Every Thursday for the next four weeks, we will be publishing a series of chain letters sent between academics and graduates who worked together on a research project about anti-racist student activism within the academy. This research was funded by The Sociological Review Foundation and the BA/Leverhulme Small Grants Scheme.
Introduction letter from Ala Sirriyeh, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Lancaster University:
There has been a resurgence in student anti-racist activism in recent years in response to colonial and racist structures and practices in Higher Education (Arday and Mirza, 2018; Bhambra et al, 2018; Bouattia 2015). In 2015, students in the UK followed South African students in launching and leading campaigns such as ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ as part of a movement to ‘decolonise’ universities. Since then students have continued to organise around anti-racist (and specifically ‘decolonial’) platforms. In March 2019, we (Ala Sirriyeh, Hannah Jones, Meleisa Ono-George and Remi Joseph-Salisbury) organised a Sociological Review Foundation Seminar titled ‘Anti-racist and ‘decolonial’ activism in the academy and beyond’. At this event we examined successes, challenges and legacies of recent ‘decolonial’ and anti-racist activism; how staff and student activists engaged with this work; and the future of this agenda. considered how such efforts are situated in the context of historical and global anti-racist and ‘decolonial’ activism. As we held our discussions ,student antiracist activism was once again in the spotlight as Goldsmith’s Anti-Racist Action (GARA) were in occupation at Deptford Town Hall (for a total 0f 137 days) protesting institutional racism at the College and demanding that changes be enacted. A few weeks after our seminar, and building on these discussions, we (Ala, Hannah and Meleisa) began fieldwork for a BA/Leverhulme-funded research study exploring the pathways and experiences of students of colour engaging in anti-racist activism in the academy and the impact this had on their sense of belonging. Twelve students took part in a two-day workshop followed by interviews. Participants included undergraduate and postgraduate students of different ages and ethnicities and attending a range of universities across England. Some had been involved in anti-racist organising for a long time while others were new to thinking of themselves as ‘activists’.
As the study drew to a close amidst the global pandemic, a national lockdown and the global Black Lives Matter protests, we used the medium of a ‘chain letter’ to come back into conversation with one another and draw together our thoughts and questions on themes explored during this study and in these times. In the letters we reflect on the impacts that engaging in anti-racism activism in the academy has had on our lives, the challenges we have encountered doing activist work, and our hopes for the future of student anti-racist activism.
Ala’s research centres on migration, race, young people and activism. She is the Principle Investigator on the BA/Leverhulme Small Grants ‘’Decolonialism’ and anti-racist student activism’.
‘Radical love and finding space in the university’, a letter from Meleisa Ono-George, Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Warwick:
We are within a particular moment in anti-racist activism here in the UK. And still, the experiences many students involved in this project have shared were so familiar to me and resonated so much with my own experiences despite the difference in geography and the passing of time.
My involvement in anti-racist activism coincided with my entrance into university in Canada. My first few weeks at the University of **** in the autumn of 1999 were terrifying, disorientating and disappointing. University was always going to be my escape, my way out of the white dominant working class suburb where I grew up. I was so excited to go to and had all kinds of ideas and dreams of what it would be like. And then I arrived, and I deflated. Surrounded by peers who seemed to know more than I did, who had more than I had, I felt small and out of place. I felt like a trespasser, a fraud about to be caught out. Me, in my Black, fat and queer body did not belong. But then, one rainy October afternoon, I walked into the *****Building on ****** Avenue, at the centre of campus, and into the University’s student-run Women’s Centre.
The first person I encountered was someone who looked like me. Someone Black like me and queer like me. And it felt like a home coming. It was the first time in three weeks I had spoken to anyone besides my tutors and our conversation was everything I needed. We talked about the university and life in the city, about music, art and ways to create change. I’m not even certain now why I walked into the building that afternoon in the first place, but that single act changed the trajectory of my life and now even twenty years later still resonates with me.
The Women’s Centre was run by two collectives, a general collective and a separate collective of women of colour. The ***** Building, which stood on the outside of the university campus, also housed the ***** Public Research Interest Group (*PIRG), also run by queer and trans folks of colour, and First Nations House. And it was there, amongst those radical Black, Brown and Indigenous women, two-spirited, queer and trans folks that I learned to be at ease with the core of myself. It is not that we all got on or agreed all the time. In organizing there were many arguments and disagreements on what, and who and how. But I think our alienation from the institution, shared commitment to change, and generosity towards one another created deep and invested connections. Within the intimacy of that student movement, I found courage to speak and validation in the value of my own life and struggle. I found the meaning and source of a radical kind of love, for myself and those around me, that continues to sustain and nurture me beyond the university.
