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Tackling racial biases: an open letter to the Department of Pharmacy & Pharmacology

For many, the events of the last few months surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement have led to a confrontation of conscious and unconscious bias in all aspects of life. Arguably there are few areas more crucial than the health sector when it comes to tackling racial bias – recent research reveals startling inequalities of outcome in healthcare for Black people, especially Black women. 

With this in mind, three final year Pharmacy students wrote a letter to their Director of Studies in which they detailed some of the discrimination they had experienced as Black students, both directly and via the course content. They suggested ways in which the department could improve, including implementing a reporting tool for racial incidents, increasing diversity among lecturers, and emphasising the importance of challenging racial bias in healthcare.  We spoke to Pam Agyapong, Chrystabel Chinye and Tia Samuels to learn more about the experiences that inspired them to write this letter, and the changes that they hope will be implemented as a result.  

Although the letter was not drafted until the students were in their final year, Pam says the inspiration behind it stemmed from first year, when a lecturer referred to some medical equipment as being “so simple it could even be used in Africa” – implying that the entire continent is too primitive for advanced medical technology. Pam remembers feeling “slighted by this generalisation”, but, being new, she didn’t feel comfortable speaking out. As similar incidents continued to occur, she “became more determined” and “was planning on having a face-to-face meeting with the Director of Studies, but then lockdown happened. This letter is the alternative.” 

“But these demands are the bare minimum of what can be done. We wanted to make it difficult to say no to.” 

While they had decided to raise the issue long before the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, Chrystabel says the atmosphere at the time “was really empowering…almost like the perfect storm for everything to come together”. The main objective of writing the letter, she says, was not so much a matter of blame as one of raising awareness within the department – “because our cohort is quite a diverse one, they aren’t aware that these problems persist.”  

Conscious of the risk of slipping down the list of departmental priorities, the students were careful to be realistic in their recommendations. “I think one of the most basic demands was having a lecture where they talk about racism and bias; we already have one for sexual harassment in the workplace so this should be quite an easy thing to implement,” says Chrystabel. Another suggestion was for more diversity among guest lecturers – “especially in the global health module,” says Tia, “you can surely find someone from another race to talk about global health.” 

“We didn’t want to be wishy-washy,” adds Pam, “we sat down and discussed what can be done and how, and is it feasible, before we put it in. But these demands are the bare minimum of what can be done. We wanted to make it difficult to say no to.” 

“If you decide to fight every single discrimination or micro-aggression, you will literally have no energy left to do anything else.”

One reason for writing a letter rather than reporting via another means, Tia explains, was that “it wasn’t clear to us how to report anything” when incidents of racial discrimination occurred, which in the past had left them feeling conflicted over whether complaints were worth pursuing. “You have to pick your battles,” Pam says, “because if you decide to fight every single discrimination or microaggression, you will literally have no energy left to do anything else.” She says there is also a real fear of being considered “petty” or being accused of “pulling the race card.” As a result, when incidents occur, Tia says “we often end up making a joke out of it…at the end of the day, I would tell myself ‘you’re here to get this degree’, and that it wasn’t worth kicking up a fuss.”  

To prevent this happening in the future, Chrystabel says the reporting system “needs a clear structure, so people know what to do if something happens to them and how to escalate it.” Pam adds, “who would you even report to, and why would you be reporting, if it’s not clear what could come of it? On the flip side, people knowing there are consequences to their actions acts as a deterrent, and it might make them reconsider their own prejudices and lead to them becoming better informed. Often racialised comments are passed off as a joke – and when more than half the cohort laughs along, it makes it worse.” 

The consequences of unexamined prejudice and racial bias extend far beyond the lecture hall. Pam explains, “having healthcare professionals going into the field with biases that could influence their clinical decisions can cause fatalities. For example, a lot of people are dismissive about Black people’s symptoms – there are even clinical papers suggesting that Black people have a higher pain threshold – and these unfounded claims are passed on to health professionals and are reflected in their actions.” Chrystabel agrees: “It’s especially bad when people aren’t even aware of their own prejudices. Healthcare is one of those professions where you can’t afford to make those sorts of mistakes or have those biases, because lives are hanging in the balance. So, we have to rectify these issues from the ground up.” 

“Not everyone is willing to listen and learn. But I suppose you can only give somebody the opportunity to do so if a conversation is had.”

