Equality, Diversity & Inclusion at King's College London

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Love and Rage – but right now, mostly rage

Lauren Blackwood, Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Project Officer at KCL reflects on this years UK Black Pride theme of ‘love and rage’. 


Content Warnings: black death, trans death, ableism, racism, and queerphobia.  

It is somewhat bittersweet that I have a platform to write about my rage. It is not often that black people get to do this and be heard, comforted, or accepted by our audience (Ashley 2014; American Psychological Association 2020). Even whilst writing this, I must perform a level of palatability on this platform – juggling respectability politics, tone policing, colonial ideals of professionalism, providing citations for my literal lived experiences so that I’m seen as credible, and my own authenticity – it’s peak. It’s also peak that we – my community, my ancestors, and I – even have to feel this rage and to have carried it over generations for over 400 years. We do not need anyone to validate our outrage, and we don’t need anyone to justify it. I would much rather just exist in a world where we’re loved, and feel love, and I’d get to just write about love. But honestly, that remains an out of reach utopia, even in big-big 2021.  

This year and a half has been a perfect opportunity for non-black people to hear black people, see black life, suffering, and rage. In addition to this, we’ve seen the love that black people continue to extend to one another for the sake of love, survival, and community. To be clear, it is not that these opportunities were not available to non-black people before; it just became a lot harder to avoid engaging with these walks of life. To make it even more shit, what they have witnessed is only a tiny snippet of our lived experiences. Even this opportunity given to non-black people was at the expense of the ongoing detriment of black peoples, and a result of our global suffering and consequent rage.  

We’ve had to watch non-black, and non-queer, people find out for the first time that black people disproportionately account for 14% of UK missing persons – but makeup only 3% of the population (White 2021), “Black and migrant trans women of colour [being] more vulnerable and frequently targeted” (Trans Respect 2020) and “People of colour mak[ing] up 79% of the 28 trans people murdered in the USA” (Trans Respect 2020) in 2020, that the school to prison pipeline exists and has historically targeted black children and youth in Britain (Graham 2016), that there’s a lack of public health services tailored to meet black people’s needs (Mind 2019; La Roche et al 2015). None of this is new news to those that it effects, but it’s so incredibly enraging that change so heavily relies on white people, and cishet people, catching up with what we already know and have been protesting about for generations. And just as a note, we’re hardly even close to having proportionate data on black queer lives to be centrally collected and easily accessible in the UK.  

But in the face-off all of this historical and contemporary violence, failure, and exclusion from our institutions, queer black people still manage to love and support one another; Lady Phil has given queer black people, Black Pride – a space to exist authentically and unapologetically; Melz Owusu has founded a first of it’s kind University, the Free Black University, alongside completing their PhD giving black people the freedom to regain control and access to our own education and epistemologies; Azekel Axelle founded the Black Trans Foundation supporting black trans and gender non-conforming people access healthcare through fundraising and establishing a network of Queer, Trans, and Intersex, People of Colour (QTIPOC) healthcare experts; Eshe Kiama Zuri initiated the Mutual Aid Fund supporting marginalised people, at the intersections of oppression, across the UK. Even when thinking about all of this love and community response I’m perpetually enraged that it even needs to be done. Imagine if we didn’t have to pour ourselves and all of our energy into meeting our basic needs as queer black people – imagine if that kind of love existed beyond our community. Bruh, rage!!! 

Donate to queer black people and organisations this month and every month, whether that be time, requested resources, or money; continuously invest your energy into self-educating about queer black lives, experiences, and history – I promise that you will not run out of valuable things to be learnt; listen to queer black people and act on what you hear – I’m tired of repeating the same requests for meeting basic needs and liberation.  

Happy Black Pride, I guess. Pop up if you want my PayPal (for professional and legal reasons this is a joke).  


American Psychological Association. (2020, July 2). Prospective teachers misperceive Black children as angry [Press release]. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/07/racialized-anger-bias 

Ashley W. The angry black woman: the impact of pejorative stereotypes on psychotherapy with black women. Soc Work Public Health. 2014;29(1):27-34. doi: 10.1080/19371918.2011.619449. PMID: 24188294. 

Graham, K. (2016). The British School-to-Prison Pipeline. Blackness in Britain. 

Mind (2019) https://www.mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/legal-news/legal-newsletter-june-2019/discrimination-in-mental-health-services/ 

White (2021) Accessed at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/black-people-missing-b1827530.html 

La Roche, M. J., Fuentes, M. A., & Hinton, D. (2015). A cultural examination of the DSM-5: Research and clinical implications for cultural minorities. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 46(3), 183–189. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0039278 

Trans Respect (2020) Accessed at: https://transrespect.org/en/tmm-update-tdor-2020/ 

 

King’s reflections a year on from George Floyd’s murder – Part 3

In the third installment of our reflections a year on from the murder of George Floyd we share the personal reflections of Rabia Harrison - Director of Administration in The Dickson Poon School of Law.Walso hear from Stephen Bach and Suzanne Marcuzzi from King’s Business School.


Rabia Harrison , Director of Administration in The Dickson Poon School of Law.

The past year has demonstrated an institution wide commitment to bringing the race conversation to the fore.  We have held town hall meetings, student led conversations about race, an openness to hear different perspectives and a real recognition for the disparities that the organisation still has when it comes to representation and employment.  I have taken very seriously my own personal duty to reinforce conversations relating to race and have taken a much greater lead in highlighting specific instances where the relevance of race has either been overlooked or been overtly denigrated.  King’s has proven that it is ready to listen.  It is time to respond. 

A month ago I decided to share my personal story with my faculty.  It was an emotional piece about my lived experience as a British Muslim Pakistani girl growing up in an overtly racist area and my observations and encounters during my career.  I shared the piece because I knew that there were many colleagues in the same position as me who have for such a long time buried the hurt they have experienced and because there are also many colleagues who simply do not know the lived experience of a person of colour.  I was struck by how shocked the latter group of colleagues were upon hearing the reality of the day to day challenges a person like me has experienced.  Certainly, the power and significance of conversations such as these should make a change.  And yet, the experience of sharing has left me exposed with a vulnerability and open wound that is calling for a much greater commitment than simply being heard.  The more we speak about the race issues that exist, the more we surface the painful and intolerable encounters our BME community have suffered.  We are now at a crucial intersection and our next steps will not only define our position in the race debate but will also demonstrate to our community that we have listened, understood and are ready to make the right change.

