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A month of Black history through the eyes of a white, privileged man… an open letter

Dear friends,

Over the years, in my line of work, there was a conviction, that logic as the prevailing force allows us to see social situations around (im)passionately, impartially and fairly.  Principles most important especially for anyone who dwells in social sciences.  We were “raised” on the ideologies that promote inclusivity, justice and solidarity.  As a kid, I remember when we marched as a family against nuclear proliferation, and later as an adult I marched and protested for civil rights on the basis of sexuality, nationality and class.  I took part in anti-war marches and protested and took part in strikes when fees were introduced in higher education.    

All of these were based on one very strongly, deeply ingrained, view that whilst the world may be unfair, we can change it, rebel against injustices and make it better.  A romantic view/vision of the world that rests on a very basic principle “we are all human” and our humanity is the home of our unity and strength.  Take the environment for example, it is becoming obvious to most of us that this is a global issue that requires all of us to get involved.  The opt-out option may not be feasible if the environment becomes too hostile and decreases the habitable parts of the planet to an ever-growing population. 

As constant learners, according to Solon (Γηράσκω αεί διδασκόμενος)[1] it is important to introspect views such as those presented earlier and consider how successfully they are represented.  Recently I was fortunate to meet one of my former students (@wadzanain7) who came to visit and talk about their current job.  It is always welcome to see former students coming back, even more so when they come in a reflective mood at the same time as Black history month.  Every year, this is becoming a staple in my professional diary, as it is an opportunity to be educated in the history that was not spoken or taught at school. 

This year’s discussions and the former student’s reflections made it very clear to me that my idealism, however well intended, is part of an experience that is deeply steeped in white men’s privilege.  It made me question what an appropriate response to a continuous injustice is.  I was aware of the quote “all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” growing up, part of my family’s narrative of getting involved in the resistance, but am I true to its spirit?  To understand there is a problem but do nothing about it, means that ultimately you become part of the same problem you identify.  Perhaps in some regards a considered person is even worse because they see the problem, read the situation and can offer words of solace, but not discernible actions.  A light touch liberalism, that is nice and inclusive, but sits quietly observing history written in the way as before, follow the same social discourses, but does nothing to change the problems.  Suddenly it became clear how wrong I am.  A great need to offer a profound apology for my inaction and implicit collaboration to the harm caused. 

I was recently challenged in a discussion about whether people who do not have direct experience are entitled to a view.  Do those who experience racism voice it?  Of course, the answer is no; we can read it, stand against it, but if we have not experienced it, maybe, just maybe, we need to shut up and let other voices be heard and tell their stories.  Black history month is the time to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.

Sincerely yours

M



[1] A very rough translation: I learn, whilst I grow, life-long learning.

Is unconscious bias a many-headed monster?

When I was fourteen, I was stopped and searched in broad daylight. I was wearing my immaculate (private) school uniform – tie, blazer, shoes… the works. The idea I went to private school shouldn’t matter, but with that label comes an element of “social class.” But racial profiling doesn’t see class. And I remember being one of those students who was very proud of his uniform. And in cricket matches, we were all dressed well. I remember there being a school pride to adhere to and when we played away, we were representing the school and its reputation that had taken years to build. And within those walls of these private schools, there was a house pride.

Yet when I was stopped, it smeared a dark mark against the pride I had. I was a child. Innocent. If it can happen to me – as a child – unthreatening – it can really happen to anyone and there’s nothing they can to stop it. Here I saw unconscious bias rear its ugly head, like a hydra – a many-headed monster (you have to admire the Greeks, you’re never stuck for a metaphor!)

If we’re to talk about unconscious bias, we must say that it only sees the surface level. It doesn’t see my BA Creative Writing nor would it see that I work at a university. But unconscious bias does see Black men in hoodies as “trouble” and it labels Black women expressing themselves as “angry.”

Unconscious bias forces people of colour to censor their dress code – to not wear Nike or Adidas in public out of fear that it increases your chances of being racially profiled. Unconscious bias pushes Black and Asians to code-switch. If a White person speaks slang, it’s cool. When we do it, it’s ghetto. That’s how I grew up and when I speak well, I’ve had responses such as “What good English you speak.” Doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t.

How you speak, what you wear – all these things are scrutinised more when you don’t have White Privilege. And being educated doesn’t shield non-White people (British people of colour included) from racist and xenophobic attacks, as author Reni Eddo-Lodge says in her book:

“Children of immigrants are often assured by well-meaning parents that educational access to the middle classes can absolve them from racism. We are told to work hard, go to a good university, and get a good job.”

