Chancellor’s blog: Black History Month

October 5th, 2020

In recognition of Black History Month, we are delighted that our University Chancellor, Baroness Lola Young, has agreed to share her thoughts in advance of our month of recognition, thought and celebration.

Black History Month provides an opportunity for us all as a University community to recognise the diversity in our student and staff population, and to think about what we can all do to make the University more inclusive for all.

‘University Chancellor’ is one of those curious titles that is recognised as being both prestigious and yet its purpose, apart from attending graduation ceremonies, is opaque. When I’ve told people how honoured I feel to have been appointed to this role, they’ve first congratulated me, then asked me what does it mean. Good question! Happily the subject of what the role entails was the substance of a long conversation between Vice Chancellor Shearer West and me. We were both of the same mind: the role gives the title-holder and all University of Nottingham colleagues the opportunity to identify the issues where the University community has a real opportunity to deliver change, and to do something about it. Even before the murder of George Floyd and the urgency of the debates and actions that followed on, we agreed that the University’s work towards becoming a truly anti-racist institution is of the utmost importance. This is my main focus and is something that should be threaded through every aspect of the University’s policies and their implementation.

The Black History Month website encourages us to ‘Dig Deeper, Look Closer and Think Bigger’. The University’s work towards race equality and inclusion fits well with this message.

The work of the team exploring the University’s historical links to enslavement is a good illustration of the idea of ‘digging deeper’. This important, and at times uncomfortable exercise, is helping the University to recognise the role of those who have influenced and donated to the University over the past 100+ years, and will allow us to work with black communities both within and outside the University. It would be advantageous for all if we could use this opportunity to work towards aligning the interests of the University and local communities in determining the most appropriate way to recognise and respond to this history.

The University is also ‘looking closer’, primarily through its current preparation of the Race Equality Charter submission. This exercise includes a detailed look at our data relating to Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students and staff, and prioritises our actions to address inequality over the coming years. This document will be available for review and comment from the University community before submission late in 2020.

The actions from the Race Equality Charter will ensure that the University commits to ‘think bigger’ – not only working to eradicate bias and discrimination, but enable all our staff and students to be anti-racist. In taking these tasks on in an open, transparent way, we will also ensure that the University is accountable for its actions. We must be clear though: there’s no overnight success in this area of work. That much should be obvious by now, but we should all be aware that without continued hard work and actively supporting the effort for change, we will not make the improvements to the quality of everyone’s lives that are so badly needed. Racism does not benefit the majority of people: eliminating it from our services, institutions and systems will do so.

I am pleased to see that the programme of events which the organising committee has convened for Black History Month has a mix of events which celebrate black cultures, recognise histories, and provide proactive support for our black and minority communities. The innovation which has taken place to ensure that despite the impact of Covid-19 on our ability to take part in as many face to face events as we would normally see during this month, we are able to share in these events as a University community, is really impressive, and I encourage you all to find an event that interests you, and make the time to take part.

Right now language and culture represent key battlegrounds in the so-called culture wars. In policy terms, I think language is critical as well as being slippery. For example, ‘Negro’, ‘Coloured’ ‘Black’ ‘BAME’, ‘Ethnic Minority’ and ‘Diverse’ are some of the repeatable labels I’ve had to endure in my lifetime: they’re the kind of categorisations you’ll find in institutional policy documents going back several decades. You’ll also see terms such as ‘mixed race’, ‘dual heritage’, mixed heritage’ and ‘bi-cultural’. Are any of these labels adequate? No. Do they represent how people see themselves as individuals? Not very often. And yet they persist (I use them myself sometimes). There are clear histories and explanations as to how we’ve reached this situation – but that should be the subject of a future essay. I’m pointing to language because it’s come up in several discussions during the pandemic and the evolution of Black Live Matter. Personally, I don’t identify with being ‘BAME’ though I recognise its usefulness as a kind of shorthand when writing policy documents. Part of the problem though is that it’s us – the ‘Others’, the ‘minorities’ – who have to bear the indignity of being placed in a system of categorisation not of our making. We’ll see that we’ve made significant headway when we no longer need to resort to a mix of quasi-anthropological, political, and national descriptors – that is ‘BAME’ or the categories on monitoring forms – as a way to address inequality and injustice.

Events here in the UK and elsewhere have reiterated the importance of institutions’ demonstrating their commitment to diversity, inclusion and anti-racism beyond statements of solidarity. I want the University of Nottingham to be at the forefront of attempts to achieve a more equitable and just society and, yes even sometimes to be ready to fail: there’s no quick and easy route to success. We must all take responsibility for doing some ‘heavy lifting’ on this. If intersectionality – yes I know, another of those terms – is to be at all useful as a concept, it has to mean that we all recognise our role as allies. That might sometimes mean that we feel uncomfortable as we discuss and exchange experiences, micro-aggressions, etc. We need to create safe spaces where fears and anxieties about speaking up can be addressed, where strategies that demonstrate how to be a good ally can be exchanged and where our sense of how we can develop the empathy and imagination necessary to understand reactions and comments that might otherwise seem alien and threatening.

It’s important to recognise that we need to focus on the work of achieving inclusion and anti-racism all the time, not just for one month. During October, the University will also be launching its ‘Let’s be clear about Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’ engagement campaign for staff, which will aim to ensure that all of our University staff have a strong understanding of the core elements required to lead and support Equality Diversity and Inclusion. Our Campus Life team is leading Hate Crime Awareness week, which falls between 10th-17th October. And from November onwards, we will be holding a series of webinars, which consider specific topics relating to equality, diversity and inclusion.

Finally, I am very pleased to be personally supporting two events in Black History Month. First I’m going to be interviewed by Jared Spencer for the BME Network on Friday 2 October – my very first Instagram event! The second occasion will be a conversation with the Shearer West, on Thursday 29 October. We will use the opportunity to share our own thoughts on the role of Universities in dismantling structural racism, and reflect on our own perspectives in what we can do to lead this work, and support others. Working to change culture is hard, and takes time. I look forward to working with you all as University Chancellor to continue this vital and urgent work.


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One Comment

October 8th, 2020 at 1:35 pm

Helen Toft

Thank you for this blog, Lola. You talk about really hard things in a beautifully light and engaging way. I am not sure how you do it. I have just been so angry about the points you make, and I am simply an ally. My whole teaching career, some of the most powerful of which were spent teaching the children and young people of the Radford and Lenton areas of Nottingham, has been about doing exactly what you talk about.I taught with huge amounts of imagination,risk and love (which you don’t directly mention). I find my Black,Asian and disadvantaged tutees and professional friends and their families are no nearer comfort and acceptance today than they were,say, 10/20 years ago. In fact they may be less so. I don’t think out university has helped this situation in the way it could and should have done, so I am relieved you are in a leading role in this major cultural shift. Once again, thank you. Helen (one day a week tutor on the PGCEi)

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