It’s not enough to say black lives matter. Time for academia to show it!
By Niccola, on 21 June 2020
Cristina & Niccola from UCL Centre for Co-production have had numerous conversations over the past few weeks about the #BlackLivesMatter movement, about the need for the Centre to reflect and academia to change its behaviours and how we can all help make this happen.
“For me saying #BlackLivesMatter is like the equivalent to begging others to recognise me, to give me credence and to validate me for being me. I refuse to do that – when I already know that I more than matter. Who exactly am I asking for validation? A system that is built on what? Maintained by what? I am tired of hearing and feeling the pain of my brothers ‘n’ sisters worldwide”. Tracie McCollin
Tracie, goes on to say:
“Dear White people,
You need to act, you need to be proactive in reforming, transforming and changing your systems. The system as Bob (Marley) said – that holds one race superior over others. This battle isn’t ours, you all have to make that change, and you hold the power not us. We can make the noise. We can march. But it’s down to you. I challenge you and hold you accountable for the change”.
Thoughts from Niccola
I was horrified by the death of George Floyd, as were people around the world. But feelings aren’t enough; in order to bring about change we need to take action. I want to take action. What has been done to date is not enough, not enough people or organisations, particularly within universities and research, recognise or demonstrate that black lives matter in the way that they act and in the policies, and systems that they put in place.
The figures show that:
“Fewer than 1% of the professors employed at UK universities are black and few British universities employ more than one or two black professors”. The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA)
The work of Nicola Rollock, Staying Power: The career experiences and strategies of UK Black female professors adds to this:
“A culture of explicit and passive bullying persists across higher education along with racial stereotyping and racial microaggressions”.
As a white woman living in the UK I’m sure I’ve gained from white privilege without even realising it. Whether this was conscious or unconscious bias on the part of the person favouring me it is wrong and extremely maddening. I consider myself to be in the transformational zone of the ‘Becoming anti-racist’ diagram (see image below); I always try to actively challenge the structural racism in the institutions and systems around us. I am conscious to check and challenge myself in everything I do to try ensure that I remain here. Racism in whatever form is not OK and should be challenged at every turn. As the wife of a Black Londoner and mother of our child, making sure that change happens and soon, this is deeply personal for me. It matters on so many levels.
Please challenge yourself to think about your community or the organisation you work for, as to where you sit on the image below and if it isn’t the growth or transformational zone, you need to question why.
At the Centre for Co-production, we are always striving for equality, diversity and inclusivity. We want to ensure that everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, background, ability, or wealth, is able to get involved in the work that we do. We also recognise that people do not live “single issue lives” and may experience challenges to inclusion in more than one way. This intersectionality is something that we also need to reflect on. ‘Our principles to live by’ underpin everything we do and we work hard to live up to them by disrupting traditional power dynamics, breaking down barriers, and ensuring participation is an option for anyone (such as paying for internet data so people can join Zoom calls). However, one of our principles is to ‘check and challenge throughout’ recognising that we’re not always going to get it right, and we need to do this when it comes to the diversity of people who are actually joining us, especially in relation to race. We aren’t doing enough.
Outlined below in the ‘So, what about the UCL Centre for Co-production?’ section, is what we are going to do as a Centre to change this, to play our part in changing academia for the better.
Thoughts from Cristina
Over the years, I have had people directly insult me due to my Portuguese heritage, because of the slavery link. This has always given me a heavy heart knowing that our water irrigation system, the levadas, that many tourists visit, were built by black slaves with many dying in the process. Madeirans, the people from Madeira not mainland Portugal, have always been the ‘throw backs’ and seen as low status peasants. We used to be one of the poorest states of Portugal and the people were oppressed living under the dictator Salazar for 40 years. My parents left before the revolution of 1974, however I was brought up very much in the traditions of Madeira but right here in North London. Madeirans have attributes and mannerisms from colonised countries including Mozambique, Angola and Cape Verde. Food such as puff puffs from Ghana are so like our ‘sonhos’ meaning dreams. This dreamer attitude reflects the mass emigration from the island as so many were terribly poor and dreamt of better lives. An island just 500 km off the coast of North Africa and just up from the Gold Coast where much of the cuisine is similar to our own traditional dishes.
I have always been curious about my ancestry, being from an island which was only discovered 600 years ago. Both of my parents left their family homes by the time they were 9, they are from very different parts of the island yet both found themselves growing up in the city of Funchal. They were under 10 years old not even teenagers yet living and working in other people’s homes; my mother a maid, my father the ‘cow boy’ (literally a boy with cows as there are few horses in Madeira). My father’s earlier childhood was so unsettling he still rarely speaks about it and therefore beyond our grandparents’ names we know little else. The family who took him in are ‘our family’; maybe that’s where our love for people not related by blood comes from. The ability to bond with others, more than with some of my many blood relations (I have around 50 1st cousins scattered across the world).