Meleisa Ono-George is historian of race, gender and sexuality, with a focus on Black women’s histories in Britain and the Anglo-Caribbean. Her current research focuses on the mechanics of Black women’s history in Britian, working with the archival fragments and the omissions, and the politics involved in historical production. She is interested in community-engaged historical research that is not only ethical and reparative, but anti-racist and liberatory.
‘Weaving Healing between and through Decolonial Activism’, a letter from Tasnim Al-ahdal:
The currency of epistemic violence inherent in Universities today never did just appear out of thin air. It has a long and well documented insidious history. Universities are historically racist institutions; and were infrastructures of empire constituted via colonialism, imperialism, enslavement and dispossession(Bhambra et al 2018 cited in Jackson, 2020).
I had all kinds of ideas of what it would be like leaving home to pursue my dreams at University. But I wasn’t expecting to feel as out of place as I did. This splitting was felt so deeply and it was mirrored though the shared experiences and souls of the BIPOC I met as a postgraduate. Whilst I will never underestimate what my academic experiences have afforded me in terms of understanding love as way of resisting injustice and gateway to cultivating radical lifelong material and spiritual connections underpinned by antiracist/decolonial activism, philosophies and ways of being. These connections afforded havens in the belly of a ‘prestigious’ beast. We knew too well how out of place our bodies, knowledges and being(s) were, precisely because we were simultaneously navigating the peak of Coloniality’s logic, with eyes and hearts wide open invested in healing form colonial wounds. These wounds have been infringed inflicted on us via the intersection of patriarchy and racism – which are constitutive pillars of Western/Eurocentric (colonial) world; and its ways of knowing, producing knowledge, sensing and believing.
Given the exclusionary power of Whiteness, Coloniality and Eurocentricity; and in response to the systemic erasure and invisibility of black bodies and knowledge production in HE myself and a small group of postgraduates formed a Decolonial collective and went on to host three conference between 2016-2018. Allying our decolonial positionality with movements such as “Why is my curriculum White?” and “Why isn’t my professor Black?”, we propelled the urgency to engage in conversations about anti-racist/decolonial politics of knowledge production. We challenged the insidious materialisation of epistemic violence via traditional ways of establishing academic discourses, knowledge production and practices in academia. Our efforts pertinently revealed that engaging in decolonial activism necessitates Healing as a form of resistance.
Healing from colonial wounds, is not a White/Eurocentric agenda, as the idea of healing is taken from BIPOC ways of being, thinking and doing that delink from Western/Eurocentric logic and legacies underpinned by Coloniality. Therefore, it is integral that the process of delinking and Decoloniality is approached as way(s) to “think and become by embodying categories of thoughts that are grounded in non-western experiences” (Gaztambide – Fernàndez, 2014, p. 206). It is thus imperative to understand Decolonisation beyond a singular definition and as a process with no demarcated end. Decolonisation and Decoloniality is not a metaphor and is about the reparation of indigenous life and land; and not just about how society can be improved through merely decolonisng Universities via diversified reading lists, tokenistic staff hiring and student recruitment practices and initiatives that center BIPOC (Jackson, 2020).
In terms of anti-racist/decolonial activism at this present moment, with a clear projection into the future, Universities must take concise and reflexive steps towards delinking from Coloniality, with a conscious effort on justice and healing from the colonial wounds and legacies they were built on. They need to move beyond the self-promoting performativity of attainment, diversity, progressiveness and inclusivity; and focus on decolonising their infrastructure as institutions – literally and pedagogically, whilst denouncing the colonial figures they commemorate (Jackson, 2020). They also need to reflect on their charter memberships transparently and critically. With 164 Universities in the UK holding Athena Swan Memberships, a charter that addresses gender inequality – why do only 55 Universities hold the Race Equality Charter? This difference is indicative of Higher Education institutional priorities and commitments, which favor centering gender inequality, whilst negating issues pertaining to racial inequalities and Coloniality (Jackson, 2020).
