Universities can be allies in confronting racism

Anti-racism isn't always comfortable, but true allyship demands action and accountability from universities in support of #BlackLivesMatter, argues Shaminder Takhar.

Covid-19 and the #BlackLivesMatter movement are colliding at the intersection of race and class. The tipping point was the murder of George Floyd which highlighted the extent of police brutality towards African-Americans and forced a public debate over the scale and impact of systemic racism.

The use of the pandemic metaphor “I can’t breathe” resonated with black people across the globe, resulting in protests and removal of statues which attracted both positive and negative media commentary.

The #BLM protests are anti-racist and have been described as a specific response to inequality and oppression experienced by African-Americans and by some critics, as irresponsible in the time of Covid-19. However, supporting statements from some UK universities, the removal of offensive branding and the inclusion of the #BLM logo by corporations indicate how eager they are to prove their anti-racist credentials.

The #BLM protests have freed black people, at least temporarily, from suffocation and silencing and given voice to demands for race equality in the UK.  Racial inequality is a deeply political issue forcing governments to respond in specific ways such as the UK government’s Race Disparity Report (2017) which found overall inequalities and disadvantage among minority ethnic groups in education, housing, employment, policing and the criminal justice system.

Government action

This year it was the compelling evidence of the impact of Covid-19 on minority ethnic groups which finally prompted the government to set up a Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. Led by Munira Mirza, Director of the Number Ten Policy Unit, it was welcomed as an opportunity to improve lives. Mirza’s appointment was hailed in the press as progressive and appealing because of her support for issues around intellectual freedom in universities and ideas to reduce inequalities.

However, doubts have been raised about Mirza’s past connections to the Revolutionary Communist Party and, by association, the Commission’s ability to see systemic and structural racism and to be objective and impartial. Writing in the Spectator in 2017, Mirza has dubbed much contemporary thinking on race “wrongheaded”, including David Lammy MP’s review of race and the criminal justice system, Lady McGregor-Smith’s report into BAME employment, the findings of the Macpherson Report on institutional racism and respected writers such as Reni Eddo-Lodge. Mirza has also written in the past for the libertarian publication Spiked, questioning the oppressed voice and urgency for change, which does not inspire confidence.

At the highest level of government there appears to be a battle for cultural influence to define common-sense positions on race by claiming that institutional racism is a myth, that diversity divides and that anti-racism is merely ideological.

Yet there are many educationally invaluable books on the subject of race such as Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch (2018) and White Privilege by Kalwant Bhopal (2018) that highlight historical facts, how racism pervades our society and how it operates at institutional level. Unless you have been living on another planet, you could hardly have missed these titles which all point to change. The question is, what can universities in the UK do?

The #BLM protests are undeniably multiracial with a younger demographic profile and universities were quick to respond, albeit symbolically, with initial statements of support. By engaging with a global issue in the current political milieu, we can see that universities have a public role in influencing debate on issues related to race. The process whereby meaningful anti-racist policies are being implemented cannot, and should not, be derailed through accusations of being “woke”, “left wing” and succumbing to identity politics.

It is an opportunity for universities to challenge these narratives and demonstrate their support for BAME staff, students and allies who have been lobbying for change on the BAME attainment/award gap, critical pedagogical ideas such as decolonising the curriculum, unconscious bias training and investigating links to slavery before the #BLM protests. We have observed how universities have become more receptive to change recently because these issues now have wider social resonance.

In the context of Covid-19 alongside the exposure of racial inequality, universities can move forward by acknowledging that racism and white privilege operate at both individual and institutional levels. This allows them to adopt an institutional strategic anti-racist approach that can challenge and inform government policymaking.

This would be an example of strong allyship but it is not an easy task particularly if the momentum for change is missed or if it slows and the post-Covid-19 return to business as usual becomes the overwhelming priority. It is even less easy if the war on words regarding ideology, denial of race, institutional racism, and diversity is won by those who seek to deny the existence of systemic racism.

Allyship

Raising the issues around race is usually a burden placed on the shoulders of BAME staff who cannot move the institution forward in an integrated and strategic way without the support of decision-makers and allies.

What does it mean to be an ally?  Allyship is often thought of as a result of individuals’ changed understanding that history is imbued with racism but it can also develop as a result of wider movements for social change against systemic racism.

Being an ally at the institutional level provides an opportunity for everyone to be involved in constructive change and progress but we must not be afraid of taking the first step. By understanding white privilege and the need for anti-racism, we can disrupt and challenge decision-making at the highest level and steer universities towards an integrated institutional approach.

Allyship can face significant difficulties, but the sudden interest in racial injustice has moved it forward dramatically.  However, a sobering starting point in the process of becoming an ally is Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility in which she states that “racism is a white problem. It was constructed and created by white people and the ultimate responsibility lies with white people.”

It is not someone else’s problem and denying racism and/or claiming to be “not racist” is not enough because all that does is to claim institutional neutrality, similar to colour blindness, while the world outside is deeply divided.

Events over the last three months show us that we need race literacy and that, if achieved within an intersectional framework, race literacy is far preferable to proving one’s race credentials by completing unconscious bias training At institutional level, this means that training for all staff should go beyond unconscious bias training towards anti-racism training that means sharing power and privilege. Some examples of training that engages people in critical thinking about inequalities towards transformative change are Fearless Futures and Race Reflections.

Accountability

At institutional level, acknowledging that racism and racial inequalities exist is the first step towards doing something about institutional racism. The issues being discussed at the moment existed before #BLM and sector-level data and research highlight the lack of black academic staff, low numbers of black professors, the ethnic pay gap, harassment and bullying of black staff, progression and attainment experiences of black students and the need to decolonise the curriculum.

These issues can only be successfully addressed if there is institutional accountability and if university leaderships are committed to racial equality. The communication and implementation of a strategic vision, in addition to providing sufficient monetary and human resources for equality, diversity and inclusion teams to carry out the necessary specialist work is imperative to success.

A combination of the Race Equality Charter and a Key Performance Indicator on race provides a valuable and powerful method for evaluating the success of an organisation to meet its objectives. Despite low numbers of universities achieving the Bronze award, compared with Athena Swan, overcoming discomfort around race and investing in the Race Equality Charter and black staff can have profound effects on establishing principles of equality and allyship in the complex landscape of race and racism. Furthermore, if UKRI and funding organisations made engaging with the Race Equality Charter a condition of funding, it would force the hand of universities and decision-makers to be proactive.

We should think of moving towards anti-racism as a journey which means seeing black people in a positive light rather than through a deficit model or as a social problem. Then, racial equality at the intersections of gender, sexuality, class and disability look less like a demand but something desirable and achievable by changing power relations and policy outcomes in a less than perfect world.

I encourage everyone to look to ourselves in allyship in order to (re)create our institutions, free from racism, and for that matter, sexism, homophobia, ableism and transphobia. To bridge our differences, to believe that we are instrumental in creating a better future for everyone and to speak out is crucial. We may not yet be able to fully dismantle systemic racism, but there is hope and optimism for the future because young people have taken up the struggle for a better world. In the words of James Baldwin, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

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