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“Lasting change requires system change”

13 Oct 2020 | Advance HE Prof Rowena Arshad discusses how the University of Edinburgh has taken a strategic approach to advancing race equality, practical ways institutions can address race equality, and white allyship, as part of the fourth SFC-funded webinar on Progressing Race Equality in Higher Education.

Rowena Arshad, Chair of the Race Equality and Anti-Racist Sub-Group in The University of Edinburgh’s EDI Committee, says there is so much to be done to tackle White privilege, which is so engrained in society. She described what the University of Edinburgh’s Action Plan entails and the key practical things that can be done to make progress. She believes that the start of change must come from senior leaders.

“My observations are that you need clear, repeated senior leadership, and senior leaders being prepared to talk about race equality repeatedly, and lead by example. That is a signal for others to do the same. People who lead the initiatives have to have seniority and institutional knowledge and reach and networks. You have to call on all of these.

“Action has to be informed by BAME students and staff and informed White allies and the importance of data is paramount. Also, don’t compromise on terminology, and assist colleagues to understand terms, and be prepared for a backlash.”

She also said that one of the most worrying things she is experiencing at the moment is when White ‘allies’ suddenly go 'lukewarm on the issue'. “Allyship has come up a lot recently. It happened in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder when White people said ‘enough is enough’ but that is already starting to wane. What is getting me at the moment is when allies go lukewarm on the issue. It happens when common ground disappears and privileges have to be given up.

“Allyship is about challenging when systems are not up to scratch. But you have to make sure you don’t silence or marginalise efforts and work of BAME staff. For 17 years I didn’t get recognition from my institution and had to look for it outside. Those experiences cannot be repeated.

“Change takes time; people want progress quickly but it is not possible. Lasting change requires system changes. Individual actions are important but not enough on their own.”

Rowena then described how engrained racial prejudice is, and the legacy of colonialism as a barrier to progress: “White hegemony is so engrained that people say, ‘so we have to recruit a token woman, a token Black lecturer? What about quality?’ But who decided that X’s work is quality and Y’s isn’t?

“All of us have racial prejudice, including me, but the meaning of racism is deeply rooted in colonialism. Race Science was extremely prevalent in colonial times, including people like Charles Darwin, who thought men were above women and white people above others. There is still a perception that most of Asia, Africa, the Caribbean etc. is playing catch-up to the developed world, and a perception that Black people are intellectually inferior.”

Challenging authority

She says that these ideas are further ingrained by politics and people in power who seek to ‘divide and rule’ in order to maintain their status. While decolonising curricula has become a much-talked about topic recently, it faces deep-seated challenges such as the one above, when White people have to give up privilege. Who indeed “decided that X’s work is quality and Y’s isn’t?”

She continued: “There is also an issue with colonial knowledge, it has shaped what we know, what we recognise and how we reward knowledge. We aren’t saying delete knowledge, but situate it against colonialism and Race Science.

“There are disciplines that think they have more difficulty doing this than others, and I am sympathetic to that, but decolonisation can be applied across the curriculum. For example, in STEM subjects, we have to present both sides of the coin. Decolonising has to also be about reclaiming lost knowledge that we have ignored.”

Rowena said that she believes that improving people’s knowledge of issues is crucial in tackling those issues. “Inadequate understanding of an issue results in a lack of confidence in tackling the issue, and you can see the logic of this. The response tends to be to kick it into the long grass or to come up with a reason why the work cannot be done, usually for time or workload.”

Lack of knowledge can also lead people who want to make a change to not know how to go about it. “Lack of understanding can result in people going to look for anti-racist resources but not understanding what to do with it. It is similar to someone walking into a DIY shop having no idea what to buy because they’ve never done it before.

“Whether you are from a majority or minority grouping, this affects everyone. Obviously, there will be resistance. For so many decades, BAME academics have been asking for action on this and hopefully this is not something that fades away in the future.”

Beyond tokenism

Chair of the project Steering Group, Khadija Mohammed, was also present and gave a heartening update on the Race Declaration introduced at the previous webinar. “All 19 Universities and 25 colleges have endorsed the declaration but this is where the important work starts.

“The argument we are trying to make is that their needs to be a level of understanding that we need to move beyond tokenistic gestures. Once racial literacy is a strength and understood then we have a massive advantage, and we can start then giving a real sense of belonging to all staff and students in higher education.”

The previous webinar enabled sector leaders to discuss the impact of the declaration on their institutions, and reflect on the impact of the global pandemic on race equality progress in higher education. All of the guests including Richard Lochhead, Scottish Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science and Dr Donna MacKinnon, Director of Access, Learning and Outcomes at the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), endorsed the declaration and now all Scottish institutions and colleges have followed suit.

Richard Lochhead said: “We are united against racism. It has no place in our society, or in our colleges or university campuses. I would urge all colleges and universities to adopt the commitment, not just as words but as a call to action. The government’s vision for the future is grounded by its actions in the present. We are clear that any form of hate crime or discrimination is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated. The First Minister and all the Ministers in the Scottish government are committed to working with the public sector and others, to help them meet this and other outcomes.”

Dr Donna MacKinnon from SFC also affirmed their commitment to the declaration and hailed the work of the Steering Group: "I’m delighted to commit to the declaration. The energy, commitment and the sheer common sense of Khadija and the Steering Group is fantastic. This campaign is all about action, and how we practically deal with racism in society.

“I firmly believe in diverse workforces, and that the best and most productive workforces are diverse ones. The EHRC report challenges any sort of complacency in our institutions. We all have a responsibility to make sure students and staff do not feel excluded in university. Equality is central to the legislation that informs the work of SFC, and you can be assured of our commitment to racial equality going forwards.”

“Racism exists on our campuses and in our society. Call it what it is and reject it in all its forms. We stand united against racism.”

As part of the ‘Tackling racism on campus: Raising awareness and creating the conditions for confident conversations’ project, a fifth webinar on 21 October is an interactive session where the Steering Group will be inviting feedback from the audience on the assets under development, to move them from a statement to practical steps, to accountability. To find out more and book your place on the fifth webinar, click here.

The sixth webinar in the series linked to the project will focus on 'Decolonising the institution' and takes place on 27 November. For more information and booking instructions, click here.


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