“We actually come into university quite young,” Pam muses, “so lecturers have a huge influence in terms of what they teach us or what they deem acceptable. If they themselves don’t know that they have biases they’re passing onto the cohort, that cycle then keeps going on throughout your university career, throughout your professional career, passing on down the generations.”  

So far, the Pharmacy Department’s response has been positive – their Director of Studies “is generally very receptive to constructive criticism”, says Chrystabel, and has escalated the issue to more senior management. The three students have since been invited to join a newly established working group on decolonising the curriculum. Their overall feeling is one of “cautious optimism”. Tia says, “they’ve been quite receptive. But historically, even when things are brought to light, it’s often not treated as a major issue because it doesn’t really affect the people making the decisions.”  

Ultimately, regardless of the outcome, the act of speaking out was important. “From my experience, when me and my friends experience racism, we tend to talk about it amongst ourselves, with someone who can relate and tell you it’s not all in your head,” says Pam. “It’s rare that we go outside of that group and share the issue with a wider audience. Having that open conversation is important.  Not everyone is willing to listen and learn. But I suppose you can only give somebody the opportunity to do so if a conversation is had.” 

A University of Bath spokesperson said: “We are grateful to Pam, Tia and Chrystabel for raising these issues and take their concerns very seriously. We are sorry to hear of the instances described as we want everyone in our community to feel included and valued at Bath.  

“The Department of Pharmacy & Pharmacology has responded to the letter and has been engaging to address the specific concerns and suggestions raised. This includes inviting the authors, as recent graduates, to join a departmental working group which is supporting Pharmacy Schools Council (PhSC) policy on increased support for BAME students and colleagues. 

“More broadly we are taking steps to embed changes across the University. The University is establishing a Race Equality Taskforce that will tackle discrimination at the University, and is recruiting a new Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee Executive Chair who will sit on the University Executive Board as part of the University’s senior leadership team. 

“We are open to suggestions that explore how to implement changes through our working groups and embed them University wide, as we recognise there is much more to be done. Collectively, we all share responsibility for creating a more supportive environment for everyone and we welcome feedback from our students.” 

Freya, the Community Officer, said: Some of the biggest issues facing Black students at Bath were identified after the Anti-Racist forum the SU carried out in March, in light of the Black Lives Matter Movement. It should be noted that the SU has been lobbying for many of these changes for years, but the momentum behind Black Lives Matter has helped to push the issue to the frontline where it rightly belongs. From the forum a report was formulated and the SU and University have since been working on the delivery of these actions. 

One of the main actions identified from the forum was the need for more resourcing within the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) area of the university. Since the report, two new roles have been appointed, a head of the newly established Race Taskforce and a new lead within the EDI team. The Race Taskforce is a group within the University responsible for the delivery of the Anti-Racist Report, including signing up to the Race Equality Charter. Another point raised from the forum was the lack of Black student representatives within the SU. Over summer the SU and University jointly set up the Student Ant-Racist Action Group which 3 black student representatives sit on. This group meets every 4-6 weeks and is designed to hold the university to account of what they are doing to fulfil the asks of the anti-racist report. Membership also includes the head of Student Services, The Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience and the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Learning and Teaching.

As an SU we are continuing to lobby the University to recruit a Black counsellor. Currently, students who request a Black counsellor can use the Be Well- Talk Now service or be referred to Off the Record in Bath. 

In terms of learning and teaching, the SU is lobbying the University to create and commit to a specific action plan for decolonising the curriculum, as highlighted on the SU Top 10 for this year, and we hope to get this as a standing agenda item in as many meetings as possible. The SU officers will be meeting with Peter Lambert, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Learning and teaching to help deliver this. We are aware that student input is integral in this area and the steps towards decolonisation will vary across faculties. Some faculties, such as Engineering, have already drafted papers and taken the first steps to achieve this. 

The report also spoke about the lack of a well-rounded harassment campaign and that NeverOK was focused on only sexual harassment. A new role, Anti-Harassment and Training Officer has been appointed to lead on creating a more far-reaching campaign over the next 12 months that will effectively address racism on campus and in the wider community, and lead and develop on training available for staff and students. 

This is by no means the end of the work that we need to be carrying out, it is only a start. As an SU we aim to be as accessible and clear as possible in our communications and practices. We have recently been working on allowing the SU to consider how we operate and making us more streamlined in our activities to tackle overly bureaucratic processes. If you would like to make any suggestions, we always welcome student feedback and hope to make the SU as representative of students’ voices as possible. 

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