We are in the midst of one of the largest civil rights movements in history. Never before have people come together on such a scale to fight against the systemic oppression of Black people. However, the University of Sheffield’s Vice-Chancellor is yet to make a statement about current events.
I have started a petition based on an open letter to Koen Lamberts outlining four aims for anti-racism work at the University which are needed to improve the representation and wellbeing of BME students and staff.
Aim one is for the Vice-Chancellor to make a statement about Black Lives Matter and their commitment to BME students and staff, with recognition of the disproportionate effect that COVID-19 has on them. A statement is necessary to let people know that the University is publicly accountable and is taking the safety and wellbeing of BME students and staff seriously.
This is not to say that the University has not made positive change as they launched the Race Equality Strategy and Action Plan in 2019. Unfortunately, the critical review of this plan was cancelled due to COVID-19. It is crucial that this review happens at the start of term. It is especially important to review the training of inclusions officers, and to give them more information on events created by and for minority groups which would be open for student societies to get involved.
They also released an educational video which, although it takes positive steps, has several problematic areas. They say that the curriculum will be changed, but this does not erase the fact that the majority of the lecturers making the curriculum are white male.
Furthermore, the video does not mention that white privilege equals the oppression of BME people, nor that the University will take steps to dismantle this by giving BME students and staff increased representation and opportunity to thrive at the University.
The University has used #BlackLivesMatter in posts which do not diffuse any information on how the University is to ensure that minority students and staff are to be given equal opportunities as their white peers.
On Twitter, and even in the aforementioned educational video, the University directed students to talk about their worries to the BME Committee, who replied in a since deleted Tweet that they are students, not a counselling service. The University’s delegation of anti-racism work solely to the BME Committee is not a message that should ever have been endorsed, let alone released on their social media.
Aim two of the petition is about the University informing and educating everyone about racism in the University. Not just letting BME people know that other BME people will hear them and see them. The University needs to use white privilege to dismantle white privilege. This means giving BME people the same privileges as white people. Details of how this could be done are in the petition, which is credited to an open letter by the Black Ed Movement to the University of Edinburgh.
Therefore, it appears that the University is currently partaking in performative allyship on its social media. In their petition for defending higher education jobs, Aisha Mahal and Lauren Martin have been denouncing the letting-go of the sole black lecturer at the University of Sheffield’s politics department, despite the University’s claims of Black Lives Matter. As Martin stated, “women and BAME staff are significantly more likely to be on a precarious contract. We cannot revert back to the old days of academia where the only teachers were middle class white men”.
Racism is systemic and is ingrained into academia. From staff to students, BME people are less likely to get the same opportunities as their white peers and are less likely to receive mental health support adapted to racism. Living in Britain as a BME person can be mentally scarring. Racism is cruel.
White supremacy is exhausting and hurtful. Hearing about the murders of people who look like you,who died because their race was not the white race, is traumatising. And yet, there is no recognition of this in the support systems nor in the job security at the University.
That is why my petition is vital in getting the University to fully recognise BME people’s needs and the specific challenges they face. BME people face challenges which are known but not empathised with, and this needs to change.
Aim three details the need for a comprehensive zero-tolerance policy for racism, which shows all students and staff what overt and covert racism can look like, the mental toll of being subjected to racism, and the consequences of being racist at the University of Sheffield. This was touched upon in their educational video, except for any details on the consequences of racist actions.
Finally, Aim four is about creating and supporting representation initiatives. This includes diversifying staff roles, supporting BME students after enrolment, and establishing counselling services for BME students and staff specifically.
The BME community needs to be integrated fully into the core of the University, because as it stands their invaluable contributions to academia are racialised and devalued due to racism. This is blatantly unjust, and the wealth of intelligence that they bring to their University should be seen for its true value. And should have been seen for its true value from the very start.
However, just as this conversation has not started with us, it will not end with us. It needs to continue developing and improving, but first the University has to own up to its mistakes and make urgent changes to how it values the livelihoods of its BME students and staff.
Image Credit: Juliet Cookson