The police can stop and question you at any time. The search comes into play, depending on the scenario. But when I was growing up, my parents gave me The Talk – on how Black people can get hassled by police. For me, I remember my parents sitting me down at ten years old. That at some point, you could be stopped and searched at any time – from aimlessly standing on a street corner, to playing in the park. Because you are Black, you are self-analysing your every move. Every footstep, every breath.

And to be stopped and searched is to have your dignity discarded in minutes. When it happened, the officer called me Boy – like Boy was my name – hello Mr Jim Crow –  like he was an overseer and I was a slave – hands blistering in cotton fields – in the thick of southern summertime heat. Call me Boy. Call me Thug. No, Call me Target. No, slave. Yes master, no master, whatever you say master. This was not Mississippi, Selma or Spanish Town – this was Northamptonshire in the 2000s and my name is Tré.

Yes, Northamptonshire. And here in 2019, the statistics are damning. Depending on which Black background you look at, you are between six and thirteen times more likely to be stop and searched if you are Black than if you are White (British). And reading these statistics is an indication of conversations we need to be having – that there is a difference between a Black encounter with the police and a White encounter. And should we be discussing the relationship between White Privilege and unconscious bias?

Are these two things an overspill of colonialism? Are they tied up in race politics and how we think about race?

Whilst these statistics are for Northamptonshire, it wouldn’t be controversial to say that stop and search is a universal narrative for Black people in Europe and the Americas. Whether we’re talking about being stopped by police on the street or being pressed for papers in 1780s Georgia. Just to live out your existence; for many its tiring – same story, different era.

You are between six and thirteen times more likely to be stopped if you are Black than if you are White (British) – but you know… let’s give Northamptonshire police tasers and see what happens. Ahem.

Bibliography

Eddo-Lodge, Reni. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018. Print

Empower like Michelle

If you go to Freshers’, you will probably think this is for White people. But you’ve got to occupy your space. Better get used to occupying your space now because you’ll have to fight wherever you go, university or otherwise. Don’t let that deter you from your goals but more vitally, don’t let anybody make you feel bad about yourself. Don’t be silent in the discussions on slavery or the prison system. Use your voice, a sonicboom in the seminar. Don’t be mute to appease the White fragility of your peers, or even your lecturers and personal academic tutors.

You worked hard to get here, so occupy your space. Fill these spaces with jollof rice and jerk chicken and calypso and steel drums – the guts, determination and sheer willpower your parents and grandparents had when they arrived all those years ago. Don’t ever feel that you have to dilute your opinions for White consumption, or tell bitesize histories for the masses. In that Business class, talk loud about the Cheshire and Lancashire cotton mills written in the blood of African-American slaves.

Students, you might get lecturers that call you angry, who will have a hard time coming to terms with their own prejudice and White privilege. You will see that within a few weeks of studying. But keep your head down and think about graduation. Come and speak to me at the Students’ Union if you have any worries or just want to vent. Sometimes it’s just about finding solace in someone that gets it. Cry into that cheeky Nando’s. Buy that weave. Write a damn good assignment and prove all the naysayers wrong.

You will also find lecturers that are willing to listen to your experiences of racism and prejudice. They will implore you to write a dissertation that’s personal to you. You will find lecturers that give a shit, and will stand by you to the very end – who will say it’s absolutely fine to lace your dissertation with personal history – roots, rocks, and rebellion – academic staff that are activists in their own right (but will never openly admit it!)

Write about the politics of Black hair. Write about the Windrush Scandal or the legacy of colonialism on the Black body, or even Black men and mental health. Write every assignment for your aunties, who live in headwraps, talking in Twi and give you sound advice. Write in ruthless rebellion to the White Eurocentric reading of your degree, break the colour bar in style!

You will likely not relate to your course content. You will find it reflects the experiences of White people. No Afropean stories. No love for Sarah Forbes on History, or the Slave Trade cases of the 1700s on Law – the cases that helped forge the legal profession into what it is today. Or even the racial theories of the 18th and 19th century that we living in the remnants of – not Edward Long’s History of Jamaica nor the Black writers that top bestsellers lists. Write about a decolonised curriculum and inclusive course content.

When your lecturers make no allusion to American Slavery when you study the Industrial Revolution, give them the evilest evils you can muster. And challenge them on it. Leave them shook. Educate your “woke” White friends on why this is important. And when it comes to race, don’t feel you need to talk about race just because you’re the only non-White person in the class.


