If honesty is the best policy, then I have a confession to make.
I had mixed feelings about the race project, caught between a sense of “here we go again” and “wow, a fresh new initiative that might actually make a difference”. Having seen many race equality initiatives come and go over the last twenty years and realising that things haven’t really changed that much for the better, both my head and heart settled for the latter.
I’m glad to say that it was the right choice. Hearing the voices at that first group meeting in February 2020, it was clear that there was the right blend of knowledge, expertise and passion around the table. Importantly, this work was being supported by the Big Players™ in the form of Scottish Funding Council and Advance HE. I knew that this time, we actually might be able to make a difference.
The need for the project was crystal clear. Although the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) report into racial harassment in university campuses across Great Britain was not surprising, what was concerning was the typical reaction of some senior figures across the sector. There was “shock” at such unpleasant findings. “This doesn’t happen here” was a common retort. “Oh, but it does” was the unanimous reply from practitioners and activists. You know, those in the know.
If the EHRC’s findings and recommendations were significant enough to prompt the sector into action at the end of last year, it is a thousand times more important now. The unprecedented airtime devoted to the latest incarnation of #BlackLivesMatter, triggered by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police, has led to the sharpest global focus on racism in a generation. It has even piqued the interest of those who don’t normally go anywhere near a debate about race and racism. Some achievement considering we are in the midst of the biggest global crisis in living memory.
As educators developing our next generations of decision makers and innovators, the further and higher education sectors have a crucial part to play in tackling racism. We need to build upon this defining moment so that the sentiments and solidarity expressed in corporate statements and images do not end up becoming empty gestures. It is easy to post a black square on Instagram or retweet a Martin Luther King quote, but slightly harder to challenge institutional racism and white privilege.
If #BlackLivesMatter then the hashtag shouldn’t be dusted off and wheeled out like some sort of magic formula every time a major incident occurs. It should be a permanent fixture on a par with how our sectors have responded to the very real challenges of mental health and gender-based violence.
When the hashtags stop trending and the stories disappear from news feeds, we have a responsibility to keep the momentum going by embracing the campaign and resources from this project, and using them to instigate real and honest conversations about tackling racism in all of its forms as part of our day to day interactions. Otherwise, we will have just seen another false dawn.
Join our webinar, Critical Conversations on Racism, 14:30 – 15:30 Thursday 25 June 2020.
The webinar will be led by Khadija Mohammed, Senior Lecturer, University of the West of Scotland, and Barbara Becnel, PhD Student, 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.