Monday 18 November 2019

Prejudiced, me?...

Recently I was facilitating a senior staff conference at a University, and one of the sessions was on closing the BAME attainment gap.  I was asked to introduce it. This is (more or less) what I said:

Now we move on to the practical question: How do we address the BAME attainment gap?

And I’ve been asked to introduce this.

Believe me, the irony is not lost on me: here I stand: white, male, middle class, privileged…

So I am not very close to the experiences that we are seeking to understand and ameliorate.  But perhaps I am close, in terms of my background and culture, to many of you.

And so I want to draw a little on my experiences, and also share with you one person’s account of what it is like to be a black member of staff here in this University.

Where I want to start is somewhat self-confessional, so I offer it in a spirit of honesty and in the hope that you will find it thought provoking.

I am a mass of prejudices; we all are, perhaps. But it is instructive to look at how they work, to make them visible to ourselves.  So for example, when I hear the word ‘micro-aggression’ my immediate response (internally) is to wonder at the wisdom of teaching people to be so sensitised that they find offence in the tiniest thing. Does it not risk encouraging them to take a victim stance all the time?

That is, I think, a legitimate question.

However, it is not the only legitimate question.  And if every time the issue of micro-aggressions is raised, that is my response, I have to ask myself why.  Could it be that it is more comfortable for me to address (or to be more honest, simply to raise) that question, rather than address the rather more difficult one: are there things that I do or say, with no ill intent, that actually cause difficulties or distress to other people?

Or to give you another example: I was recently in a meeting where a senior person whom I respect said that she had to conclude that the institution she worked for was ‘institutionally racist.’ Again, the linguist in me objected to the term: what did it actually mean? And particularly, that word ‘racist’ – which is so toxic, and seems to me to imply some deliberation, or intent. And knowing the leadership of the institution concerned, and that they had no such noxious intent, I was inclined to challenge her statement.

And interrogating what Institutionally Racist actually means, is, I think, a legitimate question.

But again, it is not the only legitimate question.  And I have to ask myself if my instinct to ask it was an unconscious attempt to avoid the more difficult question: are there patterns of behaviour, ways of working, and cultural codes that are invisible to us as white British people, that inadvertently make life easier for us white British people and harder for some others?

And as we look at the data on the BAME attainment gap: we could query the data, the methodology, and so on. We all have the expertise to do that.

And indeed, that is a legitimate question. 

But I would challenge you to consider that it is not the only legitimate question, and the harder one that I ask you to engage with today, is what could this University do better or differently to address the very real challenges that do exist?

And to give you some idea of those challenges, I would like to read this account out, written by a member of staff here.  And I would ask you to attend to your internal responses.  You are probably better than me; but nonetheless, it might be salutary to notice if you have any tendency to address easier questions (such as How typical is this?) rather than the more challenging ones posed by this account.

(And here I read out a rather harrowing account written by a member of staff)

So now, we are going work together to address some of these serious and challenging questions. 

·       What are the particular challenges at this University?
·        How should the University address them?
·        What is our role as leaders to help bring about meaningful change?
·        What are our responsibilities as individuals?

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