What does it say about the education sector that we don’t say what we mean? What does it say that I attended a conference on racism at universities that didn’t have racism in the title? “Racial harassment” is what they called it, as in Westminster Higher Education Forum Keynote Seminar: Priorities for Tackling Racial Harassment & Improving the BAME Experience in HE. Racial harassment? Racism. Name it. Own it. We’re nearly in 2020 and we’re still wrapping these issues in bubblewrap to make it more palatable for, dare I say, senior management at UK universities (overwhelmingly White). Should we draw a nail? Pop. Pop. Pop.
Arising from my bed at 5:45am to make a 7:30am(ish) train, only to arrive at this conference feeling a bit awkward. The whole delivery felt “preachy” from the get-go. Being lectured on race by mainly White middle class people brought me back to first year on my Creative Writing degree where I did a number of literature modules, delivered by a lecturer who talked about slavery like a trivial matter. That’s my family history you’re talking there!
As Vice President BME at Northampton, I’m facing more and more problems with the language and rhetoric we use around race. The sector lumps all Black and brown students together and calls them BME / BAME. What about the term people of colour? I, too, am guilty of using “people of colour” and do myself have issues with it. It’s probably the best of the worst.
The term B(A)ME is not homogeneous. Even among Black people, there is differences. i.e between African and Caribbean, as well as Black British people whose families come from those places. Even to call someone African; there are fifty-four different nations in Africa, each with their own languages, culture, traditions and so on. Nigeria alone has over 250 different languages. But we continue with BME and BAME. Racial / cultural identity matters. Do we lump all White people together? No. And I bet if you called someone from Belfast, English, they’d have something to say!
Watching Dr. Zainab Khan (Assoc. Pro-Vice Chancellor at London Met) speak was a breath of fresh air, telling it like it is. And having been to a few conferences like this, it seems to me that the sector is more set on managing racism than taking to steps to eradicate it. Both Dr. Khan, and Fope Olaleye (Black Students’ Officer at NUS) brought a much needed clarity to racism (not racial harassment) at our universities, as well as institutional racism. It was great to hear comments on Macpherson and Critical Race Theory too.
And in my opinion, best practice is the brutal, honest truth. Not statistics, but qualitative data. Real life experiences and true stories by people on the ground experiencing this on a day-to-day.
The Royal Over-Seas League private members club was our host. Plaques to Britain’s colonial past in what was then British India hung on the wall. Staff meandered in capes and gowns, and plums in their mouths. What’s more, it was six speakers before a Black or brown person came to the floor. As a Students’ Union, we did not have to pay to attend. But others did pay the three-figure entrance fee. And there sat problem number one, why do these conferences seek money for attendance? Are they cashing in on Black and brown trauma? Is there an argument of ethics to be had here?
During the half-day conference there were four non-White speakers. This did not occur until towards the end of proceedings, in what felt like a very shoehorned state of affairs. Again, I felt that I was being preached at on my own narrative of racism in higher education. Whitesplaining is very real, when White British people talk about racism like its their lived experience.
At an event, wherein, we discussed things like the ethnicity award gap, decolonising the curriculum and anti-racist learning, to have a conference of this matter in a place that was overtly classist and elitist with nods to a system which in itself was built of white supremacy, it’s quite difficult to not see the irony in it all. We also discussed institutional racism in the same breath as decolonial thinking. Ha! And really, all you can do is laugh.
White British people organising events on behalf of Black / brown people on themes that impact us more than them, on symptoms that were originally created by the White elite – in the jaws of colonisation and the whims of European empires. The times that made Britain “great” – imperialism in the tint of gold, glory and god, eclipsed by the Ritz in London’s southwest as I bump into austerity and homelessness, like cold corpses by Green Park.
In the making of Westminster Higher Education Forum Keynote Seminar: Priorities for Tackling Racial Harassment, the White middle class stands tall as colonialism walks with us in the present. The bellowing voice of White privilege. I know plenty of students that would have come to this. Alas, this forum fell into the trap that many discussions have fallen into. Well-meaning White people telling us what we ought to do about racism.
Whilst I made some valuable connections, the wider narrative of whitesplaining ran riot, like Robert Redford and Meryl Streep spread-eagled across the plains in Out of Africa. Diversity in panel discussions is a must. It was functional in concept, but the swaggering thoughtlessness in venue, entry fee and panellists left for a very awkward-feeling in the audience.
If these types of conferences aren’t done properly (from diverse panels to organisational competence), are we not just feeding the racist systems we want to deconstruct?