 

Stephen Bach & Suzanne Marcuzzi, King’s Business School. 

While it has been a year since the death of George Floyd, the impact and immediacy of his killing have not faded. We could feel the legacy of his violent death, and the racially-motivated violent deaths of so many others before and since, permeating many aspects of our lives and the lives of those in the business school community of staff, students and partners over the last twelve months.  

Within the business school we have sought to listen, supporting conversations on race for our staff and students and hosting a panel talk ‘Business is Black’ to celebrate black voices in education and academia, but also to hear about the challenges our colleagues face because of explicit and implicit bias. We are now moving from conversation to action, having introduced a widening participation programme for students from our local boroughs, reviewing our hiring practices and the language in our adverts and on our website, exploring development and mentoring opportunities for our black and minority ethnic colleagues, and participating in the excellent More than Mentoring scheme ourselves.  

There remains much more to be done, and one important step is the recruitment of a Reader in Diversity and Inclusion to help us to draw upon the latest research to shape our approach to equality, diversity and inclusion. Our hope is that the Business School is a place which not only tolerates but celebrates diversity, in all its forms, and provides the appropriate support for staff and students to achieve their goals and to be their authentic selves at King’s.   

The Legacy of the Windrush generation

On the 22 June 1948 the ship Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks bringing over 500 people from the Caribbean to the United Kingdom. 73 years on Sociologist & Civil Servant, Dr Vivienne Connell-Hall (PhD) reflects on the impact and legacy of the Windrush generation on Britain.


Dr Vivienne Connell-Hall

This week marks the 73rd anniversary of the SS Windrush arriving at Tilbury Docks.

When the England football manager, Gareth Southgate, and his team walked out on the pitch for their opening match of the current UEFA Euro 2020 tournament, they were already part of an ongoing controversy.  The manager had announced that his players would continue to “take the knee”.  This is the gesture that many sportsmen and sportswomen have been participating in, which is kneeling for a few seconds before the commencement of their game(s), in support of racial equality.  Started by Dr Martin Luther King and his colleagues during the civil right movement in the US and revived by Colin Kaepernick, an NFL quarterback, in 2016, it has now been fused with the BLM movement, since the murder of George Floyd.

As this event unfolded, I was reminded of the birth of the UK Black power movement of the 1960s when people such as Frank Critchlow, Darcus Howe, Olive Morris, Farrukh Dhondy and many others were forced to stand up to multiple injustices that they faced at the time (whether from the police or their neighbours), particularly when they were wrongfully charged with inciting the Mangrove “riots” and rightly acquitted by the courts.  Some of those people were among the group of immigrants who set sail on the SS Windrush in 1948, leaving their homes, their families and their loved ones, thinking that their journey would take them to the Motherland for a better life but they were not prepared for the challenges of injustice and inequality that awaited them.

Their activism of the 1960s and 1970s is widely seen as a template by their descendants, utilising some of those strategies to deal with similar issues that are still being faced some 60 years later.

As the awful events of the summer of 2020 unfolded, once again Black people took to the streets.  Like the Mangrove protestors, the descendants of those “Windrushers” – third, and in some instances, fourth generation – demonstrated that they possess the tenacity and determination to deal with new battles.  For example, the “Windrushers” dealt with hostility, direct discrimination and exclusion in all spheres of life, now we have to deal with subtle, indirect discrimination and micro-aggression, in the main.

Has nothing changed, then, I hear you ask, dear reader?  Of course, there have been significant changes. We have more anti-discrimination legislation than any country in Europe, we have Black history month, we have more Black people on TV, more MPs from diverse backgrounds in prominent roles in government, we have an Asian Mayor of London and a Windrush descendant as Mayor of Bristol.   The Windrush descendants are living a life that very few of those Caribbean passengers, who disembarked from the SS Windrush at Tilbury Docks on that June day in 1948 were able to.  But they laid the foundation for Black Britons today – from their service during WWII, the Bristol bus boycotts, signs reading “no blacks, no dogs, no Irish”, protests and challenging unfairness through the courts. Nonetheless, there are still challenges to be met, three generations on.  When England’s Black footballers walked out on the pitch for their first game in the Euro 2020 tournament, supported by their team-mates and manager, they were facing one such challenge, asking that racial justice be further advanced.  They were booed, booed by their own supporters in the friendlies leading up to the start of the tournament but the boos grew less at this game.  So what did the team do?  They won the match 1-0, the only goal scored by a Windrush descendant.

So as the Windrush commemoration starts we ask the question, what is their legacy?  I say, they have bequeathed their descendants the right to be Black Britons and not perpetually be regarded as “immigrants” and perseverance (among other things), even when the tasks seem insurmountable and the goal distant.  We may get weary, and some days it may feel like we are on our own, but we keep going and the goal of racial justice is within reach. That is the legacy of the “Windrushers”.

King’s reflections a year on from George Floyd’s murder – Part 2

In the second installment of our series of curated reflections a year on from George Floyd’s murder, we share the reflections of Ellen Clark-King, The Dean of King’s College London.


Reflection on Genesis 21:8-13

In March 2020 I was in Montgomery Alabama. I was there as part of an annual pilgrimage that addresses the legacy of slavery and enduring racial inequality in the US and beyond. It was a mixed group – racially, religiously, some very middle class, some unhoused. We visited museums, talked about our experiences, sang together and also wept together.

