Furaha Asani asks to what extent we can achieve race equality, when the powerful don’t include themselves in the effort for change

Very recently the University of Glasgow, as part of the Universities Studying Slavery  initiative, released an explicit report highlighting how the university has benefited from slavery in the past. What makes this news clip significant is the inclusion of recommendations and action points the university will implement to make amends; an encouraging step towards equity. This becomes more pertinent in light of the Race Equality Charter (REC) which was introduced in UK Higher Education in 2016 to monitor the progress universities are making towards representation, progress and success of Black and Minority Ethnic staff.

The charter ‘provides a framework through which institutions work to identify and self-reflect on institutional and cultural barriers standing in the way of minority ethnic staff and students. Member institutions develop initiatives and solutions for action, and can apply for a Bronze or Silver award, depending on their level of progress’. This statement demonstrates that there needs to be measurable impact on how universities within the UK deal with race equality through implementation of solutions.

Another powerful aspect of this statement is the call to ‘self-reflect’. Self-reflection and ownership of how individuals, and in this case universities, benefit from oppression is among the first steps that need to take place before an action plan can be drawn up. Often the problem is that institutions as a whole are either unwilling to take such action, or perhaps wilfully ignorant- both resulting in an everyday hum of inequality which can easily be swept under the rug by those who will never be affected.

However, inequality and injustice can only be dismantled by those who have power and privilege. This open letter from May 2018 by a collective of US-based based women of colour in academia called ‘WOC Faculty’ emphasises the point. For too long the mantle has been laid upon people of colour to fight for equality and equity. As WOC Faculty note, the expectation is always placed on people of colour in academia (and elsewhere) for ‘emotionally-draining, time-consuming invisible labour that ultimately asks us to do the work of validating our own oppression to our oppressors’. How can you fight for academic equality, for respect, for equity in higher education recruitment, for fair treatment, for a seat at the table, when the system is skewed so that you may not even be welcome into the room? Academics in places of influence, particularly white academics, are perfectly positioned for allyship in the quest for academic equity.

Further, when we consider just one example: the slander and media hit pieces that Oxbridge academic Dr. Priyamvada Gopal has received for her outspokenness against the argument that colonialism had any ‘benefits’, taken together with the fact that neither Oxford or Cambridge are part of the Universities Studying Slavery group, it becomes clear that UK HE institutions have more to do towards equity that goes beyond capturing statistics. We also know that Oxbridge have had racism scandals in the recent past, in addition to other UK HE institutions. Dr. Gopal’s case highlights that many times these academic allies in places of influence are nowhere to be found. If there is no ownership of the problem how can an action plan for solutions ever be made and implemented?

The University of Glasgow are indeed doing something that will be highly effective by first admitting to their own past faults and also inviting accountability by publishing action points to progress equitable scholarship and research. Among these actions will be a collaboration with the University of the West Indies, as well as the awarding of scholarships to BAME students of Afro-Caribbean descent which will address their under-representation at Glasgow. Glasgow will also open an interdisciplinary centre for the study of historical slavery, modern slavery and trafficking. In addition, a rotating professorship post will be established for Glasgow academics who are doing significant research not just in slavery (modern and historic), but also in reparative justice. Further, the links between certain items within collections and slavery will be openly spoken about.

These action points demonstrate how higher education institutions can tackle educational gatekeeping, combine the study and research of slavery with the often-neglected but highly important aspect of reparative justice, foster collaborations with peoples who have faced oppression, and improve diversity and inclusion. The University of Glasgow are doing something encouraging, as are other UK universities who invest in researching how to improve race relations in UK higher education, and one can only hope that all UK HE institutions follow suit. In addition these academic institutions should all be held accountable to ensure that action points are implemented and that our progression towards equality and equity as an academic community goes beyond being a talking shop.

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Furaha Asani is an Immunology researcher and freelance writer who has written for Times Higher EducationStylish AcademicPens and Needles, and Black Ballad amongst other platforms. I have also written several pieces on my medium blog highlighting my mental health struggles/advocacy and the phenomenon of racism in science directed at Serena Williams.

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