Black History Month: Encouraging racially literate graduates of the future

12 Oct 2020

In the second of a short series of blogs marking the University of Winchester's decolonising the curriculum event during Black History Month, Maisha Islam, Student Engagement Research and Projects Officer and secretary to the University's BAME Network, discusses encouraging students to think about what belonging, unconscious bias and inclusion means outside of a white, middle-class and Christian context.

This year's annual Learning and Teaching theme at the University of Winchester centred around the much-needed topic of embedding employability in the curriculum. Themes and calls for proposals subsequently focussed upon: real world learning and experiences; preparing your students for the working world and; authentic assessments to increase employability.

As having only been an attendee of our previous Learning and Teaching events, I decided to bite the bullet and put in a submission with a co-author, Dr Karen Morris. Our proposal was inspired by a seminar Karen had asked me to guest facilitate earlier in the year for her Level 4 students on the BA (Hons) Childhood Studies programme. This seminar focussed upon belonging, inclusion and unconscious bias, as a wider learning objective for the module meant that students needed to: 'Demonstrate knowledge of policy and legislation relating to rights, diversity, equity and inclusion in relation to working with children, families and communities'.

As a result, delivering a session where my own research interests centre around looking at these topics in relation to religiously and racially minoritised groups, it was the perfect opportunity to get this group of students (who would most likely go into teaching) to think about these concepts outside of their own context ie what does belonging, unconscious bias and inclusion mean outside of a white, middle-class and Christian context?

As our session proposal was accepted, our Learning and Teaching week presentation covered the importance of these concepts; how I approached the seminar and offered tangible recommendations for colleagues to implement in their own practice/pedagogy.

Our sessions also recreated the activity I had tasked students to discuss whereby colleagues critically considered Peggy McIntosh's seminal essay looking at the concept of 'white privilege'. In this blog post, I discuss four areas of critical reflection based upon running these sessions with students and staff.

1. Critically Discussing 'whiteness'
Despite the multitude of definitions and conceptualisations of what it means to 'decolonise', agreement can be found in that deconstructing and analysing 'whiteness' is what is needed to truly move beyond discussions of race. In doing so, we realise the norm of 'whiteness' in which the other is defined. McIntosh's essay touches exactly upon this; in realising her own 'whiteness' she began to see how it was a structure which benefitted her, and how racism was so much more than "individual acts of meanness" (McIntosh, 1988).

Admittedly, these discussions were particularly hard with students. As I was met with a slight lull in the classroom with predominantly white students, one actively admitted that issues such as racism just did not seem to be an issue in her small town.

Often, talking about privilege is like asking a fish to describe the water they are swimming in - "when one is surrounded by water as part of one's natural environment, it's hard to be aware of it" (Goodman, 2011:25). However, I've found an effective way to open up this discussion is by discussing any type of deprivilege we all possess.

Acknowledging these feelings of lack of belonging, displacement and unwelcomeness provides us with the empathy to consider what this may look like for another group - an effective precursor to then discussing white privilege.

2. Utilising (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) BAME PGRs
As a full-time member of staff undertaking a professional doctorate, being invited to deliver a seminar with undergraduate students was a welcome experience - one which would not have organically arisen. I was grateful and deeply humbled to have my research interests be acknowledged by colleagues at the University and speak authentically about my own research that has explored minority student experience.

I would implore colleagues across the sector to continue providing these opportunities for BAME PGRs; no matter their research context, their voices must be heard, and their representation must be seen. We know that the academic pipeline, particularly for BAME PGRs, is leaky. Therefore, we must re-privilege such groups in which structures inhibiting their success are so prominent. Where possible, there must be some sort of reimbursement of their time (particularly where BAME labour that is emotionally taxing is involved).

3. "Problematic popularity" (Gay, 2004)
Within my research, I am still astounded by the number of BAME students who still recall being called out in open classroom settings to tell publicly their experiences of race, or opinions on racial issues. I am then even more astounded when the very same students tell me their voices and experiences are then subsequently deemed invalid.

We cannot make students of colour involuntary disclose these experiences, expose them to vulnerabilities, only to then dismiss their experiential knowledge - this expectation would not apply to other student groups. Whilst students have paved the way for decolonising universities (excellent examples including: 'Why is my Curriculum White?' and the 'Rhodes Must Fall' movement), decolonisation must ultimately be a voluntary student and staff led endeavour.

4. Lecturers - Authentically implement and share in the experience
My session on belonging, unconscious bias and inclusion was deliberately foregrounded in the early weeks of this Level 4 module. This was an intentional choice by Karen as it would enable students to refer back to these concepts, using this lens of race and religion that I had introduced, all throughout the module and indeed throughout the course (where these concepts would be built upon).

This is exemplary of how decolonisation must be a concerted effort beyond diversifying reading lists and having the staple "race" lecture. Such efforts must then include teaching staff in the development we expect our students to go through, sharing their own 'confessional narratives' and experiences - in being able to transform our consciousness in the classroom, only then can education truly be the practice of freedom (Hooks, 1994).

About the author

Maisha Islam staff profile
Maisha Islam is the Student Engagement Research and Projects Officer within the Department of Student Engagement and Employability. She is also a part-time student studying for a professional doctorate.

Decolonising the Curriculum at the University of Winchester
As we celebrate Black History Month, the University of Winchester's How Do We "Decolonise the Curriculum"? series of events brings together and gives a platform to the important and wide-ranging decolonising work and research that our colleagues and students are engaged in across the institution. It asks: 'what does it mean to decolonise?' and intends to provide a space in which we, as a University community, can learn, explore and reflect upon decolonising practice together.

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