Equality, Diversity & Inclusion at King's College London

Tag: racism

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.

Cultural identity and insecurity: Growing up South Asian in UK schools

Michaela Tranfield is a final year English undergraduate at King’s. She discusses how a normalised culture of racism in UK secondary schools made her disconnect from her cultural identity. Michaela also has her own blog where you can find some of her other writing:  https://michaxlawrites.wordpress.com/

The culture of racism in UK schools has undoubtedly been normalised. Racial abuse and throwaway comments have been condoned by British society and either ignored by teachers or worse still, orchestrated by them. It breeds a culture of racist attitudes and biases weaponised against young Black, Asian and Latinx people for the comedic satisfaction of others, making them question themselves and feel ashamed of their identity.

Despite growing up in London, I went to a white majority school where any form of racial difference was consistently mocked. Secondary school ‘banter’ is something that is part and parcel of your teenage years, but there is a very fine line between friendly teasing and clear racist insults that use a veil of humour to deflect from intentional prejudice.

In the past few days I’ve been talking to some of my friends about racism in our high school. A common factor in our experiences was that any kind of difference was always made to seem weird or unnormal. If your skin, hair and culture strayed away from the status quo, it was pointed out in the most negative way possible. My friends had their traditional sarees and lehengas laughed at, with someone even asking them why ‘their people’ wear bedsheets for clothes. When one of my friends went to music classes near our school in traditional Asian clothing and maliha flower (jasmine strands) in her hair, she always feared she would be spotted by kids from school and become the target of their jokes for the next few weeks. I was told that I didn’t smell like an Indian or wasn’t like other Indians, as if it is something I should be thankful for. Our body hair was laughed at as people pointed out our upper lip hair and some found it incomprehensible that we could grow hair on our hands and arms, one even calling me a monkey because of how hairy they thought I was.

We also found that people showed a real disregard for our individual experiences and ethnic backgrounds. People were intentionally ignorant. It didn’t matter where you were from in South Asia to them, whether it was Sri Lanka, Nepal or Bangladesh, because to them if you had brown skin you must automatically be Indian. If you tried to correct people for mistaking your identity, they arrogantly remarked that all brown people were the same so what did it matter, even though our histories and experiences were vastly different. These occurrences and many more are specific to the British Asian experience, but for most ethnic minority students who attended UK secondary schools our difference was always seen to be humorous. Our culture was seen as a joke, something obnoxious people could pick up, use against us and then dispose of at their whim.

My friends and I could all relate to being conditioned into thinking that we were overly sensitive if we spoke up about how the racist comments and actions made us feel. Somehow even though we were being mocked or insulted we were the bad ones for ‘taking it to heart’ or ‘not understanding a joke’. This is exactly how a cycle of prejudice continues – racialised people are made feel as though they are the issue. Our feelings were never validated. Truthfully, they were never considered in the first place.

During adolescence so much of your life is spent at school, so when your peers use your culture as a tool to create humour, you also fail to see anything positive in your culture. As the ridicule of our culture, negative stereotypes and unwarranted ignorant comments continued, I became more and more disengaged with my South Asian culture. Although many of the people who mocked racial difference will fall back on the excuse that it was not their intention, it seems to me that this deflection is used to protect themselves from criticism. People always talk about intentions, but they forget to consider impact. Whilst they could take pride in their culture and wave their flags high without having to consider the consequences, my friends and I were made to feel ashamed of ours. We had to question if we were mentally prepared to take on the mockery, judgement and insults that came from taking pride in our cultural differences. We were made to feel insecure about our ethnicity and our heritage, having to try to forget our culture and do the most to fit in.

As new generations of young people grow up and move through the secondary school system, I really want consideration and accommodation to be the new norm. For people to learn about other cultures before mocking them. To see who Black, Asian and Latinx students are before marking them with racial stereotypes. Rather than difference being thought of as intrinsically bad, more people could take the time to learn about other cultures or at least show interest rather than ignorance.

Thankfully, things are vastly different for myself and my friends now. As I rapidly approach my 21st birthday, I can honestly say I’m incredibly proud of my cultural heritage. It’s taken a few years to be unapologetically myself but we’re here now. Instead of having my culture shrouded in negativity, I found much more positivity through more British-Asian female representation on social media, through safe spaces and my circle of friends. Rather than trying not to express my culture, I love reading about South Asian history, going to cultural events and listening to all kinds of South Asian music. Where I would try to hide my cultural identity before, you can catch me belting out Bollywood bangers at any occasion I can find.

