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Black Lives Matter: An Open Letter

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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. 

This statement (June 4) is vague as to what change they aim to bring about, and looks nothing more than what many institutions are doing, virtue signalling

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. 

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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
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”

(Ahmed, 2018: 334).

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.

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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.

Yours,

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

Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

*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).

Referencing

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.


5 Comments

  1. Lesley Cobbina says:

    In my first year at the university I struggled to fit in as a black girl in a class with one black boy and one mixed race girl (there are 23 of us). I was in multiple situations where other students would make racist jokes, not directly to me, but amongst themselves as if I couldn’t hear them. I was told that I was defensive when trying to explain how what they were saying was wrong. One day a white male in my class was showing a video to other students on our break. He then said out loud “Jeremy Clarkson said N****“ and then began to laugh . Every white person that was sat in the corridor just looked at me and I froze I didn’t know what to say. Then I managed to open my mouth and reply “never say that again”. I went to my lecturers after this incident to complain about what had been happening because it started to effect my motivation to come to lectures I was told ‘ I don’t think he’s racist I think he’s just ignorant because of where he grew up, so you just have to educate him’ nothing happened to that boy. After this incident I began to doubt myself maybe I wasn’t doing enough to make sure this wasn’t happening . I became quite depressed I constantly would return back home to London to feel like belonged somewhere because I didn’t feel comfortable in Northampton. My dad called the university to complain and nothing was done until the acting course held a culture day for both courses so that we could get educated together. This made everything settle down for a little while, but then started second year. I vowed to protect my mental health at all cost this year which I did. I would go to uni and have warm up leaders that would play songs with the N word in to which a small number of my class mates would say the N word. Nothing had changed. This year I have been called racist for trying to defend my blackness. I was told ‘You only care about black people’. When defending myself I am told I need to calm down. Don’t get me wrong I love my course it is an amazing course. They have tried very hard to make our work diverse this year by studying practitioners that are women or who are from the BAME community, and bring in visiting lectures of ethnic minority backgrounds. The lecturers are amazing. It just seems to me that there is no training in how to deal with these things. More needs to be done because I wouldn’t want any other black students to experience what I experienced during my first 2 years at the university.

    Like

    • Paula Bowles says:

      I am so sorry to hear about your experiences. It sounds as if you have had an extremely tough time. Three of us are Mental Health First Aiders, is there anything we can do to help? If you think there is, feel free to use the blog contact form and we’ll do our best to support. Keep safe, well and strong.

      Like

      • Lesley Cobbina says:

        I’m doing much better now thanks. However, it is extremely important to me to make sure something is done to support the BAME students that come after me. No one should have to feel that way .

        Like

      • Paula Bowles says:

        I’m really glad to hear you are thriving, despite everything you’ve gone through. I agree, it is extremely important to make sure support is in place, we all must do much better. If there’s anything you think we can do to help or if you fancy writing a blog for us, just get in contact. Take care of yourself and keep doing what you’re doing.

        Like

    • Tré Ventour says:

      Hi Lesley. I’m so sorry to hear of the ordeal that you went through. I saw below that you’re doing better now. I’m not in my role anymore at the University, however, if you want to talk about any of this, I am here. Just drop me a message on Facebook and we can chat. Speak soon 🙂

      Like

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