The place we visited that hammered at my heart most was Bryan Stevenson’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This is a memorial to every person killed by lynching in the United States – over 4000 people, children as well as adults. It is both a beautiful and a gut-wrenching place, lives remembered and honoured with a beauty that condemns the ugliness of their deaths. And what hit me hardest was reading some of the names – the ones whose surname was the same as mine at birth – Clark. Not because I could claim them as my kin but because these were people who had been owned by those who shared my name. My personal Clark ancestors were white working and servant class, not slave owners, but that does not absolve me from the guilt of being part of a system that said that White lives matter and that Black lives don’t.

Sarah said to Abraham: ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ Here we are confronted with the reality of slavery at the heart of our sacred scripture. Here Sarah, herself part of a people who were liberated from slavery, stands on the other side. Here she speaks for slave owners across the centuries who have failed to see that other mother’s children are as valuable as their own. Here Sarah is part of my story – part of the story of privilege that belongs to women as well as men because of their race and economic status.

But I don’t want to focus on Sarah. I want to focus on the other woman in the story – Hagar the Egyptian, the one who was cast out into the wilderness, the one who lifts up her voice and weeps in despair. Hagar was the slave woman purchased by Abraham and Sarah to bear children for Abraham when Sarah was believed to be barren. She was, in other words, trafficked and sold as a sex slave. Her very name shouts out her ‘otherness’ and lack of value – Hagar in Biblical Hebrew means ‘alien’ or ‘foreigner’. This is a name given to her by those who own her not by the mother who bore her. The wonderful Biblical scholar Wilda Gafney in her book Womanist Midrash tells us that this is not the only tradition of Hagar’s name. She figures prominently in the Islamic tradition and there her name is given as Hajar. This name has beautiful potential meanings from ‘Splendid’ to ‘Nourishing’. Here is a name that speaks of the worth that belongs to each human creature. Here is a name that says this woman is her own person, a beloved daughter of God, not a possession. This is what I will call her from now on.

I want to take us back a few chapters in Genesis to the place where we first encounter Hajar. At this point Sarah is angry with Hajar because she feels insulted by her attitude – she expects her slave to treat her with respect – and so she beats her viciously causing Hajar to flee to the wilderness. Here Hajar is again at the point of despair and here again God comes to her. God tells her that she and her son are in his care, that she will be the mother of a great nation – the first divine annunciation in the entire Bible. And even more extraordinarily than that – Hajar is the first human being allowed to name God. The first human being in the whole of our scripture who names God is a slave woman – the most powerless of human beings in every hierarchy of the time. And the name that Hajar gives to God is El Ro’i, God of seeing, interpreted by Gafney as meaning ‘Have I seen the one who sees me and lived to tell of it?’. God sees Hajar. God sees her as a human being of meaning and significance, as one who has the right to name the divine as it appears to her, as one strong enough to encounter the living God and to continue living. She is the one who is promised life not only for herself but for her children and her children’s children. And in the second encounter we heard today Hajar’s identity is affirmed as a beloved champion of God’s purposes: no one’s property, no one’s slave. The UK and the US ended slavery generations ago. They officially recognised that no human being should be another person’s property. But white society never took the next step. The step of seeing the children of freed slaves as equal to the children of those who owned them. The step of hearing hard truths and seeking reconciliation through justice. The step of making Black Lives Matter a reality rather than an essential rallying call. The step of racial justice.

And, especially relevant in theology and the academy more generally, the step of listening to the names that Black voices are giving to reality and to God. If all you read in theology or fiction or news articles are the writings of white men then you are not learning the full truth of our world or of God. If you are not hearing womanist voices naming God then you are not hearing a crucial part of how God names Godself. We need to know the God Hajar named – El Ro’i – the one who sees the reality of injustice and oppression; the one who reveals divine reality most clearly to those on the underside of power. We need to know Hajar’s God and we need to work with Hajar’s God to dismantle racial injustice and undo the long, painful legacy of slavery. And we need to do it now.

Reference: Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne, Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.

King’s reflections a year on from George Floyd’s murder

A year on from George Floyd’s murder, we have asked our community for their reflections on this seismic event and the impact it has had on them and their work. This is the first in a series of blogs where we will be sharing your reflections.

This week we hear from Evelyn Welch, Provost & Senior Vice President (Arts & Sciences).


Three weeks ago marked the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death, a moment that resonated around the world and prompted King’s to consider how racism impacts on our own community. You will have all received Sarah Guerra, Director of Equality, Diversity & Inclusion’s note asking for your reflections on what this anniversary has meant to you. Thank you to those who have responded thus far.  We have published a blog of Sarah’s own reflections which you can read here. Over the coming weeks contributions from our community, including yours will also be featured in King’s Essentials & our Diversity Digest Blog. There is still time if you would like to send some reflections. We are all busy, there is so little time – yet this is so important. You can send your reflections to diversity@kcl.ac.uk

 

My own reflections come from a deep discomfort that I, and those who feel safe in our skin every day, still have such a limited understanding of the lived experience of racism. There is a great deal of learning and listening to do. At the same time I am proud that we are willing to address this and move beyond words to action in order to openly address the endemic challenge of structural inequalities and bias.  

 

We are very aware of the strength of feeling in our community around the need to proactively tackle racism – especially in light of the racial and ethnic inequalities such as the differential impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, health service provision and access, and the academic award gap. It is time for us all to reflect on how we can continue to listen and learn about these issues. Even more importantly, it is time to take concerted action around these challenging topics in an open and honest way. I encourage you all to talk about progressing anti-racism and real action in your team meetings this week. Please do take the time to share your thoughts as we remember George Floyd’s death. 

Anti-racism Reflections – what does our report card look like?

In this blog, Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Sarah Guerra, reflects on the progress we’ve made in making King’s an actively anti-racist university, a year on from the murder of George Floyd. 


This last week I have been able to return to fitness classes at the gym (4 in one week to get my sluggish body moving again – go me!).  Most of my classes have been taught by Fiona – who has been motivating us by saying ‘success is finishing the class wanting to come back.’

This has really struck me as I reflect as an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) practitioner on the anniversary of George Floyd’s tragic, very public and utterly preventable murder.

