As part of our Take Action’ Seminar Series we discussed racial equality in the UK and how the LSE community can take action on the issue. If you weren’t there, don’t worry we’ve written a blog covering the key points made by our panel or you can check out the recording on CareerHub.
The panel included Dr Akile Ahmet, an anti-racist scholar, who is currently Academic Developer for the Inclusive Education and Decolonising team at the LSE Eden Centre. Our charity partner the was represented by Karis Morris-Brown their Workforce Development Manager. The Black Cultural Archives is the only national heritage centre dedicated to collecting, preserving and celebrating the histories of African Caribbean people in Britain. We were also joined by Maryane Mwaniki, Head of Employer Engagement in LSE Careers and voluntary Co-Chair of LSE EmbRace, the BAME staff network at LSE which aims to raise awareness and influence change around culture and diversity.
What does race equality mean to you and your organisation?
Maryane kicked off the panel by exploring what racial equality means as a member of LSE EmbRace, in the strive to eliminate racism in LSE. Eradicating racism in any institution is a big mission and she stressed that to progress and make change in this area, we need to start having the uncomfortable conversations that people have been avoiding. When looking at staff across the school, there is massive underrepresentation within higher bands with only one Black professor on a permanent contract. It’s these kinds of conversations that we need to be having – why in a university that claims to be so international, do we have poor representation?
Maryane also shared that in the 2018-19 academic year, 51% of students who used the LSE student counselling services were Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) the numbers increased in 2019/20. Having BAME students, who form a very small minority in the School, be the majority users of the counselling services is concerning and is an indication of the support that is needed. Through focus groups and research it is evident that some students do not feel that LSE is an environment for them. Students want to see academics and PSS (Professional Student Services) staff that look like them and share their experiences. It was clear that for Maryane and EmbRace that racial equality meant having an inclusive environment at LSE, that represents different voices and backgrounds at all levels of employment.
Next, Akile explained how her understanding of racial equality within her role focused on recognising each others humanity. Her research examines the experiences of Black, Asian and minority ethnic students in higher education and grade awarding gaps within LSE, where students enter the institution with the same grades but upon graduating, black and students of colour receive lower grades than their white counterparts. This indicates a need to expose what is happening whilst students are at LSE by looking at student experience and the wider structural factors that contribute to systems of oppression. She echoed what Maryane said, in that transforming the learning culture involves making sure that the student body is reflected in staff across the school.
For Black Cultural Archives racial equality is the very reason it exists. It was established by activists and educationists in 1981 to make the contributions of Black people in Britain accessible and available, Karis explained. Thus, racial equality would mean that the contributions of everyone across society were preserved and accessible to everyone. Karis went on to explore how in the specific work she does, racial inequality involves looking at how race affects underrepresentation and barriers to progression in the sector (arts and heritage).
Why has the Black Lives Matter movement become so much more prominent in recent times?
On the 25 May 2020, George Floyd was murdered during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets the next day as the video of the arrest was shared widely on social media. Our panel explained that the pandemic had led to more people starting to critically view our structural landscape. The murder of George Floyd had a great reach than similar events in the past and shocked many. In fact, the pandemic has forced us to stop and witness how the state-controlled areas of our lives are systematically using their powers against Black people. However, Akile stressed that it was important to look at what institutions have done beyond their performative statement in the momentum of the unrest. The further we move away from the events of last year, the more we need to keep the conversation going as racism is not a one-time event.
Maryane furthered this by providing some quotes from higher education institutions in response and how their students have replied. One university posted; “We stand together with our Black student, staff and communities” to which a student responded that they had dropped out of the university because it took no action against racist bullying. Another statement released by a university was “We have a commitment to exposing and challenging racial inequality” which received a number of replies on social media asking why the university didn’t have a single Black professor. So whilst it has perhaps become easier to have the conversation about race, it doesn’t necessarily provide the next tangible steps, Maryane explained.
On the other hand, Karis highlighted that even when some organisations have tried to make tangible actions people have pushed to silence it. For example, the National Trust went to highlight the links that the buildings and objects in their possession had to slavery and colonialism through a thread on Twitter. But this was met with anger with some people even cancelling their memberships accusing the Trust of ‘getting political’. Events like this highlight the need for tangible actions and the discussion afterwards surrounding the need not to ‘re-write’ history, but to correct history.
What are the challenges when starting conversations on racial inequality and why?
People are incredibly uncomfortable to start or have the conversation about race because it is inherently woven into all factions of our society. When we look at diversity and inclusion we are talking about gender, sexuality and disability, Maryane explained, which people are happy to listen to and see it as an opportunity to learn. However, when it comes to race the discomfort increases and the opportunity to learn is missed.
