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BHM 20 ;

Black History Month 2020: Resisting oppression, structural barriers and attainment gaps

To mark Black History Month, Professor Anne Pollock and Dr Eka Ikpe, who lead work on the BAME Attainment Gap and Decolonising the Curriculum in the Faculty of Social Science & Public Policy, share their thoughts on a range of issues including oppression and resistance in Black history, structural barriers and the impact of Black Lives Matter.

Q: What are the roles of oppression and resistance in Black history?

Eka: Resistance has been incredibly significant and important in how Black peoples, and excluded groups, all over the world have, over time, challenged, negotiated and continue to negotiate with oppressive structures and inspired change within their spaces and beyond. Resistance is a constant act of being and existing for peoples that need to function in systems that are oppressive to them. It can be exhausting where it is necessary to merely exist and be seen and heard on a daily basis. We recognise and valorise resistance, and we must, but we should not lose sight of how necessary it can be for everyday encounters, from microaggressions, to dealing with racist structures that permeate our lives and the extra labour that requires and the toll that can take on people all around us.

Anne: Wherever these is power, there is resistance. The rising awareness of the role of the history of colonialism and ongoing structural racism in creating the unequal landscape in which we all live is really important. At the same time, it’s also important to note -- and celebrate -- that people who have been subjected to oppression should not be understood to be merely passive victims or bystanders to a history enacted by members of dominant groups. Paying attention both to the tremendous barriers that have been faced and to the creative ways in which people have navigated and challenged those barriers can help to illuminate both how oppression operates and how it can be resisted.

Q: What are the structural barriers that have caused or contributed to BAME attainment gaps?

Anne: It’s a complicated question, because the barriers are often intersectional. Barriers to BAME student success intersect with, but are not reducible to, other forms of social stratification, including socioeconomic status. Housing segregation contributes in many ways. For example, students who live in more crowded housing have a harder time finding both the literal space and the attendant quiet and mental space to study. Moreover, the stress of navigating the racism in the broader urban environment does not end at the classroom door, be it virtual or physical. One element of structural racism that is intertwined with interpersonal racism is related the cultural common ground or lack thereof between academic teaching staff and students. This is by no means unique to academia, but as in other domains, academics tend to provide extra mentorship and opportunities to students who are “like us,” along diverse lines. Since the academic teaching staff –especially those in the most esteemed positions that have the power to foster the most opportunities for students – do not reflect the student body as a whole, we need to be more intentional about making sure that we work against that tendency to unconsciously reproduce privilege and exclusion.

Eka: There have been welcome and necessary efforts to improve admissions of students from a wider range of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds into our higher education institutions. But we have had to learn that we can have systems in place for learning and teaching that are built on assumptions that have little bearing on the realities of groups that were not traditionally targeted and seen by our institutions. Anne’s points on housing are pertinent here.

Which knowledge is recognised as such, how knowledge is produced and shared are key examples of spaces where exclusionary practices can be inimical to the progress of peoples for whom it is important to see a diversity of voices and perspectives, as well as themselves and their spaces engaged in complex and thoughtful ways. In addition, the dearth of Black and Minority group academics as teachers can be isolating and dispiriting for some students that have experienced this for much of their learning journeys. Anne reflects on why this might be in her point on the tendencies in mentoring relationships. I have had Ethnic Minority students tell me how rare and meaningful it has been to have (only now) had a Black teacher in the classroom to share knowledge with them. That has been simultaneously enriching and dispiriting to hear.

Q: What structural barriers do you see that still need to be overcome?

Eka: All of these barriers have to be overcome. I think that we are increasingly in agreement to move beyond a debate about whether or not the current situation constitutes barriers to learning for our student body. The knowledge question goes to the heart of who we are as academics and why many of us are on this path. As those committed to knowledge production, these discussions are providing us with an opportunity for even furthering our intellectual depth and breadth in our knowledge production, teaching and learning practices. We should take leadership in efforts to resolve this situation and recognise where to draw and build on wider and collaborative initiatives on associated concerns.