It is also imperative that universities swiftly respond towards changing the deeply alarming statistics which indicate out of 21,000 academics, only 140 identify as Black (Adams, 2020); and commit towards eliminating institutional biases that permit 12,000 white male professors to take up the space(s) they do, in contrast with only 35 Black British Female Professors (UCU, 2020). Finally, Universities could take a radical approach via redistributing their funds to initiatives like The Free Black University by making annual donations. The Free Black University, founded by Melz Owusu sees this as a way in which institutions can go beyond their statements of support for Black Lives Matter; and fulfil their promise to black students. This would serve as payback for their part in progressing “racism, [and] benefiting from donations by slave owners” (Swain, 2020). As there is no finite end to the imperative of decolonisation, the aforementioned imperatives would be powerful given that Healing from colonial wounds involves a process of delinking invested in regaining dignity; and foregrounding a sense of humanity and justice for those that have systemically been made invisible and inferior via manifestations of Coloniality in our present world(s).
Adams, R. E. (2020). Fewer than 1% of UK university professors are black, figures show. The Guardian. [online] 27 Feb. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/feb/27/fewer-than-1-of-uk-university-professors-are-black-figures-show [Accessed 7 Jul. 2020].
Gaztambide-Fernández, R. (2014). Decolonial options and artistic/aestheSic entanglements: An interview with Walter Mignolo. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 3(1).
Jackson, M.I. (2020). What are the demands of ‘decolonising’ UK universities? [online] Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/@monishaissano/what-are-the-demands-of-decolonising-uk-universities-291a986c27a4 [Accessed 7 Jul. 2020].
Swain, H. (2020). Payback time: academic’s plan to launch Free Black University in UK. The Guardian. [online] 27 Jun. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jun/27/payback-time-academics-plan-to-launch-free-black-university-in-uk [Accessed 7 Jul. 2020].
UCU. 2020. Phenomenal Women: Portraits of UK Black Female Professors. [Online]. Available from: https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/10681/Phenomenal-Women-Portraits-of-UK-Black-Female-Professors [Accessed 7 June 2020]
Tasnim Al-ahdal successfully graduated from The University of Leeds with a Distinction in MA Racism and Ethnicity Studies in 2018 and hold a First-Class Honors BA in Media, Culture and Society from Manchester Metropolitan University. My postgraduate experiences involved me engaging in various forms of anti-racist/decolonial activism with the Critical Race and Ethnicities Network (CREN) and working as one of the founding members of the Decolonising Minds@Leeds collective, which successfully curated the Challenging Academic Debates (CAD) series of national/international conferences and events at the University of Leeds. These activities engaged professors, early career researchers, students, staff members, practitioners, and activists from more than ten different HEIs and non-governmental organisations. I have also served as a Guest Editor for the publication of a special edition in the Graduate Journal of Social Sciences. I currently work in HE and intend to undertake a PhD in the near future exploring Decolonial Activism and Aesthetics in relation to the poetics of Healing.
‘My Story: Philosophy, University and Anti-Racism Activism’, a letter from Jaspal Singh Gharu:
My university-based anti-racist activism began during my postgraduate research degree. To give some context, I had just finished my Bachelors in Philosophy, proudly becoming the first generation of my family to study for a degree. I went onto secure an access scholarship to study a Masters of Research in Philosophy degree at a Redbrick University, specialising in the Philosophy of Love. I note that only a handful of people in the world specialise in this field of Philosophy, and those who do publish in this field are predominantly white men.
Academic philosophy is notoriously known to under-represent women and people of colour. To illustrate this point, an article by The New York Times stated that there is no other humanities discipline which demonstrates this systematic neglect and if philosophy departments fail to diversify their curricula they should rename the departments as Anglo-European Philosophical Studies. In a way, you could argue that a person of colour (POC) who decides to study Philosophy is a form of anti-racist activism, as not many people of colour go onto study philosophy degrees, let alone complete the degree gaining a good honours.
I can relate a lot to Meleisa’s and Tasnim’s university stories- I too felt out of place and disorientated at the beginning of my university degree. There were countless micro-aggressions I faced during my time at university. For example, I remember one student told me “you do not belong here”. It took me a while to really digest what the person meant, but in a classroom full of middle class white people, you can begin to build the picture. I came to the conclusion that I am an anomaly, a glitch in the matrix. I am what Heraclitus described as “…the one warrior that will bring the others back”. I knew that I could be part of a movement that could change and influence others to diversify philosophy departments and give under-represented students a sense of belonging.