It is a cliché to say it has been two years like no other. A global pandemic that has seen us all in the UK, as far as possible, confined to our homes. A period where collective and social responsibility has meant that social contact has been fraught with danger. And then, if the pandemic was not already intense enough, we add to that the recognition by many that we have a similar level of dangerous toxicity in the form of racism.

2020 and 2021 has been a time when the world seemed to be collectively galvanised to address racism in a way that I have never seen before. I am still curious as to why the death of George Floyd, whilst horrific, was so catalytic.

What was distinctive about this event that motivated people so differently?

The systemic racism that enables everyday violence and exclusion of people of colour – particularly Black people – was not news to those of us that make up the Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority community or, in fact, the global majority!

It is something that those of us who experience racism have been highlighting forever and an issue that many professionals and activists have been seeking to address for a long time. Whatever it was – something about the confluence of events and experiences in 2020 and 2021 – it led many more people in the world to realise and accept that as a global community we were moving too slowly to combat the toxic, pervasive, all-consuming virus that is racism.

That eruption of world feeling was felt very strongly here at King’s. On June 9th 2020 , we held a powerful leadership summit where we made a commitment to being an anti-racist university. This, alongside the growing access to educational resources and increased attention, created a window of opportunity for a change in pace in achieving anti-racism outcomes. At least, that is how it has felt to me.

Now, in my 4th year at King’s as Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, I experience almost daily a mixture of conflicting feelings that fluctuate between pride and shame, pragmatism and ambition, fear and frustration. I am proud that we, collectively at King’s, are taking our equality, diversity and inclusion ambitions and particularly, our commitment to being anti-racist, seriously. Yet, I am frustrated with the pace of change. I am vexed that the good work we do often rests in siloes and isn’t something enough people are aware of or involved in.

I know that there is a widespread lack of trust, general suspicion and dissatisfaction amongst many, particularly those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds. People tell me that they don’t believe there is a real commitment to King’s being anti-racist. They tell me that progress is too slow or non-existent. This is very understandable but also upsetting and demoralising.

I find myself questioning and second guessing myself? Have I sold out? Am I institutionalised? Am I too lenient on those around me in senior leadership? Am I out of touch? Do I even know what I am talking about? Am I letting people down, particularly people of colour? I know it’s not about me and that no one person can make the difference needed by themselves, but as the lead professional in this space, I feel the weight of responsibility and take our lack of progress and the resulting community feeling very strongly.

What I have witnessed here at King’s tells me that we are an organisation of enormous heart and ambition, but that our complexity and desire to be collaborative also makes us slow and ponderous. That can be perceived as resistance.

I have worked with many organisations to get leadership to pay attention and act, being forced frustratingly frequently to prove the point that race, and other inequality exists; laboriously and repetitively identifying the evidence of inequality and its impact. I know many individuals, practitioners and networks still face this daily, and maybe it is what many at King’s are experiencing.

As we continue this battle against racism, it is more important than ever that we all proactively support and prioritise our personal wellbeing, especially in this week that might be particularly traumatising for the Black community. You can find some links to wellbeing support here, these resources having been researched for Black people and for non-Black allies.

However, for me it is still – disturbingly – refreshing and frankly surprising when those in power at King’s don’t require repeated proof. Where instead they are willing to examine and tackle the roots of all inequality, and they take on the work themselves – something which in 2020/1 seems to have shifted us significantly forward. For example, every area of professional services has taken forward activity to tackle racism, and every faculty has an EDI committee and set of priorities. You can find out more about the breadth of our anti-racism work here.

So, as an experienced practitioner, I judge there to be something qualitatively different here at King’s to what I have experienced before. But, I also realise how intangible and ephemeral that is; that it may be invisible and to some extent makes no difference to those suffering on a daily basis. I also recognise that many people have become so frustrated and fed up that they refuse to make any more allowances for our slow progress.

This is where Fiona’s ‘success is finishing the class wanting to come back’ really strikes me. In each conversation we have and activity we run around race equality and developing anti- racism, I feel the need to strike a balance between identifying the issues and empowering those around me to take action, by building their confidence, capability and commitment. This is a fine judgement to make, though.  How hard do I push? How strong do I make my language? I want them to ‘want to come back’. I want them to grow and engage – I don’t want them to withdraw. When I first started here at King’s, one of our most senior leaders told me I had to judge all my actions carefully so that I wasn’t rejected by the ‘immune system’ of the organisation. I found this both useful and telling – was this advice given to white/male people starting too, I wondered? The reality though is this is the line I walk as a practitioner – as a bi woman of colour, each and every minute.

The anniversary of George Floyd’s death gives me and us a good point to reflect and consider: have we made all the progress it was possible to make this year in being anti-racist, in our ambition to be intersectional by default? I doubt it, but what has stopped us? What are we doing that is working and what we should magnify? What can we do better and faster in this coming year?

I am keen for all members of the King’s community to engage with those questions and send us in your reflections and ideas. So, please do take some time to reflect – perhaps the inordinately long time of 9 minutes and 29 second that Derek Chauvin had his knee on George Floyd’s neck – and let us have your thoughts and views. You can share any thoughts and reflections you have with us via email, at diversity@kcl.ac.uk.

 

 

Anti-racism at King’s

King’s interfaith week has been an opportunity for us to work in partnership with the Office for Students to promote dialogue between different parts of our community. We see conflict around the world based on religious or racial inequality such as the recent increased violence in the Middle East or sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland, which are further reminders of religious intolerance and inequality that still prevails in society.

At King’s, we’re dedicated to ensuring that our community is actively anti-racist. In many ways, this journey is a difficult and uncomfortable one, as it forces us to confront harmful behaviors that are implicit and unconscious. Next week also sees the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd in the United States, which together with murders of Breonna Taylor and Armaud Arbery, led to Black Lives Matter, one of the biggest anti-racist movements in the US and the world in modern times.

