Opinion | Without transparent new actions and initiatives, commitments to decolonisation risk being performative


By Khadija Meghrawi, BAME Network, Chair

Over the past year, we’ve seen numerous statements being made by different institutions on how committed they are to anti-racism and improving racial equality. But the stark reality is that decolonisation requires active work.

Colonisation happened over centuries, and so actively dismantling the systems it left behind is a long-term process. It is important that change lays down the alternative frameworks to replace those that lead to racism and disparity. However, I’ve been frustrated by the lack of nuance in understanding that some problems can be solved quickly in the meantime.

We can recognise that change must be sustainable and long-term. We can also recognise the importance of short-term achievements to make a difference to people right now, and to keep up the momentum for the longer processes. All too often it is framed as a binary choice between the two. The conversation becomes derailed with focusing on the vision for the future, which is an easy way to avoid the effort required to make a feasible difference now.

The truth is, writing new statements, new reports, new definitions – these are quicker ways for an organisation to look like they’re changing. It’s much easier to email a statement around or share a graphic on social media than to outline specific commitments with timelines that hold you accountable for doing the work.

My Muslim faith teaches me to renew my intentions, and that has involved asking myself difficult questions about whether my primary aim for creating or working on an initiative is focusing on what will gain traction rather than on what is actually useful.

Optics are necessary to increase energy around a movement, but we must always check and recheck whether work has become driven by it. When an institution’s words on anti-racism have not translated into transparent tangible actions, we must question whether the interests of people of colour are the primary aim. And if an institution is truly committed to this work, it must allocate the time, resource and funding necessary to carry it out.

Optics are necessary to increase energy around a movement, but we must always check and recheck whether work has become driven by it

So with the BAME Network this year, it’s been about defining what ‘the work’ is, with specific tangible next steps for tackling disparities. Our student-facing events have focused both on raising awareness of issues and providing suggestions for something to immediately do afterwards in order to help. Please do have a look at our social media infographic posts this year for a good mix of highlighting the issues alongside suggestions for action.

Involving more students in policy work has been a key focus too, to ensure that you inspire others to make change when you do. It was a key reason for generating the UoB Anti-Racism Webinar series in collaboration with Epigram and the BME Success Programme, in order to help make the work the university is doing more transparent, and help others become involved in the process.

For example, there is recognition that ‘decolonising the curriculum’ is far too frequently a meaningless phrase. The discussion focuses on continuously trying to define and redefine the concept without making practical changes to taught content. It’s true that learning the social context behind this is needed, and the extent to which we can even ‘decolonise’ an institution which is a product of colonialism is important to think about.

But these discussions shouldn’t be replacements for implementing new content which challenges racism and ensures we are equipped with knowledge to help improve experiences for people of colour, both in this country and around the world. Not everyone has the privilege to engage in academic discourse, theorising about change that is urgent and necessary to them.

I’ve worked with the Undergraduate Education Officer to produce guidance on ‘Setting Up Decolonising the Curriculum Working Groups’ based on lessons learnt at Bristol Medical School. The idea is to create groups of interested students and staff who will evaluate their programme holistically and identify key areas of improvement, generating ideas for changes that can be implemented to decolonise their course and increase the racial representation within it.

The document is based on explaining methods and next steps, with the hopes it can inspire others to start the process in their own programmes. It’s available here.

Not everyone has the privilege to engage in academic discourse, theorising about change that is urgent and necessary to them

I want to reiterate though that setting up a working group, on this or to tackle any other issue, is not action in of itself. Sometimes their creation is used as a performative way to avoid progress. Not every action requires the formation of a group in order to happen, and when new groups form, they should be accountable to new goals.

We also need spaces where students are celebrated for the aspects of their race and cultures that make them different, rather than in spite of them. The BAME Network has worked with numerous cultural societies to support their excellent work and generate collaborations for students to socialise with others from different backgrounds.

But this isn’t a substitution for adequate wellbeing support.  Students of colour frequently report feeling out of place at the university academically and socially for aspects relating to their identity. It’s not an issue with their race, culture or faith in of itself, it’s an issue with how the university or student culture caters for it.

When students of colour approach support services with concerns about familial, faith based, community based or cultural issues, it is important not to focus on trying to distance the student from these aspects of their lives. I personally have found it difficult to engage with staff that try to tell me I need to minimise the presence in my life of my family or my religious practices.

Instead, the different significance of these issues should be understood and given the appropriate level of support in helping students to manage them alongside their university life. Furthermore, providing wellbeing advice that incorporate these more culturally relevant alternative systems of support helps students feel that you are understanding what empowers them.

I produced a document of additional recommendations for wellbeing and Mental Health services for students from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds based on the work the BAME Network has done to consult with students of colour on these issues, and have been working with the university and the Student Living Officer over the past year to get this actioned into additional services.

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Reaching out to people of colour and making them feel included needs time and energy. In fact, there has been an accumulation of years of neglecting effort to include these communities, and often creating environments that exclude them. It’s therefore not a surprise that these students are now difficult to reach and engage.

Creating plans using systems that are familiar to an institution is more convenient. But time and time again, we’re seeing these systems are failing people of colour at this university. New initiatives and alternative methods of working are necessary in order to bridge the divide.

Featured Image: Courtesy of Anti-Racism Webinar Organisers

Do you think the University’s initiatives in dealing with racial inequality on campus this year have been performative or genuine?