by Matt C. Smith
This post is by a white British PhD student aimed at other white students and staff working and studying within Higher Education. It is intended to open-up space for the uncomfortable conversations we need to have. It is written to accompany the statement of solidarity against racial injustice published by the Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics at the University of Brighton which extended an invitation to submit pieces of writing.
Firstly, there is nothing new I can add to the many words that have already been said. If you are paying attention and following current developments on social media then this post may seem very rudimentary, that is because it is, but I also feel that for many white people this is the point where we are still at. One of the key things a white person can do at this moment, and need to practice more often, is to shut up and listen so I will try to keep this brief. To begin with, instead of asking a Black person ‘what can I do?’ take the onus on yourself and do not leave the burden of education on Black people. Read this poem and undertake the exercise to assist in your understanding on why it is emotionally and physically costly for people of colour to hold space for white people’s education. There are multiple lists of guidance out there on key things to be doing right now and to importantly keep doing once news outlets are focusing elsewhere.
I would also add the UK BLM Fund The Free Black University the Black Trans Travel Fund and UK Black Pride. Here is a list of resources and activities aimed at assisting in your anti-racist education. Professor Kehinde Andrews of Birmingham City University states “We cannot be waiting for white people to be educated or we will be waiting forever” We are behind where we need to be but it is never too late to start or enhance your education. Prof. Andrews book is here
Key things to do are to amplify the voices of Black people, donate to organisations and funding campaigns, educate yourselves, and open-up space for uncomfortable conversations with those around you. For those working inside institutions such as universities mobilising resources and utilising the platform this grants us to elevate marginalised voices is a must. As Munroe Bergdorf has said “those not directly affected by an oppression have that much more shoulder to give” . And while our access to these resources and platforms may be fleeting we must make the most of them while we can. Doing anti-racist work is not about making yourself feel good, you may find yourself feeling worse about your complicity and place in the world, and you may be given critical feedback by those around you including people of colour. Shut up, listen and take this critical feedback as the educational gift that it is instead of being defensive. There is much to be said and criticised around the shallow use of words and gestures right now by many brands, individuals and universities. Travis Alabanza poignantly writes: “Speak up, but do so knowing that without introspection and action, it is simply a gesture. At a time where so many are doing bold and dangerous and revolutionary things, just for Black people not to be killed by police and state, a gesture is nothing but a slap in the face.” Please read the whole piece here and these 10 steps to non-optical allyship by Mireille Cassandra Harper here.
Feminist scholar Sara Ahmed’s paper Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism is important to read and understand with regards to academia, writing and policy. Declarations of privilege alone reinscribe and intensify that privilege. In the UK we very commonly see racism as elsewhere (If you need statistics to be told that it’s not see writer Will Harris’ post here. In the UK this is deeply manifested in a projection of racism and police brutality as a problem that occurs in the United States, and if it happens here it is infrequent or an extraordinary case. This is not the case as Dr. Kojo Koram writes here. However, if we do recognise racism as institutional and systemic too often the solutions that are posited and advocated for are not the systemic or the transformational change that is needed.
That is the distancing at the structural level and at the personal level there is white fragility that externalises racism onto others and get defensive. “I’m a good person and I’m not racist but of course we should educate those who are” or perhaps more common “Society is racist so yes I am racist but so is everyone so it’s not me who needs to change it’s everyone”. The point here is to not get into a debate around the agency of the individual and the determination of the individual by structuring societal forces. The point is that white people too often conduct mental gymnastics to absolve ourselves personally of responsibility, seeking short-cuts to not feel uncomfortable. I know this because I catch myself doing it and see others do it frequently and I have not spoken up enough when others have. We need to sit in this discomfort and educate ourselves, not distance ourselves from it.Victoria Okoye, a PhD student at the University of Sheffield summed this up succinctly tweeting: “I worry for UK academia. The inability/unwillingness of so many critical folks to see + acknowledge within their own spaces how antiblackness + racism is structured & thrives; their silences + lack of action to change this; the constant freudian projection of racism onto the US.”
The UK education system is incredibly poor at educating British people about Britain’s role in slavery, about the British Empire through anything remotely close to a critical lens, and on Black British history and civil rights. For myself growing-up I learnt in A-level history about Black civil rights in the United States, I learnt about police murder and brutality and the prison industrial complex through listening to US-based musicians. I had the privilege to learn it as something elsewhere and the privilege to learn it through others’ voices and experiences. It is also the privilege to learn about something on a theoretical level and not on a visceral level through lived experience. There has been a long-standing hole in my knowledge and education on Black British history. I have begun to rectify this by reading books that are massive educational gifts such as Natives by Akala, Why I No Longer Talk To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack by Paul Gilroy, Black British History: New Perspectives by Hakim Adi (ed.). These should be essential readings you cannot pass through the UK education system without encountering. Petition to get The Good Immigrant (Nikesh Shukla) and Why I’m No longer Talking to White People About Race (Reni Eddo-Lodge), on the GCSE reading list here.
There are many more just search Black British history books or click here.
And more specifically here is a book on dismantling racism in higher education. But alongside reading such texts we need to get better at having conversations, and persistently and collectively taking concrete actions.
A few things those studying within Higher Education can do are get involved with campaigns to decolonise reading lists and the curriculum, request physical and ebook versions of all the texts mentioned and more for your university library (what texts are there in your specific area of study?, resist borders within the university, speak up and support Black and PoC (People of Colour) colleagues, and lobby and push for change within your institution.
If you are in positions of power, or are in spaces where there are no people of colour, but you are making decisions that impact them – ask why they have not been included and make concrete non-tokenistic attempts to include them.
These actions are not enough, they are not radical enough, they are far from exhaustive, and being involved in them may feel like they can potentially compromise your career at times. As someone seeking to stay in academia, and who has little to no financial resources or safety net, I say we cannot afford to not engage in them.
Anti-racist work is not easy, it is not ‘feel-good’ and we are very much miles behind in the conversations we should be having around racism and whiteness.
 Said as part of her keynote at the Brighton Trans, Non-binary and Intersex Conference in 2018; quote from memory.