a way that you can recognise the blind spots that you have, in a safe environment where you can learn or change, then these problems will remain. People will remain unmoved, or revert back to type and stay within their comfort zone.
I have a black mother and a white father, so I’ve grown up in a reality where having multiple identities and social groups, and often being the outsider in many ways has been my life. But what I’ve learned is that sometimes, white and Asian friends or family may find that reality too tough or traumatic at times when problems arise, and they opt out. I don’t have that choice or luxury. With age, I’ve learned to be more self-sufficient and tolerant of this.
Working on implicit bias means accepting that you may be wrong at times, there are other perspectives, and you may feel uncomfortable – but there are people that will recognise, respect and appreciate your efforts and struggle.
Learn how to love, show love to people, and how to be loved. That’s the best advice that I can give.
"If we frame minorities, immigrants, and subjects of former colonies as mutants: are you with Professor Xavier, or Magneto?"
In France, such data is strictly forbidden: making statistics on ‘race’ or colour is not allowed. In theory, such restrictions foster national inclusiveness – as far as the French constitution only recognises French people as a sole nation, without any distinction. In practice, this looks like your pint of Guinness, but filled-in an opaque bottle: academics and social researchers can’t fully assess diversity challenges without data. How does it sound to you?
JW: I think many people would view the UK as having some of the most inclusive, diverse and progressive educational institutions in the world – and I believe that we do! I would argue that these perceptions are based largely upon the representation of staff and students, the open celebration of cultures and religions with associated facilities, and more recent movements such as Black Lives Matter. However, if we dig deeper then it’s clear that there is room for improvement, with regards representation in governance, seniority of academics, promotion prospects, and equality of pay.
Here’s a quote from a recent paper of mine in the Journal of Marketing Management “The Guardian reports that UK universities employ 217,000 academic staff. Within this figure, out of the 21,000 full-professors, nearly 18,000 identified as White, 1,360 as Asian, nearly 2,000 as unidentified or from other ethnic backgrounds, and only 140 identified as Black (Adams, 2020). Similarly, the Financial Times reports that out of 19,285 professors in UK universities, 12,795 are White men, 4,560 are White women, 90 are Black men and 35 are Black women (Jacobs, 2020). The BBC also reports on an ethnicity pay gap in academia (Croxford, 2018). In the Russell Group of highly selective research-based UK universities surveyed, Croxford (2018) reports that the average salaries were:
- £52,000 for White academics
- £38,000 for Black academics
- £37,000 for academics from an Arab background
And on average, compared with White men:
- White women got 15% less
- Asian women, 22% less
- Black women, 39% less”
Collecting this data is important, in order to verify the existence of inclusivity and unfair or divisive discrimination. Whilst I am sure that the UK and France aspire towards upholding the same ideals, sometimes I think that each nation approaches these issues from different underpinning principles: can the removal of barriers and community cohesion be achieved through respecting and encouraging visible expressions of differences, or should they be prevented? In some ways I think that it’s like the whole X-Men Marvel comics debate. If we frame minorities, immigrants, and subjects of former colonies as mutants: are you with Professor Xavier, or Magneto?
"We need more businesses and senior executives able to appreciate contributions with authenticity, credibility and integrity."
This may sound like an ouroboros sometimes: an endless circle. Any recent progress / initiative / project which impresses you and tends to shift this paradigm?
JW: Yes, if you look to popular culture, the creative arts, music and sport as indicators of progression and change, then I think the future is promising. The World Cup winning French football team was stacked with ethnic minority players. 15 out of the 23 players are of African descent and 21 out 23 of them were born in France. Also, in a recent paper of mine on branding, looking at the importance of black and Latino culture, I highlight that, “Hip hop/Rap music ranks number four in the Top 10 favourite genres globally, behind Pop, Rock, and Oldie. Furthermore, 16-24 year olds globally are more than four-times as likely to choose Hip hop/Rap as their favourite genre as any other age group; and more than one-in-five 16-24 year olds in South Africa, Russia, Poland and Germany say that Hip hop/Rap is their favourite genre (IFPI, 2019).” We can see that Hip hop has gone mainstream and when you look at the countries listed, it isn’t just an ethnic thing.
Having made these arguments, the tipping-point has to be the movement towards greater representation in roles of power and decision-making, beyond just a select few actors and athletes from ethnic communities, who essentially are well-paid but low-level employees. The full economic pyramid needs to be nurtured, so these communities move away from simply being consumers and social influencers – as this opens the door to accusations of cultural appropriation and exploitation. We need more businesses and senior executives able to appreciate contributions with authenticity, credibility and integrity.
"Come out of your comfort zone, social media bubbles and echo chambers."
What people could do / read / watch / etc. to overcome (even a little) bias and accelerate change?
JW: Come out of your comfort zone, social media bubbles and echo chambers. Read voraciously. If you can, travel widely – with your eyes open and walking in the shoes of others there. Seek the company of people who are different to you – whether that’s age, gender, religion, ethnicity, career, or interests. Invest in your own knowledge, with a commitment to being a lifelong student and share your journey with others.
Here’s a structured way that I approach this:
- Learn the basic principles of Science and how to interpret data
- Understand the role of Humanities, the various underpinning arguments, and the impact of key historical events
- Learn to appreciate the Arts
- Develop your Critical Thinking
- Develop your Strategic Thinking
- Develop your Creative Thinking
- Study People – Biology, Psychology, Consumption
- Study Business – and its various units and functions
- Study Communication – and associated aspects of aesthetics, language, and symbols
"Time flies and your old you might just be surprised by the person that the younger you was!"
Any particular wish for 2021? For yourself? For our world?
JW: If I was to espouse lofty ideals, then of course it would be to get on top of COVID-19; alleviate poverty; increase access to education; and dismantle power structures that hamper racial and gender equality, and social mobility.
But if I dial back my aspirations, then my advice to myself and others is learn how to communicate more effectively across all media formats and strengthen your networks. My top tip is: learn how to do video and vlog. In a world where machines are replacing many of our tasks and jobs, there’s still a role for humans and it’s right there! At the very least, you’ll have documented memories for you, your friends, family and future generations of who you are/were and what you’ve been doing with your life on this planet. Time flies and your old you might just be surprised by the person that the younger you was!
To know more about Jonathan’s work and vision, visit
Photography Credit – Cover: Jonathan Wilson