Working with the Black/People Of Color (BPOC) staff networks at four London Russell Group universities this year, I’ve heard from these network chairs and co-chairs how disillusioned they had become with university management who have previously pressurized them to organize highly visible events during Black History Month (BHM). The university would then plaster these events all over their web pages, reaping the benefit of the unpaid labor of over-worked under-promoted BPOC staff. They spoke of their exhaustion at the burden of work that was outside of their professional remit, as White members of the senior management team gave lofty speeches at the beginning of events, garnering the visibility and kudos that pays career dividends in Higher Ed.
This year, however, something has changed. The critique of Whiteness has, in some respects, emerged from the underground into the cold light of the mainstream narrative. The extractive and exploitative practices that characterize Racial Capitalism are now being called out, by a generation literate in the language of minoritized identity politics, who know what micro-aggressions and cultural appropriation are, and will shout about it on social media.
The chairs and co-chairs that I spoke to are now pivoting away from organizing highly visible events, which make the university’s events calendar look good, and towards providing care for their communities. Events are being arranged to provide safer spaces for Black/POC staff only, to share our views and experiences openly. For example, in recognition of working in burdensome environments where BPOC team members face unfair treatment and routine micro-aggressions, KCL Race Equality Network is holding anti-oppression and healing sessions for their community. A coalition of the race equality networks made up of the London School of Economics, University College London, King’s, and Imperial (L.U.K.I.) has organized an event for BPOC staff across all four universities to talk about their experiences as staff during the pandemic. LSE is also hosting a workshop entitled Strength Through Culture.
In recent months BPOC in my sector, Higher Education, have been connecting with each other, with broader networks of solidarity. Our staff race equality networks have more members than ever, more activists than ever. By connecting, we have refined our critique of Whiteness in institutions and our ability to respond collectively. We can now see more clearly what is exploitative and tokenistic in how institutions approach Black History Month and EDI in general. We know that celebrating Black History and culture can’t be about one month in 12. So we are using Black History Month to say so loud and clear and to let our community know we have love and solidarity as our starting point. LSE EmbRace has themed this year’s Black History Month as Black 365 for this reason.
The pivot I have referred to must be taken further. We need to recognize the harm that institutions in their current form, including schools and universities, do to BPOC children and adults. For example, Mossbourne Academy in Hackney banned cornrows and sharp fades, what message does this send to our youth? We need to reform, placing love and solidarity at the forefront. I’ll end by inviting you to read a poem by LSE EmbRace co-chair Ikenna Acholonu on this theme.