Calling a group of highly educated, further education and higher education leaders ‘toddlers’ may be a novel way of encouraging action but that is exactly how John Amaechi chose to frame his session on pushing past the discomfort that conversations about racism can have in predominantly white circles.
“When you get people who are experts and you put them in a room talking about a subject they are less adept at, they start to feel like toddlers. The temptation then is to sit quietly and not say anything in the hope that you won't break anything. However, we must push past that discomfort when it comes to racism.
“Many of you feel really challenged with the idea of talking about race. What matters is what you can do and there is low hanging fruit. If you want to create an inclusive culture, it's you.”
He says that in order to create that culture however, then we need to understand exactly what culture means when it comes to creating truly inclusive organisations and higher education institutions.
“I was listening to a consultant speaking once, and it was like watching P.T. Barnum. He said that culture is ‘impossible to define, it's like smoke.’ I was sitting there thinking, wow, this is amazing. Complete nonsense, but what a show. Culture can actually be defined in really simple ways. It is defined by the worst behaviour that you tolerate.
“People love to talk about bad apples, and think that if there is only a couple in their organisation then they're doing ok. This misses the point of the proverb, which is that one bad apple spoils the barrel. Rot, if not contained, contaminates everything.”
John said that people are very keen to do ‘rhetorical’ things when it comes to racism, because it’s ‘very easy to say stuff’, but that progress only happens when people do things.
“No black person has ever been wounded by a racist thought. No woman has been wounded by a sexist thought. No gay person has been wounded by a homophobic thought. People are wounded by what you do. The first thing you can do if you want to make a difference is take a stand.
“Taking a stand means stating it, unapologetically and with certainty. You may think, as a leader, that people know where you stand but that isn’t true. People assume things so you have to tell them differently. When you tell people what you stand for, you tell them what you don't stand for."
Dr Amaechi appeared as part of Tackling Racism on Campus a project commissioned by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) with a sector-wide commitment to tackle racism in Scottish further and higher education. The project aims to develop evidence-based resources to be used by Scottish universities and colleges as they respond to the findings highlighted in the 2019 Equality and Human Rights Commission inquiry report.
The session was recorded and those working for member institutions can view it online.
Download new resources to help tackle racism on campus designed with Khadija Mohammed, Senior Lecturer at the University of the West of Scotland and Chair of the Anti-Racist Curriculum (ARC) project and funded by the SFC.