When I joined the department, I was excited to organise a student network with a mission to provide a sense of belonging for minorities in philosophy. I did this by delivering exciting initiatives and activities that connect and enhance student’s skill sets. An important aspect I focused on was encouraging students to engage in philosophical topics such as race and identity. I wanted to focus on topics that usually didn’t get discussed in the seminars. In particular, I encouraged students to critically analyse the deep rooted colonialism and racism attached to many prominent philosophical figures which get taught everyday in the classroom such as Immanuel Kant, John Locke, David Hume and Hegel (Alpert 2020). Since its inception, the network has gained over 100 members, all from diverse backgrounds; undergraduates, postgraduates and international students. As the lead organiser, I had to take on a number of duties; mentoring students, overseeing activities and events, managing a group of students and facilitating discussions between staff and students. These discussions focused on building a more inclusive environment. My role has been taxing but also rewarding at the same time.
I have seen first hand how the network has positively impacted student’s well-being and their mind-sets. In my opinion, the network not only gave us a platform to bring about the conversations that needed to be had but it also gave us a sense of community. Though there is still a long way to go, I truly believe that change is possible.
For a while I really questioned what I wanted to do in life and how I want to be remembered. By engaging in university-based anti-racist activism, I now know that my mission is to continue working with students, especially disadvantaged POC’s. I want to enhance student’s skill sets, so that they too can inspire the next generation and diversify academia.
Alpert, A. (2020). ‘Philosophy’s systematic racism’, Aeon. [Accessed 9th February 2021]. Available at: <https://aeon.co/essays/racism-is-baked-into-the-structure-of-dialectical-philosophy>.
Garfield, J.L and Van Norden, B.W. (2016) ‘If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is’, The New York Times. [Accessed 4th September 2020]. Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/11/opinion/if-philosophy-wont-diversify-lets-call-it-what-it-really-is.html>.
Jaspal Singh Gharu is a postgraduate research student who is studying Philosophy at The University of Birmingham’s School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion. His research specialism is in the Philosophy of Love, in particular, he is interested in researching the ethical and moral dimensions of romantic relationships. He is also interested in questions regarding racism and structural injustice. Previously, he served as an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Ambassador and worked closely with colleges/departments on number of strategies to advance equality at Birmingham. He recently left this role to focus more on advancing equality in academic philosophy. Currently, he is the Lead Organiser of Minorities and Philosophy at The University of Birmingham. This network aims to provide a platform where students can explore and critically analyse issues/concerns regarding academic philosophy.
‘The Future of Anti-Racism and Mobilising in Higher Education Institutions’, a letter from Racheal Alake, Activist, former BAME student Union Officer, Law Graduate:
As someone born and raised in Nigeria in the early years of my life, I had barely been exposed to the realities of racism and lived in a cultural bubble where the issue could be somewhat ignored. But after relocating to south London at a young age and undertaking the first year of my undergrad, I was quickly forced to come to terms with the reality that I would be treated differently to my white peers by town locals, lecturers, and even fellow students themselves. My involvement in the higher education anti-racist movement was a direct result of experiencing racism and prejudice from my university’s Students Union. My activism, therefore, emerged as a rebellion against this. I refused to accept being treated as less-than by an institution that was supposed to serve me. So whilst my peers enjoyed their university experiences, I spent most of my free time mobilising, and finding ways to tackle racism within higher education. For me the answer was simple: do the work now so another young unsuspecting black student would not have to.
Throughout my university career, I organised several anti-racist campaigns, some alongside my Students’ Union and some in opposition to it. It’s experience that’s enlightened me to the fact that we do not have to accept the status quo. With higher education, it’s customary to believe things are set in decades of tradition and wholly unmoveable, and thus marginalised individuals may be forced into the assumption that they must ‘accept things as they are.’ Anti-racist activism taught me that although this may appear to be the case, institutions have a duty to us as students, and where there is inaction in the face of racism they can be pressured into action by those who refuse to be silenced. I implore every activist and oppressed group to arm themselves with the awareness that, in the words of Wesley Lowery, “they can’t kill us all.” If enough of us are loud, we cannot all be silenced.
