Black Lives Matter: An Open Letter
Dear All. I hope you are well. Since I’m now at the end of my tenure with the Students’ Union, I thought I ought to address the future. And to those of you that have had meetings with me over the past year, I am grateful for your help and allyship. I hope this is not the end, but the beginning. Many of us have told ourselves that we are all equal but we know how false that is. This is not the time for idealism and I am sure you know that I do not stint when it comes to social justice, particularly with race. In the tint of an international civil rights movement against racism and racial inequality, the latest victims of white supremacy in the United States have made myself, students and other like-minded individuals think about issues closer to home.
That in this county, Black people are nearly nine times more likely to be stopped by the police than white people (Stopwatch); that in Britain, 184 Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic [BAME] people have died in police custody since 1990 (Inquest) – that in youth offenders’ prisons, over 40% are from BAME backgrounds [Lammy Review, 2017]. All this is before I begin to talk about the disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having on people of colour, in terms of deaths and infection. These are our students and their families.
Out of this, I am deeply concerned over the future of race equality at the University. The statement that was released on June 4 was vague. It didn’t go into detail on really anything and it felt performative. Honestly, I’m quite perturbed by the their reaction to Black Lives Matter and the protests; this is not the time to be apolitical when massive portions of the University community are experiencing racial trauma (including the genetic trauma that comes with being descendants of the Transatlantic Slave Trade), and the Black members of staff having to maintain professionalism!
And the fact it so long to release a statement (11 days after George Floyd’s murder), makes me uncomfortable. Notwithstanding, it took a tweet from me to get things moving. Racism is not a comfortable subject, nor should it be; it is nasty and the University needs to understand that.
From Wednesday, I will no longer be your Vice President BME at the SU and there is no intention to replace me. Already, the next sabbaticals have arrived. Are they as interested in equalities as the last team? Well, we won’t know until they acculturate to their roles. Whether that is on decolonising the curriculum or the state of race in higher education, I really couldn’t say. However, I have plenty of thoughts and even recommendations that the University can implement. Yet, I am worried the institution is not willing to have this conversation, nor hear the unpleasantness that comes with discourse and discussions on the state of race relations in this country.
I have lots of ideas about curriculum and disciplinaries, also policing and security (yes anti-racist work is more than posts on social media, and yes I agree social media is useful).
From an outsider’s perspective, the University response to Black Lives Matter looks nothing more than virtue signalling. At the moment, I do not think it takes these issues seriously at all. Now leaving altogether, I am still going to be in the area. And, I am still willing have this conversation in my role as an incredibly concerned member of the local community, a place that has been my home for nearly 20 years of my short but active nearly 25 years fighting and experiencing racism in this country and county.
Nothing about Black Lives Matter is comfortable, and issues with policing in the US are also happening here. Students that currently study with the University can relate to the plight of George Floyd’s family, and the other victims of police violence. And the University needs to understand that Black Lives Matter goes beyond policing. Black Lives Matter goes to awarding gaps, accommodation, curriculum, disciplinaries and more. Black Lives Matter is every institution’s problem, particularly in higher education.
I am willing to start this conversation now, as a preemptive strategy to help the University long-term. This institution sees an awful lot of bad press from local media and also from the community, but it really doesn’t have to be that way. I so want to see this place succeed, as I know it can (if it takes these issues seriously, and takes the help of concerned community members, including myself, and others who I know who are also concerned about the University’s approach towards issues of race). In the sense, its approach to these subjects is nonspecific. “BAME” doesn’t help anyone.
What HEIs more generally should be doing is looking at the subtleties of race and identity, since BAME doesn’t take look at nuance or cultural heritage, locking culture, history and identity into a draw never to be seen again.
What the University is currently doing is not good enough. Advertising the diversity of students whilst simulataneously not investigating issues that hurt students, including racism. Diversity is a con, as it:
“often creates a happy impression; it is how an organisation appears(Ahmed, 2018: 334).
welcoming to those who appear different by drawing on those who appear different. Diversity can appear as an invitation, an open door, translated into a minorities welcome! Come in, come in”
There is a scab over a tumour throughout the sector. That tumour is institutional racism. Sir William Macpherson spoke about this in the Macpherson Report, investigating the flawed police investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Wendy Williams doesn’t mention it by name, but she doesn’t need to, in Windrush Lessons Learned. Neither did Baroness McGregor-Smith in her review into race at work. Whilst these are not HE-specific, they all have correlations with universities. Institutional violence is pervasive in all institutions. Look at the relevant recommendations.
