Closer to home

I’ve struggled for words this week, or rather I’ve struggled to know whether to speak. There are so many other voices that need to be heard and listened to right now, rather than another privileged white cis woman. I can’t help feeling that stepping aside and making space for these other voices is the most useful thing I can do. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that I am appalled, I am utterly horrified, by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of the white supremacist state that is the USA. I can’t even begin to imagine the rage and fury of Black people who live with this fear and injustice on a daily basis. So for most of the week, I’ve tried to use the small space I occupy online to amplify the voices of others, while trying to listen and learn from what they have to say.

At the same time I’m not so naïve to think that systemic racism and police brutality are problems that only afflict the US.  Witness the deaths Joy Gardner, Cynthia Jarrett, Sean Rigg, Mark Duggan, and Sheku Bayoh, whose death at the hands of police officers in Kirkaldy, is currently the subject of a Scottish Government Public Enquiry.

Racism is so ingrained in the social, historical and cultural fabric of Scotland and the UK that we barely even see it. I live in Glasgow, a city whose mercantile wealth was founded on the exploitation of Black bodies; the slaves who worked the plantations of the tobacco barons and sugar merchants. When we walk down Ingram Street, Glassford Street, Buchanan Street, we barely give a thought to the fact that these streets commemorate slave owners. Their mansions are now art galleries, bars, restaurants, designer clothes shops but nowhere in Glasgow is there a visible public memorial to the enslaved men, women and children whose lives and labour were exploited to build the wealth of the slave owners and their city. Scotland has a long, long way to go before it even begins to acknowledge its racist, colonial legacy.

When universities, museums, art galleries and archives tweeted their support for #BlackLivesMatter this week they were, quite rightly, called out for their hypocrisy and performativity. After all, where is the evidence that black lives really do matter to these public institutions? Where is the evidence that they are addressing systemic racism, discrimination and inequality?

At the same time, the deluge of racist abuse that the University of Glasgow received for tweeting its support for #BlackLivesMatter shows why it’s so important that our education institutions do stand up to be counted.

Ironically, Glasgow is currently the only university in Scotland that has made a concrete effort to address its historic legacy of profiting from slavery through its Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow report, its commitment to raise and pay £20million pounds in reparations and its MOU with the University of the West Indies to found a research centre to “stimulate public awareness about the history of slavery and its impact around the world.”

In its own public statement in response to the murder of George Floyd, the University of Edinburgh announced its intention to:

launch a community-led process of restorative and reparative justice, through which we will interrogate the role of the University in slavery and colonialism.

And furthermore to:

launch a cross-disciplinary hub, RACE.ED for research and teaching on race and ethnicity… to bring together academics and students to explore issues of racism and be part of a University network taking forward anti-racist initiatives within our University.

Because of course addressing historical racism is only part of the picture, we need to address the systemic racism and discrimination that still pervades our academic institutions. The University of Edinburgh Student Union’s statement of solidarity notes:

Across Scotland, Universities have a BME attainment gap of 8.9%, which rises to 24.5% for Black students (AdvanceHE, 2018) – at Edinburgh, the BME attainment gap is as high as 17.7% in some Schools (EDMARC, 2019a). The University’s own internal review of support for BME students in 2019 found that a lack of racial literacy among both staff and student fundamentally undermined the experiences of BME students at Edinburgh (UoE, 2019) – this is unsurprising in an educational environment where BME academic and professional services staff are less likely than white staff to be employed at higher grades (EDMARC, 2019b) and across the UK Black academics make up less than 1% of University lecturers (HESA, 2019).

And as Dr Jasmine Abrams succinctly put it:

I don’t really know how to end this post, so I’m going to end it with the queer Black poet Essex Hemphill

“It is easier to be angry than to hurt. Anger is what I do best. It is easier to be furious than to be yearning. It is easier to crucify myself in you than to take on the threatening universe of whiteness by admitting that we are worth wanting each other.”

Please donate if you can. There is a list of bail funds here, and a list of UK organisations fighting racism and injustice at the end of the EUSA statement here.

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