We can feel the promises on race and racism fading already

As HEPI publishes a pamphlet on decolonisation, Ruqia Osman asks if the Black Lives Matter “moment” for higher education is about to pass - again.

In the last couple of months, there has been a lot of conversation around anti-racism and Black lives Matter (BLM) following the murder of George Floyd.

The mass media attention surrounding BLM came hand in hand with institutions and organisations releasing sometimes inappropriate and empty statements in support of their black employees and students – all with some sort of commitment to continuing anti-racist work.

In our sector, some universities noticeably hit the nail on the head with supportive messaging, while others completely missed the point. Wonkhe, Universities UK and others have run national webinars with promises of progress all over social media.

But now, predictably, we seem to have run into a brick wall. Many of us are worried about a predictable pattern – warm words, a scramble to determine how to actually become anti-racist, a realisation of the scale of the task, and then the apparent urgency of the work fades as media attention slowly shifts away.

Much of this concern surrounds the extent to which the work that is needed will be systematically prioritised, whether it will permeate into university departments, schools and faculties, and whether it will be high on the agenda in light of planning around the pandemic.

What’s going wrong?

So as HEPI publishes work on decolonisation, it is worth reflecting on the ways in which this agenda periodically falls by the wayside – and what we might do about that.

As ever this time, there has been a wave of “anti-racist activists”, an influx of open letters and plenty of staff and students wanting to engage with anti-racist work on their campuses. There is ample evidence of staff and students wanting to engage. Yet without clear guidance and resourcing on how this work should be approached, there is a risk of this goodwill being more damaging than useful – with the burden once again placed on black students, staff, and student officers to call out mistakes and correct them.

The enthusiasm is notable – but whilst it can be helpful, it is systematic and consistent prioritisation that matters. If departments are not on board and taking ownership of committing to becoming anti-racist and carrying out decolonising work, universities may as well remove the BLM statements from their websites. There is no point in senior management jumping on the bandwagon if this commitment does not penetrate down to all individual departments, functions and people.

When parts and pockets of universities try to take action, the lack of political education and training provided means that black communities are often over-surveyed and asked to constantly explain their traumatic experiences of racism just for their trauma to be a discussion point, dismissed or invalidated. And even in spaces where there are conversations surrounding black lives matter, black staff, students and representatives often still experience silencing by “white or nonblack allies”.

Decolonisation is also a concern. It is clear that there is a lack of understanding of what decolonising education means and what it takes to achieve this; simply adding a diverse reading list does not fix the problem. Rather than being at the core of curriculum reform processes, making learning and teaching more diverse, decolonised and inclusive is regarded as tick box exercise, something that is optional.

An uncomfortable journey

The journey to becoming anti-racist will be a long, difficult, and uncomfortable one; and it is important that there is commitment from individuals regardless of seniority of position or where someone works in a university or SU. Systemic change can only be achieved if everyone is willing to work towards it. Rather than focusing time and energy on acts that are barely classed as “optical allyship”, we need a focus on active listening responding to what the black community has been saying for years. Excuses are no longer acceptable.

There are still too many stories of universities shutting down projects or refusing to implement recommendations. There are still plenty of muttered concerns that particular approaches would create reputational risk. Too many meetings appear to be afraid of the effects that admitting racism exists on campuses will have on recruitment. And in too many cases, working groups and strategy documents still seem to treat racism as a series of “incidents” that “bad people” carry out – rather than something systemic.

So as universities prepare to pause for a pandemic break and get ready to reopen their campuses in September, I have a plea. If you can change to “online” as fast as you keep saying, you should change to become anti-racist with the same vigour. Stop relying on black student reps, staff, and students to educate you for free and deliver on the anti-racist work that has been repeatedly promised to your black community. Read the pamphlets. Study the guidance. Implement the recommendations. No more focus grouping is required and no more “lived experience” is necessary – invest, deliver on the action plans and hold people to account if they don’t.

Institutions are at a point now where they can choose to be racist or anti-racist. Another summer of gentle inaction under the cover of pandemic planning will reveal which side you’re on.

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