Over the past year, people across our community have stepped forward and made active changes to contribute to King’s anti-racism efforts. Some of the steps include:

However, there is still more to do to ensure our communities  at King’s and beyond are free from racism and discrimination. It is more important than ever that we’re accounting for the wellbeing of our Black community. Next week we have a special series of events organised by the Students and Education Directorate , which will serve as spaces of reflection for everyone across King’s. Here are a few other ways in which we can contribute, as Black people or non-Black allies:

All members of our community can get involved in the efforts we are sharing here to ensure that King’s is a safe and welcoming place for everyone.

Jessie Krish on Black Lives Matter & Race within the Arts and HE

Jessie Krish, who recently joined Equality Diversity & Inclusion as a part-time Project Assistant, and works outside of King’s as an independent curator, shares her reflections on the Black Lives Matters protests of the summer and how they inform work in the Cultural Industries and Higher Education sector. She recently co-edited a ‘Reader’ for e-flux journal on Loot and Looting.


After Minneapolis Police officers killed George Floyd, protests grew, and cities around the United States saw their buildings boarded with sheets of plywood: a defense against the threat of looting. With workers who usually inhabit these buildings absent due to Covid-19 lockdowns, the boards were there to protect commodities. Donald Trump’s command “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” was a violent call to protect property, even at the expense of human life.

Whilst it is crucial to maintain the distinction between political protest and particular instances of looting that occurred in the recent wave of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, it was looting in particular that escalated the protests, polarised public and political opinion, and contributed to the explosive impact of the BLM movement. Some viewed these acts of theft and vandalism as symbolic rejections of structures perpetuating state violence, systemic racism, and capitalist exploitation. But mainstream coverage in the United States’ media tied looting to people of color, and failed to connect these actions with the histories of systematic dispossession that Black Lives Matters activists protested, or the racialised extraction that subtends economic activity almost everywhere.

In the midst of the protests, American Artist presented an intervention at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s online collection, in which all digital images of the museum’s artworks were temporarily replaced with a plywood texture. The title of this project, Looted, pointed directly to the imperial legacies and colonialist practices of many Western museums, as well as activist and artistic institutional critiques in which the uncomfortable figure of museum “loot”, stolen from indigenous peoples and foreign nations and yet to be repatriated, is often central.

A screenshot of Looted on the Whitney’s website

Presenting Looted as an act of ‘redaction and refusal,’ the Whitney sought solidarity with activists, and to reframe the narrative around the boarding up of the museum’s building during this period. American Artist’s Looted highlights the extreme contradictions that cultural institutions must hold (for example, guarding looted national property, whilst developing convincing and inclusive postcolonial narratives) when they engage with decolonial work. Work which requires structural, material and cultural change.

The boarded museum and its website populated with squares of rendered plywood, is a visual reminder of the close proximity of current state violence to the museum’s stolen imperial acquisitions. Whilst they can feel worlds apart, the street, museum, and university are at close quarters, and activities in each domain stand to impact cultures, structures, and material outcomes across the board.

I’m writing following the recent publication of Universities UK’s report Tackling Racial Harassment in Higher Education (November 2020). Following the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s publication of evidence of widespread racial harassment on university campuses just over a year ago, this report calls on university leaders to acknowledge that UK higher education perpetuates institutional racism. It cites ‘racial harassment, a lack of diversity among senior leaders, the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic student attainment gap and ethnicity pay gaps among staff as evidence’. Recognising that racial harassment is just one dimension of structural racism in the Higher Education sector, it acknowledges the depth of this problem and the breadth of work required, making detailed and evidence-based recommendations beyond the scope of the guidance, including the need to diversify predominantly Eurocentric and white university curricula.

Reflecting on a year in which the BLM movement has exploded and been met with the force of the state, racial discrimination has risen, and racial health inequalities have been exposed as a matter of life or death with grossly uneven outcomes for coronavirus patients of different ethnicities, I am heartened to see UK Universities addressing harassment so thoroughly. I share their positivity for the impact that the HE sector could have, with the potential to shape the minds and attitudes of 429,000 staff, and 2.3 million students, a generation whom, particularly in London, will be unprecedented in their diversity. Time to get to work!

Let’s keep talking about race

About 18 months ago I stood before the SMT at their inaugural structural inequality development session, a programme I had designed. I was terrified. This was my big chance to put into action all that I had learned as an activist and as a more junior member of staff.  Meaningful and sustainable change starts with leadership commitment. Why was I so frightened? This was exactly the job I had been asked to do. But, as I think any person of colour will tell you, it feels like you are a flashing beacon when you stand in front of a group of (mostly white) people and tell them that there is inequality all around us, that there is racism around us and, as the leaders of the organisation, that it is their job to act. I was pleased that day that the response was overwhelmingly positive. There was a real thirst for knowledge and an appetite for action.

Since then, we have seen gradual changes and improvements. However, the brutal murder of George Floyd has shown us that we don’t have the luxury of time. Our community need us to do something now. Our steady strategic action plans move too slowly for the toxic, pervasive and all-consuming virus that is racism. Our Race Equality Chartermark self-assessment tells us we have a lot to do. Our recruitment processes are not operating fairly, the BME attainment gap shows not all our students are provided with the opportunity to attain according to their academic potential. Crucially, while we have a lot of ‘BAME’ (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) staff and students, we have far too few black staff and students. Recognising and naming this is important if we are going to progress.

I have a friend, an amazing black man of Jamaican heritage, who is an activist and a leader Rob Neil OBE (Order of the British Empire or Obviously Black Everyday – you take your pick!)  Rob talks about his journey – that it was only some 10 years into his career that he ‘became’ black, having formerly perceived himself to be ‘colourless’; that merit had no colour; that if he worked hard enough, he would succeed.