Echoing Akile’s previous statement on how state-controlled institutions use their power against Black people, Maryane gave examples in the healthcare and education sector. Firstly, she highlighted that Black women are 4 more times likely to die from childbirth in the UK, something that the FIVE X MORE campaign is committed to changing. Secondly, when looking at the education system Black Caribbean students are 3.5 times more likely to be excluded from school. Thus, racism is woven into large institutions Akile explained as she quoted Education Sociology Professor David Gillborn; “Education policy is not designed to eliminate race inequality but to sustain it at manageable levels” (Gillborn, 2008).
Within these institutions, everything is constructed around the comfort of white people. For example, micro-aggressions are not micro, and some people would in fact say it is racial abuse. But how can we become anti-racist when those who need to decentre white comfort are led by white groups of people.
Another challenged faced by Black Cultural Archives when starting the conversation about race, is that people assume when you want to address the inequalities that Black people endure you are automatically blaming that individual or organisation. But it’s actually about having these conversations so that the people are listened to and believed, Karis explained. We often hear about a post racial society and people saying that they don’t see colour, causing some people to lay blame at the person suffering. When faced with these conversations you need to look at your own actions and confront your own prejudices, without being fearful. This is why the Black Cultural Archives is not just for Black people, it is for everyone to learn about British history that is often hidden.
What work is LSE doing in this area to ensure the university is as inclusive as it can be?
As LSE employees, Maryane and Akile both stressed the need for all efforts towards inclusivity to be collective. LSE EmbRace has been working with HR to provide a brand new mentoring scheme for BAME staff and pathways for career progression. However, their work does not stop with LSE, they have established a network with UCL, Imperial and Kings to look across high education to tackle big changes in the field.
The Inclusive Education Action Plan is perhaps one of the larger steps LSE is taking, making it central to the LSE 2030 strategy. There has been a lot of research into the education attainment gap and this has been archived, as we now need to move towards taking action and beyond research. The plan covers 5 different areas, Akile explained, each vital towards bettering the student experience.
- Developing Higher Education Identities
- Academic Mentoring
- Inclusive Pedagogy
- Curriculum Enhancement: Decolonising and Diversifying
- Anti-Racism in Education
Akile expanded on Action 4: Curriculum Enhancement which had been divided into two strands, diversifying and decolonising. There is a distinct difference between these strands and they want to research what LSE students and staff understand decolonising to be. She also explained how important inclusive pedagogy is as we move into a virtual and hybrid learning environment. This focuses on how we dismantle the power structures in the class room. To find out more about the action plan, check out the website or get in touch with Akile herself (email@example.com).
If students want to contribute to this cause, what can they do?
Following on from the previous question, there are a number of ways that LSE students can get involved in the schools efforts to be more inclusive. In relation to the Inclusive Education Action Plan, the Eden Centre has a student partnerships officer to help students get involved. Another way for students to take part is through the LSE Change Makers scheme which aims to make change within the school through student research. Akile stressed that it having and highlighting race specific projects will create a fantastic space for change. She also encouraged those who are looking to do their research and dissertations on race to get in touch!
Unfortunately, Black Cultural Archives is currently shut due to the pandemic but it hope to open in May when museums are allowed. Karis explained the multiple volunteering opportunities they have, including going into schools to deliver workshops about archival material. There are also roles focused on fundraising, marketing and communications but if you have a passion or a skill to give, they are keen to hear from you! Karis also invited everyone to come to the archive when it’s open or check out some of the digitised material. Along with multiple upcoming events, there’s a lot of ways students can get involved with the Black Cultural Archives.
Students were also welcomed to get involved with LSE EmbRace. Whilst it is a staff network, they want to know from the student population what will make life at LSE more inclusive. ‘There should be no decision about us, without us’ Maryane said, encouraging students to send an email through them (firstname.lastname@example.org).
What are you feeling most optimistic about looking forward?
- Maryane told us she was very excited about the launch of the BAME staff mentoring at LSE and how EmbRace has been collaborating across the school to create the opportunity for our community to progress.
- Karis was obviously looking forward to when the Black Cultural Archives centre could open, not only to get back in the office but also because being face to face helps bring humanity to the conversation.
- Akile felt optimistic about the Inclusive Education Action Plan as it has been growing through collaboration over the past few years. Whilst we have a long way to go, she was excited to watch LSE transform into a place of belonging and community.
The LSE Volunteer Centre would like to thank all those who joined us for this panel discussion and the speakers who gave their time to talk to us on racial inequality and the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK. If you have been inspired by this session or blog, check out CareerHub where we’ll be advertising volunteering opportunities within this area and access our support services, like booking an appointment with the Volunteer Centre Manager.