South Asian Heritage Month is an event that I am so thankful young South Asians have a chance to experience. In a society where our history and heritage are downplayed through anti-immigrant policy and sentiment, a month dedicated to exploring our culture and dismantling hegemonic ideas of Asian identity is so special. I hope that it will also help others who are not familiar with our culture learn some more and avoid passing ignorant attitudes and beliefs onto future generations. To any young British Asians who are going through identity struggles and have been made to feel as though their ethnicity is a problem, I hope that this month can help you realise how important your being, your culture and your history is to the country we live in today.

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.

King’s College London and the Challenge of Windrush

Professor Richard Drayton, a Caribbean-born professor of History at King’s commemorates the 72nd anniversary of Windrush Day, a day honoring the Windrush generation and their legacy.


Since 2018, Windrush Day has been the day in which we celebrate what Caribbean people have given to Britain. Such a celebration should be anchored in the memory of why we came. But it cannot just be retrospective. The anniversary of Windrush should challenge us each year to address the question of racial inequality, both within Britain, and in Britain’s relationship to the West Indies.

Our contributions to Britain began long before the arrival of the Empire Windrush to Tilbury docks in 1948. Here at King’s, for example, a significant part of the wealth on which King’s was founded in 1829 was based on enslaved and tortured people in the West Indies.  More generally, plantation slavery created a world in which modern Britain was rich, and its Caribbean colonies poor. It was in the context of this inequality of life chances that West Indians chose to leave their homes to come to London. It is against that background, too, that King’s relationship to the Caribbean was constituted.

There has never been any formal colour bar to study at King’s, nor indeed to recruitment to its staff. King’s indeed helped form Caribbean-born figures like Harold MoodySir Shridath Ramphal and Pearl Connor who have made fundamental contributions to British, Caribbean and international society. But from the nineteenth century to our own time, the consequence of slavery and colonialism were and are forms of economic inequality and unequal participation, which have meant that its personnel, culture and curricula have been overwhelmingly ‘white’. It is a significant step forward that in the moment of Black Lives Matters in 2020, that the college has begun to seriously confront the legacies of racism in its culture and practices.

One important possible new initiative might be for King’s to build and deepen its relationship to the Caribbean and its diasporas.  It is striking that King’s, which sits just a short walk from the climax of Caribbean-British life in Brixton, has had so little to do with it, so few Black London students and even fewer academics. And might more effort go into building partnerships with the University of the West Indies?  It was once the case that King’s and the then University College of the West Indies were sister members of the federal University of London. We should seek twenty-first century version of the kind of cooperation envisioned in that late colonial institution.

Windrush Day throws out a challenge to Britain in general and, specifically, to us at King’s. How do we remake ourselves, so that the descendants of the Windrush migrants can have an equal place in our life? And how do we address the forms of international inequality to which our domestic forms of racialised injustice were and are connected?

 

Why what happens over there matters over here

Vanessa Boodhoo from Chestnut Grove Academy, pens a blog on the importance of understanding and appropriately responding to systemic racism.


Following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American, protests against systemic racism and police brutality have scattered across all the 50 states of America alongside other 18 countries. The death of George Floyd particularly sparked the protests but the protesters continue to walk down the streets remembering Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Michael Brow, Breonna Taylor, Stephon Clark, Walter Scott, Anthony Baez, Ahmaud Arbery, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Dion Johnson, Trayvon Benjamin Martin, Kajieme Powell, James Scurlock, Tony McDade, Elijah McClain, Belly Mujinga, Mark Duggan, Cynthia Jarrett, Leon Briggs, Habib Ullah, Joy Gardner, Kingsley Burrell and many other Black and Brown victims of racism and police brutality in the USA and UK. 

As the protests grew many opponents of the movement started to be more vocal. One of their arguments is based upon the belief that the movement “Black Lives Matter” promotes inequality as “all lives mater. The Black Lives Matter movement was created in 2013 to campaign against violence and systemic racism towards ALL Black people and has since become international.  They’ve been actively fighting against racism through the organisation of protests and promotion of policies such as the end of the broken windows policing. None of their policies would disadvantage white people but they would certainly create a safer environment for Black people by reducing racial stereotyping and police brutality. In the US, Black Americans are 30% more likely to get pulled over by the police and although they roughly consist of 13.4% of the American population, they make up 40% of the prison population. As of June 2020, Black people continue to be the largest percentage of victims of police shootings in the US. Similar statistics also apply to the UK: in 2017-2018 Black people were victims of 12% of use-of-force incidents although they account for 3% of the UK population. Furthermore, between April 2018 and March 2019, there were 4 stop and searches for every 1000 white people and 38 for every 1000 Black people. Everyone’s life matters, the BLM movement is simply trying to concentrate on issues that affect the Black community disproportionately, that is why the “all lives matter” statement is so harmful. 