Now more than ever, in this historical moment, with Black Lives Matter and Coronavirus; as an institution, it should be studying institutional racism and structural inequalities, but more importantly and specifically, institutional violence. Black Lives Matter and COVID-19 are linked. Health and race have a history that go back to the days of the Windrush Generation when the women of that generation were called to fill labour shortages that still exist today. Especially, in healthcare, pertinent when we are currently in the worst public health crisis since the Spanish Flu in 1918.
To understand race, we must study racism, how it came to be and why. Which would mean interrogating higher education’s ties to histories of slavery, empire and colonialism. Race doesn’t exist, it’s a construct. It was created. We must stumble around in the dark and come face-to-face with the architects of colonial racial thinking. The people that allowed British colonialism to be so successful. That’s one way we help students.
We know who constructed Nazism and that ideology because how Britain defeated Hitler is embedded into the national consciousness. So, why should we treat Britain’s colonial history any different? We need to find the Joseph Goebells characters of the British Empire and study them.
Penultimately, I will end in asking why the University made the FBL BAME Project Lead redundant in July 2019?* A person whose job it was to do research into the ethnicity award gap. Someone who wrote reports and made recommendations. In the axing of this role, I’m inclined to believe the University did not like their recommendations, and thus did not act upon them. The signals it sends that they discontinued this role while the award gap is seemingly important to all universities baffles me.
In addition, does the University intend to replace the Diversity and Inclusion Lead in HR, whose contract ended.* The D&I Lead did some sterling work this last academic year, both in setting up staff networks as well as her work for LGBT History Month and Women’s History Month, all while on fixed-term part-time contract (at two days a week). If the University is going to take equality seriously, it needs to put resources behind it and recruit people that are specialists in that area.
Passionate people that will do the work and two days a week part-time fixed-term is not good enough. Only one staff member with little support? It very much looks like the University is cutting back on equalities. You can do better.
I will end in saying, when we do not look at the roots of a problem, they fester and that hurts everyone. Case in point: racism and policing. And the recommendations in The Macpherson Report have simply remained recommendations. When we want to solve problems, we don’t look to the leaves, we look to the roots so we can stop them happening again. From Wednesday, I will no longer be at the Students’ Union but I will still be a worried, concerned local resident. How the University has responded to Black Lives matter is simply not good enough and if they continue on this path, it risks damaging its reputation beyond belief. You. Can. Do. Better.
However, this needn’t be goodbye, but hello and the start of something. There is a community on your doorstep that want to help. Let us.
Tré Ventour (Vice President BME) – 2019/2020
PS: To anyone, including students that want to discuss issues of race further in this time of uncertainty (as we should all be discussing them always) or simply want to keep in contact, you can message me via the blog or you can get me via social media (Twitter / FB / IG), which is simply my name
*Note from the editors – the Criminology Team has been contacted by a representative of the University’s Human Resources department to clarify that the Equality and Diversity Lead left at the end of the fixed term contract period. In addition there was no redundancy in relation to a post in the Faculty of Business and Law (FBL).
Ahmed, S. (2018). Rocking the Boat: Women of Colour as Diversity Workers. In: Arday, J., Mirza, S. (eds). Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 331 –348.
Other Sources of Interest
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategry (2017). Race in the Workplace: The McGregor-Smith Review. (Chairperson: Ruby McGregor-Smith). London: TSO
Home Office. (1999). The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. (Chair: William Macpherson). London: TSO.
Home Office (2017). Report of the Independent Review of Deaths and Serious Incidents in Police Custody. (Chairperson: Elish Angiolini). London: TSO.
Home Office (2020). Windrush Lessons Learned Review. (Chairperson: Wendy Williams). London: TSO.
Ministry of Justice (2017). The Lammy Review. (Chairperson: David Lammy MP). London: TSO.
Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council. (2020). ‘Our Nine-Point Plan to Advance Racial Equality in Northamptonshire: June 2020,’ https://northantsrec.org, [online]. Available from: https://northantsrec2013.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/9-point-plan-to-advance-racial-equality-in-northamptonshire-final.pdf
Public Health England. (2020). Disparities in the risk and outcomes of COVID-19, (Chairperson: Public Health England). London: TSO.
To defeat fascism, Education must #decolonise
When I was a boy, growing up in Northamptonshire in the middle of England, I learned a lot of history from my own family. It was at home I learned about the cruel tenure of colonialism and the British Empire, not at school. My parents and grandparents told me of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and times where there was insignia to No Irish, No Black, No Dogs on shopfronts. They told me of “Keep Britain white” and Neil Kenlock’s iconic photograph. How Britain made the Windrush and their children, (both children of the British Empire unwelcome). Recently I saw This is England for the first time, and couldn’t help but feel we be might going back to an imitation of Powell, the NF, and his rivers of blood. I’m afraid. However, the difference between now and then is that today it’s everyone versus racism.
