By Amanda Arbouin
I have just returned from one of the most inspirational events of my career as a black academic in the UK. The International Colloquium on Black Males in Education (ICBME) is a high profile, annual event that brings together a wide range of (predominantly) black academics. They share their research focused on improving the educational experiences and outcomes for black males specifically, and black communities generally.
This year’s venue was Dublin, Ireland and contributions were forthcoming from local Irish activists, who shed light on the significant parallels between the Irish struggle against English oppression and the black struggle against racism.
For example, Shane Curry, Director of European Network Against Racism (ENAR) Ireland explained how the civil rights movement led by African Americans in the 1960s inspired the civil rights movement against English domination in Ireland. He described how Bernadette Devlin, an Irish civil rights activist, was honoured with a golden key to the city of New York by the Irish American Mayor Lindsay. The irony of accepting this highest of honours from the American establishment that was actively oppressing African Americans was not lost on Devlin. Consequently, in an act of solidarity with the black liberation and socialist movements of America, Eaman McCann, Chairman of the Labour Derry Party, returned to New York in 1970 and presented the key to Robert May of the Black Panther Movement.
Similarly, Irish activist and author, Don Mullan, gave a Grassroots Leadership Keynote that explored the activism of Frederick Douglass and Daniel O’Connell. Douglass was a formerly enslaved African American at the forefront of the Abolitionist movement. His autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, was a bestselling book that played a significant role in the abolition of American slavery. In 1845 he visited Ireland and struck up a mutual respect with O’Connell, an Irish nationalist who is also known as ‘the Liberator’ in Ireland. Both men gave powerful lectures that galvanised support for their fights against oppression.
These stories that link black and Irish anti-oppression movements could serve as rich material for a decolonized curriculum in the UK.
My own keynote provided an overview of my recent publication Black British Graduates: Untold stories and explored some of the ways we can begin to decolonize our British education system.
This would involve de-centring the colonizer viewpoint and injecting a more rounded world view that celebrates the hitherto hidden contributions of minoritized communities and individuals. In turn, this would
- provide minoritized learners with a positive reflection of themselves in the curriculum, so that they can experience pride rather than shame when learning about minoritized cultures, values and communities
- combat insidious racism by exposing white learners to counter-narratives that challenge the invisibility and negative stereotyping of minoritized people, which currently dominates our education system.
The event encourages student participation, so that fledgling black academics can witness the revolutionary work that other black academics are undertaking in the struggle for equality in education. I was both inspired and disturbed by the attendance of an undergraduate who, following a refusal of financial support from his institution, became a student volunteer to gain free entry. His enthusiasm and delight at being part of this powerful display of black excellence in the academy was heart-warming, but he could not hide his growing concern as his travel and accommodation costs escalated.
What I found disturbing was the lack of institutional support. Why were no institutional funds available to encourage a high achieving, dedicated and hardworking student of colour to attend this event? Are we so invested in perpetuating narratives of deficit that we cannot bring ourselves to nurture black potential when we see it?
The National Inclusive Leadership Academy’s intensive training program for higher education (HE) leaders equips diversity officers, deans, human resource managers, administrators and academics with knowledge and skills to promote access and equity in their institutions. Dr Damon Williams from the Academy shared the quotation ‘Commitment without currency is counterfeit’. He’s right. We would not expect medical researchers to make significant advances without funding. Likewise, if we truly want to cultivate success among black learners we must invest in it.
It is time for our institutional leaders to make realistic levels of resources readily accessible for activities that can have a lasting positive impact on minoritized students. The ICBME event brought together a wealth of knowledge and understanding about the experiences of black learners. It also shed light on a number of successful interventions that are gradually moving that narrative from one of struggle to one of empowerment and transcendence against the odds. Some of these interventions that educational institutions can invest in include:
- Supporting students and staff to attend conferences that centre black experiences
- Building partnerships with educational institutions in countries that have a significant and influential black presence (eg USA, Caribbean, Africa)
- Supporting international exchanges that target minoritized students and staff
- Facilitating research that gives voice to black experiences.
The strength of these types of initiatives is that they would develop understanding of how black learners and educators transcend the barriers they encounter in education. It would simultaneously enable black students (and staff) to experience and model black excellence.
So, this is a call to action for our institutional leaders. Your support is needed to move beyond alluring sounds bites and rhetoric, to meaningful action. Internationalisation and improving social mobility for disadvantaged communities are high priorities in HE. If we accept that racism is a lived reality, we must acknowledge that black learners are deserving of support to help transcend the systematic disadvantage they encounter.
As I write, I am heartened by the news that the University of Glasgow has launched a ‘reparative justice programme’ in a positive response to research that exposed their massive financial benefit from slavery. The transatlantic slave trade is the origin of modern day racism. The programme will fund scholarly and research activities, as well as student exchanges with the University of the West Indies.
The University of Glasgow’s example should encourage other HEIs to do their part in righting the wrongs of our society. Black communities are made up of black individuals, and by supporting individuals in their pursuit of academic excellence we can support communities in their struggle for equity.