Many people are arguing that police departments should be defunded.  This defunding wouldn’t be immediate; the change would be gradual and the money taken could be reallocated to create more jobs, to improve the provision of mental health care (around 50% of all inmates in the US have been DIAGNOSED with a mental illness), social programs, experts on drug abuse and housing alongside other “non-police solutions to the problems poor people face”. During these past years, the US has defunded education, Planned Parenthood, health care and public transport; it would not be so radical to spend less money on the police. Eric Garcetti, LA’s current mayor has been planning to cut $150 million from the police budget to invest it in Black communities. The Minneapolis council also decided to defund and dismantle its police force as they concluded that a reform wouldn’t suffice.  

Due to systemic racism, BAME communities face discrimination and inequality in terms of employment, education, income, political power, housing, healthcare and many other aspects.  A 2018 study revealed that minority ethnic groups in London earn 21.7% less on average than white British employees. Having unequal employment opportunities leads to lower incomes (1/5 children in Black households’ lives in consistent poverty) and lower incomes lead to indecent housing, lower quality of healthcare and education.  Undoubtedly, a white person’s life can be hard, but their skin-colour can’t possibly make it harder. 

The idea that white privilege doesn’t exist is one of the many examples of white fragilityAlthough the noun fragility is a synonym of weakness, white fragility holds an incredible amount of power.  In order to avoid any conversations about race, white people often respond in the colour-blind or the colour-celebrate way. The colour-blind often have responses such as “I see beyond skin-colour”, “I was taught to treat everyone the same” or “racism is in the past”. All these responses belittle the existence and experience of racism.  The colour-celebrate tend to use phrases such as “I am not racist, I have black friends” or “I am not racist, I have POC in my family”.  These kinds of responses make it so much harder for people to talk about their own experiences with racism In 2019, Stephen Ashe conducted a report in Manchester with a sample of 5000 employees. He discovered that 40% of them were victims of racist incidents and when they tried to report them, they were either ignored or labelled as “trouble-makers”. Refusing to talk about race because it makes white people “uncomfortable” suggests that a white person’s comfort matters more than a person of colour’s oppression and discrimination. It is important to talk about racism. Educate yourself, talk about it with your friends and your family, by avoiding the topic we won’t achieve anything.  

In times like these, we must be careful of the news we consumeIn America when several people gathered carrying weapons and spitting on police officers’ faces to protest because they “needed a haircut”, Trump described them as “very good people”. However, when Black people and their allies started to protest systemic racism and police brutality, Donald Trump didn’t hesitate to refer to them as “thugs” and “bad left radical people”. The contrast between the media representation of the protestors as all violent and the videos coming out of the protests showing peace and violence being enacted on them is stark.  This week, several UK news headlines have been about a second wave of C19 and included images of Black protestors, rather than images of predominantly white people crammed onto beaches.  

Due to recent events, Britain is waking up to the impact of its colonial past. Recently, the statue of Edward Colston, an English slave trader responsible for the transportation of approximately 84,000 enslaved African people, was pulled down in Bristol with many recognising the pain that its existence had caused for years.  It is clear that more needs to happen to ensure that ALL schools learn about Black history and Britain’s colonial past and present.   

We cannot stop protesting now that all the police officers involved in George Floyd’s murder have been arrested. We are protesting systemic racism and police brutality. The two still exist. Little effort has been made to dismantle them. We must continue to spread awareness, the fight against racism is not over. 


If you’re interested in learning more about race and race equality, here are some activists which the author recommends:

The Reality of Diversification Without Beginning the Process of Decolonisation

Lauren Blackwood is one of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Project Officers at King’s. Lauren has penned a blog post using her own personal experiences in Higher Education to highlight the importance of introducing inclusive practices as well as increasing diversity.

An illustration showing a lecturer teaching to a group of students, who are depicted with idea-lightbulbs above their heads, in a large lecture theatre.

Institutions across the UK are finally embarking on diversification projects, spurred by the Equality Act 2010, equality accreditations, and calls from those underrepresented and their allies. But it is important to ensure that the culture that we are inviting those underrepresented groups into does not hinder the broader goal of equality – this includes (but is not limited to) ensuring equal feelings of safety and belonging. In order to achieve this broader goal, we must, at the very least, start processes of decolonisation alongside diversification.  