I feel the same. Here I am not far off my half century. Little, old, Sarah Guerra, the brown girl that started life in Edmonton Green on the Joyce Avenue Estate. That I find myself as Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at King’s College London is improbable. Don’t get me wrong, I have always been bright and capable. My Trinidadian dad schooled me in arithmetic and letters from the earliest age, and I arrived at school way more advanced than the others in my class. But I, like many others, went through school, college, and university being passively or actively discouraged and urged to lower my ambitions and expectations. It’s a cliché, I know, but it’s true, that in parallel to that, I had the constant refrain at home – ‘you’ve got to be twice as good, Sarah’. At the same time as all of that coded and not-so-coded messaging – what we today know as implicit racism –  hardly ever did the fact that I was brown-skinned figure out loud in a conversation or, for many years, in my own mind.

A photograph showing the Joyce Avenue estate. A tall block of flats dominates the scene. There are a few trees in front of it, and a few cars on the road as well.

It was there as clear as day, but not something to be mentioned. I became a ‘black’ woman maybe in my early twenties when I started to build my own race consciousness and fought off the imposter syndrome demons.

Today, as, arguably, a firmly middle-class woman, a mother of dual-heritage children, and an EDI practitioner, I have to continuously reflect on how to tackle racism without perpetuating, for my daughters, that same imposter syndrome.  Supporting King’s on its path to equality improvement, I carry with me the many years’ experience of ‘the fight’; of the anger and disappointment, but also the joy of hope and the energy that comes from having been able to make a difference.

A photograph of the author smiling sat on a yellowish chair.

I’ve been at King’s for 3.5 years now. I find us to be an organisation of enormous heart and ambition. We are also complex, and can be slow and ponderous much of the time. I am proud to work here and to contribute to our staff, students, education, research and vision for the world. As a woman of colour, and a human being, I can also attest to being regularly exhausted by the need to second guess how I might be received or interpreted, by the need to have the conversation, and by the overwhelming task that is dismantling structural inequality. As a senior leader, I recognise I am in a position of privilege and am buffered and deferred to in a way that many more junior colleagues are not. Yet racism – or the fear of it – still touches me most days.

These last few weeks have been some of the most intense of my life. We always talk about ‘what’s the burning platform’ – and never in all my years has the heat been so strong. The eruption of world feeling and attention to anti-black racism has created a window of opportunity for a step change.

King’s, without a doubt, still has a lot to do and has made mistakes. But, personally, it was utterly refreshing in my conversations with our Principal and Provosts (and many others) to not be faced with the task of having to persuade them and instead to be met with their demand and determination to tackle the roots of inequality.

I am proud that we have responded so substantially and fully, recognising that you all want and need more commitment to anti-racism than words on a page.

The following resources were suggested and requested by our amazing Race Equality Network colleagues, a network that had its first birthday very recently. They wanted to show solidarity with staff and create a safe and supportive space for us to discuss various topics around race. To give people ‘permission’ to say what’s on their mind and share their feelings and resources. They and I would like to hear from you and offer any support you need.

A clear message from our recent leadership summit was that there is a difference between not being racist and choosing to be actively anti-racist. One way we are enforcing that commitment is to include EDI-related issues in every issue of King’s Essentials, to continue to build our EDI work into the DNA of King’s. That is what we must all strive for.

I originally wrote this piece to accompany the Race Equality at King’s Splash page. I was at that point advised it wasn’t suitable, so I am publishing here as a blog instead as I wanted people to read it. We will be holding further follow up summits with Heads of Department, BME ECRs and PIs in the autumn to deepen and extend our anti-racism work. Look out for details on those.

In the meantime, you can get involved in the efforts we’re sharing with you here. Join our incredible staff networks and get involved in the wonderful, intersectional work they’re doing. Engage with the training opportunities we have on offer, including Diversity Matters. Have conversations, commit to self-education, and play your part in making sure King’s is a safe and welcoming place for everyone. Are you a budget holder? A hiring manager? You can take direct action to examine how these things are supporting our ambitions to tackle racism. Everyone can also pay attention to who is speaking, notice who is around you, choose to disrupt your social media or reading with different voices, and call out racism and microaggressions when you see them.

Most of all, as you read, please ask yourself: what is my contribution? How do I contribute to the problem? What power do I hold?  More importantly, how do I contribute to the solution?

I’d like to thank Jenny Agha, VJ Sidhu and Rob Neil for supporting me in writing this and helping reinforce my courage to say what needs to be said.

How a Lifetime of Racial Indignities Add Up

Alexandra Birrell completed her MSc in Mental Health and Psychological Therapies in London. As an NHS therapist and transracial adoptee, she has a special interest in working with clients with anxiety and depression stemming from social inequalities. She uses embodied writing as a form of activism, using first person narrative to bring awareness to systemic cultural issues.  

Alexandra says: “When the BLM movement started featuring in the news, I found myself in a unique position. As a transracial adoptee, I am seen by society as an ethnic minority, but treated by my white family and friends as a white person. The dominant narrative when I was growing up was that “we don’t see race, we only see our daughter/cousin/friend.” But it was this narrative that stopped me from understanding and expressing the pain that came from directly experiencing racism. Seeing people raging in the streets tapped into deep seated emotions that had never had a voice. This article contains my reflections on how even microaggressions can add up to create a bigger picture over a lifetime.”

 


 

Over the past several weeks, as the #BlackLivesMatter movement turns the global conversation toward racial issues, I recognise my own privilege in being able to take my time to reflect on my own racial experiences. Some people are challenged by the concept of privilege, especially in the context of race. They may say, “but how can I be privileged? I grew up with nothing; I witnessed abuse; I was abused; my parents were alcoholics; I grew up poor.” But privilege is not a yes/no tick-box; it is a complex topic. It is not only about the things we have experienced; it is also about the things we have not. For example, people can be privileged racially, whilst at the same time being un-privileged economically. It took me a long time to realise that despite being privileged in many ways, a lifetime of racial microaggressions added up to poor mental health that almost cost me my life.

As a mixed-race woman growing up in Canada, with blood from the Philippines, Portugal, Spain and England (and as a recent DNA test tells me, also from France, India, Indigenous Mexico, Northern Africa and Senegal) the most common question I have been asked is “but where are you really from?” It is a question that has haunted me throughout my life, even growing up in the suburbs of multicultural Toronto. The difficulty of living in a place where everyone you know is a first to fourth generation immigrant is that, despite being born and raised in Canada, considering yourself Canadian is not perceived to be enough of an identity. Canadians may still consider themselves Italian, for example, despite being born in Canada, and their parents and grandparents being born and bred Canadian.

