The session began with Khadija asking Barbara what role racism had played in her life and the effect it had had on her career and growing up.
She said: “As an African American I get White people asking me why I am talking about the past. I start by looking at my parents. In America, I am defying stereotypes. I was raised in a middle-class home, my mother was college-educated, she is an educator herself actually and yet I have still suffered racism.
“My mother spent time in Mobile, Alabama as a teenager. She was slapped in the face by a White shopkeeper for questioning the amount of change she received. That was a lynching offence in Alabama, the Ku Klux Klan turned up at the door looking for her but luckily she was out. If she wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here today.
“There have been six lynchings [Black men hanging from trees] in America in the last three weeks. Have we gotten past that terrible phenomenon? I’d say not.
“My mother had to go to a Black college because White colleges would not accept black students. When she graduated, she couldn’t get a job as a teacher in Philadelphia because they wouldn’t hire a Black educator. She had to work as a secretary, reporting to White people who didn’t even have a high school diploma.
“She taught me that it was so hard to be Black and wished that if she came back in a second life she would be White. She trained me to understand that I had to be five or ten times better than White people at everything and if I failed, they may not give that job to another Black person for 30 years.
“Therefore, 50, 60, 70, 100 years of racism has profoundly affected me.”
Barbara went on to explain that her White grandmother abandoned her father, who was sent to a Catholic orphanage and mercilessly beaten and racially abused every day. Her parents’ experiences led her to live in a paradigm of “how do I get White people to support me and believe in me?” She only started to shake that feeling when a black gang leader asked her what she was afraid of?
“That was the first moment of decolonisation for me.”
Khadija said that Barbara’s story really resonated with her, despite being from a different background, over 5000 miles away.
“My parents also said things like ‘don’t stand out’, ‘keep your head down’. My teachers said to them ‘she won’t amount to much’ simply because English wasn’t my first language.
“I started to ‘play White’ and change my identity just to fit in and no child should be made to feel like that.”
They then started to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement and what needs to be done to use this opportunity to embed change in society.
Barbara said: “Black Lives Matter is a moment in a 401-year movement. We’ve been fighting for these things for centuries and we’re having to fight again for some of these things that we thought we had won, such as civil rights and voting rights legislation. These bills have been rolled back in recent years by a conservative United States Supreme Court.
“Black Lives Matter was actually founded about seven years ago and at the time, middle-class Black people, including me, didn’t really like it because they were politically dramatic. But actually, what they were trying to do was put the onus on White liberal leaders to do something about racism. White America has a lot to do to get rid of systemic racism.
“It has now been really embraced, but will White folks stay with it when it moves on to systemic racism and they have to share some of their privilege? It’s easy to support change when you are not affected.”
Khadija moved on to the work she is doing to help BAME academic staff from Early Years to Higher education.
“I co-founded a charitable organisation called SAMEE, to help BAME educators. Some teachers revealed they didn’t disclose to their senior leaders that they were involved in SAMEE, they felt a sense of fear and did not want to mark themselves out to be different. They felt that assimilation would be the only way to progress and gain promotion.
“I was growing tired of strategising and playing the game. I wanted to challenge the stereotypical assumptions that young people held and by doing that I had to go through a process of ‘unlearning’ and get to know myself for the first time. As an educator, that begged the question ‘does the curriculum reflect the lived experiences of BAME young people?’
“BAME educators talk about the daily microaggressions and racism they experience and sometimes it forces them to leave the profession. Sweeping that under the rug doesn’t help. I don’t want BAME young people to have the same experience as I did.”
“There will be uncomfortable conversations but that’s good to deconstruct and dismantle the structures. Condemning racism is socially accepted but this does not translate into the action required, we need tangible systemic change – we want Principals of colleges, universities to ensure that BAME students and staff don’t suffer from racial discrimination. We need to figure this out together.”
Symbolic gestures are okay as long as they are used to get somewhere else. We have to keep pushing so that what we do has some teeth to it and can make real change.
Barbara Becnel, PhD student at the University of Edinburgh
Advance HE is developing a suite of evidence-based resources in a project titled, Tackling racism on campus: Raising awareness and creating the conditions for confident conversations.
This project is funded by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) and led by an expert group of EDI practitioners, academics, tertiary education staff and students.
The resources are designed for staff and students in Scottish colleges and universities so that they have access to tools that support conversations about race and racism and whiteness. The steering group directing the project on behalf of the Scottish Funding Council was established in February 2020, formed of EDI specialists, university and college staff, students and SFC and Advance HE representatives. Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader in Early Years from the University of the West of Scotland, Khadija Mohammed is the appointed Chair.