The #BlackLivesMatter movement is spurring universities to reform their policies and learn from past mistakes to be anti-racist.
The deaths of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, and countless others have reignited the BLM movement. The spotlight is on white privilege and the lack of support for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, such as BAME (Black, Asia, and Minority Ethnic) students in the UK.
The global reckoning over racism has not bypassed higher education institutions. Students, alumni and staff are pushing for their colleges and universities to be anti-racist. With its role in civic society, universities play a critical role in setting examples to future generations and can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to incidents that happen on campus.
Anneliese A. Singh, author of The Racial Healing Handbook wrote that becoming an anti-racist as a white person means taking responsibility for your power and privilege, acknowledging the feelings you have about increased multiculturalism and cultivating a desire for understanding and growth.
An anti-racist as a person of colour means recognising that all racial groups are struggling in some way under white supremacy. There are important class differences between people of colour; realising that people of colour are not always united and challenging internalised white supremacy are part of what it means to be an anti-racist POC.
What about universities? What are the steps they can take to become anti-racist institutions that not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk?
An investigation by The Guardian recently found that only a fifth of UK universities is committed to reforming their curriculum in an effort to modernise and decolonise what is taught to students.
Fope Olaleye, black students’ officer at the National Union of Students, said, “Decolonising the curriculum means providing an accurate portrayal of history and providing students and staff with the tools to critically identify [how] the university reproduces colonial hierarchies. This will empower them to confront and reject the status quo and ensure knowledge production reflects our diverse society.”
Modernising curricula so that it becomes more inclusive is not only an important step towards becoming anti-racist, but also increases student engagement, retention, graduation rates, as well as overall satisfaction and well-being.
A petition aimed at schools in Frederick County, Maryland, serves as a good example of why it’s important to modernise curricula as part of an anti-racist agenda in K-12 as well as university education.
Students behind this petition are demanding that curricula should be “centred on anti-racism and racial justice,” and “facilitate in-class conversations about race, privilege, allyship, and justice.”
The letter also calls on the district to “reexamine how we honour Black lives in our education system in elementary, middle, and high school curricula — not simply as a reactionary means, but in direct ways that critically challenge how we frame our nation’s history.”
Monash University exemplifies how faculty can take action on modernising curricula, by stating that they should create learning environments that include the perspectives and experiences of diverse cultural groups.
They can also examine teaching materials and assess the inclusivity and diversity of content, to include more representation of people of colour in historical contexts.
Diversifying student body and staff
Universities must also be sure that there are programmes that aim at supporting students from diverse backgrounds, as well as take steps to hire academic staff from different races.
For example, Oxford University is running programmes such as the TORCH Global South Visiting Professorships and Fellowships and the Africa Oxford Initiative (AfOx) Visiting Fellows Programme.
A statement on the website reads, “While reaffirming our commitment to addressing race equality, racism and welfare through four action areas — improving access to Oxford to prospective students from BME backgrounds, supporting BME students whilst they are at Oxford, assessing what we teach, and how we recruit and support our BME staff – we also recognise that we must do more in each of these areas. This will be achieved by listening to and involving our students and staff.”
Universities should also ensure that application forms for university jobs should not reflect cultural bias, and should ask for relevant skills and experiences instead of racial background.
Taking swift action
When a racist incident happens on campus, universities must step up and take quick action to combat racism among students.
A good example is when the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire set up an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Rapid Action Task Force (EDI) in December last year to address multiple racist incidents.
This included sharing racist messages mocking a Black Male Empowerment student organization on Snapchat and a note with a racist slur left on the door of a member of the UW-Eau Claire Inter-Tribal Student Council student organisation.
The task force created a restorative justice programme to resolve misconduct cases and encouraged a culture of reporting and responding to hate incidents.
They also updated crisis communication plans, and engaged university stakeholders to review the university codes of conduct.
Workshops, discussion groups, and mentoring programmes for underrepresented groups are also some ways to foster a more inclusive and anti-racist culture.