What happens when you can’t identify with your country of birth, but also don’t belong to the cultures and heritages of your ancestors? What is a “half-caste” (to use one of the many descriptions others have used) modern woman to do with the knowledge that her body and her existence are the result of centuries of violence — whose blood is made up of both historically colonised and coloniser?

My racial experience has been further complicated by my early life adoption into a white Scottish family. The controversial subject of transracial adoption began to feature in debate nearly thirty years ago, but the cultural assumption is still that adoptees should assimilate the racial culture of the adoptive family. I grew up with the narrative that “we are a family of Scottish ancestry, and this is our heritage.”

I was therefore, at the age of four, thoroughly unprepared when kids on the playground pulled back their eyes at me, mocked, “you’re Chinese!”, and burst into laughter. At this young age, I began to realise I did not fit the description of being white-Scottish, but also had no idea what my true ethnicity was. Adoptees are not allowed access to their own medical or birth records until the age of 18. For all I knew, I could have been Chinese. I didn’t understand why this was so funny.

In my horrified shock, I was silent. None of the adults in my life knew that I was being taunted on the playgrounds. This was the beginning of a lifetime of internalising racial shame.

At eleven, a group of boys started to follow me home from school, laughing and pulling back their eyes. At first, I laughed along, buying into the narrative that they were just teasing me. After all, isn’t that what boys do when they like you? Weeks went by — the laughter stopped, but the ridicule continued. One day, they started to follow me home as usual. My heart was already starting to race when I heard a loud CRACK! It sounded like a gunshot. They’d gotten hold of fireworks and were shooting them at me. I still said nothing to my parents, or any adult in my life.

At fourteen, our family moved from multicultural Toronto to an affluent (Read: All White) suburb an hour from the city. My white parents had no idea that during these teenage years, it was developmentally even more important for me to have racial mirrors in my life; to be able to see myself reflected in the world around me, and to understand that my physical characteristics were normal and acceptable. I was confused when, on the first day of high school, not knowing a single soul, someone shouted down the hallway at me “Asian slut!”

I fought back hot tears of humiliation. I was confused; I lacked an understanding of the violent historical roots of this comment. I did not know about the women who, during western occupation of Asia during the Philippine-American War, World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, were forced into local sex trafficking rings to serve soldiers. I did not know about the stereotypes that rationalised sexual violence toward Asian women.

Even knowing these stereotypes now, I look back and realise that I was not a woman; I was a child. I later learned that children of colour are often treated as being more mature than they are, and more mature than white children of the same age, due to a form of racial prejudice called Adultification Bias.

Alexandra Birrell writes about her experiences of being a transracial adoptee

The judgement and rejection got worse for me through those torturous school years. Class after class, I was the only person of colour in the room, and when I wasn’t being taunted or physically threatened, I was completely ignored.

At sixteen, I started to smoke weed. Being with my stoner friends was the only place I felt accepted, and the weed helped to numb the deep pain that I was in. But even my so-called friends laughed at me: “You don’t need to smoke weed, look at you. You’re already chinky eyed!” a friend said in front of a large group. The whole room erupted with laughter. My body went into freeze mode, as it had done a million times before. I had nothing to say; nothing to fall back on. I did not know what it meant to be Asian. I had no ethnic role models in my life. I had no one to teach me about racism.

I did not see myself reflected anywhere in my family or in my wider culture. According to the Journal of Intercultural Communication, Asian/Pacific Islanders are still underrepresented and misinterpreted in mainstream media, forming only 3% of all prime-time characters and primarily being portrayed as “dangerous criminals…unassimilated immigrants… [or] subservient sexual objects” (Ramasubramanian, 2011). And the less interracial contact white people have, the more their views are defined by media portrayals of stereotypes.

With no racial pride to summon up, when I was taunted for my physical features, I simply allowed myself to sink into silent humiliation — a go-to protective response. I began to hate what I looked like. I wanted to be white and just fit in, but never shared this desire with my parents — how could I? They believed I already was.

I worked hard and went to Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada to study psychology. But the psychology I learned did not include the psychology of people of colour. I learned about Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Wundt, William James, and Edward Titchener — white male after white male, while my white classmates nodded along.

I learned about how race is a social construct; how the differences in our skin tone are only skin deep, a biological response to different climates that we settled in as humanity spread throughout the globe. I learned about how biologically, our similarities are more than our differences. I understood, but it just didn’t resonate. We live in a world made up of social constructs. The fact is that ethnic minorities have different experiences than white people, simply because the world we live in was designed by white people to benefit themselves. This is why the common notions of “not seeing colour” and “all being one human race”, whilst noble and often coming from good intentions, are demoralising and demeaning to people of colour; they deny the difficulties we face in a world where racial discrimination still exists.

After lectures, I was often the only person of colour at the bars my white friends and I went to. One day, I acknowledged this reality out loud. “Don’t worry!” a white friend laughed. “You’re pretty much white!” She meant it as a compliment, but I could read the subtext: The colour of your skin is not acceptable. Only your lifelong proximity to white culture makes you acceptable.

After moving to England, a man at a bar asked me where I was from, then loudly exclaimed, “but you don’t look Canadian!” immediately exposing his own ignorance. “I think you mean that I don’t look like a British coloniser,” I snapped back at him. To be Canadian is to be either first nations, or an immigrant. But despite my quick comeback, his comment seared. He did not know that with his ignorant remark, he was stripping me of any identity I could cling to. He did not know that he was perpetrating a narrative that hundreds of years of colonialism and violence had created — the narrative of history told from the white perspective. The dominant narrative is still that “Canada is 150 years old” as this is when it was “found” by white Europeans. Never mind the native cultures, stories, and lives lived spanning over hundreds of years — they have never mattered in the eyes of the coloniser.

