Time For Change: Action Not Words – A Round Table Discussion

On the 25th October, one of our intrepid reporters was invited along in a joint event between the Culture and Inclusion team and the SU, for a round table discussion this year’s Black History Month’s (BHM) theme Action Not Words.

The panel included: the Vice-President of Community and Inclusion, Professor Rajani Naidoo, the speaker; Sanjae King, one of the founders of the Black Student Engineering Group; Renée Jacobs, Writer and founder of B in Bath; Favour Oshidero, chair of the African and Caribbean Society (ACS).

An important part of any national, or in this case, international cause is the ability to contextualise so it can be understood by the people it is designed to help. “It’s important to remember that black is the world majority, but it isn’t the majority in Bath,” Renée opened, “I’m so over the vague history and would rather speak about how we can progress.” Education has opened up (the amount is debatable) to speak about decolonisation and black history, which is only half the goal of BHM. The point of the month is to help people understand the history of black suppression (words) so we can learn from it and improve as a society (action).

Rajani picked this up, asking how the university can support this stance of ‘action’. Sanjae suggested the creation of a community within the community where people can find experiences from other people and grow our “bubble”. The panel turned to experiences which they shared as part of the conversation. Favour spoke about problems with organising nights out with ACS (obviously integral to the student experience) to places which promise RnB, and instead turned up to techno (a significant downgrade). 

The most poignant anecdote for me was when the talk turned to the ubiquity of stop and searches in the city of Bath. “We all know the receipt trick,” Renée was met by nods from the panel. “But it is not your responsibility to change your behaviour as a person of colour. I should be able to walk into Sainsbury’s in my hoodie, with dreadlocks, shooing my kleptomaniac of a three-year-old without having to look over my shoulder for security. If you feel you have to hold the receipt walking out of the shop, that’s survival and we need to challenge those situations”. 

The panel debated what disciplinary measures could be put into place within the university, and a discussion of measures to combat racism. This is where diverging ideas began to emerge, healthily and in fitting with the theme of Action not Words. There is a shared black experience within the UK. Controversial, I know, but historically BHM has been about sharing this experience as opposed to explicitly setting out ways to progress, develop and change institutions based upon it. So, to be met with discourse from the panel was encouraging, especially with a focused context of Bath.

Suggestions of anti-racism tests were made which led to a debate about where the responsibility for educating racists lay. Favour said, “I should not have to prove I am a good person just because I am black”. A completely fair comment, why should black students have to give anything to the intolerant? However, on the other hand Rajani and Renée, both of whom have built careers around challenging and educated racists talked about tools and resources to “unlearn”.

“I never write someone off, if I can’t deal with them then I will pass them to a better person than I. People can change”.

It was interesting to experience almost a generational difference within the table, from the people dedicated to reinforcing their position in the community, and those who worked to put them there.

A member of the audience asked at one point, based on this discussion, which processes within the universities the panellists felt needed to change. Rajani gave the example of the report and support tool and how infrequently racist abuse is reported despite her confidential meetings with so many people. She felt that we haven’t “garnered enough trust in mechanism whether for sanctions, trust or behaviour”. The lack of black academics and professors in the university is evident, Sanjae pointed out. He explained that is a long-term issue and what we are working towards by educating young black people so he stressed that, “it is one thing being foreign to the people, but quite another to be foreign to the material”.

Decolonising the curriculum, something vital to our current state of study. But where is the cut-off? Unlearning racism can only go so far however, argued Favour, “as a university there should be a point where we say, ‘you are too professional to be racist’. Of course, there are honest mistakes which are fine, but realistically direct racism has no excuse”.

Rajini directed the panel’s conversation outward, to talk about the global reach of racism and antiracism, whether there are some places we can learn from. “There’s a real difference between techniques in America and the UK,” said Renée, speaking from her interactions with Americans. “The UK way is very British – polite, behind-the-scenes working with policies and access. There is something to be learned from the overt pressure common in the US. It brings awareness to the problem, and I was enabled by the BLM protests”.

The roundtable came to a close, and Rajini asked each member what suggestion they have for the city, either on a micro or macro scale.

Sanjae: “We need to focus on education on different races and how you can be racist even without thinking about it. We need allies on every level, students, and academics.”

Renée: “Be open to the humanity of others. Racism is people and what we say has an impact on them.”

Favour: “We need to take it on a course-by-course basis. There are two black people on my [engineering] course, so we need to incentivise people, especially in STEM.”

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