What have we done? How not to be complicit in racism

18 June 2020
Randall Whittaker, Pro Vice Chancellor

In the wake of worldwide #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations, Professor Randall Whittaker, Pro-Vice- Chancellor Academic at Leeds Arts University, calls for structural change fuelled by lived experience.

My thoughts on social inequality in the UK with particular reference to universities are well-rehearsed and I will not repeat those.

I have taken a long time to formulate my thoughts on a matter which is not only deeply personal but also very complex. The brutal murder of George Floyd has awoken vivid memories of me growing up in apartheid South Africa. I was the first generation of black secondary school pupils to be allowed admission to a former white-only school.

But it is the memory of the unprovoked shooting by white police of a ten year old boy from my neighbourhood during the 1980s riots that speaks most closely to current world affairs. He was a close family friend. I was seven years old at that time and as a chorister I remember singing the poignant anti-apartheid protest song Senzeni Na at his funeral.

The English translation of this song is:

What have we done?
Our sin is that we are black?
Our sin is the truth
They are killing us
Let Africa return

Over the last few days, this memory has forced me to examine my own lived experience.

Nothing about me, without me

The global outrage sparked by the murder of George Floyd, and the subsequent highlighting of vast and longstanding inequalities experienced by black and ethnic minority communities in the UK, has provided a platform and higher levels of visibility for issues affecting these communities. This increased consciousness is needed and welcome. Now is the opportunity to use this momentum to drive comprehensive policy changes. Structural changes not social media will ultimately tackle racism.

Structural change requires high levels of reflection, understanding, openness and transparency. Lived experience is critical in achieving this. I have significant empathy with anyone who questions the legitimacy, takes offence or sees problems with such changes being driven and led by those without lived experience.

I understand the frustration and why this approach is seen as tokenistic. It results in those seeking the change becoming utterly disillusioned and feeling enraged. For me this is at the heart of the painfully slow and often retrograde pace the UK has made in addressing structural racism. The unwillingness to involve those with lived experience in driving changes is racism.

Now is the time to put black people in charge of decisions that affect them.

I have previously argued that making progress in upward social mobility for black people requires social inequality to be addressed as a whole. Not doing so disguises and distorts the effect and impact on black people. The perceived progress in gender equality perhaps illustrates my view best.

It would be more accurate to refer to gender equality as advances for cis white women: that is what it is. While a history of inequality and violence against these women certainly must be actively addressed, we shouldn’t be surprised that, in its current form, this fight for equality leaves behind many other women sitting at different intersections, including race and disability.

As many women highlight, the current movement for gender equality in the UK has been driven by a systemic lack of interest in dealing with meaningful structural change for all women to benefit. Just as the black women’s movement within British suffrage has been largely erased from history, the continued exclusion of people with lived experience from decisions that impact them significantly means no meaningful structural changes, the status quo remains, giving the perfect environment for toxic racism to continue and thrive.

Lack of data does not excuse inaction

In universities I often get frustrated at how casually and frequently stats and figures are used as an excuse for inaction. I recently referred to this as navel gazing. It is a common refrain that the numbers on black students, staff, governors, and attainment are “too small to draw any meaningful conclusions; we need more statistics, more analysis.”

The Social Mobility Commission recently revealed seven years of apathy from government on its recommendations, concluding that “a dedicated unit should be set up at the heart of government to coordinate action and ensure its recommendations were delivered.”

The same rhetoric is prevalent elsewhere: “there is no systemic racism in the UK; only three per cent of residents are black”, used to explain the lack of representation in almost every arena, and recently the impact of Covid-19 on black and ethnic minority communities contains lots on statistics but no recommendations on how to mitigate.

Those counted are not numbers, they are people. Using numbers as an excuse to explain away inaction is racism.

I am proud of what we have been able to achieve at Leeds Arts University in terms of structural changes:

• Frank and open discussion and challenge about racism
• A research project examining the experience of black and ethnic minority students led by postgraduate black and ethnic minority students
• Systematic and specialist training for all staff to educate and address unconscious bias
• Strategies to actively recruit diverse governors and staff. Monitored frequently at senior level
• Examining and revising essential and desirable criteria on applications
• Visiting professionals from black and ethnic minority backgrounds
• Working closely with our Student Union to promote and support black and minority ethnic students
• Using the course approval and periodic review process to ensure the curriculum is diverse and inclusive

At Leeds Arts University we acknowledge that conversations about racism are difficult but that does not stop us from having them. The impact of the changes we have made might feel painfully slow at times and we certainly do not get it right all the time. They are, however, structural and genuine and they will benefit the university community for years to come.

Diversity is the responsibility of everyone. We need to acknowledge racism but also call it out. If your decision-making bodies at all levels exclude people with lived experience, you are complicit.

You can do something – change it.

This article was written for WONKHE, an online news and analysis website that focuses on Higher Education policy, 15 June 2020.