Read to debate Tuesday 15th 2020, Decolonising DMU: Kimberlin reading and discussions series

The first session in the Autumn Kimberlin reading and discussions series was a “Read to debate” focussing on “Talking about race”. This event provided a safe space for staff to come together and discuss articles, selected and read beforehand, within the context of their professional experience, student learning and decolonising DMU.  Through the discussion strong themes of power, identity, privilege, different narratives, respect for other cultures and the power of the lived experience emerged. The influence and impact of the etymology of words on their reception and understanding by different individuals and communities came to the fore. The need for individuals to determine terms alluding to their own ethnicity or racial difference was seen to be crucial in any discussion, research or consideration of race.  

The issue of the anonymity and homogenising effect of generic terms such as the much contested BAME acronym were discussed. Such terms ride roughshod over a multitude of cultures, beliefs, lived experiences, racial and geographical heritage in such a way as to render the term at best meaningless and at worst offensive. Preferred terms offered were People of colour and the global majority.  

A discussion of the emergence of language and specific terms, their acceptance and rejection overtime ensued.  The availability of a generic/overarching term was said to be useful in circumstances such as organisational  change. A generic term prevents the discussion from being bogged down in detail that prevents the discourse or situation from moving forward. It was acknowledged that it is good to ask for and respect individual preferences where possible, but this is not always a possibility within larger situations.   

The power of words to provide a smokescreen or diversion to debate, questioning the status quo or discussing race was raised. The use of words to diminish achievements was also commented on. For example, Boakye (2019) refers to the use of the words “powerful” and “strong” in relation to black athletes particularly black female tennis players. These words may seem positive on the surface but they omit acknowledgement of the years of dedicated training, skills development, tactical and strategic thinking, downplaying the achievement of those athletes and offering a whiff of non-complimentary female aggression.  

Discussion of unconscious bias and its impact on student experience and achievement arose. Furthermore, the affect this has on our expectations and assumptions of people was commented upon. Although uncomfortable to admit to or reflect upon, everyone has their own biases, and it is crucial for individuals to reflect upon these and to challenge them. This can be aided by engaging with narratives of individual lived experiences, their successes and struggles, through different ethnic lenses. 

The impact of microaggressions was raised considering the negative association of terms like BAME with words such as deficit and negative. These nuances fuel expectations which, in turn place limitations on learning, teaching and outcomes thus becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.  

To summarise discussions the following thoughts are offered: 

What’s wrong with ‘BAME’? 

  • BAME does not address specific differences within different ethnicities homogenised under one label; the assumption that people of colour have a shared sense of identity because they are not white. Not talking about ethnicities and different outcomes in the way we talk or do not talk about race creates further nuanced inequalities  
  • Involve students of colour in decision making processes and give students the opportunity to self-define. Students of colour are referred to as minorities but in some institutions like DMU, they constitute 54% of the student population and are thus the majority. On a wider scale, people of colour are the global majority. 
  • BAME has become associated with disadvantages such as the attainment gap and deficit approaches to student outcomes 

Reflections 

  • Do not be performative, be genuine. For example, posting a blacked-out image on your Instagram feed in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement but being silent otherwise is problematic 
  • Educate yourself. Be prepared to have uncomfortable discussions and acknowledge the narratives of people of colour; listen to their stories of success and struggles. If there is something you may not agree with, that doesn’t mean it should be disregarded. Try to understand alternative perspectives through a different lens 
  • Avoid the need to centre yourself and make this about you when having uncomfortable conversations about race. Assess your own individual biases and be mindful of actions that may come across as microaggressions as this is harmful and perpetuates stereotypes 

Participants gave positive feedback on the session describing it as “really interesting and thought-provoking” and stimulating the need for action: “This has been a very helpful session and I will reflect to see how I can embed some of these conversations in my sessions on managing equality and diversity. Certainly given me thoughts to reflect personally too”. 

The next “Read to debate” session will take place 15/12/20. Questions or further information contact Kaye Towlson, kbt@dmu.ac.uk , book through eventsoffice@dmu.ac.uk  

Bibliography 

Wareing, S. (2019) Talking about race in higher education in The white elephant in the room: ideas for reducing racial inequalities in higher education, edited by Hugo Dale-Rivas, HEPI Report 120, Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) [Online] Available at https://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/HEPI_The-white-elephant-in-the-room_Report-120-FINAL-EMBAROED-19.09.19.pdf Accessed 3/8/20, pp 17-22 

Boakye, Jeffrey (2019) “Smooth, angry, cool, powerful: how we talk about blackness”, The Guardian, [Online] Available at:  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/13/smooth-angry-cool-powerful-how-we-talk-about-blackness Accessed 3/8/20