Like many of my Black and brown colleagues, we are never more fearful than when we are in a room full of white men. That stench of white male privilege is foul. Now, that’s some funk! I was made to relive my public school days when I saw the scenes of fascists fighting the police. When I saw these men defending another fascist, Winston Churchill, I was made to relive the trauma of school, where I was monkeychanted and called wog. Told to “eff off, you Black bastard” and that’s putting it kindly. These Neo-Nazis reminded me of people I went to school with. And since Black Lives Matter have come out once again, I have been called all kinds of things.
“Go back to your own country”… “ape” … “nigger lips” – this is what happens when you fight racists online, most of my racial trauma as an adult comes from the worldwide web
In my heart of hearts, I hope we do not go back to that time where Stephen Graham’s Combo is a commonality. London’s scenes showed me the zeitgeist of Britain’s swaggering xenophobia. That Britain is more Bill Sykes than Liz Bennett. The fact this country has a history of racism and you can go through the education system and not be taught about race once just shows you the level of brainwashing. And more importantly, the denial of our past and present. That aspiring teachers can go through initial teacher education [ITE] and not do anything on race equality, including the differences between teaching white and Black children (equity > equality). That when I am called those horrific names, I know they come from racism embedded in the unconscious, historically popularised by men like Edward Long, slave trader-historian, but he was also a devotee to pseudoscientific racism.
The Windrush Scandal: they were colonised, enslaved and then repatriated; so will we implement this history onto curricula in the years to come? I won’t hold my breath.
For me, those images of white men fighting police cast my mind to The Battle of Cable Street in 1936, but also that whole era of anti-fascism and Black shirts that lead up to the beginning of the Second World War. That in our pursuit to impliment Black history on the curriculum, this can’t detract from the fact we have histories of working-class narratives that need to be told as well. From Stonewall (1969) to Thatcherism and the Miners’ Strikes in the 1980s to the Irish and the Jews brining an end to Oswald Mosely in 1936, to the Bristol Bus Boycott (1963) and the Notting Hill Riots in 1958.
The late Peter Fryer wrote “nowhere within the British Empire were black people passive victims. On the contrary, they were everywhere active resisters” and I would push that quote on to working class people in general. From the role of Black teachers in white schools of thought to the women of Grunwick in South Africa, passivity in times of oppression does not come natural to the human spirit. Now, when we push back against the status quo, a small minority of white men think we’re curtailing their rights. We are not taking away Englishness, simply putting back what was taken.
We have a history of radical political thought in this country, on both sides of the political spectrum. And the rise of the far-right in both parliament and the population shows a Britain in conflict. Yet, seeing how Britain’s diversity is pushing back against the Boris Johnsons and the Britain Firsts of this world does make me proud to be a born-and-bred Briton. That Tommy Robinson’s hooligans causing trouble do not speak for my white friends and this new wave of thought is in the tint of C. L. R James and George Padmore. That Black Lives Matter follows in the footsteps of Garvey, King and X.
It is chilling to say the least, that our ancestors fought facism before, winning with far fewer resources than what we have now – and “we know that history records the achievements of empires and imperial civilization more than it does the humanizing and civilizing contributions of emancipation movements” (Gopal, 2019: 27). What makes history interesting to me is the diversity of characters, pertinent to the story of this country. Whether we’re talking Indians during Votes for Women, Afro-Romans on Hadrians Wall or the life and times of role models like WW2
codebreaker Alan Turing, part of our national story and his sexuality is honestly the least interesting thing about him.
To fight police without thought of consequence is reserved to privileged straight white men. When the Suffragetes did it, there were consequences. When people of colour have done it there have been consequences (esp. Black people). Breonna Taylor was killed whilst she slept. Emmett Till was considered a threat a fourteen years old. 184 Black and minority ethnic people have died in police custody since 1990 (Inquest). The only people in society who have the gall to take on police without thought of consequence is able-bodied, white, cisgendered, straight men. Why? You only have to look at the British history books and how they are written, in their image.
When the worst war criminals in human history are white men glorified as heroes (i.e Churchill), is it any surprise white male privilege ran riot when those fascists violently retaliated against the Black Lives Matter movement?
Works of Note
Fryer, P. (1988). Black People in the British Empire. London: Pluto.
Gopal, P. (2019) Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent. London: Verso.