Jennifer Hastings, Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Manager here at King’s College London, explores what it means to learn to do better.

I have been thinking a lot about the EDI learning process and the reliance we have on marginalised groups to help us understand their experience. As a university community, we know the importance of an environment that facilitates learning. You only need to read the King’s strategy to see the value placed on accepting, if not embracing, our mistakes (“King’s is a space in which to learn through questioning views, exploring beliefs and values and learning from failure as well as from success”).

Critical thinking and the ability to fail may be cornerstones of academic success, but what happens when well-meaning debate or plain ignorance causes harm? Of course, there is a difference between genuine curiosity and those who spout discriminatory views under the guise of “playing devil’s advocate” however it still prompts the question of how we enable people to learn and challenge whilst maintaining a safe space for the rest of our community.

The term “safe space” can have a range of connotations that are often dependent on a person’s background, political leanings and lived experience. That said, I imagine most people agree that it’s difficult to thrive in a space that doesn’t meet this basic definition. The reason we place so much emphasis on a “safe space” within the context of EDI is because the topics addressed are not hypothetical concepts; they relate to the identity and lived experience of other people (some of whom may be sat in the same room as you).

It’s also important to acknowledge the pressure often placed on certain groups to relive their own trauma as a way of schooling others. This can be made worse by the reaction that follows, whether that’s extreme defensiveness or deliberate gaslighting. In her book “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race”, Reni Eddo-Lodge talks about her experience of educating white people: “The journey towards understanding structural racism still requires people of colour to prioritise white feelings.”

I will always believe in a person’s potential to learn, change and do better however I acknowledge that this comes from a place of privilege. It is a lot easier to take a forgiving stance when it isn’t your identity that is being questioned or your lived experience that is being dismissed. In Emma Dabiri’s book, “What White People Can Do Next”, she refers to a quote by bell hooks (the lack of capitals is deliberate):

“For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?”

I don’t have an answer to this, but I believe it’s a conversation we mustn’t shy away from. In lieu of a solution, below are some points to consider when exploring topics relating to EDI. I would love to hear any further advice or perspectives you have in the comments.

  • Being safe and uncomfortable are not mutually exclusive (as outlined in UCL’s helpful toolkit). Mira Vogel from King’s Academy has produced an excellent resource about brave spaces, which illustrates this point and provides guidance on how these can be facilitated in an educational setting
  • If you are facilitating a discussion, consider outlining its scope at the beginning and clarifying whether there are any matters that aren’t up for debate. For example, if you were leading a discussion on the BLM Movement, it could be helpful to state at the beginning that KCL’s stance is to work towards being an actively anti-racist university and that this is not the space to debate this approach
  • When undertaking self-directed study, it’s worth exploring whether you can find answers by championing the work of marginalised groups. By paying for content, whether it’s a book or online subscription, you are acknowledging the value of the creator’s labour
  • An individual’s right to hold a belief does not supersede the rights of those with other protected characteristics. Stonewall tweeted about a recent example concerning gender critical beliefs and how the freedom to hold these beliefs has no bearing on the right of trans people to live free from harassment and discrimination
  • I’m going to end by quoting the writer, Matt Haig: “Self-forgiveness makes the world better. You don’t become a good person by believing you are a bad one. Acknowledge faults, don’t become them.” In summary, when you make a mistake (which is inevitable), apologise and use what you’ve learnt to do better next time