How can universities and student groups support Black students and #BlackLivesMatter?

Addressing the Current Climate

Though many thought 2020 would be the year of “perfect vision”, it has turned out to be very obscure. Covid-19 has brought a lot of uncertainty and many questions. The world is asking: Why are people of colour dying at disproportionate rates compared to their white counterparts? But 2020, has not only revealed racial disparities in healthcare. It has opened many people’s eyes to an ongoing problem in another systematically racist institution – the police.

Policewoman at June 7 Black Lives Matter London Protest | Michele Theil

First and foremost, I want to pay my respects to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and many others around the world. Their senseless and brutal murders at the hands of the police bears testimony to the brutal reality of anti-Black racism. When will Black lives matter? The healthcare and the police system have much to answer for. But academia is another systemically racist institution which continues to fail Black people.

Black Lives Matter Protest London June 7 | Michele Theil

Installing the ‘Mirror-Window’ at Universities

For white students, positive and authentic images of self is reinforced through the media and in life at the grandest scale. White students see an overwhelming number of people who look like them in positions of power. Consciously or unconsciously they begin to assume that access and entry across several spaces in society is a white right. Negative racial messages, which cause Black students to believe that they lack the ability to perform at the highest levels, are perpetuated by academia.

The attainment gap, which exists at universities across the United Kingdom, pertains to the disproportionate figure of first-degree undergraduate qualifiers within two groups (Black and minority ethnic and white students) who obtain a first class or upper second-class honours degree. Research has shown that the attainment gap is not due to students’ academic ability but a result of institutional and systemic failures within academia. These include a mono-cultural curriculum, lack of diversity and racial bias and discrimination in the classroom and on campus. This, alongside failures to hire, develop and promote Black staff, contributes in the erasure and invisibility of Black achievement at university. 

Unsplash | Andre Hunter

I repeat: 2020 has been a very obscure year. Now, more than ever, we need a clearer view of Black achievement, culture and identity in academia.

Universities need to be decolonised, and the only way to do that is to install the ‘mirror’, with which to see self (Black academic identity), and the ‘window’ with which to be seen by others. The mirror-window comes in many forms but is designed primarily to support Black students and staff in developing an authentic and unfiltered racial identity at university. To see self and to be seen by others, is not only liberating as a Black person in academia, it is equitable, and it ensures equal opportunity. Universities have a crucial responsibility to reduce the psychologically damaging messages which are perpetuated by the attainment gap and lack of role models.

Black students need to see themselves amongst their peers seated in the classroom. They need to see Black academics standing at the front as the ‘educator’ and see their culture and identity reflected in the course content. A mirror is an essential resource in academia and, for non-Black students and staff, the visibility of Black people in the classroom and around campus and Black identity and culture in the curriculum can also act as a significant window. As a window, the decolonisation of the academy offers non-Black students and staff insight into the experiences of Black people’s lives which is important for mutual recognition among peers and for building a greater sense of college community.

Royal Holloway University | Michele Theil

How many Black academics are employed at universities? How many professors are Black? And how many are Black women? How many Black students are admitted? What about the attainment gap? The answers to such questions expose the fact that a mirror-window designed to support Black people in academia does not currently exist.

Universities Must Look in Their Own Mirrors

I want to hear how institutions plan to dismantle oppressive practices. I want to hear them admit their participation in racism. I want to hear them acknowledge those who have been doing the work. It takes more than college-wide unconscious bias training. Classrooms as a systemically white space and services on campus need decolonising.

It is the responsibility of the school systems to teach adequate Black history lessons. However, universities need to confront their own contribution to the white-washing and erasure of knowledge which centres race and specifically anti-black violence/attitudes. They also need to promote a Black history which precedes the Black struggle. Seeing self and being seen at university requires action from the institution.

Black History Month needs to be reverenced at the same extent as the suffragette movement, as mental health awareness and other campaigns which UK universities grant much time and consideration. Black History Month should not be solely led by African and Caribbean students or societies. The university needs to initiate campaigns and events with the support and contribution of studentss and student groups.

Protesters chant ‘Decolonise the Curriculum’ in London June 7 | Michele Theil

University counsellors must be trained to assist Black university students. I can suggest two ways to ensure this:

  1. Spend more attention on counselling literature which details the experiences of Black students and identifies ways to support them.
  2. Hire Black counsellors so that Black students can feel comfortable to share their experiences, especially that which is culturally specific.

The careers service must provide information on organisations which specifically cater to, develop and celebrate Black people in industry. They must also listen to the concerns of Black students and follow-up with sustainable action. University libraries must decolonise their shelves by providing special literature and archives and centring minority voices. Campus shops and social spaces can also invest in African and Caribbean food and hair supplies. Decolonisation requires the academy to hold up the mirror-window.

How can Universities and student groups support the fight against injustice?

Recently, I wrote an article which was featured in my departmental newsletter, part of it read:

“To Non-Black students and staff, in a time where many Black people are struggling to breathe because they are suffocated by oppression (#ICantBreathe), it is important that you give us breathing space. It is important that you allow us to rest, it is important that you hear our voice when we speak. But in giving us space to breathe, do not result to silence because silence kills, do not result to performative solidarity because this is not a performance this is our reality.

“Speak with us, not for us, in the classroom, around campus, in halls of residence and social/digital spaces outside the university walls. Be honest about your shortcomings (we long for transparency). Work with us to dismantle oppressive practices and acknowledge those who have been doing the work in theory and in practice. It takes more than solidarity.”

“White silence = compliance” Protest Sign June 7 London | Michele Theil

I have launched an organisation called Beyond Margins which organises events and campaigns focused on inspiring and motivating BAME individuals. It promotes the current contributions of BAME people to their communities. It also delivers school outreach sessions with focus and attention on young BAME future leaders and talent. Furthermore, it designs strategies to encourage diversity and inclusion for staff and faculty. For far too long, society has held up barriers for BAME people in education — that is why the attainment gap exists, that is why our curriculum is mono-cultural and why we don’t see representative figures teaching in the classroom. We aim to remedy this through positive engagement and by creating a platform for hyper-visibility. For more information/help visit our website: www.beyondmargins.co.uk.

Anti-Racism and #BlackLivesMatter Resources

This is a time for reflection; a time to ask the important albeit challenging questions. It is a time to be honest and to change. Most importantly, this is a time to act. Here are some resources to support the #BlackLivesMatter movement and to learn how to unlearn racism and racial bias:

Renée Landell is a multi-award-winning activist, an AHRC Techne-funded doctoral researcher, a public speaker and the founder and director of ‘Beyond Margins.’ She is a full-time PhD student in the School of Humanities at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Would you you would like to write a reply? If so, please contact the opinion editor at david.dahborn.13 [at] ucl.ac.uk.


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