Last month, I received an email from Get IN Westminster and Model Westminster - two organisations dedicated to the political empowerment of students and young people - inviting me to speak at their event, ‘The Miseducation?’, on racism in Higher Education (HE). They informed me that the event wanted to prompt a discussion about how racism manifests in areas such as the Black Attainment Gap, admission practices, mental health facilities in Universities, representation in senior leadership and funding – all crucial conversations, where the voices of Warwick students should be heard. They also mentioned that they’ll be publishing a report which will outline themes and recommendations, to be circulated to Universities, other key gatekeepers, and to form a submission to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s national inquiry into racism in HE. Given that the BBC itself outlined Warwick as one of the key Universities to hit the headlines in terms of racism-related incidents, I felt it was important that Warwick students were represented in this space.
So, on 11th January, I headed to the Houses of Parliament after work to deliver the following speech. Your SU has fed into the national inquiry; I hope that by the time you finish reading, you will too! Click HERE to contribute before the closing date of 15th February.
“In an honours-level Literature seminar, a classmate who is a person of colour contributed to the group discussion by highlighting the text's dealing with colonial history and surrounding issues. To this, our tutor responded by looking down at the register, and then, becoming overtly surprised by the student's Italian surname and her being a woman of colour, he spoke it out loud, slowly. Marvelling, he questioned her about her ethnicity, asking "where do your people come from?” The student then proceeded, albeit hesitatingly, to provide details of where she was born and her parents’ countries of origin. I found the whole scene highly disconcerting and hugely irritating because rather than respond and expand on the discussion points raised by the student (that were significant to the text and had not previously been addressed by the tutor), the tutor instead diverted the discussion, thus wasting valuable lesson time to satisfy his own personal intrigue. The language used - 'your people' - highlighted the tutor's highly problematic views about, and knowledge of, ethnicities, culture, history, society etc.”
That was just one experience of a student at Warwick who responded to Warwick Speak Out, a campaign I founded last year as a space for students of colour to submit their experiences of racism, which uncovered a plethora of things happening amongst students and staff, on and off campus, from microagressions to racially-motivated violence.
Overall, Speak Out had 37 respondents to the online reporting tool, and 11 attendees at the focus group we held. The statistics from the follow-up report are as follows:
- 18 of the responses raised an issue regarding words or actions of staff, including lecturers; academic tutors; residential life tutors; campus security; staff within the immigration department; and members of staff in University outlets.
- There were 33 incidents reported perpetrated by fellow students, notably by peers in academic settings; those within accommodation; and those in student-run societies.
- 40 of the incidents reported noted verbal offences, including slurs; references to racially-charged violence; racist ‘jokes’; othering of students of colour; and inappropriate or derogatory questions or comments.
- There were also 3 reports of physical offences, such as hair-touching and more harrowing examples that I’m not at liberty to share with you.
The report collated student experiences & opinions, and in doing so, identified some key thematic areas that students reported:
- One being the quotidian nature of racism, with one respondent saying “it happens every day”;
- Several students talked about the impact of racism on mental health and wellbeing – one student said: “It's disgusting that students of colour have to cope with the stress of dealing with such ignorance and arrogance on top of general university-related and induced anxieties”
- Others mentioned how structural racism manifests within the education experience – a student expressed that during seminars that discussed race, they felt “expected to be the spokesperson for black people”;
- Students of colour also talked about a lack of faith in the reporting system and in the University’s stance on racial discrimination, where it was felt that there’s a lack of accountability;
- The final theme discussed the privilege of white students being dismissive and unaware of the impacts of race and racism.
And all of this is additional to the data we have across the sector around the Black attainment gap, the Black dropout rate, Black students’ likelihoods of accessing Russell Group universities and much, much more.
So, whilst that experience I read at the beginning is just one, that student is by no means alone. Across the sector, institutional racism operates in both visible and invisible ways. The dominant ideology – tasked with upholding not only whiteness, but cisnormativity, heteronormativity, misogyny, classism, and ableism – results in the structural erasure of Black and other marginalised narratives from curricula, pedagogy, and the wider impact of the academy.
So, where do we go from here?
As Education Officer at Warwick SU this year – and the first Black woman Sabbatical Officer Warwick has ever had, I am putting much of my energy into founding the Warwick Decolonise network. As part of this project, and to contribute to the wider decolonise movement, the SU is hiring students to take a critical, anti-racist lens to the University and to meaningfully deconstruct the barriers to access, attainment and progression for students of colour.
Yet, the project goes further than this - it will be analysing the University’s partnerships, and impact on our region, the country, and the world from an anti-racist perspective. And we must also recognise that the decolonise movement is inherently crucial to rhetoric against marketisation, and in favour of a more democratised, student-led Higher Education system.
As well as the SU-led Decolonise project, this is an area where it’s been crucial to find allyship within the University. I’ve been lucky to find synergies in work that academics and other staff had been doing and, collectively, we have formed Warwick’s learning circle on anti-racist pedagogy and practice. This learning circle brings students and staff in the Warwick International Higher Education Academy (WIHEA) together to reimagine teaching and learning, with anti-racism as an ethos to underpin this new vision of education. The subgroups of this learning circle are on:
Anti-racist pedagogy, where we are developing methods and guidelines for teaching staff, so that they can reorient the teaching and learning environment to become more pluralist.
Another is on anti-racist training, creating a long-term learning community where, over a series of months, staff can begin a journey of learning and unlearning with regard to race and racism.
The 3rd and final subgroup, which I lead, is entitled students of colour’s experiences of racism and anti-racism, through which we’re re-launching Warwick Speak Out to fill the gaps in our knowledge, and looking to better understand students’ experiences of the intersections of racism and other oppressions.
Bringing all that work together, we’re hoping to make recommendations at the end of this academic year, which look to make Warwick a more conscious, well-rounded place for all our students.
And that’s why I love the title of this event – it’s not just Black students, but all students are being miseducated, with a whitewashed, Eurocentric perspective of the world. Though, what more can we expect from the UK academy made up of several institutions which, historically, upheld eugenicist ideals in order to “justify” slavery and colonialism? This is why we cannot wait for others to change the state of play for us.
It won’t be without struggle or opposition, but it is within our power to right the wrongs of this long-standing, Centuries-old miseducation and, for a bit of a cheesy ending, in the wise words of resistance from Ms Lauryn Hill: “I wrote these words for everyone who struggles in their youth, who won’t accept deception instead of what is the truth.”