In this blogpost diversification is understood as attracting underrepresented groups to an institutionThis often includes recruiting staff at all levels who are representative of the frequently more diverse student demographics. This serves to broaden the scope of teaching styles and taught topics and to introduce educational perspectives which reflect the personal experiences of, and knowledge produced by, marginalised individuals and communities. As highlighted by Louise Autar “power dynamics, inherent biases, and (micro-)aggressions [that persist in Universities] can become hurdles in the learning process” (2017a, abstract), disrupting feelings of belonging, and in more extreme cases, safety. Therefore, it is important that diversification efforts go together with beginning decolonisation to ensure we are safeguarding as well as welcoming our most marginalised students. 

Here, decolonisation is defined as positively changing the longstanding, traditional, and exclusionary norms and culture of an institution. This may be done by rigorously questioning the university “structures that produce inequalities” (Friedberg and Felix 2019)Prominent examples of calls for the decolonisation of universities internationally include the University of Cape Town’s #RhodesMustFall campaign and UCL’s Why is My Curriculum so White’.  It is important that the process of decolonisation begins alongside, if not before, efforts to diversify, as “[i]n diversifying the university, ‘others’ are added without decentring the norm” (Autar 2017b, 318), thus maintaining their experiences of marginalisation and inaccessibility of the institutions services. 

As described by Kavita Bhanot (2015, 1) efforts to diversify without attempts to decolonise invite marginalised groups to the institution, but do not give those marginalised a seat at the table. This is to say that power imbalances are still maintained as well as systems and experiences of oppression.  Without decolonising work, diversification exists as ‘tick-boxing’ and tokenism  work which does not listen to, or act on, the needs of those marginalised concerning equal and inclusive experiences within the workplace and the classroom.

Attempts to decolonise should start with listening to and collecting the experiences and recommendations of those marginalised within your institution, faculty, school, or department. It is important that, in doing this, data collection is in line with the Data Protection Act 2018. This is to advance the safety and confidence of marginalised staff and students, and to work in line with our legal obligations.  Secondly, critically observe who is teaching and what is being taught. In my previous experience as a student, my degrees were predominantly taught by white western men, covering predominantly white, Western, masculinist theories and perspectives. This effected the extent to which I could relate to the material presented to me and proved to be an obstacle against my colleagues taking seriously my critiques of the material, critiques which reflected and grew from my disparate life experiences and subsequent knowledge. Thirdly, recognise and normalise understanding of the fact that there are barriers within Higher Education which disproportionately effect marginalised staff and students. Without recognising these historical barriers, it is unlikely that we will move onto commit to effective and sustainable change, rather than tick-boxing and tokenism.   

An illustration showing a diverse group of students sat around a table conversing over course material.

Bibliography  

Autar, L (2017a) Decolonising the Classroom. Tijdschrift voor Genderstudies. 20(3) Accessed at: https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/aup/tgen/2017/00000020/00000003/art00008 pp.305-320 

Autar, L (2017b) No Democratisation Without Decolonisation. Tijdschrift voor Genderstudies. 20(3) Accessed at: https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/aup/tgen/2017/00000020/00000003/art00009# pp.321- 332 

Bhanot, K (2015) Decolonise Not Diversify [PDF]. Media Diversified.  Accessed at: https://www.academia.edu/39008909/Decolonise_Not_Diversify 

Felix and Friedberg (2019) To Decolonise the Curriculum we have to Decolonise Ourselves. WONKHE. Accessed at: https://wonkhe.com/blogs/to-decolonise-the-curriculum-we-have-to-decolonise-ourselves/ 

Akala’s Natives and white supremacy: what does ‘all that race stuff’ have to do with me/you/us?

Every so often I experience a seismic change of understanding about myself, the world and societal issues. This is often brought about by books. Way back in time, Mike Phillips’ Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain was a game changer. More recently, I was inspired by Caroline Criado-Perez’s Invisible Women. These books were amazing wake up calls. Reading them felt at once like a punch in the face, a hug, and something akin to the “ice challenge”. Reading them felt like many things I previously only half understood had come into focus, while other things I had never thought to think about were beginning to emerge. 

finally got round to reading Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire by artist, writer, historian and educator, Akalaas I had been meaning to since he spoke at the sold-out King’s Race Equality Network Black History Month event last year.  

Akala, who was born in the 80s to a British-Caribbean father and a Scottish-English mother, grew up in a single parent, working class family dependent on free school meals. He is extremely bright and has used his knowledge about his heritage to articulately deconstruct much of our ‘typical’ British social context to reveal new insights – insights that those of us who are like me (also dual heritage, brown skin, a child of immigrantssort of knew but could never quite put their finger on. 

