Tackling racism needs more than a status update

Social media statements are not enough. For Eireann Attridge, universities need to be honest about where they have failed and take action

Each week, in my team meetings, we have a sector update, a section of the meeting where one team member leads a discussion on an issue in higher education.

A few weeks ago, I was responsible for leading this discussion and being mindful of the impact Covid-19 was having on the mental health of many people, I decided to avoid my topic of the impact of the pandemic on access and outreach. What I did instead was facilitate a discussion on the experiences of black students at elite universities especially and the ways in which these institutions should be supporting them. In being considerate of the feelings and wellbeing of my team, I dismissed the impact of sharing experiences of racism students faced at a university where I had once also been one of the few black students in attendance.

Are performative statements enough?

Over the past weeks, black people across the world have been forcefully reminded of the lack of value with which they are seen and the violent ways in which power is exercised over them. From the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, to the threats shouted by Amy Cooper, experiences of racism are being shared non-stop across social media platforms. Black students and staff, who are expected to continue to write academic papers, manage projects, and sit end of year exams, are having to deal with this exposure alongside a pandemic and all the pressures that come with it.

After brands, celebrities, and organisations including Disney and Sesame Street released statements in solidarity, universities are finally beginning to speak up. Much like other organisations these statements can be seen as tokenistic and performative, statements which are made in order for an organisation to be perceived as anti-racist and on the right side of history.

Message and practice

These statements become an issue when they’re clearly out of sync with university practices. One example comes from the University of Oxford, who tweeted:

We’re committed to supporting our community in opposing racism in all its forms, including upholding anti-racist values.

This statement leaves a bitter taste when only three months ago, the university openly rebuked students for disinviting Amber Rudd to an International Women’s Day event – after acknowledging that her involvement in the Windrush scandal was against feminist values. During this period, senior members of staff across the collegiate university used social media to further scold students on their decision, arguing that students should instead engage in a debate with Amber Rudd.

This expectation placed on black students, including students as young as 18, to debate a member of government who forcibly deported those from the black Caribbean community undermines the exhaustion and futility of such a conversation. This is only a recent example – as the ways in which black students are continuously failed can feel like an unending list. It’s important to note that Oxford is not the only institution to share a statement opposing racism, whilst simultaneously failing to meet the needs of black students and black staff members.

The statements that have been released, mostly through twitter, are being done for public display – to create an image of the university which sadly does not reflect its values. I imagine many have published these statements for their alumni, prospective students, and the rest of the world to see. But not all staff and students follow their university’s twitter. These statements are meaningless if there aren’t any internal communications to staff and students.

Talk to staff and students

As many black staff and students are witnessing the avoidable deaths of black people by the hands of the police, alongside unequal mortality rates as a result of Covid-19, it is vital that they’re signposted to support – just as all staff were when Covid-19 hit. With exams and large project work on the horizon, it’s important that educators, managers, and others are aware of the anxiety and frustration that black colleagues may be going through.

Beyond public university statements students and academics have been vocal about the lack of black professors, the lack of support for black students, the historical connections universities have to slavery, and their more recent failings (such as the eugenics conference held on UCLs campus in 2018). The universities who will come out of this well are those who are open and honest about their issues. For example Imperial College London has recently started a thread which is transparent about work so far, whilst acknowledging there is still a long way to go:

THREAD: Following our #BlackLivesMatter tweet on Monday, many members of our community have been in touch to ask – rightfully – what we are doing to help fight racism and inequality at Imperial and better-support our Black students and staff

Universities need to be upfront about their problem – as skirting around the issue doesn’t address racism at the institution or win the trust of black staff and students.

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