It’s not just history classes you see this narrative perpetuated. It’s in the pushing of white beauty standards on the rest of the world. It’s going to Thailand expecting to finally see myself reflected in the skin tones around me, only to find that there is not a single face cream available for purchase that doesn’t have bleaching agent in it. It’s realising that even there, my skin is wrong. And there is the same focus on white, Western beauty in terms of body size and type. For me, all of the above consolidates the assumption that thin white bodies are the norm, and everything else exists in relation to them.

At twenty five, I tracked down my biological mother and finally got the full story of my ethnic heritage. I bonded with her deeply, finally recognising where my emotional qualities and half of my face came from. But it was also difficult to realise that all along, I had actually been a half-blooded white person. Had I grown up within her side of my biological family, I would have still been the only person of colour. My Filipino father had not known that she was pregnant.

After meeting my white biological family, my many years of racial isolation began to sink in. I found a black therapist who specialised in transracial adoption issues at the Post Adoption Centre in London. Session after session, the rage that filled the room left me terrified. The gag had come off, and the protective survival response of silence could live no more. My therapist and I decided to have a meeting with my parents.

“My whole life, you’ve said that I’m Scottish,” I said between deep sobs of pain and release. “But I’m not.”

“What are you then?” my therapist probed.

“Not Canadian enough. Not Filipino enough. Not Portuguese enough. Certainly not English enough…” A silence came over me as my lifelong reality sunk in.

“I’m nothing,” I finally concluded, the full weight of the sentence finally landing on my chest after years of denial.

Depression set in, but the world didn’t notice. From jokes told in bad Indian accents by white people, to the “ching chang chong” chided by my own family member after I placed down a home cooked Chinese dinner down in front of him; from white people staring at me during professional trainings (of which I was still the only person of colour), to a friend turning to me in a social situation to ask me if “coloured people in society bring more illness”, I was still surrounded by racial naivety. At a party in Barcelona, a stranger bowed to me as I walked into the room and proceeded to nudge me throughout the night, laughing, “Eh, eh, is that how you do it?” bowing over and over as my face reddened each time.

“Do you find it easier that white people don’t tend to fear Asians?” my partner asked, genuinely. It was a good point. Even within the experience of being a person of colour, I am still awarded certain privileges. After thinking about it for a moment, I responded, “Of course I do. The white cultural narrative says that Asians are for laughing at, while other races are to be feared.”

My statement highlights the very nature of privilege — that some have benefitted from a system of power at the expense of others. If you have never had to fear for your safety because of the colour of your skin, that is racial privilege. If you have never been laughed at, humiliated or dehumanised because of the colour of your skin, that is racial privilege. And if you have never been feared because of the colour of your skin, like me, that is also racial privilege. It is up to each and every one of us to humbly and genuinely enquire the ways that we have unearned privilege.

Nearly thirty years after my transracial adoption, I grieved the loss of my own ethnic heritage; my own roots. I allowed myself to feel the lack of belonging; the lack of a true and deep safe space to land that has shadowed me throughout my life.

Screaming on deaf ears became its own form of trauma, and my rage continued to turn inward. An alien plucked from the sky, I fantasised about ideas of “going home” which to me, meant fading into the nothingness I felt that I was. I began to plan my own suicide.

I was not alone in this feeling — the Equality and Human Rights Commission completed a racial harassment inquiry in 2019 and reported that 56% of those harassed are subject to name calling, 20% to physical violence, and 1 in 10 who experience racial discrimination feel suicidal.

Racism is difficult enough to deal with. Mixed race people have a complex relationship to it, feeling that they don’t have any real sense of belonging to either of the cultures their blood comes from. Transracial adoptees, even more so, as we tend to fight this battle completely alone.

Luckily, with the support of difficult family conversations, transracial adoption Facebook support groups, long term therapy and several bouts of long term medication, I am in a different place now. I continue to do my own reading and research about my heritage and ethnicity, forever searching for something to be proud of.

And yet, the recent rise of the conversation of race has re-opened these wounds. The white people in my life either avoid the conversation with me completely, or hop on the bandwagon, posting black squares and hashtags, many of them not knowing a single thing about racism and its complexities. The current rhetoric is that “if you say nothing, you’re part of the problem,” but there is a difference between taking constructive action through personal research and education, and feeling entitled to an opinion about something you haven’t experienced yourself, which is its own form of privilege. Most of the time, if you haven’t experienced an issue yourself, the best thing to do is to listen to people who are, quite frankly, better placed to comment.

After a lifetime of dissociating from racial issues in the name of social acceptance; a lifetime of shutting down when faced with my own racist encounters, seeing people raging in the streets hit a bit too close to home. That rage is what I feel inside and often cannot express, because the reality is that if I talk about my lived experience, I will be labelled as angry, sensitive, self-absorbed, or difficult, which serves to further silence me and ensures the white dominant narrative lives on. At the same time, to speak out is to risk isolating myself from any sense of belonging that I do have within the white world I live in.

During this (hopefully) historical moment in time, I feel the pull to add to the conversation, and to support with education around racial issues, but I am also exhausted from the emotional labour of explaining the complexities of the subject. If you do not identify as a person of colour, please, understand that history is already told from your perspective, question your belief that you need to make a statement about everything that goes on in the world, and share the voices of the people this actually effects. Sit down at the table, pour a cup of tea, and listen up. Because we have lives to get on with, that don’t involve fighting this tired battle.

It has been difficult to come out of my protective shell of silence to acknowledge and honour my story. But shaking with the rage of twenty-nine silent years, I have put pen to paper as a labour of love. For the people of colour who, like me, feel shut down, dissociated, confused, or alone. For those who feel shocked, silenced, gagged, misunderstood, unseen, and unheard. For those who feel threatened, physically unsafe, terrified, traumatised and rejected because of the colour of your skin.

You are not alone. Your voice matters. Your life matters. You matter.


To hear more from Alexandra, you can connect with her through her Medium page, or follow her on Instagram.

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