In an extremely direct and accessible way, Akala examines mixed race identity and the racism, reduced expectations and stereotyping he was subject to as a black skinned boy in 80s Britain. He explores the real threats to personal safety he experienced and the attitude of the criminal justice systemhow the achievements of people of colour are often detracted from and underminedthe unreality of what we are taught about the ‘British empire’; how stereotypes and media (mis)portrayals skew our perceptions of underrepresented groups; how money and class underpins so much of how people experience and perceive the world; how all these things link to politics and social identity. All in 350 pages or so.  

For some, what Akala says will be shocking – both the reality of the lived experiences that he relates and the intellectual concepts he promulgates. For others, like myself, there will be a lack of surprise and a degree of comfort to be found in the universality of the experiences he articulates – not because these things happened, but that they happened to others; that they are a ‘thing’; that I wasn’t imagining itwhy it took me so long to recognise the long term impacts on myself.  

“racist insults leave you feeling dirty because, even at five years old, we already know on some level that, in this society at least, we are indeed lesser citizens” 

I can’t possibly relate how impactful Akala’s book is without taking up thousands and thousands of words – and why would I do that when you can read the book?! Instead I am going to pick out a few things that stood out to me or really helped me hone my thinking.  

  1. How easy it is to be taken in by the current picture of multiculturalism and not realise how recently that was achievedhow hard thfight to achieve it was and how so much is still considered acceptable – e.g. racism in football.
  2. A key point I have internalised – know yourself and know your history. Check who is telling you what and think about what other points of view and versions of that story there might be. I was in Ghana last year and Japan the year before. In Hiroshima I was really struck by how the various choices America made in dropping the atomic bomb were portrayed with a very clear judgement of the abominable nature of this decision and how different the Japanese perspective on this was to anything I had learnt in school. In Ghana, where the ‘Gold Coast’ marked the beginning of the journey for many slaves, this history is well acknowledged locally. I was equally struck with how understated and sanitised this was in the various museumsHow there seemed to be no blame or acknowledgement of the power dynamics that created slavery or the legacy that power dynamic created, which lives on to this day.  
  3. What Akala refers to as White Supremacy. I know, as I write that, a lot of readers will find it difficult to read. Please do stop and examine your feelings and then carry on reading.  

It is important to remember  

“White supremacy was a mainstream and openly espoused legal, political and moral imperative until the latter half of the twentieth century so hardly ancient or remote history” 

and 

“modern British identity grew with and was shaped by the fundamentally and undeniably racist British empire” 

I have done a lot of thinking about this since reading the book and the best way I can help people think about it is in terms of how we have come to understand and accept ‘the patriarchy’.  

Patriarchy is a social system in which men hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property.” 

While there are still people that argue against the patriarchy’s existence, it seems to me it is generally accepted and understood as a concept: a structure that actively maintains gender inequality.  

If you read that across and see the same sentiment in white supremacy and recognise that  

“even discussing whiteness can be uncomfortable for people who have taken their white identity for granted, who think of themselves as unaffected by all that race stuff, but there is now a good body of work on the history of ‘whiteness’ that we ignore at our peril. 

Alongside acknowledging 

Whiteness can usually be taken for granted by those that it protects; the absence of whiteness can literally be the difference between life and death  

and   

The concept of whiteness goes hand in hand with the concept of white supremacy 

Growing up I was very much brought up to know and believe  

British identity, despite all of the liberal rhetoric to the contrary, is obviously seen as synonymous with whiteness; 

My parents were clear that I would have to work twice as hard. My experiences at school and elsewhere showed that there were different rules and perspectives for me as a brown skinned woman. We didn’t have the language or understanding then but fundamentally my parents had been conditioned to understand their place in the world and were doing their best to help me navigate what they saw and accepted as the hostile road ahead of me.  

So, where does that take us? We can’t change history, but we can learn from it. We can work on how we want the future to be. We can only do that with honesty. We need to come to terms with the fact that 

“Despite all the rhetoric about meritocracy and equality of opportunity, Britain is still – like every nation on earth to some degree – a society where the social class and area you are born into will determine much of your life experiences, chances and outcomes” 

And  

“we are all influenced by what we are exposed to and experience; the best we can hope for is to try and be as fair as possible from within the bias inherent in existence”. 

That’s why I urge you to do what you can to educate yourself, consider your own positions of power and innate thoughts and challenge yourself to recognise what you have accepted without question and what that means for social equality.  

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