Anne: I agree that all of these structural barriers still need to be overcome. The coronavirus crisis has really put a spotlight on differential housing conditions, and that’s an urgent matter that can’t necessarily be addressed by the university alone, though academics can surely play a role in designing and advocating for policies to dismantle that inequality. The same goes for supporting students who are from communities that are dealing with police violence and broader forms of harassment: we can’t solve the problem on our own, but we can and should take leadership in working toward solutions. And there is a great deal more we could be doing within the university as well, supporting students with studentships and research opportunities, being pro-active in making sure that we are fostering the already-present promise for success among all our students. We also urgently need to diversify the staff, especially the permanent staff who engage in both research and teaching, and those in leadership roles across the university. It’s 2020, and it is just not OK that our BAME students still have so few role models within the university.

Q: How has the Black Lives Matter movement this year changed things?

Anne: The fluorescence of the Black Lives Matter movement has been tremendously powerful and inspiring, but I think it’s too soon to say how it has changed things. So far we have seen more change in rhetoric than change in policy or structure. Language does matter, and it’s important to do things like issue statements, but it’s also important to challenge ourselves and our institutions to respond to the righteous demands for change.

Eka: Black Lives Matter movements have shown enriching and emancipatory exercises of agency built upon contemporary and historical resistance. I have appreciated the energy it has given to existing struggles for recentring the need for (critical) Black histories to be engaged as knowledge within formal spaces of learning across levels of schooling and higher education. This has had an important and welcome impact on longstanding debates and ongoing resistance around memorialising, including within higher education institutions around the world. Admittedly, we need to watch the space to see what true change will be enacted beyond stated intentions as Anne has mentioned.

Another aspect of what the BLM movements have ignited is the deep-seated trauma and indeed anger for peoples all over the world that have recognised their experiences in what BLMs are resisting. This has been all the more pertinent with the differential impact of the COVID19 pandemic on Black and Ethnic Minority peoples especially in global north contexts of the UK and the US. But this challenging situation has been incredibly significant for re-energising notions of African diasporas (in the broadest sense) global Blackness and the shared and complex histories of Black peoples around the world. In this period we have seen very robust acts of resistance to brutality and oppression by state security actors, including in the US, UK and most recently in Nigeria. There have been references to BLM work as being ‘political’, and that has left me wondering, what isn’t political?

Q: As we move forward, in what ways do you see Black people increasingly being agents of change?

Anne: Our students are so inspiring to me. From my perspective as a professor of Global Health and Social Medicine, I am constantly struck by our students’ commitment to not only achieving individual success but also developing their talents toward transforming the societies in which we live. If there’s one thing that gives me hope for the future, in the context of so many years of oppression that can sometimes feel insurmountable and struggle that can sometimes feel in vain, it is the brilliance and commitment of young adults, including the Black and Minority Ethnic students with which I have the privilege of being in conversation and collaboration.

Eka: I think it is important to recognise the work that Black and Ethnic Minority peoples in our spaces are already doing. The extra work that Black and Ethnic Minority staff undertake, often informally, to mentor and support and see Black and Ethnic Minority students that may not even be on their programmes, for instance. I recognise also the way that Black and Ethnic Minority staff and students support one another, and see and recognise each other’s struggles, and support resolution where that can be difficult to find within the system. As Anne has said, I celebrate all of our students, including our Black and Ethnic Minority students, that bring their intellect and experiences and profound knowledge into the classroom, and challenge us all on the ways of seeing the world- some with boldness and others more tentatively. I have been consistently inspired by that.

I have been encouraged by the broader support for and work towards change across a range of constituencies and the realisation that these efforts should be seen as progress for us all. This is very welcome and we have to be careful to not see this situation as a problem that should be fixed only by those that are the most affected. Their knowledge, experiences and agency are vital and essential to this endeavour, and need to be centred in moving us forward. But we should all be agents of change around these critical concerns as the outcomes enrich us all as a society. There is a lot of work to be done and a lot of change to be made. That labour should not fall only to those that are negotiating being and thriving in systems that were not necessarily built with them in mind. We need to actively articulate ways of recognising this labour and these efforts.

In this story

Eka  Ikpe

Eka Ikpe

Director, African Leadership Centre

Anne Pollock

Anne Pollock

Head, Department of Global Health & Social Medicine

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