When you come to university, you will feel the urge to be someone that you are not just to fit in. BE YOU. You will try studenty things. JUST DO YOU. You’ll go out drinking, even if you don’t normally drink. You will join every society at Union Day and your emails will be chocka block. You’ll change your accent and “be friends” with people you dislike to conform to social norms. You will then admit you hate going out out and prefer a good book, or one of my poetry nights or just a chat with good people in your halls.

Tell yourself “Black is beautiful.” You know it, I know it. But there are people out there that’ll try to make you feel bad about your culture, as is life. Come back to campus in January with that Angela Davis afro, or be a dreadlock rastaman. Play cricket, like Jofra Archer or play football like Raheem Sterling. And, your hair is not an exotic specimen to gawked at and touched like a museum exhibit. Remember, say no. No means no. Always.

Black students, walk with pride. YOU DO YOU. Be united. You’ll see quickly that there are forces that are waiting for you to make a mistake. To fail. To point the finger. You’ll see quickly that failure is racialised and that failure in a White person is not as bad. You’ll see that we live in a society that doesn’t include you in its definition of beauty standards. So girls, when someone says “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl,” pay them no mind. Find beauty in your melanin. Find your tribe. Sisterhood is paramount.

When someone asks “Where are you from?” – it’s fine to say London or Milton Keynes or any British town or city. You do not need to entertain them when they ask “Where are you really from?” You can be British and African. You can be British and Caribbean. You belong here. You can just be British. And that is also fine. Previously, you’d not have found events that represent Black people or felt inclusive. But my philosophy is “Black History Month is every month, 365 days a year.” October, November forever. See me!

Listen, you might be made to feel conscious of your otherness and not everyone will get your “I Am Proud of My Blackness” mentality. Not everyone will understand the nuanced politics of Blackness at Northampton. That even in inaction, the supposed “woke” White people are still complicit in racism. And remember it isn’t YOUR JOB to explain what is racist and what is not. Do not take on that emotional labour. You are not the mouthpiece for Black people, and you don’t have to be.

You will have days where you will say “I hate this town, I want to go home – there is no culture and nothing to do” but Northampton can work for you. There are other communities of African and Caribbean here where you will be welcomed with rice and stew. You will find family and community.

And you are not alone. There are a lot of us here. Build communities. Join the resident ACS (African-Caribbean Society). Empower yourselves. Come to see me, as your Student Union representative. Look after each other. Be good to yourselves and one another – and above all, enjoy it.

Yours,

Tré Ventour

Vice President BME

Northampton Students’ Union

Your Name Is Not BAME

My name is Tré Ventour and I am the Students’ Union’s Vice President BME Sabbatical Officer. When I’ve asked students what BME stands for, most have been clueless – Black Minority Ethnic. The same could be said for BAME – Black Asian Minority Ethnic. I was elected to represent ethnic minority students. But I’ve been asking myself how much longer will this 47% be an ethnic minority? At Northampton, they will soon be the majority. This 14,000-student university in which nearly 7000 fit into this BME box.

Pigeon-holed. To be put into a box. I don’t like to think in boxes. I try not to think in labels but in this world, it’s naive to be colourblind. In the education sector, in this day and age, especially at Northampton, to not see race is to ignore the experiences of nearly 7,000 students – nearly 7,000 stories about potential hate crimes, and what about BAME members of staff? We must see race. We must see sex, class, and gender (all genders).

To be colourblind is to live life high on privilege – to exist without the consequences of hate crime. Some people live with racism, sexism and / or homophobia all their lives.

Many say “there’s one race, the human race.” That may be true but how comfortable must you be in your existence to come to that notion? And then push that notion on those who experience racism on a daily basis.

When I’ve spoken to students about BAME or ethnic minority, they say “Just call me by my name.” Students are flesh and bone, more than acronyms. And I do what they tell me to do (in a manner of speaking / within reason). I’m not Vice President, I’m not Mr Ventour; I am Tré and I am here to help students, to represent students (of colour) – more so Black students that look at White authority and see invader. Who I have heard compare university to apartheid South Africa – one in, one out – to a Zimbabwe under British rule – De Beers, Rhodes and racism. Fear and exclusion.

Call them minorities, call them BME, call them BAME. Yet, this acronym just seems like coded language for Black. And at Northampton, when people say BME or BAME, they mean Black students, so just say what you mean, “Black.”

And if these labels, if these pigeon-hole terms help Higher Education solve issues like attainment perhaps it’s worth it. But what I can say is that not all Black experiences are the same. To be a Black British student is not the same as to be a Black international from Africa, the EU or elsewhere.

But to be a person of colour in this country is to be immigrant, British or otherwise. To be overly polite. To be overly grateful or gracious. To be a good immigrant.

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