The caveat of activism, however, is that it is often the burden of the oppressed to fix whilst allowing privileged actors to bypass their own responsibilities. A crucial lesson I have taken away from my experience of university activism is the importance of intersectionality. Coined by academic Dr Kimberlé Crenshaw, recognising different intersections taught me that as an able-bodied, cis-gendered woman, the little privilege I hold must be actively used to challenge existing structures of oppression existing in our world. However, completing a degree as a student of colour in an archaic, majority-white institution is exhausting in itself, and combining the emotional burden of actively fighting institutional racism alongside that is almost unimaginable. I firmly believe that for the marginalised, occupying spaces that are predominately white is a form of activism. As Jaspal alludes to in his letter, “to exist is to resist.” Yet, many students of colour have to shoulder the burdens of resisting independently.
In all honesty, my hopes for the future of student anti-racist activism is that it no longer exists. I look forward to a day when there is no further anti-racist work to be done because our curriculum has been adequately decolonised and is finally representative across university departments. My hopes are accompanied by the knowledge that it may be an age-long process, with years of hard work, disruption, and unlearning. It will be challenging and often thankless work, but in the end, it will be worth it. Until then, I hope we approach activism with the reality of what it is, crucial and essential. Black students, students of colour, and other marginalised groups should not be unfairly burdened with having to engage in student activism alone. But I hope where we have a voice, we learn to use it.
Racheal Alake (she/her) is a Public Inquiries Paralegal currently working on the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. She was the BAME Officer for Lancaster University Students Union and President of the Ethnic Diversity Committee. During her undergraduate degree at Lancaster University, she led various key campaigns including ‘Why is My Curriculum White’ and the ‘Black Excellence Networking Event’. In 2020 she established the community organisation ‘All Purpose LDN’ which aims to educate and connect the black community through curating a range of events. She was awarded the Garden Court Chambers ‘Inderpal Rahal Memorial Trust’ in 2020 for her continued dedication to attaining justice within the legal sector. Alongside pursuing a career as a Human Rights Lawyer, Racheal continues to challenge racism in higher education institutions through her ongoing activist work and consultation on diversity and inclusion policies.
Concluding letter from Hannah Jones, Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Warwick:
Reading these letters is a lot like the experience of working with the students who engaged with us during this research. The letters reflect in equal measure the exhaustion, anger and exasperation that such levels of action, activism and work are required from young people of colour within British universities just to survive; the gladdening feeling of a sense of solidarity, solace and support found in shared experiences which are sometimes hard to seek out, and which are forged in resistance; a recognition that simply existing within the constraining racialised spaces of universities is an act of resistance itself; and a sense of hope and belief in the future. The future-oriented nature of the work being done by anti-racist students of colour is clear in Rachel’s and Jaspal’s specific imagining of the future students for whom they are improving the university experience; and in Tasnim’s imagining of an ongoing decolonising of universities that encompasses healing and love, and not just reading lists. It is also there – if somehow in reverse – in Meleisa’s reflection on how the current experiences of students of colour in British universities resonate with her own experience in Canada two decades before.
In the research workshops and interviews, we worked with the students to move away from re-telling experiences of racism inside and outside the university – not to exclude these experiences from discussion where relevant, but to avoid rehashing the details of a problem we know to exist – both from research evidence and from personal experience. Rather, the research was a process of understanding resistance to racism from the position of students of colour in British universities, the challenges, achievements, sorrows and joys of this struggle. What was clear there, and is clear in these letters, is that there is much to learn from the determination, care, anger and hope of the current student movement.
No-one is a student forever, and this generational challenge of passing on activist movements and lessons between cohorts of students was one of the issues the group raised as needing research, planning, support and attention. This is typical of their orientation towards a hopeful future, even in the face of grinding challenges. Despite the anger, despair and exhaustion that universities as institution have brought to many of these activists, and despite their deep critiques of many aspects of universities, the activism itself demonstrates an ongoing belief in the university itself – that it can be, and will be, better. In Rachel’s letter, she talks about using what privilege she does have to challenge structures of oppression. That should also be the take-away promise of academics and university workers learning from these letters.
Hannah Jones is an Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Warwick, where she writes, researches and teaches on racism, migration control, and belonging.