To make progress on race equality we need inclusive conversations

Finding the right words and hearing the right voices is a challenge, says Kulbir Shergill, but it's a journey we need to take together.

Since the death of George Floyd, race, racism and anti-racism have become issues of heated debate, after years in which many white people assumed racism was something that no longer existed in our society.

The fact that the majority do not recognise its existence has to be a key reason for the slow progress of racial equality in HE and in the outside world. Educating ourselves has to be a start, and books about race are flying off the shelves; Bernardine Evaristo and Reni Eddo-Lodge have become the first black women to top the UK’s fiction and non-fiction paperback charts.

The discussion is passionate, angry, hopeful and despairing with many different solutions being offered or demanded. How do leaders navigate a path from making bold commitments to being able to evidence real change and progress while listening to the very different voices each with a relevant and real message?

Finding the words

Starting these conversations is a challenge when even our terminology is a problem. Take the acronym BAME – Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic. There has been much debate and fury about this word, from the anger of being labelled, to the frustration of lumping together the experiences of an incredibly large number of people from a diverse range of cultures, faiths and no faith. BAME is a familiar term for those who are involved in policy and analysis work, but for everyone else what does it actually mean. How did I go from being African, Indian or Chinese to being BAME?

In reality we are unlikely to reach a consensus on terminology because it is such a personal issue and because words change with generations and across borders. We can, however, be better at explaining why we use the terminology that we do and be prepared to listen and make changes when those words no longer resonate with the communities within which we work. It is a common understanding that will help us to have a more productive dialogue.

The real frustration is that the term can be used to hide the true experience of some groups of people. One illustrative example is the 2020 HEPI/Advance HE student academic experience survey, which demonstrates that the experience of Black, Chinese, Asian, Mixed and Other students is quite clearly not the same. Chinese and Black (why not African or Caribbean?) students express the most negative experiences across the board.

The implications are obvious: we need to take a much more nuanced approach to both our data analysis but also to the interventions that we then make. Chinese and Black students expressed the lowest level of experience compared to expectations but is this unlikely to be for the same reasons.

Hearing the voices

Many universities will be reviewing their race action plans, or trying to write one. A big challenge is the lack of Black, Asian and other minority ethnic staff in senior in decision-making positions or students to share their knowledge and experience when these are being designed. In fact, many may not want to be pigeon holed into being the expert on all things to do with race, on top of their day job. Does being from an ethnic minority group make you an expert? Does being white exclude you from being able to offer expertise?

What we do know is that understanding the impact of racism and the ability to empathise is just as important if not more important than whether you have personally been on the receiving end. Priti Patel has demonstrated that experiencing racism does not make you empathise with others or have the expertise on how to lead the change.

If we are asking Black, Asian and other minority ethnic staff to share their knowledge and experience to help shape interventions then we need to acknowledge that contribution in some way. Being an ally and being seen to be inclusive will help leaders to know and understand the people they work with to identify solutions together that are going to work for everyone. It will also demonstrate that this work is valued.

Engaging in race equality (or any other diversity issue) is not for everyone, even if they are personally affected. Sensitivity to this and understanding the reasons why will prevent putting people in the spotlight or adding to their workload when it is not invited.

This is a complicated issue, steeped in history, bogus science and inbuilt prejudice and so leaders need to hear the diverse voices that will surround them and articulate the difficult issues that face us. Not everyone will agree with the journey but it is what we get at the end that is the prize.

Moreover, whether people agree with their leaders or not, if leaders have a vision with strong foundations and trust in their relationships then race equality in HE, while appearing to be elusive, is by no means impossible. However, it is a journey we need to take together.

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