There has always been a sense of not being sure of what our history is, maybe that’s why growing up I leant towards people that were similar in that sense, not in colour but in family experience – children of emigrants in search of a better life. When my father left Madeira in 1970 my sister was 1 month old. He left in search of work, first in Jersey then onto London with my mother joining him a year later with my sister. Our yearning to try and find out more led to Ancestry DNA tests and although 60% Portuguese from Madeira we discovered we have ancestors linked to Guyana and even a small percentage from Senegal and a non-specific percentage just referred to as North Africa.
Am I mixed race? No more than the next person and no less. But I am rich in diversity and my life experiences have been vast in terms of learning about cultures and the Caribbean islands of old friends from Grenada, Jamaica, Barbados and St Lucia to name a few as well as other countries like Egypt, Ghana and India. I spent many months over a period of 8 years in Goa, another old Portuguese colony, trying to connect with myself.
Do I see myself an ally? No, I’m much more. I see black people and the cultures that come with it as just part of my life, my loved ones, my closest friends and my beloved godsons who lost their mother Diane my best friend of 26 years last summer, they are ‘my family’. To call them just friends and ‘allies’ feels to me like an insult and disrespectful of our strong lifelong bond.
Unless you have grown and witnessed the unjust ways black people are treated first hand, you cannot begin to understand the journey some people have had to take. Not that I don’t see racism, I do, it cuts me deep. I will always call it out whatever way it comes. I am not scared for myself personally because I would put my life on the line for ‘my family’ – but I am scared for the future of my godsons. With no links to their blood relations (Diane didn’t keep in touch with any) and having only known life in England they are ‘Black British’ men in a time where racism is rife around us.
I have learnt from my ‘brother and sisters’ that I am different, something I never really considered as I was just being me. And I am comfortable with that. I have experienced the backlash for being connected so solidly with ‘my family’ but this I know is a drop in the ocean compared to what goes on worldwide to black people every day.
The protests feel different this time – like there has been a shift in humanity and it’s time to recognise that we all bleed when cut. If you find yourself lost and too scared to say you just don’t understand, then you are already heading for that learning phase, as you recognise the need to be open and aware. My door will always be open for those conversations, you just need to knock so we can deal with the inequalities we see in front of us. ‘My family’ stand strong together with open arms…
Do we need white allies? Yes. We need those with the power to help us challenge and change the status quo. The image below shares a few small things that YOU can do TODAY. Please use the resources shared at the end of this blog to help you act straight away.
So, what about the UCL Centre for Co-production?
Historically, the people who have felt able to get involved in research has been particularly homogeneous – often White middle-class, men and women. This means that research (and healthcare more broadly) has been shaped towards their priorities and needs, and those from other groups have been neglected. Never has this been more obvious than now, with the disproportionate number of deaths from COVID-19 in the BAME community – worth a read are The Lancet ‘Stereotype Threat’ and ‘Beyond the data: Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on BAME groups’ from Public Health England.
Racial diversity was on our minds even before the #BlackLivesMatter protests erupted again around the world. Pre COVID-19 and lockdown our face-to-face sessions were relatively diverse (53% of our co-producers were White British – if we compare to the regional and national picture we find that over 80% of the population in England and Wales, and 44.9% of the population in London are White British). Despite this, our move to virtual sessions has led to a decrease in the diversity of the groups, specifically in relation to participation of those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds. There may well be factors outside of our control that have influenced this, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to try and turn it around, and now.
Please have a read of our UCL Centre for Co-production in Health Research Commitment to Change: Diversity & Inclusion.
How can you get involved?
We are holding our next Co-production Network session on 14 July where this will be one of the key topics for discussion and inform our next steps. Please join us if you can! Similarly, if you have any thoughts in relation to how we could make sure we are building a genuinely diverse community of co-producers, please do let us know. You can add a comment below or drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can set up a time to chat. Thank you!
We want to learn, make changes and continue to strive for change, together.
So, here are some useful resources to help you
We hope we have inspired you to act, thank you! Cristina and Niccola
With thanks to Mark Agathangelou, Freelance editor/writer for the proof reading help!
Please note: The Centre are aware that the UCL Buildings Naming and Renaming Committee have been asked to start the formal process of considering the current naming of UCL spaces and buildings after prominent eugenicists. As a Centre this is something we are very keen to see the outcome of – we will continue to campaign for all of the names to be changed.